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Enhancing Your Institutional Image in a Hurry

Reaching Prospective Students with a New Message

When a person hears the name of your school, what do they think? A few things probably come to mind immediately. But what if the words you’re thinking of aren’t the ones that you want people to associate with your school?

Community colleges are powerful forces for good in their communities. And, thanks to new research we know that Americans generally have a strong positive impression of public two-year schools. Still, some community college struggle to build a strong institutional reputation.

We all know that branding takes time, but you want to change your enrollment numbers now, not ten years from now. Schools have been facing declining enrollments for years, and many have reached the breaking point. What can you do to change your brand image in a hurry?

It’s not always about rebranding

Sometimes it is time to entirely rebrand a school. During transitional periods, like a change in administration, there’s often a lot of discussion about rebranding to improve enrollment. Still, a rebrand is a big step and not always a panacea for enrollment issues.

We believe that often a community college’s brand is strong, but the school’s messaging is not. Communicating what your school has to offer can attract new students even without redesigning your logo or changing your school slogan.

There are small but still effective steps you can take to change your institutional image quickly, without going through a time-consuming rebranding effort. And, even if you are committed to a full rebrand, it doesn’t mean you can’t try new marketing strategies that make an immediate impact.

Be creative and consistent

The American consumer is saturated with advertising media almost every minute of the day. Cutting through the noise takes creativity and consistency. These are the hallmarks of a strong academic marketing campaign.

Creativity evokes an emotional response from your audience. They laugh, they feel something, and most important of all – they remember. With a creative message your school can capture the attention of prospective students.

Still, your message won’t be effective if it isn’t consistent. It takes a good deal of skill to orchestrate a consistent message across all college departments and platforms. However, failing to do so muddles your message, leaving prospective students confused.

Mission building is branding

Academic institutions are driven by a sense of higher purpose. Although the bottom line matters, public two-year schools are nonprofit institutions. Talk of brand building can seem coldly commercial and out of place.

However, mission building is brand building. When you define your college’s mission, it’s institutional values and purpose, you are defining its brand as well. It is the unique thing you have to offer prospective students.

Consider your college’s mission statement. Are the values defined there what prospective students take away from your promotional materials? If not, why? Students need to connect with your mission to want to enroll at your school.

Write your own narrative (or have it written for you)

Every school has an institutional image, whether they’ve defined it for themselves or not. That’s why it is so important to take control of your own narrative. If you don’t tell your story, someone else will.

Telling a story takes time, which is why you need to create engaging long-form content that you can distribute across multiple channels. Before you get started, though, you need to understand your audience.

Focus groups and market research are an investment. If you don’t have the budget, try informally meeting with community leaders, professors, or prospective students. Ask what strikes them about your community college. Learn from the answers.

Own your word

Once you start engaging with your campus and local community, you may begin to hear some words reoccurring. Maybe they are words you already have identified as a key part of your mission, and maybe not.

One of those words probably defines your market niche. There are some words that can define most public two-year institutions, like affordable and egalitarian. It’s better to find a word that expresses something unique and of interest to your key demographic.

‘Career’ is a winning word for community colleges, which is why the tagline from Metropolitan Community College is Missouri is so compelling. The slogan simply reads: “Your Career Path Begins Here.” It’s a simple, commanding pitch.

Create content that makes an impact

The best and most effective way to change your institutional image quickly is through engaging long-form content. Maybe prospective students have some unflattering, preconceived notions about your school, but you are the authority.

To change people’s minds about your school you need to give them a whole new story, not just a new slogan. That’s why you have to distribute more long-form content, articles and blogs packed with real information and real student stories.

Maybe you have an outstanding automotive technology program that somehow isn’t attracting new CTE students. Is the information about the program widely available? Do you feature testimonials and stories from existing students online and in your print materials? Embrace long-form content.

It’s not a hopeless task

You can turn your institutional reputation around, and quickly. Yes, it takes patience and perseverance to execute a thoughtful brand strategy. There are no shortcuts, but there are things you can do to see results now, not ten years from now.

With creativity, consistency, and good content you can change your institutional image. Reversing declining enrollment is possible. Want to read more? Learn how to change your enrollment numbers with smart content marketing strategies.

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