10+ Reasons Why Most College Marketing/Enrollment Plans Fail & How to Avoid Them
Jan 02, 2017
Why do most college marketing/enrollment plans fail? And, more importantly, how do you avoid these very common mistakes and develop a more effective plan?
Lack of Measurable Objectives
Objectives must be specific, measurable and have a deadline/due date. For example, “To generate 100 new student enrollments for the MBA program by December 31st, 20XX”
But here are examples of objectives from actual marketing plans:
- Develop effective internal communications to help our campus community understand and share the COLLEGE NAME story consistently.
- Tell the COLLEGE NAME story clearly across media platforms to external audiences.
- Raise positive awareness for COLLEGE NAME in the Northwest region, the West Coast and around the country.
- Increase the number of quality applicants to all COLLEGE NAME degree programs.
- Build affinity for COLLEGE NAME, particularly among alumni, and increase participation in the form of giving, volunteering, event attendance and engagement.
- Support strategic, data-driven marketing communication and outreach activities across campus.
The problem here is that the lack of specificity results in
- Lack of clarity over what success really is, and
- Inability to determine if success has been achieved.
Lack of Efficient Goal Setting Process
What typically occurs is that the CFO or Dean or Program Director will look at historical growth and, maybe, the current number of enrollments with a competitor’s program, in order to set up next year’s enrollment goal.
Sometimes that works. But most of the time the goal is unrealistic based on a number of factors including market size, market demand, resources available to attract and retain students and more. And then there are the internal factors that prevent the college from achieving the goals such as availability of faculty, classroom space availability, and others – these come into play in those situations where the CFO tells marketing and enrollment the goal is ### but no one tells the dean or program director about the goal so they don’t develop plans to serve that many students. (Yes, we’ve seen it happen!)
How do avoid this problem: This requires marketing research and market demand forecasting so that you are factoring in the external factors as well as strategic planning that ensures that everyone across the institution are aware of and in agreement on the goals and objectives.
Lack of Prioritization in Goal Setting Process
All programs are not created equal and some are going to offer you a greater opportunity to achieve than others based on internal and external factors – so you can’t make the enrollment goals for all programs your #1 priority.
In your planning process, you need to make some tough decisions regarding which goals and objectives are primary, secondary and tertiary. And sometimes you are best served to focus on what offers the greatest return versus ‘sweating the small stuff’.
For example, we were working with a college where some of the smaller, niche programs were on a trajectory to fall short of their enrollment goals – even though the overall projections showed the college on track to surpass enrollment goals by 10% . The weekly Cabinet meeting was in an uproar with some calling for an “all hands on deck” reaction where resources would be redirected to the smaller, niche programs…placing the larger programs at risk as well as the overall enrollment growth.
How to avoid this problem: During the strategic planning session and regular status updates, focus on the primary objectives. Then, if those are trending on or ahead of projections, look at the secondary objectives – these would be nice to have, but not necessary for success. If those are trending on or ahead of projections, then move on to the tertiary objectives.
Yes, continuing to monitor the market for factors that might impact your success is key – and might even lead you to reprioritize some of these objectives. But don’t allow distractions from getting the important things done successfully.
Internal Focus Rather Than Audience Focus
Another common obstacle to success if focusing on what you like to do rather than what your audience needs, wants and expects. For example, one college wanted to invest in several new degree programs even though the infrastructure couldn’t handle the current volume of inquiries, applicants and enrollments. (The telephone system would crash because there were too many calls from prospective students.)
Another common example is “…we can easily add specializations to this degree program…” when no one asked “…does anyone in the market want to pay money for these specializations to this degree program…”
How to avoid this problem: Marketing research that includes competitive analysis will keep you on top of developing changes in the market so you can be at the forefront of working with the audience to create what they need rather than what you think they might want.
Lack of Audience Insight
The vast majority of college marketing/enrollment plans will describe their audiences as “high school graduates”, “community college transfers”, “traditional students”, “non-traditional students” etc.
That’s too broad and will cause you to cast a wide net, gather a lot of “inexpensive ‘leads’ that aren’t really qualified” and generate an unaffordable “cost per applicant” and “cost per enrollment”.
How to avoid this problem: Audience segmentation[DWS1] along with marketing research so you can identify and understand the wants, needs, expectations and perceptions of your audience. From there, you can develop more effective message, offer, channel/media and contact strategies.
Lack of Competitive Insight
You need to know what your competition is doing – who is their target audience? What are their goals, objectives, strategies and tactics? What are their strengths and weaknesses? What do they see as opportunities and threats in the market? How does their leadership act – are they ‘cutting edge leaders’ that are constantly launching new programs, using new technology etc.? Or are they slow to respond to opportunities, preferring others to ‘break new ground’ and ‘wait until there is greater certainty that they will see success’? Do they have substantial financial resources and would they use them to counter any reduction is price you might put forth? What are their requirements for recruiting, hiring, training, managing faculty?
Based on this insight you will be able to make better informed decisions that play to your strengths, their weaknesses.
How to avoid this problem: Marketing research that includes competitive analysis will keep you on top of the competition – you will gather information about the competition directly from the competition as well as through your audience and their audience via interviews, surveys, focus groups.
Lack of Differentiation.
Here’s the deal – most people don’t know how to select a college or a degree program. If you find that off-putting, go ask your enrollment team and advisors how many people are asking in-depth questions about your faculty, the curriculum – especially learning outcomes from your courses. Ask how many have clearly defined goals and objectives beyond “get the degree and get a great job”.
For me, growing up in upstate New York, the dry heat of Arizona led me to Arizona State University. (Warmth, sunshine is a strong differentiator for someone that, at the time, was using a lighter to warm his car key so it could melt the ice around the car door lock!)
For others, it will be things inside the classroom – world re-known faculty or a learning experience that allows students to gain hands on experience through internships/mentorships/living case studies with leading corporations.
The goal here is to focus on what you offer them that they want/need/value and cannot find elsewhere. It’s a great way to attract students as well as retain them!
How to avoid this problem: Marketing research that includes competitive analysis will keep you on top of the competition – you will gather information about the competition directly from the competition as well as through your audience and their audience via interviews, surveys, focus groups. You should also use marketing research to stay on top of developing market trends – for example, if you have engineering programs, you will want to understand what skills engineers will need 3-5 years out into the future so you can ensure your students are receiving that expertise in your program AND so your marketing/enrollment/advising teams can make sure that is clearly, effectively communicated via your messaging strategy.
Lack of an Efficient Planning and Evaluation Process
First, the marketing/enrollment plan is an institutional plan so don’t make the mistake of leaving it solely to the marketing/enrollment team – or, even worse, a single member of that team. Why? Because a highly successful plan is going to address your program, pricing and modality/place strategy…and those topics involve people outside marketing/enrollment.
We worked with one college a few years back that was projecting 20% growth with a smaller promotional budget, no new programs and a 5% tuition/fee increase. When we started talking with the college deans, advising, IT and other departments, it became clear that the left hand did not know what the right hand was doing. In one specific instance, several college deans were planning to launch a half dozen new programs at the same time – but they hadn’t spoken with marketing about promoting them, or enrollment management about handling the potential influx of inquiries.
The bottom line was that the plan had huge flaws in it because it failed to address the institution’s reality – so we went back to the drawing board table and mapped out a more realistic and effective plan. (And they did hit their enrollment goals!)
Oh, one other thing – too many plans lack specific goals for key metrics so an on-going evaluation process is impossible. For example, many marketing plans read like this:
Goal: Increase visibility to students of color, highlighting the diverse college environment.
Strategy: Print ads in church newsletters at the five largest Latino parishes within 25 miles of campus.
The problem is that you need to know how many inquiries, applications and enrollments this effort/expense will generate. And you need to monitor those metrics because if they over-produce, you might want to increase the investment OR if they under-produce, you might want to re-allocate the investment to other, more productive initiatives. However, as is, you can’t determine if this is working or not.
How to avoid this problem: First, you need to have a strategic planning session that includes all of the key players across the college. Then you need a process for capturing the key data in a centralized location so that the right people analyze the data and can make informed, timely recommendations regarding whether or not to continue as planned or modify the plan based on results. You should also include marketing research that includes competitive analysis in the mix so that you are considering any potential changes in the market – for example, the government changes financial aid rules/procedures.
Lack of Strategies and Tactics tied to Business Goals and Measurable Objectives
This problem has already been mentioned a few times already but it bears repeating. Too many colleges have a laundry list of things to do rather than a list of measurable objectives tied to the business goals.
For example, in one recent marketing plan we reviewed, the business goal was to increase enrollments by 10% and the strategies were to “redesign the cover of the alumni magazine” and “run print ads in the publications of local Hispanic churches”.
Neither addressed how many inquiries, applications and/or enrollments these efforts would generate. Both had 5-figure annual budgets which represented about 5% of the college’s total marketing budget.
In order to know how successful your efforts are, you need to have measurable objectives – which some people refer to as goals. Without this, you have no way of identifying what is working and what is wasting resources so you will wind up missing some opportunities and wasting resources.
How to avoid this problem: The establishment of strategic planning session that produces a go-to-market action plan complete with strategies and tactics tied to business goals and measurable objectives is key. Also needed is a process for capturing the key data in a centralized location so that the right people analyze the data and can make informed, timely recommendations regarding whether or not to continue as planned or modify the plan based on results.
Lack of Insight into One’s Own Self
Our firm has facilitated a lot of strategic planning sessions over the years and one of the more interesting topics of discussion is centered on the strengths and weaknesses of the institution.
Why? For many, it’s the first time they will be invited to have this open discussion in front of their colleagues and you encounter a “…I don’t want to speak negatively about a colleague…” or “…now’s my time to try to destroy a co-worker…”
But it’s critical for your institution to find a positive way through this discussion because you need to play to your strengths and figure out how to either improve weaknesses or minimize their impact. And this is a topic where the end result can have a huge, positive impact on your ability to succeed.
For example, we worked with one college that had some incredibly talented curriculum development experts on staff – but the college was placing more and more demands on them, without investing in additional staff and technology. So they were in danger of turning a strength into a weakness…
In another institution, were fast growth was the goal, they lacked the infrastructure (staff, technology, processes) to handle added demand. So they were in danger of placing more strain on a weakness which would most likely result in a critical failure that would impact them for several years.
How to avoid the problem: Depending on the institution’s culture, prior to the strategic planning session, it is important for the facilitator to interview key participants about this topic as well as other key audiences such as students, alumni, prospective students, local employers of the institution’s students/graduates, etc. This helps the facilitator set the stage for the discussion during the planning session.
Also, have the attendees prepare for this discussion so they are presenting well thought out insights rather than reacting off the top of their head when they are more likely to let emotions get in the way.
Finally, have the president/chancellor kick off the session with some carefully chosen examples so that the tone is set.
After the planning session, making this topic part of regular meeting agendas is key so that everyone is more comfortable and knowledgeable about the subject. Progress reports on how weaknesses are being addressed is one example – it lets everyone know what efforts are being made and the progress towards improvement.
Lack of Preparedness for Impact of External Factors
We all have a lot on our plates and that tends to make us focus on them – and that can lead to failing to pay attention to what’s going on in the outside world which can cause us to miss new opportunities and threats.
For example, one small, private college had a nursing program that was tied tightly to two local and large healthcare companies. But when the economy took a turn for the worse, one of the healthcare companies started to struggle which had an impact on tuition reimbursement and hiring – which had an impact on the college’s enrollments.
How to avoid this problem: Marketing research that includes competitive analysis and market demand forecasting are all key – and a lot of this can be done with a simple process of monitoring current events and sharing the news within the organization.
For example, with one college, we suggested hiring a marketing intern that was responsible for gathering information from specific sources, reading and analyzing the information, and sharing it with specific people on the leadership committee. Then, as part of the regular leadership committee agenda, the members were to share what had been uncovered and discuss possible impacts as well as any next steps. This helped with modifications to the marketing/enrollment plan because they were able to uncover [ex] shifts in the economy in certain geographic markets that would help drive enrollments as well as new opportunities with government agencies that had received supplemental funding for new education initiatives.
Planning is an On-going Process
As you can see, planning is on-going yet many colleges look at planning as something done at the start of the year. Things change within your institution and outside your institution every day, so you need a process for quickly, efficiently identify change so you can determine what possible impact it can have on your institution and how/if you should act based on this new information/reality.
You can also see that effective strategic planning requires leaders from across the institution – not just the marketing/enrollment team. Communication within the institution is key, and having a planning process dramatically increases your ability to communicate at high levels of effectiveness.
In your planning process, you need to make some tough decisions regarding which goals and objectives are primary, secondary and tertiary.
See how well prepared you are with our free marketing planning and database marketing quizzes at https://www.dwsassociates.com/marketing-tools/planning/
And check out our free Student Recruitment Self-Assessment at https://www.dwsassociates.com/index.php/download_file/view/1541/1251/1100/1100/1028/
As well as our free Student Retention self-assessment at https://www.dwsassociates.com/index.php/download_file/view/1413/1251/1100/1100/1033/
Just so we’re on the same page regarding terminology…
Goals are what you want to be – the biggest university in terms of full-time undergraduate enrollments in the city/state/region/nation/world/universe.
Objectives are more specific, measurable and include a deadline/due date – to enroll 100,000 full-time undergraduate students by July 1st, 2017.
Strategies are what will be done to achieve the objective – launch new undergraduate program, lower admissions requirements so more people can enroll, develop transfer agreements with community colleges, develop partner agreements with corporations that generate full-time undergraduate enrollments through employees and family of the corporations.
Tactics are what you do to bring the strategies to life – the admissions department will create the new open admissions standards and once approved will train marketing and enrollment and advising; the deans of each college will develop 4 new undergraduate degree programs that will enroll at least # students annually for the next 5-years; corporate outreach will develop corporate agreements that enroll employees and family in undergraduate programs on a full-time basis, etc.
If you have questions, give us a call at 651-315-7588.
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.