An academic institution, like any other business, needs to distinguish itself as a place of superior quality as it competes for students and dollars. Its message about who it is and what it stands for must speak to prospective students whose families are considering one of the largest investments they'll ever make, and persuade potential donors that their dollars will be well spent. That's essentially what Sandra King, CMO of Bentley College, does as she creates the framework that accurately positions the institution, its academic focus and the overall Bentley experience. We talked with King at the school's Waltham, Mass., campus.
Education is such an intangible product. How do you market higher education?
Education is a high-value, high-impact service product that is intangible and concrete at the same time. Defining the product and its relationship to the recipient is critical to success. Creating meaningful connections and interactions with each audience--students, parents, faculty and staff, alumni, corporate partners and friends--is the ultimate definition of a successful product.
Does its lofty nature blur the lines between selling students something and giving them something?
It's not necessarily a financial trade. It really is about having them walk across that stage four years from now a more enhanced person, a more well-read person, a more competent, confident individual. And I guess in some ways, it really is about giving. But it also is engaging them.
Is that part of your role?
I'd say my internal role is to service my client--what you would think of as admissions--and the academic programs. At the end of the day, that's the product that we're delivering. I'm also responsible for supporting development--fund-raising--and positioning the institution so that the people who are charged with the responsibility of raising money have the right kind of support to get the job done. On the external side, I'm everywhere, interacting with everyone, telling the Bentley story. It's about engaging with people who need to know about the institution and coming up with creative ideas to take the institution's message outside.
Judging from your campaigns, story is an important facet of your marketing.
You're right. The campaign we ran last year was a story about three people: a faculty member, a student and an alum. It focused on the institution as a whole and what our strategic objectives are. It was the story of how we engage people with the organization and with the world. I guess if you say I have a trademark, it's about engaging people in the lives of the institution.
That's your personal trademark?
Yes. I have a theory that, for example, in terms of fund-raising, people give to people, they don't give to things. In admissions, it's about individual people--Johnny and Susie and Michael and Rashid--and not about the class of 2010.
Do you measure whether you're getting your message across?
The hard quantitative measures revolve around inquiries and applications and the like. The qualitative measures are more like what I call moving the needle on the pride-ometer. The pride of the alumni, the parents, the faculty is not concretely measurable. But you feel it. You feel it at a football game. You feel it at a case competition. You feel it when you're in the presence of people who are responding to you.
What are your own lofty goals?
I'd like to make education affordable. It's not about necessarily having professional careers in the traditional sense, but giving young people the opportunity to learn and to grow.
Can you have an effect on that?
Some schools have moved away from using some of the standardized tests as a yardstick for eligibility. But they're also concerned about rankings. So it's a catch-22. I look forward to the day when we can say, "Rankings be damned. We're just going to do the right thing."
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