Every quarter Shane Sparks and I run a macro-economic analysis on how external factors might affect higher education. Trends we’ve landed on to date have included the rise and fall of many Internet portals, the impacts of the 2007 Recession, how placement would become the most important department within a school and the outcomes from the DOEs regulatory adventures…we’re ready to take on Social Media.
We’ve previously discussed these major trends and those Schools who listened, did well. I bring this up because it’s time for another insight and I want you to pay attention to what I’m about to present as there are significant ramifications for your school.
OK, here we go, first the back story.
Ten plus years ago, prospective students found schools through traditional media, education fairs and referrals. Students came to schools with little knowledge, feeling vulnerable, shepherded through the process by sage Admissions reps.
In the past ten years or so, the marketing landscape has shifted dramatically. Internet lead portals and their partners, the lead aggregators, have generated most of the marketing interest for schools. A schools’ website has replaced the view book as the centerpiece for students seeking information. As a bi-product, admissions reps everywhere have had to adapt and incorporate a major ‘Smile and Dial’ component to their job. However, there was still the interplay of vulnerability, with the power ultimately sitting with the Rep as the guide to enrollment and, ultimately, a new career.
Most recently, schools are attempting to harness social media sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter to use as a direct response lead generator. We constantly get asked about social media as a tool to generate leads. It’s always some version of: ‘Hey Facebook has a billion users, how do I get a few hundred to inquire at my school?’
Why Social Media is a Terrible Direct Response Tactic
As if it was that easy. First, you need to know there are two types of advertising: interruption advertising and search advertising. Facebook is interruption advertising. Let’s say you are hanging out on Facebook commenting on the pictures of your friend’s cat. From the right side of the screen, ads are screaming at you to buy cat food…Interruption. You click on the ad and it takes you off on some little journey of persuasion and away from the cat. Some of these interruptions are very sophisticated, and some utterly tasteless attempts to interrupt your day. But when you look at the math, the click through and conversion rates just do not make financial sense. At best, Social Media Advertising is an interruption marketing tactic just like radio or display advertising.
Social Media also gives you the opportunity to put up a corporate page. This is best characterized as a newsletter or PR effort. There is value in these pages as an “influencing” effort to give prospects insight into the values, culture and experience of going to your school.
But ultimately, Social Media is best used as a subset of Public Relations – raise your profile and hope for referrals.
How Social Media Can Hurt You
First, I need to be clear, Social Media per se is not evil in any way, however the interactions that stem from their use can slam your organization really hard. Let me explain. The real power of Social Media is it is the great leveler – empowering consumers like never before.
This is problematic for a business because social media doesn’t follow traditional rules of media; paternal, top down, “fill out a form” marketing, un-credited “testimonials”, stock photos of people who are too beautiful, copy writing puffery. Manipulative sales techniques and the mediocre programs packaged as world-beaters will no longer work, all because of Social Media. We are just starting to see this new mega trend unfold.
Here is a summary of the new emerging user experience for prospective students or any consumer for that matter:
- The prospective student signs up for several websites drilling down and researching different career paths.
- Researches career demand, wage expectations, employment trends on various government websites. If there is no future for the career, they find out.
- The prospect explores alternate learning modes, online, blended learning. Learning is so expensive, are there ways they can earn while they learn?
- A Craigslist Discussion Group on Education recommends a book called ‘Do It Yourself Education’ and MOOCS and the prospect is off on a tangent learning how to get a free education.
- Goes on Facebook and asks pals about their thoughts on certain schools. Lots of opinions, many negative, hope you’re not one of them.
- Goes onto review sites such as Yelp and Rate my Prof, to look for direct complaints about the school from strangers all over the world (ouch)
- Checks out employee reviews on sites like glassdoor.com – who wants to go to a school filled with unhappy staff (double ouch!)
- Goes onto LinkedIn and other job boards and asks about your school in the questions section and discussion forums, asking ‘employers’ how they view the graduates of your school. If employers have little knowledge about your school, that’s a total deal breaker.
All of this activity happens ‘before’ the prospective student meets with a Rep. At any point, they can eliminate your school from their search, based simply on a hacking comment from a Facebook friend, a benign LinkedIn employer or a nasty Yelp review. A student can search opportunities in Scotland as well as Scottsdale. This is unnerving for schools still locked into an old marketing paradigm and will change how you do business forever. In short, social media now empowers students and has changed the power dynamic forever.
In summary, we feel social media should not be seen as a direct response marketing opportunity to pursue as much as something to be respected, perhaps feared and managed defensively…
What Social Media Really Unmasks…Business Herpes
What Social Media does now with brutal efficiency, is expose weak offerings, poorly developed programs, manipulative Admissions practices and BS laden marketing campaigns. Going forward, any of these misgivings will be met with a stiff slap to the face. Complaints get archived ‘forever’ and accumulate online. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
How this will initially play out is in a drop in your internet lead flow and conversion. Interest dries up because prospects are self-selecting, choosing to opt out of any meaningful conversation with your school. To mitigate negative opinion online, you can run online reputation management processes, flood the internet with positive fluff about your school, but it is just a patch. Consumers today are pretty smart and often jaded.
You can’t fool anyone anymore. The days of marketing mediocre offerings are done. Knowledge doubles every couple of years, lazy program improvement is no longer acceptable. The old marketing saying ‘Nothing can wreck a mediocre business like a great ad campaign’ is now ‘so’ true with this Social Media accelerant in play.
So what’s the solution?
It’s time to put significant effort into improving your core offering. If your programs are pretty good, make them great. Going forward, we believe the alternative to great is ‘out-of-business’. There are many low cost ways to do so. I encourage you as leaders to banish mediocrity in any way, shape, or form, as quick as you can because this great leveler known as Social Media is waiting for you, just around the corner, with a proverbial bat in hand.
Have the courage to make your offerings world class. Have the courage to build your School primarily on reputation of relevance and excellence. Neutralize Social Media and make it work for you by being better than your competitors. Just as Social Media negatives can wipe you out, Social Media kudos and compliments can generate for you significant referrals and brand equity…
There is no middle ground to occupy anymore. Ignore what doesn’t matter and fix your product.