Qualitative Insights Reveal Impactful Messages for University

Published On: February 21, 2023By

KNow has developed a multi-phase approach to uncover insights to inform help colleges and universities stand out in a sea of similar marketing messaging. The approach relies on curious administrators, collaborative partners, and powerful qualitative insights bringing to light key campaign messages that resonate across target audiences.

The power – and necessity – of thorough insights approaches came into focus this year as my oldest son joined the millions of other high school seniors on the journey of researching and applying for colleges.

Make sure team members arrive at the Hack Day with the gears already turning. Once the team has aligned on a problem to “hack,” assign a pre-work assignment and start your Hack Day with a share-out of everyone’s contributions. At our Hack Day, for example, we asked team members to bring in examples of their favorite podcasts and be ready to talk about what they like about them.

As soon as he registered for the SAT and ACT tests, the postcards, brochures, and emails from colleges began pouring in. With an interest in biological sciences and a plan to continue with graduate school, he could go to almost any college to obtain a bachelor’s degree. His grades and scores were strong enough that he had a lot of options. Choosing a school was a question of geographic region, size of the school and the overall vibe, as the kids say.

He already had his heart set on a very specific school, but being the worrying mom I am, I insisted he consider 2 or 3 back up schools just in case the worst-case scenario happened, and he didn’t get into his first choice.

As the postcards came in, we noticed that very few colleges stood out. The mailings were an endless sea of photos of strategically diverse sets of students walking together, studying on a grassy lawn, or throwing graduation caps. Some highlighted a specialty program, high-tech learning labs or new facilities on campus, but none captured my son’s excitement.

Of course, the researcher in me thought: these schools need to conduct some insights work to create more targeted messaging! At KNow, we had recently completed multi-phase projects with state universities as they developed marketing campaigns, so the topic was fresh in my mind.

One of our clients came to us with ideas from the administration including a potential slogan and a few key programs to focus on. This strategy would have been an easy way to design a campaign and seems to be a common approach based on the materials my son received. But, before building a message based on what they assumed would be important to prospective students, we recommended a three-phase approach of gathering insights to build a stronger campaign. 

Phase 1: Uncover Current Perceptions

First, we uncovered current perceptions of the school held by parents, college counselors and new students. Working with a quantitative research partner, we conducted a survey to get a first read on the reputation of the school. As we often do at KNow, starting with quantitative research allows us to get a big picture assessment then, we dig into the results and determine where we need to go deeper in qualitative interviews.

Phase 2: Soak in Participant Experiences 

Second, we sought to understand the actual experience of being a student for current and recent students as well as understanding the school’s reputation among stakeholders. This is where the work really provided the richest insights. Learning from students at various stages of their education revealed the true student experience and we uncovered a strong unique selling point that the university could claim as their own.

From there, we conducted an Insights Workshop and handed over the work to our branding agency partners to work their creative magic. They returned with messages and mocked up designs for our final tests.

Phase 3: Test the Messages

In the final stage, we presented the message concepts to prospective students, current students and current staff. These interviews confirmed the campaign was unique and impactful; a memorable attention-getting concept.

This multi-phase approach uncovered insights that were the building blocks of a campaign that students and alumni could get behind. The school’s campaign stands out in a sea of generic messaging and would not have been as strong without the power of qualitative insights work.

I’m happy to write that my son did get into his first choice school! Now my mom worries will be saved for when he “forgets” to respond to my texts in the fall.

Want more information an especially impactful higher education campaign?  Check it out here: https://campusmemo.sfsu.edu/august-15-2022