Finding a balance between intellectual and emotional storytelling
The tried and true
I’ve been working in design & branding for 20 years (has it really been that long?). About half of the clients I’ve worked on have been two- and four-year colleges and universities. We (my colleagues and I at a previous gig) were pioneers in higher education branding. And this was and is the basic model for college communications:
The Academic Experience:
List the college’s majors, highlight a few professors, name drop a few internship employers, and imply that all classes are hands-on.
Our Campus Amenities:
For a while this meant beautiful photos of campus in fall. Later it was all about the rock-walls and gaming rooms. And then throw in the necessaries like residence halls and food options.
Prove that your college actually produces young professionals and/or academics who go out into the world.
For years I struggled with this model. These topics are table stakes. Yet, this is how schools communicated their offer — because it was 1) what they knew, 2) quantifiable, 3) safe and 4) easy. But this plan did nothing to set colleges apart. Ultimately, it made them more the same.
Belonging is a basic need
In 2012, I attended a TEDx event. The standout presentation was from Terrell Strayhorn, Ph.D., the founder and director of Ohio State’s Center for Higher Education Enterprise. He was talking about student engagement and belonging. (If you’re eagle-eyed, you can see me in the crowd with my mom.) When Dr. Strayhorn said “Belonging is a basic need”, it shot through me like a bolt of lightning. This was it. The missing piece in the work I’ve done for past higher education clients. This is the differentiator.
I started digging. Of the 20 million students(1) who attended two- and four-year colleges in 2018, research indicates that only 53% will graduate(2).
A little less than half of those won’t graduate for financial or academic reasons. They either run out of funding or leave because of poor grades. But, that’s not the shocking number. What made my mouth hang wide open was that 26% of students who don’t reach graduation, leave for other reasons. That’s 6 million students. Some will leave due to life events, some for family obligations, some will opt for military enlistment or work. But this bucket also includes students who simply don’t feel like they belong at college.
I needed to understand the psychology behind this. In 1943, during the infancy of modern psychology, Abraham Maslow developed this Hierarchy of Needs to better understand and explain human motivations and behaviors.
This model is still used in sociology research, management training, and psychology instruction. What I found most interesting was that most of the align with our three-bucket higher education communication model (see above).
Safety and Physiological Needs
These needs are outlined when we talk about Campus Amenities. Shelter, safety, and food.
These are covered under Academics. You will learn and grow, gaining confidence in yourself along the way. And your grades will boost your esteem.
Self Actualization Needs
These align with the Post-Graduation Success stats shared by colleges. You will achieve your personal and professional goals. You will be someone and make a difference.
But what about Belongingness and Love Needs? These have not been a part of our communication model. But they should be. “Belonging is a basic need”, remember?
And, maybe this is our opportunity to differentiate colleges. Maybe the experience matters. Yes, continue to talk about Academics, Campus Amenities, and Post-Graduation Success. But wrap them in belonging.
William Taylor, cofounder of Fast Company Magazine has been advocating for Vuja Dé. We all understand d´ja vu — thinking that you’ve done the exact same thing before. Taylor suggests we take the opportunity to look at our situation as if we’re seeing it for the first time.
Today, one of the biggest influencers is one’s peers. A recent study found that 71% of customers trust peer reviews over descriptive content(3). And we see this when students visit campus. Most colleges use current students to lead their campus tours. Why? Because they live the experience. They can relate the day-to-day experiential story better than faculty and administrators who are at an arms length.
We also know that brands are shifting their communication model to adapt to this change in trust. 72% of brands are using customer-generated content to engage their audiences. And some colleges doing this too — handing over the reins to their social media for Takeover Tuesdays. I know this scares the heck out of college administrators. I follow a few of these and have yet to see one go bad. The college hand-picks the student and the student feels proud to have been selected. It works.
But colleges can do more to help prospective students connect to their peers at the college.
Turning talk into reality
We recently reinvented the Admissions tools for Antioch College in western Ohio. The approach and solution show how peer-to-peer communications can be used in print, social media, and in person. Our solution? Overlap the voice of the college and the voice of the students.
The formal, printed text is the voice of the college — Academic Experience, Campus Amenities, and Graduation Stats. Once complete, we turned over the designs to Antioch’s students. They added their opinions, insights, detail, and day-to-day perspective. These two, merged together, are exactly what prospective students need to make a decision that is a mix of intellectual and emotional.
Find out more
Want to know more? Click here to download the full Antioch College case study. Or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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