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Are you listening now? How to act on your research transcript

Kathy Cain: Hello, everyone, and welcome to today’s webinar, “Are you listening now? How to act on your research,” hosted by Zehno.

I’m Kathy Cain, Zehno’s president and creative director. Today’s webinar is focused on showing you how to put your research to use so that you can drive strategic decisions and reach your goals.

Before we get started, I’d like to go over a few items so you know how to participate in today’s event. At any time during the webinar, you’ll have the opportunity to submit your questions. To do so, just type your question in the Q&A at the bottom of the control panel. As time allows, we will address as many questions as we can at the end of the presentation. If you have any technical issues, please let us know by typing your issue into the Q&A as well. We’ll be recording this webinar and we’ll share the link after the event. Once you leave today’s webinar, you’ll receive a survey on the presentation, and we would appreciate it if you could complete that and provide your feedback.

Today, we’ll cover why research matters then we’ll show you how we took that research and acted on it with two school case studies and lastly, we’ll give you some ideas on what you might be able to do with research now when it’s more important than it was ever to know what matters most to your audiences. And then we’ll answer any questions that you might have.

Why research matters

Other than those annoying phone calls that surveys always hit you with the worst times, research can actually be your friend. Those different kinds of research include things like major research. This is the big research project that someone takes a year or so or more to do and tends to be for things that affect your institution’s growth. It can be about reputation, it can be about what the market wants, and it can be very useful for new leadership in developing a new strategic plan. This research can determine the direction of an institution and while it’s very valuable, it’s a big expense and it’s why some schools never do it.

There are other kinds of research that can be very affordable. Things like surveys give you quantitative information which is great for an admissions or development campaign or just the overall brand. You can find answers to things like: What are students looking for? What do readers want from your magazine? What will make middle level donors give more or give more often? And even better, what would move a mid level donor to a major gift donor?

Other types of research are focus groups. This is qualitative information that can give you a good understanding of the feelings and motivations behind what people may not feel comfortable with putting in. And sometimes, people feed off of each other in focus groups.

Another type of research includes interviews. This can be one-on-one, and this is where you can get some very professional information and makes for great storytelling.

Shane Shanks: I am Shane Shanks. I’m the senior strategist and editorial director at Zehno. I want to walk us through some of the reasons that research actually matters.

The first thing is that research is a great chance for you to be able to listen to people. It helps you answer those important questions you have, things like:

• What do students value most about our institution?

• What are parents looking for?

• How are we different from the other school choices?

• Are alumni still as happy with our school as they were the day that they graduated?

Those kinds of questions.

But in 2020, many schools have another set of questions that they need answers to like:

• Are prospective students as committed to us as they were before COVID hit?

• What about their parents, what are they thinking?

• And how will America’s political and social upheaval change what people expect from our institutions?

• Or how do we navigate a name change that’s driven by our institution’s controversial history?

Kathy: Research also helps you prioritize what audiences care about. So many schools are stuck trying to be all things to all people. But research helps you shape your messaging. If audiences don’t actually care about a certain topic, you don’t need to spend a lot of time promoting it. Research also focuses you to do some self-reflection: What is important for us to highlight and does it match what our audiences actually want? It is essential as you build out your brand platform.

Shane: Research is also your chance to work smarter. It can drive, as Kathy mentioned, these big institutional decisions about whether you might open another campus or drop an academic program so you can build up another. But research also helps drive those smaller marketing decisions that you’re probably involved in making every day.

Research can help you answer questions like:

• Which tools are actually giving us more bang for the buck?

• Are we spending our time on the right kinds of projects?

• Are we delivering the right type of content to the right audiences?

• Are we moving in the right direction instead of the wrong direction?

• Or, this one is always important: Do we need more resources, budget, and staff?

Research can help you find the answers.

Research is also your chance to benchmark. It lets you see if you are moving the needle over time. When you repeat your research, that helps you determine if what people think about you is changing and if your work is actually paying off. Benchmarking research helps you to stay on top of change including broader change, so it can help you to document how your school is changing or maybe how your audience is changing, and even how the world is changing around you.

What you can do with your research

Kathy: Here’s the big question once you’ve done the research. What are you going to do with it?

Research needs to do more than just gather dust. Don’t just let it sit on the shelf as the report that everyone skimmed, but nobody acted on. We see that happen.

For today, we’re not going to focus on standard deviations and scientific validity. We’re going to concentrate on the moment when you take your trusted research and translate it into a new brand, admissions campaign or a development project.

Case study: John Tyler Community College

Our first case study is John Tyler Community College. This is a school right outside of Richmond, Virginia, that opened in 1967, and it sits in a pretty competitive market of 26 other schools. They brought us in to help with driving up recruitment and help with retention with 14,000 students at two locations.

Like many state community colleges who don’t get as much funding from the state, they had a new strategic plan and were ready to launch a new campaign. Having a new student engagement team with a real focus on recruitment also created an increased demand for recruitment tools.

They were also coming up to their 50th anniversary and figured it was a good opportunity to transition to a new brand and build excitement. In addition, a new development campaign feasibility study led to the launch of a major gift campaign which also needed strong communications and messaging.

You can see from existing research their desire to focus on recruitment. From that research, they were on a pretty steep enrollment decline at about 10%. We really needed to focus our energy around understanding how to communicate with each prospective student group and that included those traditional prospective students as well as older students or working adults.

When we asked what are the most important outcomes from a college education, high school students and working adults picked the same five out of six outcomes, being prepared for a long-term career success, becoming an educated well-rounded person, and hands on real world learning experiences were the top three by both audiences.

We also asked: How important are each of the following factors in choosing a college? We offered 26 different options. Represented here is how many said the factor was very important. Eight of the 10 are the same for high school students and working adults, and five of those are almost identical in importance.

I think this surprised a lot of people at John Tyler.

What we learned

Shane: We reviewed the existing research. We added some online surveys and some focus groups that targeted specific audiences, and that was a way to fill in some of the information gaps in the research.

This is what we learned that was surprising: It was that the sub audiences, as Kathy mentioned, were actually more similar than anyone realized. This was important because this meant that you no longer had to always treat traditional students and adult students as totally separate groups. You didn’t have to earmark half of your budget for the adults and half of it for the high school seniors. Instead, we could focus in on the highest shared value between these groups, not the lowest common denominator.

We used focus groups. We did some interviews to get a clearer idea of who the Tyler students were as people, and this is what we found: They always wanted to define their own success. We heard that from both the adults and the high schoolers. They agreed that what they wanted was these personal outcomes, as Kathy mentioned, prepared for a long-term career, being this well-rounded person, and having real world learning experiences.

But they also wanted to have a sense of direction. They didn’t want to feel as if they were left hanging. We needed to be very clear in the messaging to say that some programs that Tyler will take you directly into a career and you can get there in less than two years.

But then you can also be planning your transfer from the very start. And they have advisors at Tyler preparing you, keeping you on the track. They’ve got guaranteed transfer agreements with other top schools in the area, so there wouldn’t really be any surprises, and the other schools also send reps once you’ve identified that you want to transfer to them to work with you one-on-one.

As we told the stories of Tyler’s people and of their programs, we wanted to make sure that those ideas were coming across. That’s what we learned.

But then the big question is always: What will we do with all the research? How will we put it to use?

What we did with the research

We use the research findings to drive the brand positioning strategy. That is understanding how we stack up against other schools in the marketplace.

The research also drives the brand platform. That’s the key messages we want each audience to hear.

And then it’s also reflected in our creative concept. The concept is the big idea for the brand, and we were using Tyler’s best stories and their best visuals to make that concept stand out.

Here’s the creative concept: Next Up.

Tyler stands for this kind of momentum. It’s about getting you where you want to go. We’re acknowledging that the next path you choose is a very personal one. It might be straight into a hot career, might be heading off to a four-year institution, and we knew this was true from the research that it was true for traditional age students and also for adults.

Next Up applies this momentum also to the institution itself because it was adding new programs based on what the market was needing, and they were forming new business partnerships with companies like Rolls Royce that were helping to drive the local economy.

Throughout the brand, this idea of Next Up is a lens that we use to show off Tyler’s success stories. Next Up might be a hot career in cybersecurity, or maybe it’s graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University, or maybe it’s an innovative partnership with industry.

We did a multi-day photoshoot, and we created a bank of success stories to really drive the Next Up campaign. The first Next Up piece that we produced was a view book, and the cover is shown here. And then inside, it leads with your options. We’re keeping the focus on the momentum that’s for you. We’re saying, “You can start here at Tyler to get your four-year degree,” then there are some quick bullets that tell you how that works and how it’s easy and seamless. “Or you can go straight into your career,” and we’ve got some bullets again that tell you how that happens. And then you can see we’re starting to introduce these flagship student success stories that really drive home the idea of Tyler.

Here’s a former hairstylist who went back to school to become an industrial welder. Maybe that’s not a career path that you think of that often. And then you can see the Next Up headline treatment so that you can really clearly see where she’s headed next. And then there’s the former auto mechanic who came to Tyler and then he transferred to Virginia Tech. Now, he does global IT consulting for KPMG. That’s a high flying job.

I should mention that in this campaign for the brand, we’re mixing the photo style. We sometimes are showing people in their natural environments like the welder in her shop, but other times we’re shooting them portrait style, as if they’re being featured in Fast Company or something like that.

There’s also the former IT worker who became a nurse and now she’s the supervisor. And the draftsman who went straight into his career with his Tyler degree in just under two years.

Now, as you remember, enrollment is the driving force behind this rebranding. There was a new admissions microsite that gave prospective students easy access to things like tours. There’s an online career coach. And then all these branding elements were also added to the main college website.

As you scroll down this page, you see this flagship success stories. You can click through them to read the longer version of the story, and this approach lets you find a person who can inspire you because maybe they come from a similar background or they’re heading to a similar place. It gives that idea of momentum and direction very strongly.

Before the rebranding, the development operation was always treated as the sub brand of Tyler, slightly out of sync with the rest of the school, and that’s just following a pattern that a lot of schools use where you’re talking to a development audience, you dial back the color, you lower the excitement, that sort of thing.

We were thrilled that development at Tyler is now part of this main school brand. The school that donors see is actually the same institution that everyone else has seen, and they even decided to go all in on the campaign name. There’s no vision of excellence. There’s no bridge to the future. None of those old clichés. This one is just called Next Up the campaign for Tyler.

I’m pretty sure that no other school has a case statement with covers that are quite as badass as Tyler’s. We’re proud about that.

Now, with the new brand that’s based on research and not just on people’s hunches, the internal team built out this full set of communications tools, the emails, the ads, the brochures, the social posts, on and on. Look at what they’re doing here with the campus environment, it’s really helping to promote the brand internally.

All of those Next Up profiles each became posters that are sprinkled through the hallways at the school. They’ve got banners across all the campuses. They also did really cool sets of T-shirts, and when we were doing the photo shoot, people who weren’t booked for the photoshoot were always coming up and asking, “What do I have to do to get one of those cool shirts?” That was a good sign.

And then my favorite thing is this next one. It’s a set of elevator decals. This definitely shows the idea of momentum. It’s near perfect brand alignment. Somebody asked me once, “Will the elevators only go in one direction?” I think the answer is they still go down, but we’re not going to advertise the fact. It’s always Next Up with these elevators.


Kathy: What are the results?

This summer, they were one of the only community colleges in the state with growing enrollments, and I was there two weeks ago to do a photo shoot.

And of course, for students going into the machine shop, the state is not allowing there to be the number of students that have applied for some of these programs due to COVID. We’ll be very curious to see those numbers once the state requirements are lifted and they can have more students on campus again — and see how this campaign continues to grow for them.

And then fundraising. Right now, it’s a little tricky to do this in 2020, but they did exceed their development campaign goal. And they just finished that up, and it was on schedule.

Case study: Ursuline Academy of New Orleans

Our next case study is Ursuline Academy, and they are right here in New Orleans.

Here’s what it looks like. This school has a serious Harry Potter style and is actually getting ready to celebrate its 300th year. But Ursuline Academy didn’t want to be known for being old. That’s sort of what they were hanging their hats on.

They were founded in 1727, and it is the nation’s oldest Catholic school for girls. To put things in a little bit of perspective, Ursuline Academy is 49 years older than America. That’s pretty old.

With a little over 600 students, grades 2-years-old through 12th grade, tuition is a little over $12,000. In this Catholic school market, it’s a mid-priced market.

While Ursuline produces National Merits every year, they often have the academic reputation of being in the middle of the pack.

What we learned

These are some things that we heard in focus groups with school administration and faculty, and these became some of the drivers for the Ursuline branding work:

• “Nobody knows us in our market.” Or they might know who they were in the 1880s or even Ursuline maybe in the 1980s.

• The parents love the school, but they couldn’t really put their finger on why. We were getting a lot of different answers.

• This is also a very humble culture. It’s founded by the Catholic sisters who really weren’t in it for publicity. They needed to know how to talk about themselves without being too braggy, and that’s a huge culture shift for a religious congregation and a school that had not been used to doing this.

Of course, because they needed more students to enroll, there were some challenges ahead. So we did what we do. We did some secret shopping, and we analyzed how competitors position themselves. This may look familiar. We found that everyone talked about the same topics. Everybody was saying:

• “We’re Catholic.”

• “We’re all girls.”

• “We have a holistic approach.”

• “We’re all about service.”

• “We have this academic rigor.”

• “We produce leaders.”

• “We have STEM.”

• “We have the arts.”

Even though the research shows this, how do you stand out? You have to define within each of these topic categories, what you are doing differently than all of the other schools, and how you are doing it better.

In focus groups with parents, we heard these things:

• “Ursuline’s history is unique.”

• “It’s in a class of its own.”

• “We’re the oldest in the United States.” But we have to make this matter now.

• The way that their great arts were represented, needed to be updated, and we found STEM plus arts as equals were what really made them stand out in this market from their competitors.

The focus groups showed that many prospective parents like the school’s values of social justice, but they ranked that ahead of being just Catholic. This gave us a different way of talking about what parents really valued.

From the surveys, we asked parents: What do you see as the academy’s strengths or benefits aside from aspects of Ursuline’s mission and core values? What was interesting in this research was not what scored number one because a lot of competitors were also doing that small caring environment.

I can’t tell you how many times I hear, “We’re wonderful because everybody knows our name.” That is so generic for so many schools.

But it was academic reputation, that little thing at the end that was sitting on the low score 18% that showed a misperception that we needed to communicate better.

If you remember, I talked about how Ursuline had National Merit Scholars, and they were not talking about this. This is an indication of sometimes when you get your research looking at the things that also scored low if they’re not true, this is about really elevating misperceptions in the marketplace as well and doing something with the things that score low as well as the things that score high.

Do you have the right stuff to be able to elevate your academic quality? This is what we asked, and yes, they did. They have technology. They have and just put in a few weeks ago a new smart lab makerspace that is academywide. It’s the only one in the market. They were looking at doing this a year ago, and it has come to fruition.

The STEM and the arts, academywide from 2-years-old through 12th grade, were integrated in all teaching. STEM and arts equally, not just STEM and not just arts.

They have a program called Project Lead the Way, which is the first in the state. They learn chemistry by analyzing a crime scene. It’s very much project-based learning there, which was also a big differentiator.

And then pioneering mindsets and a legacy of firsts — Shane will talk a little bit more about that when we get to the creative.

These were things that we noted that we started to see when we looked back at the research being able to find those things that they are doing differently than their competitors.

We ran some online surveys, and we conducted focus groups for different target audiences and then, the challenge is always what do we learn and how can we act upon it?

What we did with the research

Shane: Ursuline has this legacy. Kathy gave you some information. But it’s not just the oldest Catholic girls school in the nation. This was the first school to teach African American girls and Native American girls. Ursuline produced the nation’s first female pharmacist and the first female professional photographer. They have the inventor of the first underwater goggles. The list goes on and on with all these firsts. But the challenge is how to make their legacy seem like it matters for today. That’s one thing we needed to address.

The other one was we needed to really address this academic reputation, as Kathy mentioned. The research told us that we were underperforming in terms of what people thought about us. We wanted to pull back the curtain so that parents and the general public could understand how Ursuline girls learn.

As with Tyler, we didn’t let the research just sit on the shelf. We’re using it to drive:

• the brand positioning — how we stack up in the market

• the platform — those key messages and

• the creative concept — that’s the big idea, and the stories and visuals that tell the point.

Here is our concept. It was called Blaze Brighter, and it’s celebrating the pioneering spirit of this school. It’s building on that legacy of firsts, and the idea is we want to inspire every girl to blaze her own trail.

Now, this photograph actually gives a slight nod to the 12 Ursuline sisters who traveled for five or six months by boat from France to New Orleans to found the school originally. It’s also celebrating this next generation of trailblazers, girls with a can-do spirit. When you look at it, I want to tell you, these girls are not just cute, but they actually helped to paint and build the boat for the photoshoot.

Now in the piece that we called the rally cry book, we’re distilling the key messages down to just a few short phrases and a few proof points. Blaze Brighter is one of those phrases. The copy says, “We create bold pioneers. Ursuline girls are ready to blaze new trails.” And then at the bottom are some proof points — those firsts — the first goggle invention, the first female pharmacist and so on.

And then our concept, suggested by the research, also came across in the new brand video and that was created to capture the spirit of these girls, also gives a nod to the messages about STEM and the arts, and about project-based learning and both of those are key to changing the academic reputation.

(Ursuline’s Blaze Brighter video plays.)

Shane: If you experience any bandwidth issues with that, we know everybody’s having them these days, we’ll give you the address at the end so that you can watch it on your own.

We knew we were on the right track because when we showed this for the first time, the teachers started crying, and it was the good kind of crying.

For this project, we shot video and still photography at the same time, and that requires a lot more planning, but it gives Ursuline greater depth to the storytelling. We brought our rally cries, those key messages into the photography itself so that they’re really woven into the visual style. You can see “Raise her up” in this photo.

First out of the gate was a series of ads for the city wide open houses. Now, a typical ad in New Orleans would say something like, “Come to open house,” right? But our ads do something different. They tell you what your daughter will get out of this school. In New Orleans, a girl can choose only one school to apply to and so that’s even more reason that you want to set your school apart and to find the girls who will be the right match for your institution. We tightened up our message to just three words. It’s STEM plus arts plus courage.

Another aspect of our research was that we did very quick interviews with a little more than a hundred girls. These are from pre-K through 12th grade and in this big casting call that we were using to help us figure out who we should photo and which stories to tell. We were looking for the students who really showed that Ursuline spirit.

On the left, Maggie is a future chemist who designed a prosthetic leg in class. That’s trailblazing spirit, moving forward, inventing.

And then Macy on the right, she wants to be a veterinarian and she wants to open a hair salon. That’s an example of STEM and the arts being treated as equals.

We use dramatic photography throughout this campaign and in this brand to elevate the students to rockstar status.

Nicole, on the left is a basketball star and a piano player, and Amelia, on the right, is the epitome of the STEM plus arts because she competes in the state trigonometry contest, and she’s also a star in theater.

We split the single traditional style viewbook into three different brochures, one for each division of the school. These celebrate the girls at each age level, and they also tell parents exactly what it is that they’re looking for at that particular point in their search. You can see that the messages incorporated in the cover photography here, “Blaze brighter. Flex your brain. Raise her up.”

We also built a new admissions-focused microsite that doesn’t try to tell you everything about the school. Instead, it focuses just in on those key messages, the ones that research told us mattered most to the audiences. This microsite, I think, is one of the most important tools in the set.

Trust me, the admissions director there gives a killer tour. It’s a really great tour. But now, she’s got a microsite that I think really supports her because it’s centralizing all the things that parents need to be able to understand the school’s difference, how it’s not like every other school you could choose. All those details are gathered in one place. It’s centralized so you don’t have to slog through the main website.

This was designed so that you can always look at the grade levels that you as a parent care most about. In other words, the one that your daughter will be in. This is a scrolling website. Every block has different messages. The video that we showed you earlier is the lead. There’s a profile index page that shows you the progression of girls from early childhood through high school, and it shows that trailblazing spirit and how people build their confidence.

These stories are 100% authentic. When we did the photo shoot, the girls had a natural level of confidence that was pretty undeniable. We tried to make sure that we captured every girl in her element for who she really is. We’ve got members of a robotics team. There’s a book publisher, fashion designers, future astronauts, and more. The way this page works, you can sort by school level so that you can see the girls that might be around the same age as your daughter.

There’s also a master page that shows learning all across the academy. It’s called How We Learn. Not only does this page take you into the classroom, it shows you the progression of how the learning moves from early childhood through high school, and it showcases this project-based learning in a way that you can understand what it really means. It doesn’t seem like educational theory. It seems like something that’s practical and useful. As a parent, again, you can sort it to see specifically what your daughter would be learning.

Ursuline has done a great job of carrying this brand messaging across their social media channels, making sure that the right kind of messages are always shining through. A lot of their posts go inside the classroom to show how students learn. That is again acting on the research to elevate the academic reputation.

Featured on the left is a business plan for a non-palm oil candy shop that helps to protect the natural environment of elephants. There was a nervous system experiment in a biology class and in the lower right, something for Navy ROTC because they’re the only school in the nation to offer it. All these posts together help people to understand and appreciate the academic strength that’s being driven by the research.


Kathy: Within four months of this campaign releasing, they were up 24%, and they are up 24% again in their applications for the coming year. Their open house registration was up 33% for the early grades and this year at the lower school level, they’re actually up 75% and I just talked to them for next year.

They’re super happy about that. They’ve got better quality. They were losing students at the eighth grade level to go to another school in the area, where eighth graders would go on to this other school who had a higher academic reputation. This is a really big win for them that more of their honors students are actually staying for high school.

They’ve also got more prospective parents who are choosing Ursuline as a first choice school. Before this campaign, people weren’t choosing Ursuline because they didn’t get into maybe one of the other schools. Again, this is a huge win for them in this little bit of time.

The other thing about this is it’s won some awards, of course. But what’s more important and what we heard from the head of school, faculty and parents is what happened internally. You know you’re succeeding when you have parents repeat your hashtags on social media or refer to their daughters as “trailblazers” or barge in on tours to say how well their daughters are doing. They’re just walking down the hall and seeing the head of admissions give a tour. They’re validating that, and this is something that, again, is a little bit of that soft, qualitative kind of research that you’re seeing infiltrate not only through the marketing and the communications, but it’s rising up internally through the school, to the people who are experiencing the school.

And then also teachers are bragging about their school, and they’re really buying into the brand. This is something that we work very hard at Zehno is making sure that faculty don’t look at branding as a bad experience. If you talk to them and talk to the parents and you map back the authenticity of what’s going on, you have those folks that are helping you to market the school because they’re experiencing it.

What you can do now

Shane: 2020 has been a year like no other. It’s not over yet, but that’s why some smart schools are using smaller scale research projects to take the pulse of their audiences right now. Let’s talk about some things that we think you can be doing.

First is to do a check in for 2020. For most people, life today is not really the same as it was seven months ago. That shouldn’t be a surprise. We’ve been working with schools to see how their audiences are thinking differently today and focus groups are a great way to do this because they let you hear how people feel, what they’re thinking, and it’s done in their own words.

One school had us check in on their alumni to talk about some things that were happening there — some program cuts, the pandemic, the school’s response to social unrest, lots of topics. Based on what we learned through that research, the school is now rethinking some of the alumni programs specially to appeal to younger grads, and they’re also looking at new ways for alumni to give input and feedback because they heard that that was so important to the focus groups.

Now, a focus group check in is something that you can actually do on a very minimal investment, and it doesn’t take years to execute. You could bring in a company like Zehno, or this is something that you could even handle yourself.

Another thing you can do is to stick to your research, but realign the content. If you’ve already done some solid research and it’s recent, you don’t have to throw it all away. We worked with a school to learn what was motivating their donors to give. We did surveys. We did focus groups that targeted this mysterious mid-level donor who is often a catalyst for getting a big project to move ahead. We were learning which type of projects captured people’s interest or how they wanted to be part of the conversation or not, and based on what the research told us, we developed a strategy for a targeted campaign. But then the pandemic hit, and we needed to reevaluate things.

It wasn’t the strategy itself that needed rethinking, but it was the stories that we had planned to tell. The revised content now gives a nod to the pandemic, and it’s showing why the projects we’re raising money for are more important than ever. We also reevaluated how we talked about the university’s scholarly research because we wanted to make sure that we had a mix of local and global thinking because that’s what the audience through the research was telling us mattered most to them. And then this campaign will also have a test run element to it and based on the analytics, which of course, is another element of research, we can adjust and refine it.

Another thing to do is to just rethink business as usual. Educational institutions have this cycle that’s pretty similar from year to year. But over the past year, schools have been forced to rethink business as usual in admissions, housing, athletics, a little bit of everything. But from a marketing standpoint, this is actually a great time to think about research and to rely on it. Some of the smartest schools we’ve worked with are using little quick surveys to fine tune their strategies and messages.

One school that we work with started weekly surveys with parents and with students when the pandemic first hit. With a few simple questions, they were able to get instant feedback on how the school was doing in that transition from in-person learning to distance learning. These surveys have helped them inform all kinds of decisions, how to readjust the class schedule, how to handle big group projects, how to make students feel connected even when they’re all stuck at home. These surveys have identified what the school was doing well, and they also showed where the school needed to improve.

Now, looking back, these surveys were super smart because the parents were giving constant feedback, and as the school was preparing to reopen this fall, they were super well equipped, they knew what parents wanted most, and they knew that they would need to be able to provide it in a school year that might be in-person or might be remote or might be both.

Another school that we’ve worked with sends out many surveys after every issue of their magazine. These are very simple questions. It’s things like:

• Which story did you read?

• Which did you like the most?

• What did you learn?

• Did the cover make you want to read the story?

Because this school has this constant feedback from readers and then I think they also do the big once a year CASE Readership Survey — that’s a big qualitative survey — their team has a very clear sense of exactly what the readers want. And that is the readers want to learn something new and they want stories that match the school’s slightly offbeat culture.

If you’ve got years of research about what your readers want, you really do know them. That can give you the courage to say, “Even though the pandemic hit, we’re going to stick with our existing cover.” Because all your decisions are grounded in research. That means you can put pro wrestlers on the cover and the breaking COVID story inside the magazine, and your readers will love you all the more.

Parting tips

Let’s end with some good advice:

• If your 2020 is like my 2020, things might be a little different this year. You could think about doing some smaller scale research as a check in with your audience. You can do that without a major expense. It’s doable.

• You can also shape your content to acknowledge what is happening now, but you have to figure out the recipe that’s right for your institution. As Kathy mentioned, she just did a big photo shoot where she shot every person in the shoot both with a mask and without, and that lets the school represent now and also represent the future. And for that school, that is exactly the right approach. You have to think about the recipe that’s right for you.

• Most of all, please do not let your research just sit on the shelf. Don’t let it be the report that everybody skimmed and nobody acted on. Dust it off and use it as your strategic springboard.


Kathy: We’re now going to begin answering some questions that you all submitted during today’s presentation. As a reminder, you can still submit questions through the Q&A panel in the attendee control panel.

Shane, I’m sorry I neglected to introduce you at the beginning. Everybody, this is Shane Shanks, and he is Zehno’s editorial director and senior strategist here at Zehno.

Here’s a question from Cheryl: If 2020 is such a crazy year, will your research still be useful?

Shane: It’s hard to say for sure. That’s why we’re recommending that people think about some of the smaller scale research that really is about taking the temperature now. Some of these smaller projects, maybe it’s focus groups, maybe it’s some targeted surveys. You might think that their shelf life is short, but we don’t know how the pandemic ends, and we’re not sure how institutions will be different five years from now. The shelf life might actually be longer than what we’re thinking about.

The other thing I would say is doing nothing — doing no research — it’s not going to set you up any better for what might be happening six months from now or a year from now or two years from now. Maybe the giant research project, you might have some questions about that, but these smaller things that are very focused, I think it’s a smart move to keep you moving ahead and to take the temperature of what people are thinking about your school now.

Kathy: Many schools right now are so cash strapped from having invested so much in preparing the school for students to be safe. Don’t bite off those big ones right now until things settle a little bit and you have the budget and the bandwidth to take those on. We are finding that doing smaller bits of research, for instance, on taking the temperature of what your alumni might think about program cuts, could be something that could be very valuable.

We know that a lot of schools had to make some cuts. But don’t lose sight if you cut the theater department or the education department or music program and you’ve got a lot of alumni that are very upset about that, you should probably talk to them and find out. Make sure that they understand that you understand how they’re feeling. These could all be things that you are at least wanting to hear from your audiences post-COVID.

We have another question: Do you have a favorite survey question for parents? And is there a good rule of thumb on the number of questions for mini surveys?

Kathy: Shane, while you’re thinking about that, I’ll talk about a good rule of thumb for surveys. We, at Zehno, try to keep it at 10 to 15 questions tops. You just don’t have people’s attention span especially for an online survey. People are willing to invest a little bit. We want to make sure that every question counts and that you really understand the goals of the survey so that you’re not asking things that you already know. That’s something that’s super important.

Shane, do you want to add to that?

Shane: As far as the individual question, I think the ones that seem to be the most helpful are when you’re really asking them about a specific decision factor and if they can rank it:

• Is Catholic more important than academic quality?

• Or Is the small classroom more important than Catholic?

• Or How does it all stack up?

I think those are often some that you can use most effectively — when you’re thinking about how you will use the research, how you will put it into action.

But I think it’s also great to follow that up with this kind of qualitative research, which can be focus groups or one-on-one interviews with people. That’s where you hear it in their own words, and I find that kind of information often gives you the shading to make the numbers mean something personal.

We can talk about the numbers and say small classrooms is the thing people like the most: “Our classroom is two students smaller than our competitor’s classroom.” We could try to make a run for: “Our classes are two students smaller and that’s the reason you should choose us.” But I don’t think that’s your strongest competitive way to act on your research. That’s why it’s often great to hear people describe what it is about that, that they value.

And then as Kathy mentioned, by knowing what they value in their own words in a way that they talk about it, that may be your chance to define yourself within that topic area. If we’re talking about small classrooms and knowing your teachers, how can we define it in a way that’s different than the other school?

The answer to that is probably more complicated, but I think it could be a quantitative question. I like the ones that ask you to rank things, then the qualitative: “Can you tell me in your own words what it is about that area that you value?”

Kathy: Carrie asked the question: How do you incentivize and motivate folks to respond to surveys?

It’s different for everybody. We usually offer an Amazon gift card or chances to win things. Some schools don’t allow those kinds of things, and then some schools have a record of great participation. It’s amazing. We’ve had some clients that have huge response rates.

But if you can offer some sort of incentive, people get a survey in their inbox, and it’s worth a cup of coffee or it’s worth a little gift card or a chance to win something. It’s also a good way to gauge how connected people are and how much they care about you by that participation as well.

We have another question from Steve that wants to know: It seems like every time I turn around at this institution we’re doing a survey. How do you prevent survey fatigue?

Kathy: That’s something that we get asked quite a bit. What I’ll say is don’t ask all the same people. I know that sometimes when we do focus groups, we’ll find that our clients will ask people who are actually all the same age, all at the school, maybe people who work there in the next office. You want to be able to get older people, younger people, if they’re relevant to your audience. You want to be able to get people who are connected and engaged and people who aren’t.

Some of the most valuable information for admissions is not always why people chose you but why people didn’t choose you. Getting exit surveys from people who didn’t choose you, you can learn quite a bit about.

I’m afraid that’s all of the time that we have for questions. I will answer any of the others that came in through email.

Thank you, Shane, and thank you everyone for attending today. Once you leave the webinar today, you’ll receive that survey that I talked about earlier, and we would really appreciate it if you would participate and provide us with some feedback.

We’ll also follow up with a recording of this and a few resources to help you jumpstart your brand projects. Again, if that video didn’t work or didn’t buffer through Zoom, check out the microsite and the video at this address:

And don’t hesitate to reach out to me or Shane to talk about how we can help your brand and marketing challenges.

On behalf of Zehno, thank you for joining us today and have a great rest of your day.

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