How Images of Diversity Support DEI Goals for Colleges

By: Taylor Precure Apr 06, 2023

How Images of Diversity Support DEI Goals for Colleges

A little girl watching the 2023 Academy Awards ceremony may have been able to see herself in the honorees for the very first time. Not only did Michelle Yeoh become the first Asian to win Best Actress, but Ruth E. Carter also became the first Black woman to win multiple Oscars. As many of the critics of the awards show have pointed out, images of diversity matter. They help people to envision themselves in the role, whether that’s a role of the lead actress or a matriculating student.

Modeling diversity in higher ed marketing makes education more accessible for everyone and expands the pool of potential students.

While most colleges and universities hold diversity and inclusion as key values, their marketing doesn’t always present that image. In most cases, the mismatch isn’t intentional. Using certain images or image sources can be a matter of habit. Sometimes, even marketing best practices can exclude people unintentionally. Whatever the cause, a lack of diversity in marketing images can undermine diversity, equity and inclusion goals and directly contradict the values of the school.

A/B Testing Can Lead Marketing Teams Astray

Many marketers rely on A/B Testing to understand what works for their audience. For example, they might test an ad image of a young white woman against an image of a young black woman with the same copy. If the ad with the young white woman gets more clicks, they would conclude that they should find more images like that one to use in future ads.

On one level, this makes sense, marketers want to do what works. However, over-optimization based on A/B testing can lead to homogeneous content that speaks only to the majority. It also creates a self-perpetuating cycle. If a potential student looks at a college’s content and sees a single demographic represented over and over, a demographic that doesn’t include them, they’re unlikely to engage with that marketing.

As a result, the marketing team keeps seeing signals that their homogenous approach is the right one because those images perform best. Meanwhile, students who don’t fit the mold have gone looking for a university that appears more welcoming to them.

Benefits of Using Diverse Imagery

The truth is that diverse imagery can influence behavior in subtle but powerful ways. One survey found that people are more likely to convert after seeing an ad that they categorize as diverse or inclusive.

This was especially true for people who identify as part of marginalized or underrepresented groups, but millennials and teens also responded favorably to diverse ads. That means the expectation of diversity is growing among younger generations.

Contributing to this conversion effect is the fact that diverse images can improve user experience by making potential students feel welcomed and included. Authentically representing a college’s values builds trust with users. When they see that ad images align with website images, which reflect the real diversity of enrolled students, this confirms that diversity and inclusion are core values.

Quality Images of Diversity Can Be Harder to Find

For marketing teams that are aware of this issue and want to fix it, there’s still a hurdle to face. On many stock image platforms, quality images of diversity can be harder to find. Although images of people of color are becoming more common, age diversity is still an issue. People pictured in stock images tend to be overwhelmingly young.

Photos of people with physical disabilities are especially difficult to find and may present stereotyped views. When we typed the word “student” into one stock image site, the first image of a person with a visible disability appeared on page three, about 120 photos into the collection. It presented the person, who was in a wheelchair, being helped up a ramp by his classmates. These kinds of dynamics do very little to show that a program is accessible and inclusive.

Trying to fix this problem by adding the word “diversity” to the search just makes matters worse. It serves up results that are so heavy-handed they’re obviously artificial. These are the images that purposefully include a mix of races and genders so that all types of people are represented. They’re usually laughing together and sitting or standing in a line. Images like these may nod to diversity, but they don’t reassure the prospective student that the university really means it.


The Best Way to Find Images of Diversity

Marketing teams can overcome this challenge by not relying on stock image sites and instead taking high-quality photos of real students. Taking website-worthy photos may be more expensive than simply snagging some images of a stock image website, but the investment is worth it.

Real images of real students showcase the diversity a college already has among its student population. At the same time, they show off real facilities and events.

Rather than attempting to cram every type of student into a single image, it can be more effective and more natural to aim for diversity across marketing assets. So no single social media post needs to feature everyone, but the school’s social media presence as a whole should encompass the full range of potential students.

The future of higher ed is diverse. Make sure your marketing images are too. The right creative visual and copy can bring your message to life for students and potential students. Thoughtful image selection displays diverse students as equal and fully included in the education experience.

For help building a visual identity that promotes diversity and inclusion, contact the creative development experts at EducationDynamics. We’re a data-driven team that works to understand your brand and rise above the “sea of sameness” in higher ed marketing. Our full suite of creative services develops art, images, copy and audio-visual awesomeness that fits your brand and promotes your values. Contact us today.