Aha! Moments at Districts 6, 3 and 5 Conferences

by Lynn Whalen
Lincoln Land Community College
Springfield, IL

On the drive from the airport to beautiful Park City, Utah, we passed by Olympic Park, the site of the 2002 Winter Olympics ski jump, luge and bobsled competitions – still open as a training facility and for tours and shows. We ended the District 6 conference hearing from bobsled Olympian Valerie Fleming, who let us hold her medal. What an inspiration to work hard, develop our skills and go for the gold! She explained that in bobsled, the push off is everything … then the athletes jump in … the driver steers and the brakeman brings the sled to a successful finish. (Symbolic of our major team projects?)

The conference started with a full group discussion on shared challenges. What a lively conversation with many heads nodding in agreement, expertly moderated by Jennie McCue, District 6 director. One person had recently navigated communication during a six-hour lockdown due to a suspected shooter. Another declared that web accessibility doesn’t belong just in marketing although some think it’s our issue to “fix.” We were encouraged to be prepared for political activity on campus as 2020 approaches, and to claim our business yelp page ($25 a month).

Keynote NPR reporter Leslie Thatcher, “The Voice Park City Wakes Up To,” reminded us that true journalists will question information in our press releases … that’s their job … and encouraged us to form good relationships with media, based on trust. Gems from some of the presentations included: Make it easier for students to come to your college and stay. One college in Hawaii sets up an “Aloha Bar” manned by advisors in the library two days a week. Students receive help and encouragement, without having to search for the advisors’ offices or make an appointment.

Other aha! moments: when presenting data, design infographics branded to your college. Write the word “star” and only 10% recall it after three days. Draw a star, and 65-75% recall it in three days. Use behavioral science to remove enrollment barriers: always design and decide with the student in mind. Why do we ask for so much information on our applications? Is it absolutely necessary? Why do we call it an application when we accept everyone? We should ask those questions.

Off to Milwaukee

Marketing 360 was exactly our view (despite a bit of fog and rain) from the top of the Hyatt Regency for the District 3 conference, led by Director Jeff Julian.

Quentin Allums, CEO of Urban Misfit Adventures, said our employees are brands themselves for our organizations. He believes “It’s good to be better, but it’s better to be different.” He urged us to find clarity in our messages … what is our niche and unique value, what are we selling? Then create content, primarily video, that educates, informs and inspires. Find influencers who believe in us and can lend their brand to support ours.

Did you know that Summerfest in Milwaukee started the year before Woodstock, is bigger than Woodstock and unlike Woodstock, is still going strong? Sarah Smith Pancheri, vice president of sales and marketing for Milwaukee World Festival, Inc., inspired us to “Go Big!” and create memorable experiences for our students and prospective students. She shared how she announces details of the upcoming Summerfest gradually, through “reveals,” to build excitement. We can do the same with our events and activities.

Aha! moments from some of the presentations: When students ask a question, they expect an answer the same day. Prospective students like text but want us to utilize it only for important items (what they think is important.) Although Facebook may be losing some traction, it’s still the largest, and we need to be there.

“Alexa, where should I go to college?” 

Is this how students will choose in the not-too-distant future? Redfox AI CEO Nick Meyers led us through the fascinating and sometimes scary future of artificial intelligence. How do we make sure Alexa chooses us? We need a vibrant FAQ webpage for AI to find, great SEO and active social media.

On to Manhattan

The “Little Apple” of Manhattan, Kansas produced some big ideas for District 5 attendees.

Are you familiar with the Git Up Challenge and TikTok? Keynote Sheila Ellis-Gasper shared the latest in social media trends. “Social media is change … embrace it,” she told us. Our goal should be to “stop the scroll”: make our posts so engaging and real that people stop to look and read. “Be authentic, build community, leverage and empower advocates,” she recommends.

Other key takeaways: Even non-designers like me learned how to use InDesign to create an ADA compliant document from start to finish. From the smallest to largest budgets and amounts of time, you can use Snapchat to move the needle. We also learned how to prove the ROI of our digital advertising. Need a great video on a low budget? Use your phone, wax paper, aluminum foil, duct tape and clothespins for professional results!

Confident in our new knowledge, we were then humbled by a display of “Marketing Fails” that we could all relate to: the expensive pull up banner that arrives with a typo, the group photo of students with a questionable hand gesture, and other cringe-worthy moments. Thanks to the brave souls who shared their “fails” and to District 5 Director Jeff Ebbing, who led us through them with many laughs.

Two years ago, keynote speaker, entrepreneur and former Army officer Pete Najera joined the Rudd Foundation with the task of distributing $1 million a year in college scholarships to low income students with “grit.” Learning as he went along, he used social media and the data it provided to spread the word about the scholarships, tagging high school counselors and institutional accounts and engaging students and influencers. HIs smartphone videos of surprising students at their high schools with the news that they had won full-ride college scholarships were heartwarming and the essence of “real.” Several of us looked at each other and said, “we need to do that when we award scholarships!”

Thank you, Districts 6, 3 and 5, for your warm welcomes and excellent conferences. I enjoyed every minute. On to the next!

Lynn Whalen is executive director, public relations and marketing at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield, Illinois, and president of NCMPR.

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