Experts in Education Marketing Interview

How Southern College Of Optometry Conquers Traditional Marketing & Reaches Disparate Audiences

Southern College of Optometry (SCO) is a unique feature of Memphis and one of the leading institutions of optometric education in the country. In addition, SCO is also a full-service care facility. The Eye Center serves the greater community, and University Eye Care offers comprehensive care at the University of Memphis campus. SCO has a dual mission in education and healthcare, requiring a varied approach in their marketing efforts.

Kristin Anderson of the Southern College of Optometry

Jim Hollifield of the Southern College of Optometry

In March 2016, we interviewed Dr. Kristin K. Anderson and Jim Hollifield of SCO as part of an interview series on university marketing and outreach. Kristin is a professor and Vice President for Institutional Advancement and Jim is Director of Communications. The series focuses on experts in education marketing and looks into how colleges and universities use new technologies to reach ever-evolving audience groups.

 

By and large [commercials are] just this mass scattershot approach of trying to get all these different people. And even then they’re commercial zapping, or they’re not even watching that show to begin with.

How has the importance of your online presence changed in recent years?

Kristin: It’s been important to find each audience—whether it’s alumni, donors, or students—is much more inclined to use the web as its communication and registration tool than it ever has been. We rely heavily on the website, on the online newsletters. We’ve gone away from printed newsletters. We do a monthly alumni newsletter for alumni, industry partners, other friends of the college that goes out to about 3500 addresses. There are very few things my office will print anymore.

SCO has a dual mission, which means you probably have some disparate audiences. Who are they and what do they need?

Kristin: When you ask somebody, “Who is SCO?” you usually get one of four answers. You have the folks who say, “They’re the optometry college!” You have the patients who say, “Oh, I know the optometry school, that’s where I get my eyes checked.” For them, SCO is the clinic.

Then you have the alumni who see us as the optometry school with the clinical facility. They get we have that dual mission of education and healthcare. But the Memphis community as a whole may or may not know how we fit in.

Trying to figure out how we make those messages work together has really been the biggest challenge our communications department has had, and I think they’ve done a good job. Everything we do builds on the strength of the other parts.

How are you reaching each group? Do you use different content for each?

Kristin: From a donor perspective, we haven’t seen as much switch into electronic communication for fundraising. We do send a newsletter, but I think donors still appreciate a phone call, a handwritten note. Things they’re not necessarily getting from other organizations.

We have automated ways for them to give online. We use communications to drive people to our site. For example, in the newsletter there’s always a place where you can click and give through our website.

For alumni and donors, the content of the newsletter depends on where we are in the fundraising cycle. Obviously for campaigns we do a lot of specific updates. Both newsletters will have some on-campus student news.

In the alumni newsletter, we also put alumni news. If someone’s been elected to a board or recognized in a publication in their hometown we’ll put that in along with the link. Weddings and new babies are always a hit.

And internally, or to prospective students?

Kristin: Internally, the weekly newsletter goes over what’s just happened in the last few days, or what’s happening in the next week or two. Even though we’re all one big college, you can imagine the clinic staff has a different day-to-day role serving patients everyday than admissions, or the accounting department. Homecoming week isn’t something that’s top of mind for that group, so we’ll include information like that. We showcase what students and faculty have done recently.

We drive the things going out to prospective students in a peer-to-peer communications style. They’re seeing student ambassador testimonials and student blogs. We use Live Meeting or GoToMeeting to host virtual meetings so they can talk to a human being. They don’t want to have to read everything.

And you have information for each of these audiences on your website?

Kristin: 90% of our website is driven toward prospective students. And as it should be. That’s where we put our energy and the development of it. But I think there’s a sector we could expand to talk about SCO in the same conversation as other nonprofits in the community. Especially because of the people we serve and the opportunities we give for patient care and awareness. That’s a piece that still needs to be developed.

What systems do you use for donor management and alumni engagement?

Kristin: We use Raiser’s Edge for donor management. It’s easy to separate and segment them by class year, geography, by affiliation with other organizations. It’s a powerful tool for us and that’s really the one we use to segment.

We’ve actually looked at systems to try to integrate, but no one can compete with the donor management piece Raiser’s Edge give us. We also use Financial Edge on the accounting side.

What about promoting and holding events?

Kristin: We’ve not jumped into Raiser’s Edge fully on that side side. It forces you to think about events in the way Raiser’s Edge likes to do events. We continue to use a product called Cvent for event registration because you can customize it a la carte or you can make it all or nothing. The discount codes are easy to give different groups.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced, incorporating new technology and email marketing?

Kristin: We recently acquired the Net Community piece to Raiser’s Edge, and we’ve struggled with how to roll that out. Part of it is an internal battle, but then there’s the trying to make it fit with what we already have and what we need to do. There’s no perfect system.

It offers so much from the alumni directory piece and the service piece for an alumnus or a donor. But you have to work within their parameters, so it lacks on the event management side. You don’t have any flexibility.

Our hope is that at end of calendar year 2016 we will roll out our traditional database of alumni. Our new directory will be the push to get alumni to get in there, create an account, and use that as their go-to. Then, little by little, start getting them back there to help us gather information.

We don’t force it. We want it to be something happy, positive, and true to us.

What about more traditional outreaching or marketing? For example, stats on video are astounding. How are you taking advantage of video to tell your story, and how has that changed in the last few years?

Jim: It’s more show and less tell. We did a short version and a long version. The short version is like 2 minutes saying, “Here’s who we are.” We send that out in an email to somebody who’s just starting to get us on their radar.

For students who want to hear more or who want to know how we’re different from another school, we have the longer video. It’s about 9 minutes. We cover the facilities, what the program is like, and the things you can do here and in Downtown and Midtown. We say, “Well, if you watch this longer version you’ll hear a little more elaboration on the clinic and the advantages we have.”

The one prior to that was maybe 14 minutes and was broken up in chapters. “Here’s the one about Memphis, here’s the one about this.” Now high def has come along. You want it to look good, you don’t want it to look cheesy or too slick, but you’re also tailoring it for people who are 21 and 22. We wanted the new one to be less about “grown ups,” so to speak, and more about “Picture yourself here. Here are real students. These aren’t actors, they’re going to tell you their own perspective.”

One of the things we did not want to do was make it an old-fashioned type of film that moved slowly, with some guy saying, “Optometry is a great profession.” That wouldn’t be appealing.

What about commercials?

Jim: We don’t really do commercials. People just don’t watch commercials much anymore. There are a few demographics we could reach with it, but by and large it’s just this mass scattershot approach of trying to get all these different people. And even then they’re commercial zapping, or they’re not even watching that show to begin with.

We’ve thought about pulling 15 seconds worth of footage to make a commercial for the Eye Center and just stick on our YouTube channel and tailor it to Facebook or Instagram. Then we can get monthly reports and can tell how many people saw the ad and actually made the call. Something like 62 people called last month from a Facebook ad. That’s pretty phenomenal.

What we’ve figured out is because we serve many different purposes, this is where segmentation is so important.

How are you doing social media and outreach?

Jim: The one thing we have tried to do is make the SCO Facebook page organic. We don’t force it. We want it to be something happy, positive, and true to us, but without going, “Well, what are we going to say today?”

Over time, it just has built up. And at the last count we had more people liking the college side than any of the other schools.

We’ve also seen a lot of student interest in Instagram, that’s really growing. Twitter seems to wobble. I like Twitter but I don’t know if people get Twitter fatigued or what.

Have you paid to have Facebook posts promoted?

Jim: We have paid for some, but that’s been strategic. The first one we ever did was when we launched the last new recruiting video and we targeted 18- to 25-year-olds. Those were pretty effective. We saw the likes spike up.

That’s been a new challenge too, where we’re going, “I don’t want to pay for this, but I want people to see it.” It is frustrating when we know they’re withholding us in the algorithm because they want us to come promote and sponsor it.

What are some of the main things you focus on in terms of measuring success?

Kristin: I look at the open rates quite a bit. I’m sensitive to the amount of stuff people get in their inbox. I think we do great when we do publications that are for the masses. I’m pleased with our open rates and I think we’re definitely ahead of most nonprofits in that area. It’s consistent, people are reading the newsletter. I love looking at the open rate, but more importantly I like there to be no opt-outs.

If we send something, especially at a very busy time of year, and there’s not an opt out, I love it. When we have the opt-out many times, we are back and forth trying to figure out what is it about this particular individual or this particular email that would cause them to opt out. What we’ve figured out is because we serve many different purposes, this is where segmentation is so important.

One of the real benefits of investing in your online presence and more digital communications is the ability to have that segmentation. Are you currently able to do much of that?

Kristin: We couldn’t really use it until we had the right infrastructure to figure out how to use the information we’ve collected. We use it the best for our education and continuing education (CE) attendees. We can see what things are most popular with them. We can see who’s a repeat customer. That has been helpful especially looking at alumni and donor relations.

You’ve consolidated all budgets under communication. How have things changed since you can see the full picture?

Jim: Consolidating the budgets helped streamline a lot of things. Now, since the pot contains all the money, there have been times we’ve been able to get more bang for our buck.

Every two years, the ambassador program does a series of videos where students talk about where they’re from. We used to have to film those separately from the recruitment video. Now, when we bring the video crew, we’ll go talk to some of these folks and then film some of the outtakes. We kill two birds with one stone and don’t have to pay them twice.

Another example is the contract we’ve had with the Commercial Appeal [the local newspaper]. They treat us as one customer but we can trade out or vary our ads from month to month.

In 2012 you started a $9.2 million dollar academic expansion and renovation project, and finished building your new school and pre-clinical optometry labs. Is that the campaign or project you’re most proud of?

Kristin: Getting that building out of the ground, and doing that with a fundraising campaign, was the most ambitious project for the college at that point. It meant integrating the entire campus. It involved admissions and student services as well as alumni relations. If you think about it from an Advancement perspective, that’s the best case scenario.

It also helped us get a better foothold within the Memphis community. We were able to show the college contributes to not only midtown Memphis but to the medical and educational communities.

I think everyone knew we were here, but our priorities prior to the building campaign had been focused a little more internally. Through that campaign, we were able to help secure a position in advancement that focuses on Memphis community, grants, and foundation relations. It integrated us with other nonprofits. That’s opened a ton of doors that have supported the college in other ways, including patient care. I think most importantly we have a presence in Memphis I don’t think we had 5 years ago.


We appreciate the opportunity to sit down with Kristin Anderson and Jim Hollifield for this interview for our experts in education marketing profile series. Dr. Anderson joined the SCO faculty in 2000 and was named Vice President for Institutional Advancement in 2008. She works in alumni relations, development, placement service, continuing education, community outreach, and more. Mr. Hollifield has been Director of Communications at SCO since 2006, where he oversees projects in publication and web content creation, social media, brand management, and public relations, among others.

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