Your reputation, the beliefs or opinions prospective students hold about your school, plays an important role in building successful and thriving programs. According to the Post-Traditional College Student Report, published by EducationDynamics, reputation is as important to students as accreditation. It’s of particular interest to graduate students, who rank reputation as second only to affordability in their search for a program.
According to the Online College Students Report – 2019, online reviews, college search and ranking websites, and recommendations from friends and family are the most influential factors for students deciding where to enroll. All of these factors help a prospective student form a set of beliefs and opinions about your school. You can’t control any of them directly, which is probably why students trust them. So, how can you improve your program’s reputation if you can’t directly affect it?
Reputation is built over time. It takes shape through students’ interaction with professors, and school representatives as well as your marketing, members of the community, each other, and alumni. Building or improving your program’s reputation doesn’t happen overnight. If your program has improved considerably, your reputation might not yet have caught up to your program. If your program is fairly new, you may have no reputation to speak of.
How to improve your program’s reputation
If you communicate what differentiates your program and follow-through on promises to students, you can improve your reputation over time. The actions you take today can and will impact your reputation into the future. It’s up to you to choose actions that will contribute to a positive reputation over time. Here are five steps that will help you strategically improve your reputation:
1. Understand your baseline. A reputation audit can help you understand how students view your program. It may uncover positive traits that you wouldn’t have thought to highlight or negative perceptions that you’ve been trying to ignore. Whether your reputation is already pretty good, or not as great as you’d hoped, when you have the data in hand, you have the tools to improve it.
2. Set Clear Expectations. Students should know exactly what they’re getting when they enroll in your program. You should have a clear marketing message that showcases your unique offering and the results students can expect. Make sure this message is consistently conveyed across all of your marketing channels.
A word of caution: Don’t pin all of your hopes on marketing design. New colors, an updated logo, or a catchy tagline will help you get noticed, but they can’t salvage a poor reputation. Students will see them for what they are, cosmetic enhancements that don’t address underlying issues. The only way to improve your reputation is to get crystal clear on your mission and then deliver on it consistently.
3. Deliver on your promises. No matter how strong your marketing message is, it’s meaningless if you don’t follow through on it. If you tell prospective students you offer wrap-around career support services, for example, you must help them find a job or advance their career in a tangible way. In this age of digital communication, word will spread quickly. Nothing ruins a reputation faster than a broken promise.
Remember, your goal isn’t to win a marketing award, it’s to deliver the best possible results for your students. When you follow-through on your promises you improve student outcomes while also boosting your reputation.
4. Communicate with staff across departments. Obviously, the marketing and recruiting teams should understand your marketing message and brand promises. Less obviously, professors and student support staff should understand them too. Make it clear that this isn’t “just marketing.” your campaign to improve your program’s reputation can only succeed if it actually improves student outcomes. Professors, support staff, and others who interact directly with students are best positioned to impact students.
5. Get outside help. If your reputation isn’t as good as you’d like it to be, your internal teams may not have the resources to turn things around. They also may be too close to the problem to see where improvements may be made. Improving your program’s reputation takes excellent communication, a clear marketing vision, and an open-minded perspective. Evaluate whether your program could benefit from external support in marketing, recruitment or communication.
Safeguarding your online reputation
You can’t control everything that is said about you online. Nor should you try. The last thing you want is to be seen as silencing or censoring student feedback. Have a plan in place for how you’ll respond to both positive and negative feedback. For negative feedback you may deemphasize your least attractive features, present positive solutions or acknowledge the trade-off.
On the other hand, do your best to amplify positive feedback. Build your marketing messages around what students see as your most positive attributes. In some cases, there can be a disconnect between what you think you should be known for, and what you’re actually known for. That’s why a reputation audit is so valuable. Instead of guessing how students view your program, you can know for sure.
Online or offline, everything you do should align with the promise you’ve made to students. When you align marketing, service, and communications with your promise, you build an iron-clad reputation.
At EducationDynamics, we take your reputation seriously. Contact us to learn how our team works hard to understand your brand and programs so that we can protect and enhance your reputation and, ultimately, grow your enrollments.