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Reckoning experience design in higher ed

You can't own the narrative till you own the experience.

Today on Twitter, my friend Liz Gross shared a piece she wrote for Inside Higher Ed about (ostensibly) a specific TikTok meme that demonstrated what students really think about some colleges and universities. Toward the end of the piece, she writes,

Higher ed marketing leaders must recognize they no longer control their brand message (if they ever did).

Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching Mad Men again, but my mind immediately went to the classic adage, “If you don’t like what they’re saying, change the conversation.” The problem is, I think that’s happening in reverse. Higher ed generally does such a lazy job of marketing that it’s the audience who is changing the conversation. Here’s what I mean.

Colleges and universities are often so inwardly-focused when developing messaging that it comes off as disingenuous. The direct result is that students sniff out the inauthentic parts, find them lacking, share it with the world, and affect the opinions of prospects.

The self-publishing revolution that started in the late 90s/early aughts with blogging platforms and continues today with social media underscored the importance of resonant, authentic marketing for a lot of sectors. Higher ed is one that is affected more drastically by missteps simply because we fail to realize what the industry has come to be about.

This means that when we tell a story about how great our campus community is and how many educational experiences students have access to at our institution, we’d better be communicating the realities and not just what we think they are or want them to be. Aspirational marketing in higher ed works for student outcomes, but it can be harmful when used for a community or experience that doesn’t really exist.

Wait. Isn’t higher ed about education?

Yeah, definitely. Higher education is also a hospitality industry, a sales industry, and as much as faculty refuses to acknowledge it, becoming more of a commodity industry.

So think about this. The typical model of traditional undergraduate higher education has been:

Cultivate prospects -> Sell them on your brand -> Bring them to your campus -> House, feed, and provide services while they learn -> Conclude the engagement -> Hit them up for money based on an affinity you hoped was developed.

And the education side of it is, for sure, the core practice (read: product) that colleges and universities are built on. But we have to recognize a few things.

  1. We are a hospitality industry that provides food service, lodging, and recreational programming that real people pay for. And hospitality is an active practice that must permeate every part of the experience. That means when students have to deal with grumpy registrars or a process that requires them to travel across campus to take care of something, their perception and experience are affected negatively. And experience dictates what your brand narrative is truly communicating.
  2. Customer Experience (CX) is a required function of any service organization. A lot of institutions do a great job with admission reps and campus tour guides. That’s because they’re salespeople. They understand that the interactions prospects have with them are critical to their performance outcomes. The problem comes when students pass that matriculation mark and then have to deal with convoluted processes designed for staff convenience and comfort rather than the students’. From software (no one thinks Blackboard is intuitively designed, yet how many millions of dollars does higher ed dump into it?) to meal plan management to disjointed branding. All of these friction points add up to an overall experience. And again, experience dictates what your brand narrative is truly communicating.
  3. Higher ed is not that special. In fact, the majority of institutions operate like any large, bureaucratically heavy organization. We could point to many reasons for this (an in-person conversation, maybe, if that’s ever a thing again). Still, the result of higher ed exceptionalism is the same as that of American exceptionalism: We become blind to the realities of what everyone else sees and convince ourselves that we’re in the right. But we’re wrong. And that affects what our students and staff experience. And experience dictates what your brand narrative is truly communicating.

The crux

To lay out the challenge differently, to effectively market a real, authentic, genuine brand, higher ed has a lot of internal work to do. We have to start thinking holistically about the student experience, the employee experience. There will always be outlier opinions that make their way to social media, but marketing something that isn’t real can be truly damaging.

Institutions don’t own their brand messaging until they truly own the experience they’re generating. The only way to know what that experience is is to listen to the folks experiencing it.

Experience design is the same anywhere. On the web, we call it User Experience; in sales, it’s called Customer Experience. They’re all connected, they all require research and listening for success, and they all have consequences.

My friend Ron Bronson has been working on a framework he’s calling Consequence Design, and I think it’s something essential. To (overly) simplify his work, Consequence Design encourages individuals to be open and transparent about their experiences and creations. It demands honesty in recognizing the micro-transgressions that are built into systems, interactions, and experiences. Because if we are sincere, we’ll recognize that the experiences created by higher ed, along with every other industry, exacerbate racial, wealth, and class disparities in our society.

Social media shakes out those disparities. When your students or customers have a platform to use, your brand had better be ready to face their criticism. What other skeletons are hidden? Colleges and universities can’t control the brand narrative until they control their own experiences. And they can’t control those experiences until they come to grips with all of the broken systems and processes built into American higher education.

I want to fix these things. I’ve always wanted to. But we need more than just me. We need an assembly of higher ed professionals committed to doing the work together. The industry needs HE pros who aren’t afraid to confront the ugly, back each other up, and work toward equitable solutions.


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