Tips for Building Affordable, Effective Marketing Research Program
Feb 10, 2016
Knowledge is power – yet most colleges will invest ever increasing amounts of resources in getting things done while investing little to nothing into market research so they can develop a deeper understanding of their audience, competition and market which will lead to improved performance today and tomorrow.
Ask yourself this – when was the last time your institution looked into the changing needs of those that employ your graduates in order to identify opportunities to improve current programs and services or develop new programs and services? When was the last time you ask potential students how they learned of your institution and how they perceive your programs versus those offered by the competition? And when was the last time you took a hard look at your competition in order to see what they are doing and how effective they are?
If the answer is anything other than “We have regularly scheduled on-going research projects in place throughout the year” chances are you’re working off dated insights that are costing your college time, money and other limited resources. In this post, you will learn why you need an on-going research program and how to make it happen in the most cost effective manner possible.
Waiting for a problem to get to a point where you are consciously aware of it is not wise. Yet most colleges wait for new student enrollments to fall far below projections or student attrition to surpass projections before they admit they need to “…find out what’s going on”.
Four Powerful Reasons You Need Market Research
Market misperceptions. You spend a lot of your limited resources reaching out to your audiences and attempting to inform and motivate them to apply, enroll and graduate at your institution. But are they receiving and accepting and understanding your messages – or are they operating under misconceptions that keep them from your college? Research helps you understand if the message is being heard ‘loud and clear’ or if all your work is failing to produce an audience that understands who you are, who you serve and why your offerings are the best options for them.
Solutions that are no longer solutions. Change happens –society shifts its view on the value of education, competition offers new programs and services, employers start requiring new knowledge and experiences from their employees – and those highly effective campaigns that were designed a few years ago start to fall short of projections because they aren’t addressing those changes in the market.
Missed opportunities. You focus on what you have been doing and miss new opportunities that arise because you had your head down, focused on getting the work done rather than having your head up and noticing that [ex] new regulations have changed what graduates of your healthcare programs need to be educated on if they wish to gain employment in the field upon graduation.
Data-driven shifts to opinion driven. You start to make decisions based on old data that is no longer relevant or, worse yet, using out of date information to support your ‘gut’. The result is that you become less relevant to your audience and less competitive with other colleges. Think of it as using a textbook that’s 5 years old to teach a Patient Centered Care course in your nursing program.
How to build an on-going market research program that’s affordable and effective.
Start with your annual business goals and objectives – for this year and beyond. Why? Because you want to address real opportunities and threats so that the research leads to action. Let’s face it, we all have too many reports in binders gathering dust on book shelves and the main reason this happened is because the research project was not focused on solving real need to know issues.
What information do you need to help the institution achieve these goals and objectives? What information do you have and what information do you lack? What’s the fastest, most cost efficient way to gather that information? How will that information be used to improve performance?
Some of your answers will be focused on the ‘here and now’ while some will be focused on the future. For example, if one of the institution’s goals is to reduce student attrition by 10% in the current academic year, chances are you are going to benefit from an understanding of the reasons students attrite so you can focus on those reasons that you can positively impact. Or if one of the goals is to launch a new graduate business program that will generate 50 enrollments in the current academic year while growing to more than 500 enrollments per year by 20XX, you will need to focus on the longer term market demand.
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What can be done internally and what can’t. Do you have the bandwidth and expertise to perform this research? How will this work impact other responsibilities of your staff that will now be responsible for this research agenda? Do they have the experience in facilitating focus groups or writing surveys and analyzing data so that practical recommendations can be put forth?
Scope out the details of each piece of the research agenda. Sit down and plan on who does what, when, how and why. Consider options for when your preferred course of action fails to meet expectations – like when you hoped that you could find financial performance numbers on your competition in order to better understand how they invest in their business but that documentation can’t be found from a source you deem credible.
At the end of this step you can determine if the agenda can be accomplished in a timely manner and who will be involved in what aspects.
If you can do the work internally and ensure quality results – move ahead to gaining approval from the leadership team. If you can’t call in people with the expertise under an RFI (Request for Information) so they can help you put together the agenda and the documentation you need for a quality RFP (Request for Proposal).
The best agenda is a flexible agenda. As mentioned earlier, change happens and the reason you need an on-going research agenda is to be prepared for that change. Well, change will also cause your annual agenda to be modified – and that’s fine because priorities change due to internal and external factors. Just remember to have a process for making and evaluating recommendations to modify the plan. Yes, I understand that this can sound a little rigid and inflexible – but it forces everyone to really buy in to the agenda at the start and reduces the ‘chase a shiny object’ syndrome that has been known to pop up from time to time in even the best of institutions.
Costs. Investment. ROI. First, market research is an investment that will help your college reduce inefficiencies and increase productivity and performance. We have seen research initiatives redirect the focus onto greater opportunities that generated results that have been 2 to 3 times higher than anticipated results which more than covered the research investment. (Working with one college, they had set up the goal to launch a new graduate business program in the current year and enroll 25 new students in that program within the current year with the intent being to increase new student enrollments to 100 in year 2 and beyond. Those involved in the process had some ‘gut’ ideas but some research into the market uncovered a strong alternative. The end result was that the recommendations were followed and enrollment goals were beaten by 50%.)
Now that brings up the question about who should perform the research. We’re a firm believer in you do what you are qualified and capable of doing – but if you lack the bandwidth and/or expertise to perform your own research, we suggest you call in a couple of outside experts and ask them for help putting together the agenda and budget.
If they refuse, you have a really good idea who not to hire.
If they agree, you might get some really helpful suggestions on how to save time and money without sacrificing quality.
And when you evaluate the proposed budgets, try to avoid putting your career in the hands of the lowest bidder – focus on the projected ROI.
If you’re looking at research to improve retention, look at what attrition is costing you now and what success would add to your bottom line. Then ask yourself if the proposed budget an acceptable investment based on the projected return?
If the solution provider has a history of successfully performing the work you need, and their proposed budget is an acceptable size when compared with the projected return…hire them!
Here’s a sample agenda.
What follows is a sample agenda based on a single objective. Typically we see anywhere from 5 to 10 research initiatives listed in a real annual agenda- and this ranges from primary research such as in-depth interviews and online surveys to secondary research such as competitive scans and market demand forecasts. Planned out in a sequential order, those 5 to 10 initiatives can fill up the year quite nicely.
To reduce attrition from 20% to 15% within the current academic year.
Interview and survey former students that dropped out (filed appropriate paperwork) or stopped out (did not re-enroll but have not filed appropriate paperwork) in order to understand their reasons why they are not currently, actively enrolled.
Phase 1: Perform in-depth telephone interviews with 10 former students (5 dropped out, 5 stopped out) in order to understand why they dropped out (drop outs) and why they are not currently enrolled (stop outs). With stop outs, we also want to understand their likelihood of returning to school and their timeline for returning. With both, we will want to understand what, if anything, could have been done by the institution to prevent that action.
Phase 2: Online survey that reaches all former students (drop outs and stop outs) over the past 24 months.
Click here to download sample timeline.
So what are your thoughts? Reactions? What did you learn from this post and what did I miss that has helped you in the past? If you have questions, please feel free to contact me and remember to ask about our personalized annual fixed fee research option – it delivers the insight you need to improve at a price that can save you 50% or more.
Save with Fixed Fee Market Research Program
Market research doesn’t have to be so expensive – but it does have to be quality work filled with actionable recommendations that can help your institution achieve its goals. That’s why we are offering you an Annual Customized Research Program for an affordable, fixed fee.
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Patrick McGraw is VP of Higher Educaton Marketing Services and has more than 25 years experience in market research, competitive intelligence, business intelligence including database marketing and CRM, strategic planning, brand development and management as well as operations/campaign management. His work has consistently helped his clients and employers develop and implement more efficient ways to attract and retain profitable customers, enter new markets and launch new products. His areas of focus include the education, hospitality, travel and tourism, hi-tech, telecommunications, financial services, and retail industries on both the agency and customer sides.