10 key takeaways from #AMAHigherEd

AMA Higher Ed

More than 1,000 higher ed professionals attended last week’s 2019 AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education in Las Vegas. It was my first AMA event and I did a lot of tweeting and thinking about all things related to higher ed and marketing. Presented, in no particular order, here are my 10 key takeaways from #AMAHigherEd:

1) Marketing ’employability’ without ‘criticality’ isn’t going to win the day

There was an engaging opening keynote at the event. The focus was largely on the fact that higher ed needs to reorient itself towards the outcomes that corporations deem most worthwhile. It’s a premise that is likely quite appealing to many within higher ed, but to me, it felt quite hollow. The mission of higher education goes far beyond catering to the ’employability first’ crowd. This is probably why this tweet resonated with a lot of people who were at the conference as well as for those who were listening by way of the conference hashtag.

2) Repeat after me: Retention is everyone’s job

Maybe it’s because I come from a student affairs background, but the concept that retention is everyone at an institutions ‘job’ has always been firmly entrenched for me. Students don’t see all of the silos that make up a school…they just see the overall institution – good, bad, amazing, etc. Retention is part of the fabric of higher education. From the recruitment process and even throughout the alumni experience, every single person at an institution is part of the mix when it comes to retention.

3) Digital natives…still not a thing

It’s really easy to think that digital natives/immigrants actually exist. There’s a mountain of marketing copy within higher ed that speaks to this phenomenon. However, the originator of the terms has debunked his own work. He countered his own thinking several years ago, but the digital native is a pervasive myth that always seems to find its way into conversations about college students. Just remember, fluency with all things digital is a spectrum of experience, skill, and access. Age does not equal anything to do with technological proficiency.

4) Always strive for authenticity

Marketing, as a profession, is always under scrutiny for accuracy. In higher ed, students are paying a lot of money for a college experience that accurately matches up with the stories that they were told during the recruitment process. A well-rounded, joined up student experience matters…and that’s what you market to prospective students.

5) On-campus students and digital expectations

The E-Expectations Trend Report from RNL is legendary. Each year, the data provides insights into what students are doing when it comes to communication and engagement. One change that I hope happens sooner than later is the inclusion of online learner expectations within the report. Excluding them because they’ve never been included in the past is problematic. Higher ed marketers do a lot of work to connect with online students and knowing more about their digital expectations would be a powerful addition to the report.

6) Online learners are students too

I think it’s really easy to fall into the rhetorical trope that is the differentiation of online learners from ‘traditional students.’ However, there really isn’t such a thing as a traditional student. Most students nowadays are online learners in some capacity.

7) It’s a mobile world

I’m typing this blog post up on a 27 inch monitor. I’ve always like working on a large display. But, for most people, accessing the web is done via a mobile experience. If your marketing materials aren’t mobile-friendly, it’s time to have a rethink about your efforts. Students are doing everything on their mobile devices – filling out admissions forms, conversing with a chatbot, completing scholarship applications, viewing their academic information, participating in discussions via learning management systems, and making micro-donations on alumni donation forms – all of those systems have to be fully functional within a mobile environment.

8) Accessibility is good for everyone

I’ve been saying this for several years. If you caption your videos, not only are you making them more accessible for students with auditory impairments, you’re also making it easier for students whose first language isn’t English to comprehend what’s being said.

9) The liberal arts are invaluable

Whenever a keynote speaker says that higher ed needs to stop using ‘liberal arts’ when sharing academic programs with prospective students, I get really uncomfortable. Students might not have any idea what the ‘liberal arts’ are, but that doesn’t mean that schools should stop teaching the meaning, value, and mission of institutions and/or programs whose raison d’être is predicated entirely on the liberal arts. Plus, I question the agenda of anyone who works for a for-profit, corporate-focused entity who is lecturing higher ed on their future directions. Never attend a conference without your critical thinking cap on.

10) The person sitting next to you was a professor

I had a number of quick chats with academics at the AMA Higher Ed symposium and they all commented on this particular topic. During the event, a theme emerged that wasn’t exactly collegial. Each day at the symposium, there were several ‘throwaway’ comments that made fun of faculty and/or portrayed them as being ‘difficult.’ If you’re at an institution, you’re on the same team as the admin, the faculty, and everyone else within the organization. You want a truly holistic student experience? It starts with the team. Marketing an institution is so much easier if everyone is working together.

Thanks AMA!

AMA Higher Ed was a fantastic event. All of the reps from the association were super helpful and I’d definitely recommend this event for next year as a must-attend experience for anyone who works in higher ed marketing and communications.


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