Bob Johnson's Blog on Higher Education Marketing

January 2016 Archives

Where do the "Key Steps" come from?

After working for 20+ years in higher education on the client side preparing RFPs, I worked for 6 years with an agency specializing in higher education marketing. Since 2006, I've been working as an independent marketing consultant with 80+ clients, primarily colleges and universities.

My notes here reflect lessons learned over those years in a quick effort to help both clients and agencies waste less time during an RFP process and get more benefit from it. Some of these might seem obvious. Trust me. They are not obvious to everyone.

What's your budget?

Few people are willing to state a budget range in an RFP.  Most often I'm told that is from a fear that the agencies responding will just "spend all my money" in their proposals. Sometimes people tell me it is because they do not have a budget yet and are using the RFP process to make a budget request based on the responses received. (If you are in this second group, be honest about it up front. It will help agencies understand how much you know about the work at hand.)

Consider these benefits of a budget reveal:

  •         If you tell agencies or consultants how much money you have to spend you will be able to better compare the substance of what you will get from each responder and find out what your $20,000 or $100,000 or $200,000 or more will buy.
  •        You won't waste time reviewing proposals that you can't possibly afford. And agencies won't waste time responding to what might they might consider a college or university with an unrealistic budget.
  •         If you have not had time to learn what your proposal is likely to cost, just say so. That will tell agencies what you know about the subject at hand and let them decide whether or not to respond.

Allow a decent response time.

No, you are not likely to get the best response from an agency when you give just two weeks to return a detailed RFP. Try for 30 days as a much more reasonable time. That's especially true if you want responses from smaller agencies that are busy with active client work and do not have staff working exclusively on RFP responses. One reason smaller agencies sometimes price themselves lower than larger ones: less overhead for people hired to respond to RFPs.

Who will review the RFP responses?

Higher education is notorious for extended, complicated review processes but that's not true of every college and university. Let agencies know in advance who is involved in selecting the RFP winner and how long you expect the decision to take. That will also give agencies an early insight into the customs and culture of a college or university. You will end up with responses from firms that are comfortable working within your system.

Who will approve the work?

Be as detailed as possible in explaining who will approve the work done by the agency awarded the project. I once decided, for instance, not to bid on a web writing project for the academic divisions at a large state university when I read that the copy would be reviewed and approved by both a faculty committee in the division and the university marketing staff.

If you can't outline the complete approval process, can you identify the project manager? If you can't do that, your homework is not complete.

Is there an incumbent agency?

Sometimes a college or university, no matter how pleased with their current agency, is required to generate an RFP process after, say, 5 years. From a client perspective, that makes sense. The client gets to see new approaches and to check pricing practices.

But give prospective RFP responders the curtesy of telling them if an incumbent agency is being asked to bid on the project. You don't have to say whether or not you still like the incumbent, but at least give potential new agencies the ability to make a decision on whether or not they want to compete in this setting. Some will not.

Let's be frank. Sometimes clients know in advance that they intend to renew a relationship with the incumbent agency. Some potential new firms will elect to tilt against that windmill. Let each agency make that decision.

Don't ask for "spec creative" work.

Yes, you can ask to see work done by an agency for other clients. Indeed, you might have already reviewed that work before inviting agencies to respond to your RFP. But agencies hate preparing new creative work for your project as part of the review process. Particularly when you add something to the RFP giving you ownership of whatever is submitted.

The bottom line: most successful agencies will not respond to RFPs like this in all but the most unusual circumstances. And even if you are the rare school that has the brand strength to have agencies salivating to add you to a client list, asking for spec creative still shows poor form on your part.

One last point.

When your selection process is over, let the losers know they lost right away. You might even go the extra mile and let people know who won.  

That's all for now.

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Happy New Year! Best wishes to everyone for marketing success in 2016. 

My December article on "6 Great Website Examples" for connecting quickly on a website starts with a unique home page from Xavier University. See how 5 other schools distinguish themselves at 

The Call for Papers for the 2106 eduWeb Digital Summit in August is open until January 15. Review the 5 track topics and send a presentation proposal. Start at 

Share with your marketing team: A full set of slides from my Digital Marketing Strategy tutorial at the AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education last November 
Conference Event in February

If you are planning serious website work in 2016, register for the Academic Impressions conference on "Higher Ed Web Redesign" starting February 29. Check the program and register at 

Follow me on Twitter at for daily marketing updates.

And now here are your December marketing news and notes.
Cartoon of the Month: 7 Marketing Resolutions for the New Year

How long will your marketing resolutions last this year? Every resolution you will see here starting with "This year I will focus on fundamentals" has merit. How long will you resist the last one on chasing fads?

Laugh, maybe weep a bit, and start your next marketing meeting with the cartoon 
Customer Experience Trends: The Most Important Topic for 2016

We all can find a plethora of articles on trends and innovations to follow in 2016. If you only have the time and patience to read one such list, make it "The Year of the Customer: 16 Customer Service and Experience Trends For 2016" from Shep Hyken at Forbes Magazine.

No matter what type of students you are recruiting, take special note of the first item: "Customers are smarter than ever." 

After you circulate the Cartoon of the Month, have your team discover what is most important to marketing success when you scan the other 15 customer experience trends 
Recruiting Out-of-State Students: Where Do People Travel?

How successful are you likely to be recruiting students who do not already live in your state? Distance from the home state is an important factor according to a new review of 2014 IPEDS data from Jon Boeckenstedt at DePaul University. California, New Jersey, Illinois, and New York are the leading exporters.

The legions of students exiting California, for instance, travel all about the country. University of Alabama and New York University are their most popular destinations. The many students from New Jersey, on the other hand, stay close to their home state.

Pick your favorite state(s) or school(s) to review when you visit 
Writing Right for the Web: New Academic Program Introduction

Every once in a while you see an example of academic program writing and content presentation that you wish would spread throughout higher education. This example from the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University is one of them.

Visit the unusually clean, simple, and easy-to-scan presentation at 
CollegeNET vs. Common App: Wrestling in the Mud?

CollegeNet is appealing an adverse court ruling on an anti-trust suit against the Common Application last spring. CollegeNet is the choice of the Coalition for College Access, Affordability, and Success to deliver future application services.

Review the reasons why a U.S. District Court dismissed the suit as well as the reason CollegeNet is challenging that decision at 
Goldman Sachs and College Value: Avoid the Bottom 25 Percent

A December note from Goldman Sachs reporting that graduates of the bottom 25 percent of universities earn less on average than high school graduates received no small amount of media attention. A quick Google search brings links to CBS News, CNN Money, Business Insider, and more. 

Estimate the PR impact from a typical report that "gives parents good reasons not to send kids to college right now" at 

The original Goldman Sachs warning is in a PDF at 
Digital Marketing Campaigns: The Best in Higher Ed in 2015

I have known the smart folks at Terminal Four since I first met Piero Tintori at a J.Boye conference in Denmark years ago and started my collection of red-covered notebooks.

And that is why it is easy to recommend a visit to the first installment of "The Best Higher Education Digital Marketing Campaigns of 2015." No guarantee that you will be a fan of each one but check the variety of approaches for insight and inspiration for your 2016 efforts.

My personal favorite: several faculty simply reading short notes about why students liked Keele University.

To review campaigns from the U.K. and the U.S., visit 
Disney World Marketing Content: Two Schools Merge in Philadelphia

The merits of the impending merger aside, the December press release announcing the tentative deal is a truly remarkable example of over-the-top content marketing. 

See how many superlatives can dance on the head of a pin when you read the announcement story at 
Nielsen Alertbox Report: Website Simplicity Almost Always Wins

Do you need more reasons to convince people that keeping lots of links on a website page isn't harmful, even when many are almost never used?

To help clean the clutter from your web pages and increase top task completion, get people to read "Simplicity Wins over Abundance of Choice" at 
A Fad You Can Miss in 2016: 9 Reasons to Skip Virtual Reality

You do not have to rush to create a virtual reality version of your campus visit experience if you believe the AdAge take that this emergent 2015 marketing darling just is not practical.

If you insist on early adoption, follow the link to the example for Stanford University football.

Root yourself in reality by reading "Reality Check: 2016 Won't Be the Year of VR" 
Most Popular Topic in December Newsletter: Content Marketing Cartoon

Everyone loves content marketing, ice cream, and apple pie. Cartoonist Tom Fishburne gently urges that we spend more time editing and less time publishing in his "Branded Content" cartoon at 
Be a marketing champion on your campus.

Bob Johnson, Ph.D. 
Bob Johnson Consulting, LLC
Bob Johnson Consulting, LLC

Increase your marketing success with these services. Contact me to schedule your project at 

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