Your Institution Fits Inside a Circle (of Influence)

One of our favorite services at RHB is Circles of Influence (there’s more background here and here). We love talking to students and the people who influence their college journeys as we look for alignment or gaps between the student experience and marketing messaging. We use our analyses of the conversations we hear to provide guidance to choose coherent languages and behaviors that authentically tell prospective students about your market position—your one place in the higher education universe. 

We’ve had amazing experiences facilitating Circles for four different institutions, both virtually and on campus, over the last several months. Interestingly for us, these Circles overlapped slightly. It was such an uplifting period, in which we got to experience how great our firm’s capacity is for serving our clients. What ties our explorations of contrasting student experiences together is our signature qualitative research methodologies, Circles. When we use this method, we let the language, experiences and relationships students find important emerge through free-flowing conversation, rather than presupposing we know what those important story beats are ahead of time. 

At the same time we are able to provide great data, analysis and counsel to clients, we’ve had the opportunity to reflect on the versatility of Circles of Influence as a method that encompasses and embraces the shape of the student experience at so many institutions with whom we’ve conducted Circles over RHB’s 31 years. So many years and so many institutions, and yet we can expect to encounter moments and findings that make the process of discovery feel as serendipitous and special as the very first Circle each of us has conducted. As well, we continually appreciate how the discovery process we undertake can inflect the services we offer in each of our four practices—Enrollment Management, Institutional Marketing, Slate and Related Technology, and Executive Counsel. 

These four rounds of Circles were a precursor to further project work with each institution like Coherence Inventories (in which we examine existing university marketing efforts for potential opportunities to streamline processes, maximize resources and ensure coherence across all efforts) and the development of 36-month enrollment communications plans.

Here is a discussion of the four institutions with whom we did Circles and some of the takeaways from those projects (we’ve used pseudonyms):

Pickfair College 

Pickfair College is a small, Midwestern religiously affiliated college shifting to an institutional identity and enrollment policy that expands the range of students who will be admitted. Traditionally, students were admitted only if they practiced this particular religion, but that student pool has been decreasing as has the total population of practitioners. Pickfair has had to face the existential challenge of discovering which elements of its essential nature can both be preserved and be translated into components that compel students who practice other faiths. 

For us, one of the strongest and most visible characteristics of the institution’s identity was the palpable sense of love that emerged even over Zoom. Love was expressed toward the institution, the religion, the physical campus and fellow members of the community. One faculty member told us that students have an expectation that they will be loved by faculty. To expect that one will be loved means expecting something far beyond what should be a basic expectation of being treated with respect and dignity. We can say that is not a common sentiment across our client portfolio, even at other highly student-centered institutions. Students told us about the love they had received in a variety of ways in good times and tough times. Love and other essential elements like a belief that all students are innately capable and sufficient as they are will indeed be compelling to students who are excited by the prospect of embracing opportunity and challenging themselves while enfolded within an attentive community. 

Our guidance urged this institution to consider building on pre-existing efforts to redefine the terms they use in their marketing materials, especially when considering what it means to reframe the institution’s many existing benefits in a way that speaks inclusively and truthfully about who will succeed at Pickfair. To that end, we walked through the process of writing a new Statement of Position to declare ownership of their new place in the higher ed universe and creation of a Coherence Manifest to educate and inspire marketing and communications staff about how to support their new market position with compelling messaging.

Oliver Leigh University

Oliver Leigh University (OLU) is a large Southern institution with a deeply loyal base of alumni and fans. Our Zoom Circles with OLU community members usually ran a little long because it was so hard to extract ourselves from conversations in which people had so much to say, often with a lot of nuance and detail. OLU’s generational students can brag of having 10 or more relatives on campus in a single year or having been preceded on campus by five generations of ancestors. OLU also attracts students who found it while stopping for gas on the way to visit a different institution. 

Blessed with iconic spots on campus and in the town it borders, OLU saw all-time-high applications and deposits this cycle from increasingly academically gifted students. We were also told about love at OLU—love for the institution certainly, but also for the Capital-F Family that institution brings together. Several new-to-OLU students told stories of feeling that coming to OLU was “meant to be.” They were wrapped up in a chosen Family that knit together students of different familial histories, races/ethnicities, majors and other characteristics into tightly bound units of devotion that we predict will last across these students’ lifetimes. 

Our charge for OLU was to find new language and habits to help shape a more-diverse class. Our counsel included guidance on how to tie academic excellence and vibrant campus life traditions into Family stories in ways that speak sensorially to students that might have overlooked this institution because of its size and predominantly White demographic. We also then included prompts for continually reexamining and working to overcome elements of exclusion that may challenge aspirations that students, faculty, staff and administrators have around talking truthfully about the institution’s history and plans for the future. One of the most fun parts of our engagement, which will lead to marketing materials like travel pieces, was imagining an entire sensorium of products that will help prospective students feel the Family experience even before they ever visit campus.

Naylor University

To our great joy, we were actually on campus for Circles at Naylor University. Naylor is a small, Northeastern urban institution with a mission to serve and transform students who fall in the middle of the pack, who were perhaps uninspired students or who went to high schools that were under-resourced. Naylor draws students from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds to its campus in an idyllic residential area. Being on campus gave us the opportunity to see how students are making those connections themselves in the spaces where they happen. Participants in the conference room where we facilitated Circles were able to literally point in the direction of a place where an important event occurred or move themselves to face an important person during a conversation. We got to feel the emplacedness of their relationship to Naylor and we could see Circles participants going about their usual business as they went to class or tabled for a student organization outside the dining hall. We even got to taste the same things they do as part of their daily lives. We gained such insight into the elements of Naylor life that leave an indelible mark—one that has convinced several alumni to come back to Naylor as professionals.

With innovative career preparation programs and a faculty and staff who are devoted to connecting the dots between academic coursework and hands-on application, this university boasts outcomes that see students taking paths they never would have dreamed of before college. Further, Naylor is intensely focused on creating and promoting equity. The institution views the creation of engaged citizens as one of the most important outcomes of its mission. 

Our analysis of Circles data guided us to reinforce for Naylor faculty, staff and administrators how important their work toward equity and engaged citizenship is. We also highlighted new ways to talk in marketing materials about how making connections between classroom learning, career preparation and community building will enable the outcomes Naylor desires for its students and society. We are so excited that our next projects—including enrollment communication plans, search emails and graduate experience discovery—will bring Naylor to the attention of so many more prospective students who frankly are too often left out of the higher ed conversation.

Spencerburn University

Spencerburn University is a small, Northwestern, religiously affiliated institution in a major urban area world famous for the world-changing products of some of its businesses. The religious philosophy in which Spencerburn was founded provides a clear charter to see education and the active betterment of the world as allied outcomes. Students spoke about embracing the opportunity to discover their values and discern the best ways to apply them in larger social and cultural contexts. Students also talked about bringing their whole complex selves with them to Spencerburn. Their bravery in thinking about their own roles in creating systemic change at times in the face of discomfort—and the grace Spencerburn creates to allow this investigation to happen—was inspiring to us. While students didn’t use the word “rigor” to describe their experiences, what they described was in actuality an intensely rigorous program of tacking back and forth between deep self-examination, cross-checking with established knowledge and generating new knowledge that allowed them to develop a sense of appropriate and practical application of their skills and values. And they did all this in one of the most innovative cities in the world, itself located in a place that allows students access to both urban and wild spaces which offer their own intrigue and engagement.

We were so fortunate to be able to travel to Spencerburn to present some of our Circles findings to various campus partners including the executive leadership team. While on campus, we discussed the potential for Spencerburn to move its diversity- and inclusion-related discourse away from messages of “welcome” we can see on institutional websites to one of working toward real “belonging.” “Welcome” can convey that a guest can comfortably enter a space, but by virtue of being a guest, one does not innately belong. Rather, our Circles data suggested to us that creating “belonging” makes more sense in the context of the highly personal work students do on that campus. It requires a more advanced level of commitment and activity, certainly. “Belonging” is not a stable setting. It requires that the institution invest the same constant transparent reflection-action-reflection-action process in which students engage, and it is one Spencerburn is well equipped to undertake. Our next steps included using the Coherence Inventory and creation of an enrollment communications plan to bring alignment between the incredible reality of the Spenderburn experience and marketing that drives prospective students to want to capture that reality for themselves.

En-Circling Students is an Act of Love

Those are some of the results of applying our Circles methodologies at four institutions of different sizes, student demographics, locations and missions. A single methodology provided us the freedom to understand each institution and its community on its own literal and figurative terms. That’s pretty incredible. However, we could not help but to notice how all four distinct institutions seem to share one critical motivation: to understand their students’ lives not just as proof that a brand promise has been kept, but because they genuinely care that students are having an experience that will provide them resources to drawn on for the rest of their lives. They love their students and are willing to open themselves to criticism by their students in order to serve them better.

As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, in all four cases, the discovery process of Circles of Influence preceded other projects. We’ve certainly performed Coherence Inventories and created enrollment communications plans as a la carte services to wonderful effect. However, our experience has been so overwhelmingly positive when we have the ability to use actual stories and quotes from community members when we think about new ways to inspire relevance before, during and after college in our next projects. One of the outcomes of the work we do is to re-inspire the people who serve students. The concrete reminders of how important that work is emerge from student, faculty and staff stories—stories you know are out there but don’t always have the chance to hear even though you may share close physical proximity to these people every day. If you would like to learn more about how Circles of Influence can help you articulate your essential mission to new audiences, we are here to talk about how this methodology can fit you.

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Aimee Hosemann

Aimee is the Director of Qualitative Research at RHB.