Malleable Musings

March 10, 2010

Flipping the HigherEd Funnel

Filed under: International Student Recruitment, Social Media — Brendan @ 11:29 pm

Early last week I listened to a podcast on which Joseph Jaffe talked about some of his thinking in his latest book and I was left thinking “yeah, I’m not really sure how new this is but he seems to make sense, I wonder how much of this applies in a Higher Education (HE) context”. Then later in the week I saw a series of tweets from Mark Greenfield who was attending a webinar run by Powered, Jaffe’s company. Mark seemed to be thinking in the same way to me.

Then later in the week, last Friday, I sat through an all-staff Marketing Division Briefing at the University I work with. It covered the internal changes in the University and anticipated changes in the operating environment. I think the key phrase was this will be a period of “cuts and austerity”.

Then there was a sort of mini-marketing lesson. It was fairly standard stuff. It included the difference between Marketing Communications and Marketing as a whole – a topic that I’d often rail about. The lesson was necessary as the Division is actually really large and includes staff from Admissions, Alumni Relations, MarComms, Student Recruitment, Press & PR and the International Office who may not have had a formal marketing training or background.

Most of the lesson centred on the importance of differentiation and brevity of messaging. There was quite a bit about the importance of being first.

e.g. Everyone knows who Yuri Gargarin is but the guy on the left was apparently the third man in space (I say apparently as I found out later it depends a bit on your definition of space). Unsurprisingly no-one knew his name?

What about the 49th UK Prime Minister? She might be better known as the first female UK Prime Minister, mightn’t she?

The point was then made that many university marketing straplines and positioning statements are similar to that used by the Flight of the Concords. Compare “Ranked 6th best for student employment performance for non-specialist higher education institutions in England”; “Fourth for the highest average graduate starting salaries”; “Ranked in the top 5 best modern universities”; with “Formerly New Zealand’s fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo.”

From that there was then a vague UK university branding map the Elite (Oxbridge) at one end and the New Universities at the other. This lead on to the New Elite positioning. etc, etc.

What surprised me was that another UK university was mentioned alongside Oxbridge as an elite university. I initially thought this was just a slip of the tongue. However, from a conversation over a coffee later in the day I started thinking that it might not be.

This was particularly interesting for me because when I started looking for a job closer to home in Spring/Summer’08 I’d had a couple of interviews at this university to head up Student Recruitment.

I obviously didn’t get the job, which at the time I was very upset about, but now I’m happy with as my current role is far more up my street.

However, as part of this interview process I had to present on their new corporate strategy which ran to 2015 (seven years in the future) and the implications of this strategy. I was presenting to a group of staff – who would have either been my peers, or working to me.   It was a fairly standard-ish presentation covering how the future was fairly unpredictable and to demonstrate this I looked back at what has happened in the previous seven years (top-up fees; the twin towers attacks and it’s impacts on the international education market; an explosion of Chinese students on the campus of the university; communication changes including the rise of the web, email and mobile phones; the effect of their recent rise up the league tables etc.) and what this meant as their recruitment funnels changed shape. I went on to explain some of the challenging targets in the strategy and how I felt we would need to future-proof ourselves….

After the presentation one of the questions that I was asked was something like, how do you think our exhibition booth should look to differentiate ourselves at UCAS recruitment fairs? The question was obviously being asked of everyone. I seem to remember giving a fairly glib response and then asking a question back, “How important are UCAS recruitment fairs going to be to this University in the future?”

So how does this story fit with Jaffe’s Flip the Funnel?

Well, Jaffe has written a business book based on the premise that “Customer retention is totally overlooked and is in fact the new acquisition.”

He explains it in this short video.

I don’t like using the word customers, I prefer students, but I’ll buy that Higher Education is a business, maybe a business in need of radical change, but still a business.   My view is that in the vast majority of the world the qualification and the educational/student experience are commodities that are purchased – although I realise that this may not sit comfortably for many educators. (e.g. I listened to George Siemens at TEDxNYED at the weekend say something like if education draws heavily from corporations, I don’t want any part of it.)

However, unlike many industries the Higher Education Business is usually a significant one-off purchase. This means that some of the Jaffe’s soundbites about returning customers don’t seem quite that applicable* e.g.

12% of all Coca-Cola customers account for 80% of Coca-Cola Classic sales

75% of Zappos‘ revenue comes from returning customers

* at least not in student recruitment, although I can see some of them fitting well with other roles in HE, like alumni relations/giving.

In HE students (our customers) don’t usually come back for seconds and there is selection process that works both ways.  We are often recruiting with an eye on the quality and diversity of the intake, or to meet specific targets imposed either by physical limits or a regulatory environment.

In contrast, most businesses aren’t fussy about who their customers are.   (Although, I’m sure it does happen on occasion, e.g. I watched an episode of the brilliant 1950’s set Mad Men TV show, and there was a storyline about a TV manufacturer called Admiral not wanting to advertise to “Negroes”.)

However, these differences shouldn’t lead the HE community to entirely dismiss the concepts and stories that Jaffe is promoting. For example, on the recruitment side it is easy for selecting universities to over-invest in awareness by not pushing their points of differentiation or by attending fairs and advertising in specific publications and partaking in other promotional activity simply because that’s what others are doing.  Whilst retention of the right prospects through the conversion funnel and converting these “right prospects” is often underplayed.

Detractors (e.g. United Breaks Guitars) and promoters are more important than ever before.  Changes in communications have allowed people to express their satisfaction, and more likely dissatisfaction, to large numbers of people far more easily and quickly than in the past.

Jaffe is definitely on to something when he says what’s needed is  content, conversation and commendation.  He says we need to give our promoters a megaphone.  A sentiment with which I couldn’t agree more.

He’s also quick to push the customer experience to counter detractors.  In a rough approximation of his words, Customer Service is the new Marketing/PR and it can be a revenue generator but it’s “not your grandfather’s customer service.” It’s alive and it certainly shouldn’t stop at 5pm on Friday.

To me this is Moments of Truth played in public, in real time, often over the web.  Yes we need to build fantastic customer service, which requires an ongoing commitment, but we need to back this up with as near to a real time 24/7 monitoring service as we can afford.  My view is that this should incorporate formal processes as well as we have a duty of care for all students not just those with the loudest voices.  This monitoring / feedback process then needs to be triaged.  Issues and problems need to acknowledged, evaluated and routed with serious issues escalated to appropriate decision makers so that responses can be made as quickly as possible.  (In HE not all decisions can be made quickly, especially if a committee is involved, as they often are.)

One of the tweets I saw from Mark asked “Where does “customer service” organizationally reside in #highered?”  Well, my guess is it has to be distributed.  OK, there may well be within my university a Student Experience Committee but it’s the entire staff (including academic, administrative, technical and any other type of staff member) that provide the service.  These people will be considered by the student to be the organisation.  They are the brand*.  And, like or not, that means that they market the institution whether they know it or not.

* People are the brand, this tweet came up during the webinar. I think it has important implications for how brands should use social media and the importance of meshing personal, professional and corporate messages.

Hard to have a relationship w/ a biz. People want to talk to people, not to the “brand”

In conclusion, I’m not sure how new or original Jaffe’s thoughts are.  Especially if your starting point is that marketing is about identifying, anticipating and satisfying customer requirements profitably.  The world is obviously changing.  Customers have a bigger voice than they ever have had in the past  and some of Jaffe’s stories and concepts help illustrate this well.  I’d love to read the book, but I’m realistic and know that unless it’s an audiobook I probably need to wait until I next take another holiday or a flight.

I’m sure there are other implications for HE that I’ve missed so I’d be interested in others’ thoughts.



  1. Interesting post Brendan. Are you talking about realtime response to student enquiries/ questions/ comments? I find it interesting that Alan and I often get comments on twitter about UoL ‘doing twitter really well’. I’m not sure how representative this is, and I really don’t think it is about our image in the eyes of students, but in the eyes of fellow academics/ elearning professionals. What is clear is that just a few of us practising what we preach online can have an influence that extends far beyond the sum of our parts. Are Alan and I the ‘brand’? We are indeed talking to people, but not students nor potential students (as far as I’m aware). We do try to be careful of the university’s reputation online, though I think this does include being honest about the negatives and problems we observe.

    Comment by jobadge — March 11, 2010 @ 11:55 am

  2. Shudder. Fact is, if you’re the most visible, you’re the brand. We are the brand. I do not want to be the UoL brand. I am not a number, I am a free man.

    Comment by AJ Cann — March 11, 2010 @ 1:59 pm

  3. @Jo I think response time depends on the mechanisms/channels used to solicit the enquiries / questions / comments (I’d incorporate real-time search as a potential mechanism). Realtime 24/7 support is what’s expected by many customers on some channels, e.g. Twitter. Do students expect this – sometimes they do, e.g. in face to face contact. Do they expect it in the online space possibly not yet – but in the future?

    Realtime acknowledgement probably is possible (I don’t think you can always do response) but it would be a huge leap and would cost. Although customer service does always cost.

    I think personal brand inevitably gets caught up with the institutional brand. I’d hope this is synergistic to some extent, but the institution definitely benefits from your personal brand, your influence and your honesty.

    @AJ I can’t get the image of a big white ball chasing you around The Village out of my head 😉

    Comment by Brendan — March 11, 2010 @ 9:19 pm

  4. Apparently, I’m not allowed to comment any more as a certain university which I won’t name is trying to censor my private blog because they don’t like open discussion. Brand going down the toilet fast…

    Comment by Censored Blogger — March 12, 2010 @ 5:19 am

  5. Hi Brendan – Great post.

    Couple of quick thoughts. I think the 80/ 20 rule demonstrated by coke and zappos does apply in general to HE when we talk about engagement. A small percentage of students get highly connected and involved. A small percentage are highly engaged.

    These folks are the source of 90% of the conversation. (Highly engaged people talk more.) When that conversation happens online (blogs, FB, twitter, etc.) it becomes both great content and a source of support – both as models of success and actual answers to “how do I x?” More support and engagement will lead to retention, growing the source.

    “Customer service” often leads to thinking about how companies can support customers – but that doesn’t scale (as you mention in your response to @jo above). It really doesn’t scale when austerity is the catch phrase of the day. What does scale is community support – student to student, peer to peer.

    For an example of this type of community support in action, check out or search twitter for #sachat. This is peer to peer support, which, because it is public, acts as its own marketing engine and provides incredible support, training, and development at very little cost.

    Comment by Kevin Prentiss — March 12, 2010 @ 3:27 pm

  6. A few thoughts:

    I’m in higher ed recruiting, and my focus is interactive. That said, the “traditional” funnel is alive and well. Schools can still enroll a significant part of their class with name purchases (via standardized tests and otherwise) as a starting point. That isn’t going away anytime soon. (Are name purchases in college recruiting as common in other countries as they are here in the States?)

    What prompts a student to fill out and send back the card is word of mouth or familiarity in some cases, but kids inquiring who know little or nothing about a school besides what the school sends has not gone away. At my institution we enroll kids like this every year. I myself attended a college with this as a starting scenario.

    For schools struggling with the ROI of search, consider this: how you carry out search might be broken, not search itself.

    I also view higher ed in many ways as a significant one-off purchase, although:
    1. Happy students can become happy, giving alumni. How many schools view the lifecycle as prospective student through giving alumni?
    2. The positive experience of those not enrolling still benefits the brand, word of mouth, awareness, etc., in a variety of ways, though it is tough to measure.

    The trend of students hopping in further down the funnel is also growing. So-called “stealth applicants” that apply without inquiring first. Why? Perhaps brand, perhaps an unanswered search mailing that drove them to conduct research on their own, perhaps other happy students they know, perhaps a Web search…

    **Hard to have a relationship w/ a biz. People want to talk to people, not to the “brand”**

    Perhaps, but quite often they want to talk to people affiliated with a brand. Would you like to chat with Iain Dodsworth? BTW, he founded Tweetdeck. Knowing that, now would you like to chat with him?

    And, let’s be honest: in terms of customer service, potential customers often don’t care who they are talking to, as long as they get their questions answered, etc.

    Customer service is a mindset, and a customer service mindset can itself be part of a brand 😉

    Flip the funnel *and* give solid attention to your traditional funnel. These are not mutually exclusive, of course.

    Good luck with the cuts and austerity. May it spur further innovation in your marketing.

    Comment by robinteractive — March 12, 2010 @ 5:14 pm

  7. […] Flipping the HigherEd Funnel (tags: recruitment admissions highered colleges universities customerservice) […]

    Pingback by links for 2010-03-12 « innovations in higher education — March 13, 2010 @ 3:02 am

  8. Kevin and Rob thanks for the excellent comments. As background, most of my experience is in marketing distance learning internationally for relatively big name universities rather than in traditional campus based recruitment.

    Rob, I had a couple of paras in my post about some of the issues you talk about. In fact many of the issues you highlighted are what intrigued me about @MarkGr’s tweet and inspired me to write the post.

    I actually think there may be several funnels that need to be considered. When I was writing my post I had several long paragraphs on this. Unfortunately, I found it hard to construct as concise and coherent an argument as you did so I cut them.

    Names and rankings definitely matter across the world. In the UK the major difference at the undergraduate level is that there aren’t yet the pricing differentials (and scholarships) that there are in the US.

    Rankings, whether you like them or not, are even more crucial in the international markets that UK universities rely so heavily upon. E.g. Several overseas governments and funding bodies will only push scholarships for postgraduate taught masters degree and research degree students at universities in the THES World Top 150 or similar rankings.

    In terms of the funnel, because of the sector I work in, I’ve got used to stealth applications making up 60-70% of total applications. This is due to the specific routes to market used in distance or trans-national education. I just treat these stealth applications within an alternative shorter funnel which exhibits a higher conversion rate at the remaining stages.

    You’ll obviously know the shapes of the standard funnels will vary by instituion and market (demographic, geographic and subject) and that you can consider them from the university or student perspective. Although I do think there is something a little more complicated going on, something which I’ve never managed to successfully explain or draw a diagram of.

    Kevin, I’ll pick up on 2 of the things you mentioned.
    1) the 80/20 or 90/10 rule. I think Jaffe was really taking about profits. Although you are spot on about similar ratios in communities. I’m a great believer in the principle. That said I think things that you talk about within your dancefloor metaphors can help change these ratios.
    2) On scaling and peer-to-peer support (again familiar ground for me from a distance education background) the key question for me is how to demonstrate the importance of the network to others and then how institutions should set themselves up to QA these networks. I’d love to hear your ideas on this.

    Comment by Brendan — March 13, 2010 @ 7:47 pm

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