What’s Your Next Big Thing? A Conversation with Higher Ed Marketing Guru Rick Bailey
RHB founder and principal Rick Bailey appeared on the IngenioUs podcast with host Dr. Melissa Morriss-Olson, provost emerita of Bay Path University, on July 27, 2020.
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Announcer: Hello and welcome to IngenioUs, the podcast where we talk about higher education, innovative practice and leading-edge thinking. Your host is Dr. Melissa Morriss-Olson. Higher education is undergoing a transformation which we have not seen in our lifetime. Prior to the pandemic, higher education was already experiencing disruption which has only accelerated in this current moment. Nearly all colleges and universities are scrambling to redefine their futures and for many their very survival is now in question.
Announcer: In each episode of IngenioUs, we will talk with leading-edge thinkers whose expertise and experience are at the forefront of this transformation. Our guests will include college and university leaders, faculty, innovators and other professionals who are experimenting with new approaches in ways of thinking about higher education. Be sure to hit subscribe to IngenioUs wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss out on a single episode. If you like what you hear, you can rate and review this podcast and share this with your friends and colleagues so they can join the conversation, too. IngenioUs is a production of CHELIP, the Center for Higher Education Leadership and Innovative Practice at Bay Path University. To learn more about CHELIP, visit our website at baypath.edu/chelip.
Dr. Melissa Morriss-Olson: Hello everyone and welcome back to another episode of IngenioUs. This is Melissa Morriss-Olson, and I am your host. I am so excited to have as my guest today Rick Bailey, who is the founder and principal of the higher ed marketing firm and very appropriately named RHB. Rick brings more than 30 years of experience in not-for-profit marketing to his work, including work in fundraising, public relations, college admissions and marketing communications.
He began his career at his alma mater, Spring Arbor University, a church-related liberal arts college where he managed church and college relations, development and admissions programs. He completed graduate courses in higher ed administration at Michigan State University then served on the staff of Imprint, Inc. for eight years before launching his own firm in 1991. He is a frequent conference speaker at regional and national meetings of educational organizations. He taught for 13 years as an adjunct professor of marketing at the University of Notre Dame Mendoza College of Business. His first book, “Coherence: How Telling the Truth Will Advance Your Cause (and Save the World),” recently took the top prize in the National Indie Excellence Book Awards, business category. I understand that just this week, Rick released a new edition of “Coherence.” So, I’m very excited to learn more about that and have him tell us what’s going to be new and different about the new release. So, Rick welcome to our podcast.
Rick Bailey: Thanks, Melissa. It’s great to be with you and kudos on the launch of this podcast. I’m really happy for you. This has been great.
Melissa: Well, thank you. It has been really a wonderful way to have some conversations with leading-edge thinkers across all different aspects of higher ed, of which you very much are a leading-edge thinker. So I’m looking forward to getting your thoughts today in this conversation about all kinds of important things as it relates to higher ed. So, I like to start out each episode by asking our guests about their professional journeys. So, maybe you could tell us about your journey and where the inspiration for RHB comes from.
Rick: Sure. So, I actually thought I was going to do something entirely different in my life. I began my career working for my alma mater Spring Arbor. Just before I graduated, mid-year, I graduated in December, and the president of the university had lunch with me one day and he said, “What are you going to do?” I kind of explained a few things that I was thinking about and he said, “Well, I think for the next several months you ought to work for the university and help us out raising money in the development office and be our Director of Annual Fund.”
That was not in my radar at all, but I just thought it would be a blast, so I agreed to fill in for somebody who was leaving mid-contract and I became the director of the annual fund. Once we got through our first successful phone-a-thon and a few direct mail successes, I thought, “Development, this could be a blast.” So, I stayed in that area for several years. I ended up at one point being the Director of Alumni Relations and Parent Relations. I was the Director of Communications and PR before we called it marketing. After a presidential switch I became Head of Admissions and whatever we use to call marketing.
So as a very young person I was given a lot of great responsibility, probably more responsibility than I merited, and was given a position on the President’s Cabinet at a way-too-young age, but it attracted the attention of an organization in South Bend, IN, that was wanting to build an agency relationship with colleges and universities. So, I went to work for Imprint and after about eight years there, as agency life can be, it sort of erupted and I was looking for a job. My wife Tammy, who is now my business partner, suggested that I start my own firm. I thought she was nuts. She kept saying, “No, you should do your own.” My litmus test was to say, “Okay, if you’ll go in 50-50 with me, I’ll do it.” I thought for sure she’d say no. Instead she said, “I’m in, let’s go.”
So, we started RHB in 1991. We lasted in our living room for about, oh, I don’t know, eight weeks before we had to find an office. We started because we wanted to help serve organizations for whom we had passion. So we broadly started with not for profit organizations, later in our history we focused entirely on higher ed, but our interest was to help great causes succeed. We wanted organizations and institutions that had great purpose in the world to be their very best. The way we knew to do that was to help them predominantly with their marketing and the management of their own positioning. So that’s the inspiration and that’s how RHB came to be.
Melissa: RHB is named for you, obviously.
Melissa: But Tammy is a very wise woman ahead of her time because she obviously could see into-
Rick: Oh man, she’s a tremendous entrepreneur and visionary. In fact, last year I asked her if she would take over as CEO and she is running the ship beautifully and it’s allowing me to be more committed to writing and thinking and planning and visioning and that’s been terrific.
Melissa: That’s really where your sweet spot is. I mean, your ability to see things that other people can’t see and that creativity which has been such a great asset for RHB over the years. That’s wonderful. You have more time to nurture that.
Rick: Well, you’re kind.
Melissa: Well, I’ve seen this firsthand. I’ve worked for institutions that have benefited from that. So that’s, I know from whence I speak here. But the other thing I want to point out Rick is I’m struck by the fact that you got on your career path because somebody saw something in you and called it out, but maybe they didn’t call it out specifically, but they recruited you for a position which is very similar to how I got started. It’s a theme I’m hearing in asking this question of many of our podcast guests. So, it’s just interesting and it says to me, boy isn’t that important for those of us who now are established in our careers to turn around and do that for other people.
Rick: Well, I think that’s indicative of the higher ed culture in that, in the first place not many of us knew that there were careers to be made out of serving institutions, or nobody grows up thinking, for the most part, I’m going to be the Director of Marketing for a university. They might be interested in business or marketing but not think about it in a university setting. There are so many roles that make an institution work that you almost have to be lured into it by somebody who has already experienced it. I’m so grateful for Dr. Elwood Voller who saw something in me that I didn’t see and would never have imagined but he set me on a path that I would never have pictured myself on at the time.
Melissa: Isn’t that… You remember his name as if it was yesterday.
Rick: Oh man, he was a great influence on me.
Melissa: Let me ask you, because I know you’re an avid reader of everything that’s out there, so you’ve seen a lot of these perspectives that are coming from every direction. People putting their opinion out there about what they think the future of higher ed looks like and a lot of these perspectives are pretty pessimistic. Lots of hand wringing, predictions of doom, we’ve all heard the projection about the cliff … small colleges are destined to fall off this cliff come 2024. One of the things I’ve always appreciated about you is your balanced point of view on just about everything. So with that as context would you give me your take on the impact of COVID-19 for higher ed? Do you see any silver linings or opportunities that institutions should be looking to leverage?
Rick: Oh man, that’s a great question. I really do think anytime that there’s disruption like this, we have opportunity laid out before us in just huge waves. I think that one of the great things that’s come out of this COVID disruption is that it has removed the fear of some things that some institutions dreaded, namely online learning or distance learning, and because institutions were forced into something that they had resisted, they found out how well that works. Now I think they’re far more open to be thinking about new ways of delivering education that they had been resistant to in the past.
So I’m really grateful for the shakeup that forced people into change that opens doors of possibility; and one of the great possibilities, one of the things I’ve been saying for several years, and I know you believe this wholeheartedly because of the work you’ve done, is that we can get to a place of seamlessness in the way we deliver and we can deliver education through several modes at once.
This new day that we’re entering is going to… Is already making institutions think about hybrid opportunities—whether I learn in a classroom, however that’s going to look for health purposes; whether I learn online; whether I stay in a residence hall; and even if I stay in a residence hall, if I go to a classroom or still study on a monitor, all of those opportunities are now before us, and we’re going to have to figure out how to make that work and be interchangeable. I think that’s part of the beauty of what’s happened, is it’s just made us aware of possibility that we didn’t use to think was available to us.
Melissa: For sure. Well, and I’m… It makes me think about prior to March, had you told me that thousands of faculty across the country would be dipping their toe into online and pivoting on a dime which is what’s happened at so many universities, I would have been incredulous. Now you have all of these faculty, many at traditional institutions who have been exposed to digital learning, and even though what we may think of as digital learning, it might not have been as good as what we would like to see. It has… You’re absolutely right, it’s opened up the doors and the possibilities in ways that I don’t think any of us could have imagined a few months ago.
Rick: It certainly helped people get over hurdles of fear.
Melissa: For sure. That’s a great perspective.
Rick: I know for others that it’s created unbelievable fear. So it’s not… I don’t want to paint a completely rosy picture but I’m excited about what it’s done. One of the things we keep telling people in this moment, we have this opportunity to imagine voraciously and I think people didn’t have space to imagine as much as we do now.
Melissa: Let me ask you, I want to just switch gears here a little bit. You and your colleagues at RHB work with scores of institutions across the country in addressing their marketing, their advancement and their enrollment challenges. That’s really the space where you have spent a lot of time over the last several years and your track record of helping institutions move the dime is very impressive. I’m curious what you’re seeing institutions focused on right now in that space. How are you advising your clients about how to plan for the future when we’re in the midst of so much uncertainty? Do you have any specific suggestions that you can share?
Rick: That’s a great question, Melissa. By way of some background, we made a move this last year, the spring actually, to name Ken Anselment at Lawrence University the Dan Saracino Chair of Enrollment Management at RHB. Dan Saracino was the head of the enrollment for both Santa Clara and at Notre Dame for many years. Dan came to work with us maybe a half-dozen years ago as a part-time consultant and he’s kind of one of the founders of the enrollment management model.
So we named a chair in his honor and appointed Ken to, as a practicing enrollment management VP, to give us perspective from the field. He’s just been involved in a number of interviews with his colleagues. It’s been really interesting as he’s explored how people are thinking in this moment. When he started these conversations the comment is always, “I wish I had a crystal ball. I wish I could foresee just a little bit to know how this was going to go. I wish I could look ahead two years so I could do better planning.” I think that’s… This moment of frustration comes because we just don’t know.
But there are some things that we can, we can do when we don’t know. One of them is to listen and ask questions. I think this very notion of having a podcast in the middle of this kind of moment in higher ed is perfect, as we all learn from one another and gain perspective and listen to what others are doing and how they’re thinking and what creativity they’re putting out there. So I think this is a really good time to be listening.
The second thing I think that this is a good moment for is some organizational assessment. Rob Zinkan, who worked at IU and was the manager of the IU brand for their system, came to work at RHB about a year ago and his work of late and the question that has come up again and again and again with our clients is, “okay, I’m probably going to have to change but what do I change to? What are the strengths I currently have on my team? How should we be organizing ourselves? How would we be best suited for the unknowns?” Those organizational assessments have been powerful activities in this particular moment. So I don’t think anyone should be wasting or waiting for something to happen. I think you can be proactive in your listening and assessing and evaluating how well equipped you are even when you don’t know what’s going to happen in the fall.
Melissa: For sure. I think that exercise of assessing must be both a difficult exercise for institutions to do but also one that maybe is reassuring in some ways because it gives the institutions at least some semblance of feeling like, okay, we have something we’re trying to control here.
Rick: Yeah. Exactly. Well, I think those kinds of activities bring confidence and we’re all desperate for that right now.
Melissa: Well, in that regard, let me ask you another question. Because I know one of the books that you and I have talked about is and it’s a book that’s gotten a lot of attention in the last few years, Nathan Grawe’s “Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education,” and I hope to get him on this podcast soon. but for many higher ed leaders who are looking beyond the pandemic, who are doing that kind of assessment that you’re talking about, Grawe’s projections have undoubtedly resulted in more than a few sleepless nights, right?
Melissa: So what’s your opinion about his projections and if you’re advising an institution doing an assessment and looking to the next five to seven years? How do you best prepare or how should they be… How should colleges, universities be preparing for the road ahead? Do you believe the data?
Rick: Oh yeah. There’s… It’s hard to argue with the birth rate. I think even beyond the birth rate are changes in public opinion about the value of higher education and that combination of fewer bodies and less interest in making the investment in higher education really creates turbulence ahead for us. Couple of things I’d say—one is we all need to thank Nathan for grabbing a mirror and holding it up and making the space reality. We…
For years I’ve heard people say, “Man, the future doesn’t look so great. It could be really rough. We’re going to have a rough time.” Nathan, thankfully, put numbers to it and made some projections. So I’m grateful for that reality check, and it allowed us all to get serious about what we’re going to do, whether it means figuring out how we can hang on to the students we have, be more attractive to attract more or in some cases say we’re not going to survive and we’re going to close our doors.
But one of the things I’ve encouraged our clients to do is to take the data that Nathan outlines in that book, it shows us pretty clearly, and figure out your share of that right now. When you look at, I think it’s on… might be on page 15 or 18, I can’t remember which page, it’s one of the -teen pages: That awful cliff chart, that can look devastating. When you break it down to your institution in the patterns your institution has had and you consider your share of that market, it gets a little more manageable. You’re not looking at the entire cliff, you’re looking at the feet you’re going to fall. If you can look at the feet you’re going to fall, you can make choices about whether or not you can live with a little drop or what action you’re going to take to gain some traction to hang on.
Melissa: That’s again part of that assessment work that you were talking previously about.
Rick: Exactly. You can calculate your market share and once you calculate your market share, you can say, “Oh, we’re talking about 15 students or we’re talking about 2000 students. What does that mean?”
Melissa: So for the smaller colleges that are the ones that everyone’s saying are really at risk, are you saying that maybe it’s not quite as bad as what the initial assumption would be if you’re just looking at the Grawe data at face value.
Rick: Well, to a degree. I think there are some institutions for whom losing 15 students a year would be devastating. Some of them are hanging on by a fingernail. They won’t be able to survive that. They won’t be able to manage if the economy robs them of what endowment they have. Many of those institutions don’t have substantial endowments to help them hang on. So there are lots of factors in there, but Nathan’s data alone doesn’t mean that you’re on the verge of collapse.
Melissa: That’s the important point that you’re making which I think is a great balancing… It is a balanced perspective as opposed to just assuming that we’re all going to be impacted by the cliff to the same degree. That’s-
Rick: He makes the point that there are some institutions that are simply not going to feel this. But some will. Some will feel it painfully.
Melissa: Now I know you’re a big fan of the marketing guru Marty Neumeier. In fact, I think you first introduced him to me and his concept of finding your one true place in the universe. Is that still as relevant, that notion and important as it used to be and if so, why is that important? When so many colleges and universities look alike and sound alike, how do you even go about finding that one place that you can own that others may actually be interested in?
Rick: Thanks for that question. First, I love Marty Neumeier. I’m a big fan. He just lays it out there and it’s hard to argue with, it’s good stuff. If you haven’t read his work, read it. But frankly I think it’s more important than ever and in this climate it’s essential. The one thing we get to control, Melissa, is our market position. We don’t get to control brand—our audiences, our relationships get to control that. But we get to control position. We get to choose who we intend to be.
If you’re brave enough and you’ve done your homework to find out what needs you can fill or what space you can occupy, if you’ve got courage you can do something different than everybody else. If you don’t have courage, it’s tough to pull that off but you can assess a place that you can own using your particular circumstances, your location, your people, your resources, your expertise. You can use all of those factors to define the space that only you own.
If you are the only one that owns it, you have the potential of creating a stronger, better you. If you insist on being just like everybody else, you’re not helping yourself or your potential relationships, whether they’re students or donors. But the more you define a space that you alone occupy the easier it is to connect with those people who are looking for just that.
Melissa: So how do you actually do that though? If you’re on the ground on a campus, how would you go about asking, answering that question? Do you know of any institutions, or maybe you don’t want to share publicly, but I’m curious if you have any good examples of somebody who has done exactly that.
Rick: I think there are several examples but I… We have a process that we use at RHB. Along that line… Our watch word is coherence, and that is understanding yourself really well and understanding your audiences really well. Without clear understanding of yourself and others and their understanding of you and what you expect from each other, it really makes exchange difficult. So if you learn and can be honest about yourself, including your quirks and shortcomings and you can assess who your audience is, you can do a really good job of finding a fit in that coherence process. For us, we ask three critical questions. One is what’s true about us. What do we know to be true? That’s an internal assessment.
The second question we ask is, what do we say is true? One of the things that we find often is that institutions aren’t willing to tell the truth about themselves. Either they’re afraid to boast and I’m shocked how many times I have to encourage our clients to tell their good story or they gloss over… They don’t think what they have is cool enough so they gloss over it and it sounds just like everybody else. We all want to be like Harvard so we try to sound like Harvard even when we’re not. The third question we ask is, what do others believe to be true about us? Most of the time we don’t stop to ask that question. It’s a critical question because if our audiences believe one thing and we’re completely something else we’re never going to make that fit.
So we have to understand where they’re starting from, what do they believe to be true? If it mirrors our truth, then we’ve got some room to make some things happen. But if it doesn’t reflect who we are, we’ve got a big task of not only marketing but educating, and that will be a different row to hoe. But those three questions bring us to a point of understanding what our starting point is. It’s not a vision, it’s just a starting point. If we know it, if we can be honest about that true starting point, we can imagine what we could be and create a roadmap to get there. But without that true starting point, we’re wandering in the wilderness in search of a vision and we’ve got to be honest with ourselves.
Melissa: That is not an easy thing to do, though. I will… I remember when you and your team were on the Bay Path campus several years ago doing the Circles of Influence, which is one of the processes you’re talking about, and that you had observed as you went around the campus—and for people that don’t know Bay Path is a women’s only college on the undergrad level—and you had observed time and again our students with their hair pulled back in ponytails. You watched over and over again how they did this, they just pulled their hair back and they got about their business. It was part of the process of your bringing together this sense about Bay Path’s sweet spot, that spot that we could own. I don’t know if you remember this or if you can because it… I remember when you presented your findings there being some resistance at first because this notion that we recruit and we do a really good job with “gritty.” I think you used the word “gritty” students, which was offensive. Which is-
Rick: Yeah. Right.
Melissa: Yet, you hit right on the nose. Part of Bay Path’s sweet spot in terms of what we do really, really well. We’re not a Smith College, we’re not a Wellesley, but we’re a women’s college in our own name. You…
Rick: The symbols… Even that action of taking that hair tie, the little stretchy hair tie off a wrist and putting it up in a ponytail really quick, was that it was almost like rolling up sleeves and getting down to work and your students were take charge, I’m going to get into this and I’m going to get it done, kind of women. It was fun to watch that. You could hear it in the way they talked about their work, their engagements, whether they were an athlete or whether they were involved in a job out in the community, they had stuff to be about and they were getting it done. That symbol found in that simple expression of putting up one’s hair wasn’t something that everybody thought was a hill to plant a flag on, but it was. It was the expression of a character, of an attitude that is very appealing. There are a lot of students who identify with that.
Melissa: For sure. Over time it has, that notion has become central to how we do tell our story now. It’s very authentic to the history and mission of the institution going back to its very early days so-
Rick: When you think about your history…
Melissa: But it is amazing how you pulled that out of a visual, that you all observed and that’s the benefit of coming in. So you don’t have… Sometimes being too close to the institution you’re not always able to see that sweet spot.
Do you believe every institution has the potential to find this, to find their one true place?
Rick: Yeah. It takes a bit of digging to find it sometimes, but I do believe every institution has that capacity. I don’t believe that every institution has the will. There are places that have really interesting, engaging, differentiating experiences and character that are unwilling to use that as a marker. They fear the difference that they are. Those… That’s disappointing when you see tons of potential in an institution. But not everybody wants to be different.
Melissa: For sure. Difference is not always viewed as a positive thing. Particularly I think by leaders, senior leaders, new leaders, perhaps, because I… A follow-up question: I wanted to ask you, what gets in the way of institutions really embracing marketing? But I also wanted your take a little bit more on the difference between what you’re describing as a process and what a lot of people think about when they think about branding and it invariably when an institution calls a new president, you almost always see a branding campaign on the list of priorities or the new president wants to launch a branding campaign. But I think that’s different from what you’re talking about, right?
Rick: Yeah. It is. There are branding activities: getting a new logo, writing a tagline, choosing an institutional color, creating new recruitment materials or doing a new website. Those are all branding activities. But that should be the least of our worries. Rarely would I say— I’ve seen some really ugly logos—but rarely would I say that that logo is keeping anybody from enrolling or giving. But that’s where we put our attention often thinking that, oh, if we just had a new logo and I… We joke here because you can kind of trace the history of logos by presidential shifts.
In fact, a logo is a mark and I think every new administration wants to leave their mark on the institution and one way to do that is to change the look. But that’s not what we’re talking about. We spend all of our energy on this process of discovery and clear and honest, truthful positioning and then let the branding part of it fall out of that. A lot of times we watch institutions go the other way, let’s create all the branding stuff, the doo-dahs, and then we’ll try to shape into that. That’s a nearly impossible task.
So our approach is to understand enough about the true nature of that institution and the true nature of its constituents in order to create a message and positioning statement that articulates the beauty of that truth. Then let those things that we need—some of it we don’t need as much as we used to—but those things that identify us and help us stand out visually emerge from those findings rather than the other way. Otherwise it’s just a new Band-aid. It’s not a… We tend to work at the surgery part of it and figure out how it’s going to look later.
Melissa: Is that one of the reasons why these efforts sometimes fail to launch, especially with new presidents, or they might launch but you don’t see a long term…
Rick: Yeah. I think that’s exactly it, Melissa. I don’t… It becomes an uncomfortable new frock rather than something that is tailored to me. Just because I get a new outfit that doesn’t mean it’s an expression of me. I think community members, students, faculty, staff, even the administration gets a new logo that doesn’t fit or gets a new way of expressing themselves that doesn’t fit or a new language that isn’t their own. I’m big on language and language has to be authentic, has to be genuine, has to be the way you speak, not the way somebody else speaks. So I think these artificial approaches make people uncomfortable and after a while they drop them or stop using them or defile them in some way because they don’t fit.
Melissa: Let me pivot here and ask you, I just saw a news clip that suggests that an extraordinary number of institutions are still accepting applications for the fall. So there’s a lot of concerns on the campus level about who’s going to actually show up and frankly we don’t really know. So what are you telling your clients how they should best be communicating with students and their families right now. Are there any assurances that they can provide?
Rick: I’m going to go back to my truthfulness thing, and first thing I would say in response to that is that your primary audience, your students, your faculty and staff, should be your greatest focus and interest in your communication right now. Make sure that you are communicating thoughtfully and clearly and transparently with your primary audience, your internal audience. They are your greatest ambassadors and they can also be the ones who give the most misinformation. So make sure they know what’s happening, what your plans are.
I think there’s been reticence to say anything because you don’t know, and the fact is, we don’t know. We’ve never been through this experience before, so we don’t know what’s going to happen to melt. We don’t know whether or not students are going to make last-minute choices and that runs counter to every other pattern we’ve had in our past, so we’re afraid to say anything. Instead of fearing saying anything, we think it’s better to be more transparent to say, here’s what we anticipate or here’s what we’re planning on right now. Here’s who’s been involved with that planning.
I would be really open with prospective students and their families about this. They realize that you don’t know, that you’re not kidding them by suggesting that you know what’s going to happen in the next few months or if there’s going to be a resurgence of COVID in October, November, December. But if you’re transparent and say, “With the information we have, this is the best thought we have right now, and this is how we’re planning,” I think that’s the… The best way forward is to just be open and honest. Honesty and transparency build trust. Right now in this climate, people need to know they can trust you.
Melissa: For sure. You’re really stating the obvious. I’m listening to you and thinking, “Well, of course, because none of us know” and yet there is this presumption we take on ourselves that we have all the answers which-
Rick: Higher ed does, right.
Melissa: Yeah. But your words are very well taken. I think for…
Rick: We’re seeing all those early studies about students were undecided and many of them were… 20 percent of them were saying they were going to change their mind and we all looked at those and said, “Well, last April [ 2019 ], 20 percent said they were going to change their mind. That’s not anything different.” But hearing it in the context of COVID? That made us all go the Chicken Little route and we all thought the sky was falling.
I’m talking to lots of institutions that are actually exceeding goals for fall. I’m reading reports that many institutions are going to be in fine shape. So it’s not everybody and it’s not… Might not be you. Doesn’t mean that we don’t go overboard trying to secure everything we can or keep the window open for more applicants because there probably are families that are holding out yet. I sure wouldn’t close the door but I also am not sure I would panic if you’re watching your numbers thoughtfully.
Melissa: So another good reality check. So I can’t end this interview. I’ve got two more questions and I can’t end it without asking you about your book “Coherence,” which, I mean, what you’re talking about leads us right into this, “How Telling the Truth Will Advance Your Cause (and Save the World)” and so you’ve just published a release. Is that correct-
Rick: Yeah. We just did the second edition. Part of it was some of these examples and stories I used 10 years ago, when I first released the book had run their course where we’re out of date and I wanted to demonstrate that coherence was still highly viable and we were… We saw new examples of it. But there were other things I wanted to include in there, I did… We added I think five chapters to it and I spent more time on the concept of positioning.
But we’ve had some really wonderful things happen at RHB. One of them was we hired a linguistic anthropologist and Dr. Aimee Hosemann brings a wealth of perspective as an anthropologist to those kinds of things that we were talking about when we’re exploring what’s true about us. You mentioned Circles of Influence, it’s an interview process we go through that is kind of the inverse of focus groups, but it examines the experiences of a select number of students who are a microcosm of sorts of the institution. Aimee’s perspective of any interview is just fascinating. She walks away with observations that are really powerful. So I asked her to write a chapter in this about that process. I also talked… Added a chapter about why truth telling is difficult and she was very helpful in shaping that conversation.
Melissa: Why is that? In a few sentence- or few sentences or less?
Rick: There are several reasons why. Sometimes we’re doing a little covering of ourselves. Sometimes the fear of telling the truth might have consequences and our unwillingness to face those. Sometimes on a campus it’s about loyalties. Sometimes it’s about protectionism and sometimes it’s about resistance. In any of those circumstances, the politics that we use in higher ed sometimes makes us even subconsciously move away from the truth. We’re truth challenged. But she was really helpful in that exploration. I think that’s a good chapter in the book.
The second thing, other contribution came from Alex Williams, our Vice President for Marketing Integration. In the last two and a half years, we’ve added a whole facet of our work to help our clients understand the relationship of data management to the marketing equation. All of our… All of marketing boils down to relationships, right? It’s all about whether they’re internal or external. It’s all about relationships.
We have technology on our side now, mostly in the form of customer relationship management software that allows us to track those exchanges and behaviors and interests and data about people. We have thousands of data points that we can capture for every relationship we own. So managing that and finding a way to let technology serve us in building stronger relationships is great. So I had Alex address the power of CRM technology.
The third big addition was one from Rob Zinkan who I mentioned earlier. Oddly, I don’t know how odd it is, it was perfect. He did his Ph.D. at Creighton on the notion of coherence—and who does that? He did a really wonderful study of a major state university system to explore how coherence contributed to success. So I asked him to write about that. One of the things that we’re learning through all of these things, this anthropological perspective, the technological perspective in this wider positioning and brand perspective, this coherence message, is there’s a through line.
Again, if we’re all about relationships, with higher ed we have a lifetime, a full lifetime of relationships. You’re either before you get here as a student or while you’re here as a student or after you leave as a student and from the day you’re born, we might encounter you as an alumni association sends out a baby welcome gift, oftentimes with a certificate or a diploma or even an offer of a scholarship. We carry people all the way to their death. Our relationships in higher ed to all of those constituents along that continuum have turning points, cycles of experience and exchange and touch points all along the way that we have the privilege of managing. So we’re thinking more broadly about what this task of marketing looks like and how coherence can shape that whole continuum and to see it as a whole rather than a bunch of little pieces that are splitting off.
Melissa: Well, that makes so, so much sense and is part of the broader thinking that you’re seeing everywhere about this notion of rethinking the student experience across the whole lifetime.
Melissa: Which, wow. Well, congratulations on that. I’m thinking that’s going to have to be required reading in our doctoral program.
Rick: Sounds good to me.
Melissa: I know. Because it’s… You’re talking about all these things that are so critical to institutional success and rethinking the way we do things. So it’s a great contribution to the field. So, Rick, let me end by asking you… This is our signature question. We ask it of every guest, and it is this: what do you see ahead for higher ed that we all need to be paying more attention to? What needs to be on our radar and why? Is there anything that keeps you up at night?
Rick: Rarely am I up at night. If I am, it’s usually about an upcoming event or a detail that I want to make sure we’ve covered. But what’s ahead for us I think is more of the same, I think we need to get in this mindset of constant change and a dynamism that hasn’t always been attached to higher ed. Higher ed has been a pillar. Even the symbols we use for higher ed are heavy pillars and big buildings. I think that notion is disappearing quickly. I think we’re even struggling with the word “institution.” I think there’s far more dynamism than what we’ve ever allowed higher ed to have.
Even this thinking about it being a lifetime of exchanges is different than where we’ve been. It’s not just four years in a box or two years in a box. It’s far more organic, far more fluid and to be honest I think that’s far more thrilling. So I think our future is seeing ways that higher ed fits into people’s lives not just as a one-time experience, but a series of engagements, transactions and relationship building with real people. That will change the face of higher ed. I think it’s… What’s out there is almost anyone’s guess, but I think it’s going to be marked by greater fluidity and a greater ubiquity in the relationship between a person and their college or university.
Melissa: That suggests volumes of opportunities. Right, for this.
Rick: Oh man. That’s why I would want to imagine voraciously. There is just-
Melissa: Well, yes I know. You’re bringing it all together in a beautiful, beautiful way. What a great way to end this. I think your next book has to be about that, imagining voraciously. I think that’d be a great book title for your next…
Rick: Alright. I’ll work on it.
Melissa: So, Rick, this has been such a valuable conversation. You never disappoint me. I always learn so much when we have a chance to chat. I know our listeners will benefit a great deal from all that you’ve shared as well. So thank you.
Rick: Thank you, Melissa. I always love talking to you. Our conversations are among my favorites.