The Importance of Emotional Connection in Higher-Ed Marketing

Dale Carnegie once said, “When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creations of emotion.”

Thanks to advances in neuroscience, we now know that up to 90 percent of the decisions we make are based on emotion – not rational thought or measured considerations but rather how we feel. So why is this important for marketers to understand? Because it requires us to shift our traditional transactional mindset and tap into understanding aspirational identity.

Illustration of a man and woman having a pleasant conversation

Aspiration vs. Inspiration

Aspirational identity refers to who your customer ultimately wants to become or wants to be known as. Aspiration should not be confused with inspiration – a common mistake.

Think about scrolling through your Pinterest feed. You may decide you want to paint your living room walls a fun bright color or you may feel you too can make the perfect chocolate chip cookies (almost always a Pinterest-fail)! In these examples you are being inspired – you are experiencing a temporary stimulation to do or feel something.

Aspirations are more long-lasting. They are meaningful ways to achieve or become something. Perhaps you aspire to be a great role model to your children or become a successful entrepreneur. These life-long goals evoke passion and give you purpose, driving decisions that will help you become who you want to be and how you want to be known.

The key to customer’s aspirational identities is to push past inspiring them, and rather, get to know what makes them tick.

At Big Sea, we put on our investigator hats and dive deep into your institution’s goals during our discovery and research phase. This extensive strategic and technical endeavor sets the tone for the entire client relationship and is intended for us to learn, to plan, and to get the specific details we need to work together in harmony.

Composed of a variety of elements of quantitative and qualitative research, keyword and competitive analysis, stakeholder interviews, persona story crafting, and journey mapping, this process is not your typical cookie-cutter “getting to know you” exercise. Your internal stakeholders, strategic partners, target audiences, and subject matter experts will play a pivotal role in the direction and success of this initiative, which will build a solid foundation for our partnership.

“Big Sea’s team does their research, not only on cutting edge web design trends but also truly gets to know their client’s mission and goals. They’re creative and make the process fun while putting in serious work into their strategy,” says Sarah Tackett, Web Communications Manager at The University of Tampa.

For this project, in addition to conducting competitive research and hosting workshops with UT’s marketing and communications team, we visited campus to spend time getting to know what makes UT special. With all of this, we were able to inform the revision of key admissions pages with fresh copy and messaging to help prospects not only find key information but also picture life in downtown Tampa — a visceral, emotional addition to the existing informative messaging.

Emotion in Higher Ed Marketing

In the higher ed space, it is important as a marketer to understand the feelings your advertising evokes in potential students. How does your message influence how they see themselves at your institution? Understanding where they aspire to go next in their life journey and how your institution can help get them there will set you apart from your competitors.

When tapping into aspirational identity, your institution is not the hero of the story; the student is. Today, the student is dreaming about who they can become by attending your institution. As a marketer, it is your job to learn all you can about their ambitions and then weave an emotional thread through your campaigns that will ultimately influence their decision-making process.

Research shows that tapping into this emotional mindset, in addition to or instead of the rational mindset of the student, can bridge the gap between institutional awareness, understanding and desire for affiliation. In other words, students want to feel heard and listened to with a higher ed brand in addition to seeing stats on financial aid and majors. Having that messaging across your marketing mix, from Instagram ads to email nurturing campaigns, is key.

Start with the Basics

Use what you know to be true about your institution to create an emotional connection with the potential student. Answer the following questions:

  1. What are your institution’s core values and how do they match up with a new potential student’s values?
  2. Are there unique benefits your institution offers its students that may line up nicely with what the student needs to feel comfortable and as though your institution may be a “good fit” for them? Rankings, hybrid learning options, flexible schedules, interactive learning environments, intimate class sizes, etc.
  3. How does your institution want to be portrayed and how does that resonate with a potential student? Timeless, motivating, ethical, focused, diverse, inclusive, etc.
  4. How does your institution want to be described and are these characteristics going to have long-term effects on a student? Approachable, consistent, traditional, innovative, quaint, industrial.
  5. How do you want potential students to feel when they interact with your institution? Positive, motivated, engaged, intrigued, comfortable, ready.

Above all else, remember that recruitment is the beginning of a long-term relationship with a student. From the beginning of this relationship, your messaging should focus on the students’ aspirations, goals and dreams. Research shows that focusing on student satisfaction over university prestige can benefit student attachment, trust, satisfaction and commitment.

Tying it All Together

By answering these five questions, you can start to build campaigns in a manner that ties your institution’s unique propositions with a student’s aspirations helping them see their potential and feel emotionally connected to the institution.

Choosing an institution is a difficult task for any student. There are thousands of choices and deciding what sets one institution apart from another can be daunting. Remember:

  • Be authentic and genuine in your messaging.
  • Target the right prospects.
  • Go deeper than personas – dig into aspirational identity.
  • Be creative and have fun with the process.

Keep in mind, emotions fuel decisions. Emotions influence. The more your advertising emotionally connects with potential students, the more likely your institution is to be a top contender.

At Big Sea, we believe in a world in which our clients feel heard, understood and valued. We know our commitment to grow, enrich and uphold our clients’ businesses require shared goals, precise execution and transparency which is why we live and breathe our core values. Let us help you turn prospects into alumni. Contact us today.