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The C-Word and Higher-Education Marketing

By | July 22, 2014

Being involved in higher-education marketing provides me with the opportunity to attend great conferences and seminars each year. I try to attend a variety of shows, ranging from technology focused to academic, and a variety of tracks. At each event in in the last two years, it has been increasingly difficult to avoid the “C-word.”

Putting potential vulgarities aside, the C-word I am referring to is “customer” (although in some circles, calling the student body by a four-letter obscenity would garner the same reaction as calling them “customers”). My ears first perked up when listening to a talk from the admissions team at Wayne State University at’s non-profit track at the Dreamforce event. The speaker asked the question, “How many in the room have heard the word ‘customer’ at an executive meeting?” About 40% of the hands in the room shot up. I had the pleasure of witnessing a similar survey take place at the Deshpande Symposium held at UMASS Lowell. The audience at the Deshpande symposium had a much more academic focus, and audible groans came at the mention of the word.

The focus on customers got me thinking about trends in higher education I see at Fathom when talking to universities on a regular basis:

1. Universities Focusing on Impact and Outcomes

There’s a big push, not just at for-profits but at all universities, to show impact and outcomes:

  • Impact is becoming more important in the grant-writing process at research universities
  • Outcomes are a component of state funding
  • Both are hot-button issues at non-traditional, online, and for-profit schools for some time

Some are concerned that this focus on impact, usually measured in commercial terms, is as at-odds with the mission of knowledge creation and transfer. The consensus among university leadership seems to be that to bridge the gap, there needs to be a balanced approach in the curriculum – one that not only empowers tenured faculty to continue to lead the mission of creating deep knowledge and transferring it but also relies more on infusing a set of problem-solving skills that usually come from faculty with industry experience. The reality is that the vast majority of the student body—in, say, a STEM program at a state school—will not go on to work in academia. These students benefit most from this kind of blended approach, and when they go on to succeed it reflects positively on the university. To this end, universities are putting more energy and creativity than ever into their tech transfer programs. Proof of this investment is all of the business incubators and accelerators popping up on campuses across the country and world.

2. Universities Increasing Investment in Student Management Technologies

When executive leadership at a university says the institution needs to be more “customer-centric,” more often than not they are talking about increasing the student experience – usually by way of pairing technology and process. The entire experience of requesting information from a university, researching a school, setting up a campus visit, applying, acceptance, and paying tuition is happening online for many students. This major shift follows the way today’s college-bound students prefer to consume information. Unfortunately, the preference to transact digitally has outpaced many universities’ ability to build the systems and infrastructure that truly allow an institution to manage digital student information in a highly effective and efficient way. We see major universities cobbling some technology together, but very few I have spoken with utilize a majority of the features available within their current technology, let alone optimize the customer or student-facing processes that the technology enables.

3. Universities Doubling Down on Digital Channels

As college-bound student preferences continue to change, we are seeing even reluctant universities participating more in the digital channels to better tell their story and take control of student enrollment. Fathom’s Education Quarterly Standard deconstructs this trend more completely, but from a 30,000-ft. view we see increased participation in online advertising of all kinds, and much more social media and content strategy expertise and creativity—all to engage with and attract potential students.

These three trends are tightly interwoven with the recurring theme of “students as customers.” Despite skepticism, these changes aim to make the academic experience more useful. One thing is for certain: There has never been a more exciting time to be involved in higher education.


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High-Schoolers Try Digital Marketing: A Fathom Internship

By | July 3, 2014

High school marketing internshipFor two weeks, I worked with two high school seniors who are interested in learning about the digital marketing industry. I’m approaching my year anniversary at Fathom, and I was excited to train the girls, Natalie and Susie, on agency life and the day-to-day routine of a digital specialist at our education marketing agency division.

During the first week, I gave the girls a brief introduction to the PPC, SEO, and Social best practices of the Education team. Each day, they came to work, reviewed a training presentation from our Associate Development Program’s manual, and completed a task that corresponded with each.

“Caroline explained how there were different branches of the company, such as Retail, Education, Healthcare, etc. We learned what PPC and SEO [specialists] are, and how to work on query reports. I feel more comfortable using Microsoft Excel, and now know how important keywords, titles, and descriptions are for paid ads and organic ads…”*

From creating mock ad copy to making SEO recommendations, Natalie and Susie learned the basics of digital marketing. For the last week, the girls worked on a social calendar for a client. They were able to peruse Pinterest and various blogs to find fun and relevant posts to include in the calendar. I explained how important it is to stay top-of-mind by posting regularly and keeping your viewers engaged with appropriate social etiquette.

“We made [a client’s] social calendar. It was really fun because we got to be creative for a real client! We really enjoyed making posts for [the client] since our generation is all about social media.”

I was happy to have Natalie and Susie for the past two weeks because I know they learned a lot about the industry and Fathom’s best practices. While a senior shadowing project is intended to focus on the students’ workplace experiences, I found myself benefiting from the program as well.

It’s refreshing to work with younger students who are interested in the digital marketing industry. I’ve been in the workforce for just under a year, and I realize how beneficial it is for these girls to learn about the ever-changing world of marketing and have a leg up when starting marketing classes in college. Plus, Natalie and Susie were able to experience our fun and driven attitude.

“One thing that Natalie and I couldn’t stop admiring was the friendly people around every corner. Caroline not only made us feel at home, but she helped us understand every task that she assigned to us. And most importantly, she made us laugh.”

*Quotations are from Fathom intern Susie Joseph.

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5 Ways to Share Financial Aid Information via Higher-Ed Social Media

By | June 26, 2014

According to an annual study conducted by UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, financial aid is a top concern among incoming freshman and their families. A few key results found by this survey include the following:

Financial Aid Options

  • 75.5% of students surveyed were accepted to their first-choice college but only 56.9% decided to enroll. Over 62% of the students who chose to
    attend elsewhere said that they were offered a better financial aid package by the school that was ultimately chosen.
  • 48.7% of students (surveyed in 2013) considered financial aid to be a “very important” factor in their college decision. This is up from 33.7% in 2004.
  • Many first-generation college students rely heavily on their high schools and/or higher education institutions to help guide them through the financial aid process.

It’s not surprising that financial aid plays a significant role in the overall college decision-making process; however, it is important to note that as the concern over college expenses increases, so does the potential for losing out on new enrollments.

While it is certainly not feasible for universities to financially support every student who is accepted, it is possible for schools to create and promote information that touches on major financial aid options, providing guidance for students trying to navigate the financial aid process. Below are five ways to share important financial aid information through a school’s social media channels:

1. FAFSA on film (or YouTube)

Each year, many incoming freshman begin their path to college by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). With funding on the line, this task is especially intimidating for students (and parents) who are new to the financial aid process. Don’t just explain this process in writing. Show students what to do. Consider putting an educational online video on YouTube that walks students through the process of filling out a FAFSA form so they gain a clear idea of what to do or can follow along and fill out their own form.

2. Scholarships, grants and loans, oh my!

When you were eighteen years old did you know the differences between a scholarship, a grant and a loan? Providing general information about each type of financial aid can help students determine which options are right for them. And once a basic understanding has been reached, make sure that a list of scholarships (both internal and external), grant opportunities and loans is available to look through. Putting this list on a school’s main site is a start, but creating a Facebook app can help colleges reach their audience faster. Additionally, colleges can bring upcoming application deadlines to attention by posting about them, including links that send students to an app or a page on-site where they can apply if interested.

3. A penny saved on Pinterest is a penny earned

Finding financial assistance doesn’t need to be all forms and no fun; show students the lighter side of cutting back on the cost of college with some money-saving tips on Pinterest. Colleges that already have a Pinterest page can consider adding one or more of the following boards to the mix:

  • DIY dorm room décor
  • Free events on campus
  • Inexpensive ways to have fun around town
  • Simple meals that taste great

This is also a great way to get a college’s social community involved. Schools can ask current students to share their most creative money saving tips and post them for incoming freshman to see.

4. Tweet if you like financial aid!

According to the Pew Research Internet Project Twitter use among adults is on the rise, especially for those in the 18-29 age group. Colleges can combine this social trend with the growing concerns about tuition costs by creating a specific Twitter handle dedicated to fielding questions and posting information about financial aid. If a stand-alone handle is not possible, the creation and promotion of a financial aid hashtag may be a way to compromise. Students will know how to tag their questions or concerns while tweeting, and popular topics can be curated and turned into content for the main site or a blog post.

5. Tales (or blog posts) from a work study student

Many new students who qualify for work study programs are unsure about securing a job and then keeping up with school work after finding one. Insights from students who have been through similar situations can help ease anxiety over this financial aid option. Colleges with established blogs can ask current students participating in a work study program to post about their experiences – offering tips to incoming freshman and potentially answering any questions left in the comment sections. Additionally, the following topics could be discussed on a school’s blog and linked to from previous work study posts:

  • How to write or update a resume
  • Job interview tips
  • Budgeting basics for college students

These are just a few ways that education social media can be used to inform new students about financial aid and begin to ease anxieties over college expenses. Which questions or concerns regarding financial aid are most prevalent among your higher-ed community of current and prospective students?


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Giving on the Green: A Charity Golf Outing for Education

By | June 19, 2014

At Fathom Education, we’re hosting our first Giving on the Green charity golf outing, to be held on Friday, August 22nd, 2014 at Mallard Creek Golf Club in Columbia Station, Ohio.


We’ve chosen Open Doors Academy and Mary’s Meals as this year’s golf outing beneficiaries. Open Doors Academy is located in Cleveland, Ohio and was started in 2002. It focuses on providing best-in-class out-of-school enrichment and leadership training for adolescents. Mary’s Meals, also founded in 2002, is an international meal program. It provides one meal every school day for impoverished school children across Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, and South America. Both programs provide underprivileged children with education that empowers our world’s youth.

Like Mary’s Meals and Open Doors Academy, we strive to connect students with a better educational experience. We’re here to support local and international organizations who share our goal – offering young people the educations they need to achieve success.

How you can help

  • Share this post with your friends and family through social network sites
  • Get a foursome together and golf with us on the August 22nd
  •  Donate a physical or monetary contribution with our Sponsorship Form

We hope to crush our goal of donating $5,000 to these inspiring organizations, and we need your help to do it. We would be honored to partner with you in support of education.

Contact Brittany Amato at to register or ask questions.


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The Case for Higher-Ed Non-Branded Site Optimization

By | June 17, 2014

On more than one occasion, I’ve been asked the value of optimizing a university’s site for non-branded search terms.  This area of concern is often accompanied by the argument, “Students have a short list of universities that they’re selecting from. If my university is one of them, they’ll search for a branded term to find me.”

While that may have been the case in past years, and even sometimes today, there is undeniably a larger pool of students taking advantage of the information available to them as search engines – and the results they return – evolve.

Students perform more sophisticated and more specific searches. We’re seeing some education industry trends that explicitly point to the need for non-branded, query-driven content.

Take a look at how branded search trends for a variety of colleges (Harvard University, Yale University, the University of Michigan, the University of Virginia, and UCLA) compare to the growth of a general non-branded, query-based search.

Branded Search Decline:

Query-Based Increase:

No longer satisfied with pamphlets and brochures distributed at college fair days in their senior year, students are looking to Google to answer their questions and help them identify the best options for their needs.

As these sorts of query-based searches increase, so does the opportunity for universities to reach new student prospects. Fill that informational gap by identifying your college’s best assets, differentiators, unique programs and scholarship options, and then creating a healthy mix of branded and non-branded content around them.


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