Disconnects, On and Off Campus (Jim Karrh On Marketing)

Have colleges and universities officially lost it?

By “it” I mean the consistency among their stated values, the paid-for messages they send to various stakeholders and the messages that are shared more informally.

In an article reprinted in a recent Sunday edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Melinda Henneberger of The Washington Post wrote about the experience of taking her 18-year-old daughter on college visits. The things that student tour guides, staff members and others at some of America’s most prestigious and expensive universities said in front of them were often cringe-worthy.

She described the “most cautionary” experience among their tours as coming from a table at the Prairie Canary restaurant in Grinnell, Iowa. A group of professors from Grinnell College was “loudly making fun of their students.” That’s not exactly what a student or parent wants to hear, particularly when the tuition alone is more than $45,000 per year. I wonder whether professors are involved to any degree in the recruitment process or whether the college’s leadership has provided outreach and feedback to its faculty.

Henneberger also related some amazing (and distressing) comments from campus tour guides — students at these elite schools — that “instantly clarified my daughter’s decision in ways that the admissions departments probably didn’t intend.” At Bennington College in Vermont, when the campus seemed relatively deserted at 11 a.m. on a weekday, the guide suggested that most students were still sleeping. She also showed the community condom cabinet in one of the dorms. At Santa Clara University, a Jesuit school, the guide gushed about the availability of room service in the dorms. At the University of California at San Diego, the female student guide talked about her dating life and asked several of the male high school students whether they “grind on the dance floor.”

Wow. I wonder how those student tour guides are selected, trained in what to say and socialized into the importance of their role.

Other fine institutions have lost it with their alumni. A professional acquaintance and Rutgers alumnus, who is both prominent and well-heeled, recently said, “I was once proud of claiming Rutgers as my alma mater.” He was hurt by the recent flap over a speaking invitation extended to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the student protests that prompted Rice to withdraw. He noted that, during his days on campus, there were strident debates between military recruiters and Vietnam War protestors, “but debates they were, with both sides being heard.”

Then there are instances of planned, paid-for communications that still repel sizable numbers of alumni. In 2010 Drake University unveiled a recruitment campaign with the unfortunate theme of “D+.” It was intended to show the great things that happen when Drake plus a student work together. Of course, the rest of us see D+ connected with a university and infer low academic standards. Faculty, staff members and alumni were not amused. Drake failed to involve them in designing or testing the campaign, instead relying upon an online survey of 921 high school students.

I’m picking on a few prominent colleges and universities here, mostly because they have made it easy. Certainly, many other schools are much more consistent in connecting what they say and do to their stated values.

Otherwise excellent organizations can unintentionally make costly mistakes in the messages they send. The lessons carry to all types of organizations that need to bring consistency and relevance to their many different customer conversations:

  • Identify the most important conversations (such as recruiting visits, service calls, questions to the call center or product demonstrations).
  • Consider the messengers — and whether they are adequately informed, engaged and motivated.
  • Don’t assume that everyone with customer contact buys in to your organization’s stated values and understands how what they do adds to (or hinders) overall success.

It might even be a good idea for some college presidents to take an occasional “mystery shopper” campus tour.

Jim Karrh of Little Rock is a marketing consultant, trainer and speaker. See JimKarrh.com, email him at Jim@JimKarrh.com and follow him on Twitter @JimKarrh.