Before You Dive In: How to Nail A Higher Ed Research Project

October 18, 2016

Before You Dive In: How to Nail A Higher Ed Research Project

tag creative design | higher education
Before You Dive In: How to Nail A Higher Ed Research Project

Let’s say, hypothetically, that you just landed the Director of Marketing gig at the new Melon School of Business Administration at Grand Lakes University (congrats, btw).

You know the messaging isn’t telling the full story of the brand, and the creative to back it up needs to be overhauled.

You’re also savvy enough to recognize that you work with academics, and academics love their research. But, as is often the case in higher ed, marketing budgets are limited and there are deadlines. So how do you do enough research while making sure your project gets off the ground effectively? Here’s 3 things to think through before your next project.

Who Needs to Be Involved? 

Involving the right people early is almost as important as the research itself. Good luck showing amazing, on-brand creative to faculty that weren’t involved at all in discovery. 


Case in point—Dr. Philip Barbay. Listen, if your data doesn’t pull in something from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, your boy Barbay isn’t on board. All that to say that faculty and staff are just one group you’ll want to involve. 

Of course, you can’t survey or interview every faculty member at Melon or Grand Lakes, but you need to include a subset of important audiences. Here’s a few to start with.


The administration: deans and presidents are always focused on big picture initiatives. National rankings, research, cultivating donors, etc… and while folks like Dean Martin may seem aloof from time to time, they are going to want to share some input.


Students: When picking students for interviews or a focus group, don’t just get all the super-involved kids. Sure, Chas is in every club and a decent diver, but his knowledge of student life peaks at which bar has the cheapest pitchers on Thursday night.


Make sure you pull in guys like Jason and Derek (man, Derek looks like a young Robert Downey, Jr.) They’ll be more honest and willing to share the good and the bad.


“Alumni” and Donors: This group gives you great historical context (in most cases) and can paint a vision of where they think the school can go.

Beyond those, you’ll want to have the marketing & communications team, alumni, students’ parents, and sometimes the community around the school. 

One more important note: they need to understand the “why.” Help them see why the research is being conducted and why their feedback is important. When possible, it’s also important to communicate this to the larger populations of these subsets. It’ll be easier to get buy-in from your core audiences if you explain your goals and the process. It takes longer up front, but it’ll pay off. For example, one efficient way to give the powers-that-be a glimpse of what’s coming is to create a project brief. 

What Type of Research Should You Do?

Good news. Thornton Melon’s donation sparked the interest of other donors who want to see the new business school at Grand Lakes thrive. So, you’ve got enough foundation money to cover a few types of research.

Qualitative vs Quantitative
You need a little of both. Qualitative, open-ended questions give you a sense of how people really feel. Focus groups, face to face interviews, phone calls, email surveys are a good way to get qualitative insights. You can determine a lot more of the mood and tone from these, especially when done in person. One aside about running focus groups or workshops. Set up some of the questions for participants to actually write out their answers on their own, and then present to the rest of the group. This does wonders in getting more authentic answers and avoids group think. . 


Be careful with focus groups though. Six to eight participants is a good number to start with. Too many and not everyone gets a chance to speak. Too few and the sample isn’t big enough. Also, don’t mix audiences. Pair a donor like Thornton with students and he’s likely to dominate the conversation.

On the other hand, quantitative research gives you cold, hard facts to back up the fluffy, emotional themes you pulled out in the qualitative phase. The info you gathered during the qualitative should provide you areas and themes to dig deeper into and thus, should inform the quantitative surveys. The quantitative then gives you statistically valid results that will help tremendously as you build out the brand strategy.

Competitive Analysis
All of this internal information is great, but you also need to get out and review what the competition is doing. Higher ed is rife with unoriginal taglines, websites that play to internal audiences, and the same types of content over and over again. Review your top 4-6 competitors to find gaps in messaging or content that you can take advantage of.

Presenting the Research
Before anyone lays pencil to paper, present the findings. You’ll be able to show the stakeholders what they and the other groups said. But don’t go overboard. Make it a presentation, not a dissertation. It should be exciting. It shouldn’t be a book reading. High level quotes, common themes, and ideas of where things may be misaligned. And when questioned by someone like Professor Terguson, stand by your research. He’ll appreciate that.

Lastly, outside of you and your core team, no one needs to see a 40-page write up. But they do need to know that exists and they can have access to it.

The Triple Lindy!

Congrats, you’ve run a pretty solid research project. It’s a process, but each phase should inform the next. And ultimately you’ll refine down 100s of ideas and comments into one, solid brand strategy. Feels a little like pulling off the triple Lindy, doesn’t it? Good luck on the creative phase, and watch out for that Barbay guy. He’s not going to like anything.

Tell Us What You Think

What have you learned from past research projects? Maybe you’re in the middle of one now…anything you want to share to help your colleagues you might be in the same boat?