Don't Scale Back Stakeholder Consultation For Institutional Initiatives: Here's Why.

Autumn is (ironically, perhaps) a season of beginnings when it comes to higher education. And it’s not just that classes have started; with a full staff and faculty contingent back in action, a renewed energy for administrative, strategic and marketing initiatives organically surge every fall.

That surge is perhaps more pronounced this year than most. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced campus shutdowns across North America last spring, classes weren’t the only programs that were impacted. A number of major initiatives were put on pause as well – and many seem to be reigniting this fall.

Following a quiet spring and summer, we’ve seen a significant uptick in strategic initiatives being (re)ignited at higher ed. institutions. All of this points to a cautious optimism: COVID-19 is no longer a temporary disruption, it’s a reality – and colleges and universities seem ready to regroup on previously-stalled projects within the constraints of that new reality.

Now’s not the time to scale back on alumni, student, faculty and community consultation.

In particular, we’re seeing many post-secondary marketers re-starting, or finally starting, delayed brand and positioning projects for their institutions. And those projects have always demanded a high degree of consultation with various audiences and communities within a given school’s ecosystem.

What we’ve noticed – in the scope of projects outlined in RFPs, and in our conversations with both prospects and new clients – is that many marketers have scaled back their plans for broad stakeholder consultation with audiences like alumni, students, faculty and the external community. The driving reason, not surprisingly, is the challenge of not being able to meet and gather in-person. And while this is an understandable instinct, it’s also a landmine.

5 research methods to consider when planning stakeholder engagement

Download our consultation research planning guide to find out what methods work best for bringing students and alumni into the branding process.

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Our motto for higher ed. consultation has always been, and still remains – when in doubt, over-consult. You cannot possibly ask for too much input into, or provide too many opportunities to contribute to institution-wide marketing initiatives like a brand update or a rebrand.

On the flipside (and as we’ve discussed before), failing to provide your stakeholders with a meaningful way to input into those initiatives is the most effective way to derail the project. It takes marginally longer to bring more people into the conversation, but the time involved is far less than it takes to retroactively get stakeholders to buy into an initiative they didn’t have a chance to contribute to.

Failing to provide stakeholders with a meaningful way to contribute to institution-wide initiatives is the most effective way to derail them.

A disturbing trend is emerging in how higher ed. stakeholder consultation is currently being approached.

One of the unintended consequences of the pandemic has been the widespread uptake of videoconferencing software. In the last six months, there’s been a steep adoption curve for remote meetings, group work, and webinars. Out of necessity, peoples’ proficiency and comfort levels on these platforms has dramatically increased. And that’s something marketers can take advantage of as they get their institutional projects back on track.

At ED. Marketing, we tend to break our consultation intercept methodology into three broad categories (which we most often use in combination):

  • Online surveys, which provide a wide audience an opportunity to feed back on some (relatively) closed-ended questions.
  • One-on-one interviews, which invite key stakeholders to provide their perspectives, and allow for a more probative discussion.
  • Small and large group discussions/workshops/forums, which lend themselves to collaboration and the building of ideas among participants.

In the projects that we’ve seen restarting of late, we’re seeing higher ed. marketers placing much more emphasis on the first two, and reducing their reliance on the third.

And for us, that’s troubling. Not only do we feel that some combination of the three methods is optimal – they are also achievable, even in a distance/remote scenario.

As mentioned, the strength of surveys is their wide reach. But by their nature, surveys are limiting in what you can ask audiences. You’ll inevitably have their attention for a finite amount of time, and you’ll need to ask pointed questions that they can respond to with minimal clarification. You also have to make the data collection manageable so that you’re not drowning in open-ended and unguided responses once the survey’s complete.

On the other hand, individual interviews provide far more opportunities to get into the weeds. Their limitation is the perspective: you’re only getting one voice at a time. While this is essential for some key participants (and may be unavoidable – we haven’t even touched on the complexity of scheduling calendars), it’s also relatively time inefficient.

Guided cross-talk can improve market research findings in higher education.

In our experience, group discussions are one of the most valuable platforms to reveal insights about a college or university – and the secret is in the cross talk. As part of our methodology, ED’s moderators encourage participants in these sessions to amplify and disagree – that is:

  • If you agree with an idea another participant has shared, say it out loud and in your own words. You might feel the point’s already been made, but your perspective or phrasing of the same point could yield insights that are hugely valuable to the process.
  • If you don’t agree with an idea another participant has shared, respectfully state why. Consensus isn’t the goal in these discussions – understanding is. And exposing any points of friction that exist can lead to ideas that can be further explored.

In surveys and one-on-one interviews, you don’t have these opportunities for inflection. There’s no opportunity for participants to feed off of others’ ideas, and a lot can be lost when that opportunity’s not included in your consultation process.

Broad and meaningful stakeholder consultation is still possible – it’s just different.

It’s in the best interest of your projects to take advantage of the comfort that you, your students, your alumni, your peers and colleagues have with videoconferencing technology.

Yes, turn-taking is a little more difficult to manage online than it is with in-person consultation; and there are more distractions in participants’ home offices than there would be in a controlled, in-person environment. But if you invite the right people, and hire a firm experienced in making these consultation opportunities engaging for them, you’ll find people embrace the decorum, and are genuinely interested in contributing in meaningful and respectful ways.

Most importantly, everyone benefits from these intercepts. Your college and university community gain perspectives from other stakeholders that they wouldn’t otherwise receive. Your marketing team hears discussions that you simply can’t replicate by using single sources. And your report back to the community shows a clear and considered effort to not only bring the right people to the table – but to the same table, where their exchange of ideas leads to a higher level of knowledge and understanding for us all. Which, is kind of the point of working in and going to a college or university in the first place.

If you’re among the many schools ready to get your institutional initiative back on the books, we’d love to help you plan how you’re going to bring your community into that fold. Feel free to reach out to us to discuss more.

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