eduWebinar Lunch and Learn Series: Building Student-Centered Strategies

RHB Senior Integration Consultant Megan Miller joined colleagues Jeremy Tiers (Tudor Collegiate Strategies) and Harrison “Soup” Campbell (ZeeMee) on June 23,2020, for an eduWebinar on student-centered marketing strategies. Here, you can read what Megan had to say about exactly what those words “student-centered” mean in this climate, and how you can cultivate the trust students need to believe what you have to say. If you want to catch the whole conversation between Megan, Jeremy and Soup, you can watch below.


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I’m Megan Miller, and I have the privilege of serving as the Chair of Operations and Special Projects for eduWeb. Beyond that, I’m also a Senior Integration Consultant at RHB, where I partner with schools to help them implement and optimize their use of CRM technology in recruiting. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll see me talking a lot about Slate, tacos, and my various parenting mishaps, and as much as I’d love to jump into a robust discussion on tacos, today I’m actually going to spend a few minutes instead exploring the fundamentals of student-centered marketing.

I’ll start by noting that I regularly see comments from folks in our industry about how “marketing is simple,” and to be honest, I find that to be a bit flippant. Try telling that to a university’s social media manager who’s juggling 6 platforms, 4 marketing technology tools, 5 content calendars, 21 academic departments, 7 university divisions, and thousands of current students and alumni publicly offering their hot takes on everything that the school does. Maybe foundational marketing principles are simple, but actual practice takes a lot more strategy, adaptability, creativity, and coffee to pull off. So when we talk about student-centered strategies, it’s a term that might have very different definitions, depending on the institution, message, and, quite frankly, day of the week.

For the next few minutes, I’d like to dig more into what “student-centered” means in this current climate. From my perspective, this comes down to three main behaviors: listen first, build and preserve trust, and then engage empathetically.

One of the seven habits that Stephen Covey identifies in his ubiquitous best-seller “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” is ,“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” And while Covey was discussing this in terms of our interpersonal behaviors, it’s a statement that is fully applicable to our work as marketers.

The past few months have felt like a Category 5 hurricane for all of us, as we respond to a global pandemic, a collapsing economy, and significant social unrest. We’ve been building the plane while we’re flying it, we’re overwhelmed, and we’re facing a firehose from pretty much everyone about what we should be doing quote-unquote “better.” I know that the idea of having to “listen more” is exhausting. But here’s the deal, folks. We know that we can’t lean on our standard marketing messages and tactics right now because the current environment is anything BUT standard. We need to pivot, but as every brand keeps telling us, we’re in unprecedented and uncertain times, so there’s no guidebook to tell us what the best practices are; we’re figuring that out as we go along. The ONLY way we’re going to be effective is if we take the time to listen.

Last month, the Education Trust conducted a survey of university students to explore the impact that the pandemic is currently having on their educational experience. While 87% of students said they’re confident that they’ll return to their school in the fall, they have some significant concerns that should be top of mind for us as marketers. 77% of them are worried about staying on track to graduate, 62% of them are facing financial uncertainty, and 73% of them are concerned about developing or worsening depression, anxiety, or other mental health challenges. Tellingly, 36% of them also acknowledged a fear of developing issues with substance abuse or addiction during the pandemic. This is a time when students are trying to understand if and how their specific needs will be met in the coming academic year.

Retention and attrition are major concerns for many schools right now. Our marketing efforts need to be centered around answering the questions that are fundamental in our students’ minds. Students are telling us exactly what they need to hear from us, if we take the time to reflect on the story in these numbers. Right now, there are some significant concerns about what resources are accessible to support their academic, financial, mental, and physical well-being. They lack confidence that what they need will be available. For new incoming students, these feelings are amplified further. Adding a major life transition into the mix of global pandemic-slash-economic recession-slash-social unrest is massive, regardless of a student’s age or academic level of study. As marketers, we can serve our students by centering our messages around these key needs—but we can only do that if we hear what they’re asking for.

Which leads us to trust, because we can say all the things our audience wants to hear, but if they aren’t confident in us, none of it will matter. A few months ago at a staff event, my coworker Alisa shared how author Rachel Botsman defines trust, and it’s stuck with me ever since. What is trust? It is “a confident relationship to the unknown.” Well, the unknown has never felt more prolific, and so how do we inspire confidence from students?

For Gen Z in particular, trust is earned, not given. Morning Consult’s State of Consumer Trust report found that 63% of Boomers agreed with the statement, “I tend to trust the average American company. They have to do something bad to lose my trust.” Only 38% of Gen Z respondents said the same. Instead, 42% of them said, “I tend to not trust the average American company. They have to earn my trust.” The report also found that young adults are 5 points more likely than all adults to say that it is “very important” that an organization has strong ethical values. This is, for many of us, our target audience. They won’t take us at our word—they need to see us live things out. They demand transparency, and they aren’t just going to hear what we say; they’re going to verify that it aligns with what we do.

At the agency where I work, we refer to our guiding principle as Coherence, which comes down to ensuring that what you say about your institution actually aligns with what it is. Right now for all of us in higher ed, a lot of what we’ve relied on for brand positioning, marketing statements, and imagery doesn’t match with what we’re able to offer, and it’s unclear when we’ll be able to shift back into our standard operating procedures. So what do we do in the meantime to build and preserve trust?

We need to be honest with ourselves here. Being in this state of limbo can result in a lot of broken promises if we aren’t careful. And so the bottom line is: If it’s something you can’t do right now, don’t tell your audience that you can. And if we build our strategies for this coming year with our fingers crossed that everything will get back to normal, then we risk operating within a plan that doesn’t align with reality. Students notice this, and it damages their perceptions. We need to say what we mean and mean what we say in order for our message to be received.

And then, once we’ve done that, we need to engage empathetically. How do we connect with students so that our strategies are truly centered around them? Once we’ve heard what students need and created a framework that inspires their trust as we respond, it’s time to demonstrate that we understand and care about what they’ve asked for. Meghan Keaney Anderson from Hubspot sums it up succinctly: “Don’t push people to where you want to be. Meet them where they are.”

Going back to the survey we looked at a few minutes ago, the clear theme that emerges is the need to connect students with the resources that are available to them. We need to share how our academic services teams are serving our students and how students can access these services. We should be collaborating with our financial aid and student services departments to communicate what is available to not just fund students’ educations, but also provide them with the essential support they need to cover the essentials such as housing and food. Students need to know what mental health services exist, how to ask for help, and where to go when they’re struggling.

None of these topics are particularly sexy. They don’t involve flying a drone over the quad to capture aerial footage or profiling a faculty member’s incredible new research or calling on alumni to share their fondest memories of move-in day. But if we want our messages to be impactful for our current and prospective students, we need to center on these immediate needs.

This is often the hardest part for us. We pour a lot of time, effort, and resources into developing our marketing plans, content, and visual assets, balancing the priorities and input of many departments and divisions. We have a lot of people to keep happy, and pivoting away from what we’ve planned is frustrating. But our work is worthless if it doesn’t match with what our audience is looking for.

I’ll conclude with this metaphor … . You operate a sight-seeing boat, and every day you charter folks around, sharing with them the highlights that make your region unique and exciting as you take them to their destination. But one day, your passenger loses his footing and falls out of the boat. Your script says you’re supposed to point out a famous landmark right now. So are you going to turn up the volume on your speaker so that he can hear you from the water as you discuss its historic significance? Or are you going to turn around, throw him a life ring and help get him back on board?

Let’s not leave our students treading water, hoping they’ll catch up to us. Instead, let’s center our strategies around listening to what they need, creating trust that it matters to us and then responding in a way that proves it’s true.

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Megan Miller

Megan is a Senior Integration Consultant at RHB.