Communicating the "why" at a highly-selective institution
In this episode:
You’ll hear from Timothy Butterfield who is the Admission Marketing Specialist at Grinnell College. Grinnell is a small private liberal arts college in Iowa.
You'll hear him discuss:
One of the top ways Grinnell receives quality inquiries
Some of the unique challenges they face as a highly selective institution
The importance of communicating the "why" with prospective students throughout the college search process
[00:00:00] Host: You're listening to filling seats, the state of enrollment, marketing, and higher ed. Hosted by StudentBridge. In this podcast. You'll learn, what's working to grow shape and sustain enrollment. At colleges and universities directly for marketers thought leaders and ed tech innovators, because anyone can design a brochure, but not anyone can fill seats.
[00:00:27] Host: Welcome to episode 23 of filling seats. In this episode, you'll hear from Timothy Butterfield, who is the admission marketing specialist at Grinnell college. Grinnell is a small, private liberal arts college in Iowa. You'll hear him discuss one of the top ways. Grinnell receives quality inquiries, some of the unique challenges they face as a highly selective institution. And the importance of communicating the why with prospective students throughout the college search process. Let's meet Tim! so I've worked in enrollment management for about 10 years. I started my career on a pretty traditional track as an entry level admission counselor, and, that was my first job outta college. I, I worked at Grinnell College for four years as an admission counselor. Before switching gears a little bit and taking a role at Denison University as a Director of Strategic Initiatives.
[00:01:30] so sort of serving in a chief of staff role for their enrollment vice president. really whatever needed to be done often fell to me. and in Dennison's case, at that time it was largely communications and marketing strategy. So I spent three years at Denison before deciding to go back to school and earn my master's degree in higher education, diving into all of the topics that are most pressing in higher ed right now.
[00:01:59] Tim Butterfield: And, finished my program just as Covid was really starting to flare up here in the United States. So I,I graduated remotely. Was fortunate to, find a position back at Grinnell College, this time in enrollment marketing specifically, and that was a brand new position that they had created, and I'm now entering my third year in that role and loving it.
[00:02:23] Host: So when you took that position as the kind of chief of staff or special projects person, did you take that position specifically because of the person that you were reporting to? Or was that just an opportunity for you to move up in your enrollment management career?
[00:02:40] Tim Butterfield: It was a little bit of both actually. I did know who my boss would be. I had worked with him previously at Grinnell. so it's always nice to know who your team is and who your boss will be even before you arrive. But I think at the same time, yes, it was a director level opportunity, so it was an opportunity for professional growth, but also the needs that office had at that time were very much focused on clear, consistent.
[00:03:10] Tim Butterfield: Communication. And so that was the scope of that job at that time, and that's what I was really interested in being more involved with in my admission career. So at that time, it was a really perfect.
[00:03:23] Host: So tell me a little bit about your current role and how you would describe your institution.
[00:03:29] my title is Admission Marketing Specialist, and that was a position created back in early 2020. Really intended to specialize in admission marketing rather than just tacking marketing and communications on to in admission counselors role, which is what Grinnell and I think many colleges had been doing for many years.
[00:03:53] Tim Butterfield: And so my role was created in addition to a couple of other roles actually. Put some full-time focus on admission marketing specifically without having to balance that with all of the travel and recruitment and application review. That's usually involved with admission counselor roles. so it was a new opportunity that had been created since the last time I worked at Grinnell.
[00:04:17] Tim Butterfield: Seemed like a really fantastic fit and opportunity, somewhere where I could continue to learn and grow. And Grinnell itself is a really fascinating institution. that's changed a lot over the years. Grinnell's a selective small private liberal arts college right in the middle of Iowa. The town is actually called Grinnell, Division three, NCAA Athletics, a highly selective institution for admission.
[00:04:43] this past year we had an overall admin rate of about 9%. and extraordinarily global, especially considering the location in the Midwest. we actually have 20% of our student body coming in from other countries around the world. About 25% are domestic students of color, and about 15% are first generation students.
[00:05:03] so Grinnell has a good reputation, a national reputation. PhD production, social justice, a very unique curriculum that we call an individually advised curriculum. Essentially an open curriculum with no general education requirements and very. Very intimate and significant advising with professors and mentors along the way.
[00:05:27] and lastly, I would say Grinnell is pretty well known for being a need blind admission institution that meets 100% of financial need, offers no loans in its financial aid packages, and is also test optional. And that combination of factors puts Grinnell in a group of about seven colleges in the United States that offer all of those things.
[00:05:49] Host: . How many students are you typically enrolling in an incoming class, and what's your total student body?
[00:05:56] Tim Butterfield: Grinnell has about 1700 students in the student body, so most years we're looking to enroll around 430 or 440 students in the first year class.
[00:06:07] Host: And who are your competitors? the students who apply to Grinnell are often applying to other highly selective liberal arts colleges, and there are many great ones from coast to coast. because of our curriculum type, which again, is an open curriculum with a significant advising component, we also see students.
[00:06:27] Tim Butterfield: Considering the handful of other colleges that have that type of curriculum across the country, most notably Brown University came up with that whole system. and there are a few other colleges that have followed that lead.
[00:06:40] Host: With only admitting 9% of students who apply, I would assume that you're not necessarily in growth mode. So tell me a little bit about. Your current enrollment goals.
[00:06:54] Tim Butterfield: Our goals are pretty. Pretty typical. I think, a lot of admission reps will probably give similar answers here. we have been fortunate over the past few years to experience growth in our applicant pool, and with that growth often comes the expectation that you will continue that trajectory. So,we are consistently looking to increase the number of applications that we receive, to remain competitive within our region and nation.
[00:07:22] Tim Butterfield: As I mentioned, Grinnell has a very diverse community, so we're looking to maintain that. community, especially given our location. And we are always trying to increase the number of students who accept our offer to come to Grinnell, which we call our yield percentage.
[00:07:41] what technology is making an impact or the biggest impact for. Your school right now.
[00:07:47] Tim Butterfield: So I, I think on a consistent basis, our crm, , which is Slate, we all use that. Every moment of every day. particularly on the marketing side of things, we do all of our email marketing through Slate and our admission counselors review applications there. we text students directly from that platform.
[00:08:08] Tim Butterfield: That's how we keep track of our inquiry numbers and, are able to attribute yield rates to certain sources . we've also increased our presence on various online platforms and college search services for students, particularly over the last two years. just as we've seen Gen Z increasingly rely on online resources to do their college research.
[00:08:32] Tim Butterfield: We try to have a presence on a lot of those college search sites. Otherwise, it's,like being on a dating site, but having no photos on your profile. with these partnerships, it gives us a little bit of control over how we present ourselves, and allows us to control that narrative and actually be authentic.
[00:08:49] Tim Butterfield: How students are seeing and perceiving Grinnell College?
[00:08:53] Host: , and you're getting quality inquiries from those sites as well.
[00:08:56] Tim Butterfield: We are. Yeah. it's interesting. I think they all,they all produce inquiries, but they all do it in a distinct way. and I think those vendors really hang their hats on their mission and their purpose and the differences between them are very interesting. to become familiar with.
[00:09:13] Tim Butterfield: So we, we do get quality inquiries from all of them, but we sort of expect, students who are navigating the college search in different ways to be using those platforms in different ways.
[00:09:24] Tim Butterfield: What marketing channels do you. Most so the most consistent one from top of funnel to bottom funnel, would be digital ads. so we, we have a digital advertising presence on most of the social media platforms that students use. pre-roll on YouTube and all over the Google ad network. at a high level, we are trying to introduce Grinnell through these ads to students who may have never heard of Grinnell before.
[00:09:52] Tim Butterfield: But we also serve those ads to students who have actually expressed interest in Grinnell. and those ads might be a little bit more focused on application deadlines and things that they should know as they move through the college search. so from top to bottom of the funnel, digital ads are consistent presence in our marketing strategy.
[00:10:14] Tim Butterfield: We also, as I mentioned, have multiple inquiry sources from these different college search platforms and vendors, that serve students from the beginning of the process through the end. Email marketing is very consistent throughout a student's college search process if they're interested in Grinnell.
[00:10:32] and of course we do still mail print materials to students. as soon as they express interest in the college, we will start mailing them.
[00:10:40] Host: In terms of ads, are you working with an agency? Is that a partnership with Central marketing on campus? Is that done completely in house? I'm just very curious how that's executed.
[00:10:53] Tim Butterfield: , Our enrollment division works very closely with our communications and marketing department , but we have that collaboration so that we can work most effectively with our external partner. so we do use a creative firm outside of Grinnell, to design those ads and to collaborate with us on, the content for those ads, and then that company is serving them up to our student.
[00:11:17] Host: Where do you.
[00:11:18] Host: The importance of visits within your overall strategy.
[00:11:21] Tim Butterfield: So visits are crucial for us at Grinnell. we are constantly brainstorming how we can increase the visitor numbers to our campus. we have seen over the years very consistently that students who visit our campus yield at a much higher rate than those who don't. That's probably true at many schools, but I, I think our location in a rural sort of hard to reach part of the country.
[00:11:48] Tim Butterfield: that, that's a key part of our identity and it's something we're proud of, but we also recognize the challenges that come with that. So getting people here to campus is the challenge, but once that happens, once they're here, I think we offer a really excellent visit experience. And so the constant challenge is just how can we, attract more people to come and see things for themselves here on campus.
[00:12:12] Host: What about virtual? Are you doing any virtual visit options?
[00:12:17] Tim Butterfield: We are, yeah, pretty much everything that we offer on campus, we also offer virtually. a student led tour, an information session. Prospective students can interview, virtually or in person here on campus. and we also have visit programs on campus and virtually as well. that, that has been definitely a silver lining of the pandemic is a school like Grinnell really benefits from being able to offer virtual opportunities.
[00:12:42] Tim Butterfield: And it wasn't until the pandemic that we really took a deep dive into.
[00:12:46] Host: And do you feel like students can get the same experience virtually versus being there? Or how do you balance that?
[00:12:54] Tim Butterfield: Yeah, I think there are pros and cons to both visit types, and in my opinion, the virtual opportunities are a great introduction, just to solidify a student's interest in Grinnell. But then the logical next step is to come to campus. And actually get to meet a variety of people. meet their admission counselor in person, get to know their tour guide their student hosts, experience the dining hall, see what the feel is and if the fit seems like it's actually gonna make sense for that student.
[00:13:26] Tim Butterfield: Of course, with 20% of our students being international, a trip to Iowa is often not in the cards. And I think the virtual visit can be a really. Alternative to that campus visit. and can still offer some pretty meaningful interactions and relationships, from screen to screen.
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[00:15:18] Host: Learn email@example.com.
[00:15:22] Host: so What is something that your team is doing differently?
[00:15:25] Tim Butterfield: Putting more of an emphasis on admission marketing. New positions like my own that didn't exist four or five years ago. We also have a much closer collaboration between our admission office and our communications office than we used to.
[00:15:39] and we have so much overlap in our projects that I think that partnership and that stronger working relationship is different from how it used to be and is definitely a positive thing. we're trying to find a balance between being a school that honestly rejects the vast majority of its applicants, while also being an institution that.
[00:16:02] Tim Butterfield: Offers a service to everyone. so we have done things like create a series of videos that offer tips to prospective students and families. a look behind the curtain at how the admission process works. And our goal with those videos is we would like these topics, things like, should I submit my test score to a test optional institution?
[00:16:26] Tim Butterfield: Or should I visit a campus or why am I seeing digital ads on my computer? All of a sudden, we're trying to answer those questions in short, digestible videos for students and families, even if those people aren't interested in Grinnell College at all. although we may only be able to admit a small number of our total applicants, we do still try to provide a service and be of assistance to anyone who's navigating a college.
[00:16:52] Tim Butterfield: And I think that does make Grinnell a little bit different from some of our peers.
[00:16:56] Host: what is something that your school or your team struggles with?
[00:17:00] Tim Butterfield: Two things come to mind for me. The first one is just, There's an emotional toll that comes with being a highly selective school. I think as far as emotions are concerned,it's a difficult job for our admission counselors to build relationships and only be able to welcome a limited number of students to campus in the fall.
[00:17:20] think another challenge is bandwidth. Grinnell is a smaller. our teams, our admission teams and our communications and marketing teams are relatively small. And only in the last few years has our administration really placed such a clear focus and emphasis on marketing and specifically admission marketing.
[00:17:39] Tim Butterfield: So I think culturally, people at Grinnell and probably elsewhere, people are a little skittish with words like marketing and brand. because there's a connotation that if you have to market yourself or if you have to brand yourself, then you're just trying to sell something or present something, when really we would hope that people would be interested all on their own.
[00:18:02] Tim Butterfield: So we've had several recent admission cycles that have been very strong. And so our market position is excellent, but at the same time, it's only in the last couple of years. The word marketing was even added to the official name of our communications and marketing office. for many years it was just the communications office.
[00:18:24] Tim Butterfield: We also rely on our students to create a lot of the content that we use when we're marketing to prospective students. And so there we're, we are at the mercy. A limited number of student ambassadors in their very busy schedules, to ask them to create video content or to write up a blurb about their experience at Grinnell.
[00:18:45] we've been fortunate cuz , we partnered with Student Bridge about a year ago to create a whole series of 24 short topic based videos here on campus, and that was a great way for us to accumulate these topics. Videos to be able to use in lots of ways in our marketing plan, but without things like that, again, we are at the mercy of what our students, our micro influencers, are able to produce for us with very limited time.
[00:19:14] Host: What are some of the results that you're seeing from the video that you worked with us on?
[00:19:20] Tim Butterfield: It was really a series of videos. So 24 videos on 24 pretty distinct topics, mostly interview based. So think the beauty of that, is bridged this gap between, very informal sort of student created video content shot with an iPhone, and then extremely professional, polished, highly edited video content because Student Bridge created these videos that are extremely polished .
[00:19:46] but the subject of those videos are current students and faculty and staff, and even some alumni, so credible, authentic people. we can trust what they have to say because they are truly grinnellians in ways that a marketing team or an admission counselor. Isn't necessarily going to be, but it was presented in such a professional way, just because of the expertise and professional talent that the film crew had, that we have found those to be very effective for those reasons.
[00:20:18] who do you like to follow or learn from?
[00:20:21] we try to keep an eye on other school's, TikTok accounts. TikTok is a place where we do try to have a presence, and amazingly not every college is doing that yet, but some of our peers are. And we do like to keep an eye on. Other institutions are using that platform. specifically, I'll name a few, but I think Pomona, Kenyan, University of Florida, University of Utah, St.
[00:20:46] Tim Butterfield: Ambrose University. They all do a really nice job with their TikTok accounts. We also learn a lot from our vendor partners, so every month, If not twice a month, we will meet with our various third party vendors and go over analytics, brainstorm together. and that frequency of checking in really just holds everyone accountable and on our toes, and we learn from each other.
[00:21:11] and then lastly, I would say I learn a lot from our own admission counselors right here in our office. Our marketing team learns from the experiences that the counselors have on the road and that they share with us, the way that students react to print pieces and marketing emails that we send.
[00:21:31] Tim Butterfield: Those students often only share their honest feedback with their admission counselors. We have opportunities to learn a lot from our own counselors,and know what they hear from prospective students.
[00:21:41] Tim Butterfield: If I could mention one more, I learn a lot personally from our student workers in the office and we have one admission marketing interns specifically, and then a whole lot of tour guides and senior interviewers.
[00:21:54] Tim Butterfield: In addition to that, I learn a lot. Gen Z language from them, as well as how young people are using college search tools and platforms, and actually hearing from them who are just a few years removed from their own college search, what their perceptions of all of these different platforms is.
[00:22:15] Host: What is something that you see for the future of higher ed market?
[00:22:20] Tim Butterfield: It's a tough job and I think it'll continue to get tougher. making the case for investing in higher education is just becoming harder. Despite evidence that supports the investment in college, I think that colleges are increasingly going to need to. Offer some incentives for applying and committing, particularly through early or binding admission rounds.
[00:22:45] Tim Butterfield: What this means is colleges will need to be very strategic and intentional about the language that we use to explain to families and prospective students what the application process is like.
[00:22:57] Tim Butterfield: So rather than simply telling them how to apply and how to go through that process of selecting a college
[00:23:04] Tim Butterfield: But also why. Why it's worth going through that process and what the tangible gains are for the student and for the student's family. I think a lot of schools already are doing this, but whenever we have opportunities to use language that reflects, why should you sit through this 45 minute webinar that we're offering, or why should you make the effort and the financial commitment to travel out here to.
[00:23:31] Tim Butterfield: I think that's what families expect and I think it's in everyone's best interest for that language. To be very clear, I think Gen Z is a very, very thoughtful group of young people, and from what I've observed, they pay more attention to micro influencers than. To a single figurehead. So they'd rather hear from multiple students on our campus than just see one post from the college president or from a celebrity who happened to attend Grinnell College.
[00:24:05] it's a thoughtful group of students that we're working with today. They pay attention to institutional values and missions, and I do think that's a little bit different from their parents' generation. Yet we're trying to market to both students and parents throughout this process. so I, I do think that marketing and higher ed will naturally change over time as we're working with different groups of people who have a different set of values.
[00:24:30] and not only do they care about institutional values, They wanna see them lived, like they wanna see the receipts, as they would say, exactly.
[00:24:39] Host: What is an app or a marketing tool that you could not live without?
[00:24:44] Tim Butterfield: Definitely could not live without Slate. Our crm, we do all of our email marketing and all of our texting with students through Slate. , but we also could not live without Trend Tok, T R E N D T O.
[00:24:57] Tim Butterfield: which is just an amazing app to help us stay on top of what's trending on TikTok. Different sounds, different dances, different posts and trends.
[00:25:06] unless you are spending a lot of time in the app yourself, it would be very hard to know what is popular in that platform. And Trend Tok is a great app for us to be able to keep tabs.
[00:25:17] Tim Butterfield: Even though I do use TikTok in my personal life, it has become very clear to me that there is a millennial corner of TikTok that is very different from what our perspective students are looking at in TikTok. And our experiences with the app could not be any more different, but Fortunately, there are apps like Trend Tok to help us Keep on top of that.
[00:25:39] Host: if you could go back five to 10 years and give yourself advice, what would it.
[00:25:43] Tim Butterfield: I would tell myself to be prepared for anything and to realize that people are receptive to hearing ideas that are very outside of the status quo. I think even more so now than they would've. 10 or 20 years ago. I think the last few years have really showed us all that, even the most accepted norms in every area of life, politics, public health, higher education, that is all subject to change and to be questioned and challenged.
[00:26:19] Tim Butterfield: And as a young professional 10 years ago, I know that I, and probably many others would, Pretty timid about making suggestions that challenge the status quo. the last 10 years have showed me that it is important to be very open minded and listen to ideas that are outside of the norm. And I think those ideas today would be very well received given all of the changes that we have all experienced in just the last few years.
[00:26:47] Host: How can someone connect with you if they would like to reach out?
[00:26:51] Tim Butterfield: If someone would like to be in touch, I would welcome the conversation. You can find me on Grinnell's, meet the staff webpage, through our admission webpage online. I'm also on LinkedIn, Timothy Butterfield, and would be happy to connect on there as well.
[00:27:08] Host: This is the Filling Seats podcast, hosted by StudentBridge, your one stop shop for easy and engaging enrollment solutions. If you're tired of snory-telling, and ready to start storytelling your way to better visits and better enrollment, visit studentbridge.com.
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