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Episode #37
Filling Seats Podcast | October 3, 2023

Marketing a small regional campus serving non-traditional students

In this episode:

You’ll hear from Corrie Wilder who is the Executive Director of Marketing and Communications at Washington State University Everett, a small regional campus in the WSU system. 

You'll hear:

  • How they navigate recruitment and marketing as a branch campus of a larger university system
  • Advantages of marketing a small regional school and what marketing tactics work best
  • Recommendations for how to grow enrollment among non-traditional populations
Headshot - Corrie Wilder

Corrie Wilder

Executive Director of Marketing and Enrollment Management



Episode Transcript

Host: [00:00:00] You're listening to Filling Seats: The State of Enrollment Marketing in 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 from fellow enrollment marketers, thought leaders, and ed tech innovators.

Host: Listen in for proven strategies to fill seats this cycle and beyond.

Host: Welcome to episode 37 of filling seats. In this episode, you'll hear from Corrie Wilder, who is the executive director of marketing and communications. At Washington state university Everett, a small regional campus in the WSU system. You'll hear how they navigate recruitment and marketing as a branch campus of a larger university system.

Host: Advantages of marketing or small regional school. And what marketing tactics work [00:01:00] best. And last recommendations for how to grow enrollment among non-traditional populations. Let's meet Corrie.

Corrie Wilder: I call myself the accidental professor. I actually started my life in allied health. I was a dietician and I've always been a creative at heart. And when I realized that career wasn't really scratching the itch, , I went back to school.

Corrie Wilder: So I went Parsons School of Design, pivoted to graphic art and marketing. and then my first job out of design school was, in the creative studio at television food network. So I mushed all of that together. so my first career was still helpful. and eventually I moved on to print publishing.

Corrie Wilder: I was working in marketing and creative services at Sports Illustrated and Golf Magazine. And about 12 years ago, my, husband, kids, and I moved to, Washington State from New York. we had an opportunity and decided to... take it. we started a boutique creative and marketing firm. And one day I was approached by someone here at WSU Everett, looking for people from industry to teach as an adjunct [00:02:00] and that first class changed my whole life.

Corrie Wilder: So I started teaching, then I started teaching some more. Then I went back and got my master's degree in technical communication. then I started doing marketing for the college that I was teaching for, the Murrow College of Communication. And, from there I developed my higher ed marketing capabilities, started my doctorate in ed leadership, and now I am the marketing director for the campus at WSU Everett.

Host: tell me a little bit about how you would describe your institution and your current role. Silence.

Corrie Wilder: My role officially is the executive director of marketing and communication for WSU Everett. we're the newest of the Washington State University System six campuses. we primarily offer upper division coursework. we serve students that are transferring usually from community college to the university , in our region, the North Puget Sound region is the area we serve.

Corrie Wilder: we started in 2012. We're very young. We started with just a mechanical engineering program. and our campus building just opened August 15th, 2017. So we're still in a a building. It's like that new building smell. We're still in it, and it's gorgeous, beautiful facility. and now we offer programs in engineering, communication, business, agriculture, data analytics and cyber security is starting, this fall, we're also going to be expanding into graduate programs.

Corrie Wilder: What we will be including the doctor of education leadership, hopefully starting in the spring. Our student population is very diverse, heavily non traditional or new traditional, right? It's a better term. our average age is about 26. We have a very large percentage of first generation students, high percentage of Pell Grant recipients, lots of veterans on the GI Bill, and, we have a very active student community.

Host: How many students do you have at your institution?

Corrie Wilder: When you're talking about enrollment, people talk about the tens of thousands. We were aiming to get over 200. This semester, and [00:04:00] we did. We got there. We got there. We were concerned because with the building just opening the programs just starting and then COVID the rug was like ripped out from under us.

Corrie Wilder: It was really frightening because enrollment plummeted at community colleges and that's who feeds us. as people are getting their sea legs back and getting back into in person opportunities and experiences. We started to grow our enrollment and we're very fortunate. So now we're up past where we were last year.

Host: and we're hoping to be over 300 next year. So as people start to know of us again and start to get more involved in the community colleges. Are, ramping up will also be ramping up. Tell me a little bit about, both operationally and enrollment wise, how do y'all function within a system of campuses? Because for some schools, it's okay. We have nothing in common, but our name, we, operate and recruit, Like, completely separate institutions, others, it's more of a funnel model and there might be some oversight from the main campus marketing to, what you do, tell me how y'all function.

Host: Silence.

Corrie Wilder: The system is called the one W S U system. so we are a campus in culture and name. Of the system. so although every campus is unique, and I consider our campus unique to all of the other campuses in that right now, we're primarily upper division and our relationships in the community and our size really make us an outlier.

Corrie Wilder: We're still part of this larger system, which means that we have access to the amazing resources. We collaborate with other campuses. I have a very good relationship with marketing leads. at the other campuses throughout the system. And we meet regularly to talk a little bit about what we're working on and what's working for us in our region, what's not working, share resources, things like that.

Corrie Wilder: our president, Kirk Schultz, he is fabulous and very dedicated to the one WSU mission. He spends a lot of time circulating the campuses, visiting with everybody. We actually have a town hall, and he'll be here to talk a little bit about, our campus and the system in general and how everything works together.

Corrie Wilder: We're all Cougs is what we say.

Host: Enrollment wise, do you feel like there's any competition for the same student or are there some lines drawn in the sand in terms of who would go where?

Corrie Wilder: How could there not be competition when you have a global campus and a four year campus and everybody takes freshmen except you, it just doesn't make sense that there wouldn't be,That said, that's not everybody's purpose.

Corrie Wilder: It's not like you're going out of your way to find somebody else's students. I've been in this position about 18 months. And the way I see it is that our campuses truly are unique enough that we aren't exactly competing for the same students. so while there is that group of.

Corrie Wilder: And you say, that's our student. If you really get into the weeds on it and really understand who your market is, they're not the same at all. here, people who come to us, don't want to be. In a rural location in a big dorm living on campus. They want to work full time. A lot of them have kids.

Corrie Wilder: They want to be home. So the regional aspect of it is tremendous. I would say there is a little bit of overlap with us and global campus because it's difficult for people who are working. You know, I took my master's degree all online and it was really helpful as a working parent to have that opportunity.

Corrie Wilder: and I wonder if I had an opportunity that was very local. If I could have gone to classes like 20 minutes away from my house, I might have done that because I'm that kind of person. Not everybody is. So I do think that while there is overlap and some people are encouraged or think that, well, I can't go to school because it's too far away.

Corrie Wilder: I have to take classes online. What may come across as some competition is that we might Find some of those students who wouldn't have necessarily Persevered in an online program and saying no we can accommodate life and school. That's why we're here That's part of our mission.

Corrie Wilder: The system is a relatively new concept.

Corrie Wilder: It's a number of years old, not decades. So the fact that we're all creating this culture together. Is wonderful organizationally and scary individually. Change is scary and working together is a little scary. and I do think that some people's roles have changed over the last few years, and it just it takes time. It Takes patience, and it takes willingness and belief in the mission.

Host: Let's talk enrollment goals. What are y'all trying to achieve? Okay.

Corrie Wilder: we really need to get students in the door. awareness is a very big deal for us right now. We lost a lot during the pandemic. We lost a lot of momentum. We didn't lose a lot of ability, right? Because we have been out there. We are your in person home base. So when that went away, We needed to pivot and figure out how do we reach our audience in a way that's not as obvious, right?

Corrie Wilder: So when we started to lose some enrollment, we were going hybrid like everybody else. So we were getting below, 200 for a while, and that's frightening for a new campus. We're supposed to be building momentum. The legislature knows that there's a need here.

Corrie Wilder: For us, we're here for a reason. so , this year we really, really pushed and I'm talking our admissions directors, like calling people directly, , we are very hands on one on one with our enrollment and enrollment goals. It's to make every student feel that they belong here. And we really do appreciate and are grateful to have them here so we can educate them.

Corrie Wilder: to give them what we have to offer. I'm looking at my goals now for my next academic year. and for me, I think we can easily get to the 300 plus number, maybe 350 would be our stretch, so when I talk to the rest of the team, cause we're such a small group here, I'll be working with the director of admissions.

Corrie Wilder: I'll be working with student services. I'll be working with the academic affairs lead. And others to make sure that we're able to reach that goal. So the enrollment goal is not mine. It's really something that's collaboratively determined. and as I'm understanding things, hearing everybody's goals, that 3 to 350 mark is what we want to see.

Host: What are your top priorities to continue to achieve those growth goals? Silence.

Corrie Wilder: there are a number of different ways that we can improve enrollment. I've learned a lot over the past year about hyperlocal marketing.

Corrie Wilder: I've worked for some pretty big companies, you're working for Food Network. You're like trying to get everybody to watch, right? And yes, you have your targets, but it's pretty broad in scope here. It's like I could walk and drive a 50 mile radius around my building and talk to people. A lot of our efforts are earned media and earned one to one marketing efforts.

Corrie Wilder: We show up at Every community event. We show up at every, college fair in the area, part of our enrollment efforts is to really become an integral part of our community. So things like We're the anchor for our local P 20 council. when you're part of efforts like that, then your superintendents and your principals and other leaders and counselors in the high schools and in the community colleges are involved with you, and they know you.

Corrie Wilder: And that's how you get... Those students, you need people to tell the students about you. So that's a really important part of our enrollment and marketing efforts. other than that, we're traditional in that we do [00:12:00] digital, we're doing our pay per click. but it's really cool that we can focus on.

Corrie Wilder: Things so tightly and I can do a lot of geo fencing and geo targeting. So I've been really enjoying doing that. Digital billboards, when you do them locally, not so expensive. So we've been able to take advantage of certain things that I couldn't take advantage of in a larger company because budget wouldn't allow it.

Host: lot of times when I, interview schools, they're reaching a much more mass audience. You know, every high school student in a region of the country. And so it almost allows you to be really smart and targeted because you're going after such a specific type of student. .

Corrie Wilder: Exactly. And as we are, seeking more growth, we're developing programs that we know local students will want to be a part of. For example, we created a degree partnership program with one of our community colleges in the area, so even though we're a division, campus, we can enroll freshmen, and they can be a Coug and attend the community college concurrently.

Corrie Wilder: And that helps us increase enrollment and helps us with persistence retention and, completion of a bachelor's degree, where we know that statistically a lot of people who start community college intending to get a bachelor's degree. Don't necessarily follow through. So we're trying to create access opportunities and retention and persistence opportunities.

Corrie Wilder: That's going to help us in the longterm.

Corrie Wilder: it's not a unique program to academia, right? we're modeled after the Oregon State University program. They have a degree partnership program and it's a very successful one. And we've been talking about improving on what we were calling dual enrollment for a while saying, how do we sell that?

Corrie Wilder: I said, we need to package it in a way that people understand and that benefits them immediately. So we found this model and started developing it. And that was a really exciting process.

Corrie Wilder: The other program that we are involved with now that I expect to help us grow and also help grow the education, in our area is, we were selected as a campus to be part of the Amazon career choice educational program. And that was a really big win for us.

Corrie Wilder: there is an Amazon warehouse in Everett close by our campus and another one that just opened up. If you're a qualified hourly employee, you can have your tuition prepaid by Amazon to go to school.

Corrie Wilder: So that's a win for everybody because they can help their employees skill up and we can do some enrollment. Marketing in those areas that we didn't have the opportunity to do before they're actually even willing to work with their employees shift wise to make sure that they have time to go to school.

Host: What about some of those traditional enrollment marketing tactics like mail, email, text message? Is that an integral part of your strategy?

Corrie Wilder: Oh, absolutely. How could it not be right? we work through our, CRM. Slate. and I help craft messages for email for text. and then I also do a lot of outreach on behalf of our leadership. And then we get into the traditional stuff. I've even done some print and it's great because our local folks read the local paper. So when you want people to start talking about you, and you have an opportunity to put a nice big red full page ad in the local paper. It serves very well.

Host: With going after very specific types of students, are you utilizing any strategies within personalization? 

Corrie Wilder: our slate messaging makes it very convenient to personalize our messages. and we're small enough that we can actually take a look at somebody's query form and then write directly back. We have our automated messaging because you can't not have a drip campaign.

Corrie Wilder: It's inefficient to not do that. Everybody does get busy. However, there are other You see somebody who has a specific question, you call them or you write to them directly and have that conversation in our case we'll go out of our way to invite them here, take a tour, let's take a walk. Let's sit in the office and talk a little bit about what your needs are.

Corrie Wilder: So that personalization is more intense than I would have ever expected marketing personalization to be.

Host: Is it fair to say that because of your size, you're really utilizing a lot of one to one outreach and grassroots relationship building as a primary part of your strategy that some larger institutions can't necessarily tap into?

Corrie Wilder: Higher education institutions in general do a lot of grassroots efforts. It's part of the college experience, but I do agree with you. When you're a campus this small and in a community that's as tight as we are here in the North Puget Sound, it only makes sense.

Corrie Wilder: To go grassroots and to just have your boots-on-the-ground marketing efforts ready to roll and to personalize as much as you can because having a regional campus in a larger system the purpose of it is personal, we're here because of the population that we're serving. So if we didn't personalize, it would be Completely against mission, right?

Corrie Wilder: So while some other campuses may not have the opportunity to do that, regional campuses are very fortunate in that regard, because we can, and we need to, it's really, the best way to make relationships.

Host: If you had to list, let's say your top three marketing channels that you rely on the most, what would you say that those are?

Corrie Wilder: Boots on the ground, community outreach. We're involved very actively in local events, anything to raise campus awareness and provide direct access to prospective students.

Corrie Wilder: High schools, for cities, at the municipal airports, we're around, people see us, and we take advantages of opportunities.

Corrie Wilder: When you're trying to raise awareness and let people know that you're here and available to them, taking advantage of opportunities like this [00:18:00] one is. crucial to grow your awareness and to reach people that you may not have necessarily reached because other people are listening to this podcast.

Corrie Wilder: our, chancellor, he serves on the state board of education. so that's a really important part of our marketing efforts.

Corrie Wilder: As far as the traditional stuff goes, I leverage a mix of channels and the geofencing and geotargeting of all digital ads has been paramount in making sure that we're getting qualified leads in the door, that's like the direct link to the forms and everything we need to reach back out to students.

Corrie Wilder: We're refreshing our website as well, which is also an important piece of the marketing. That'll be an even greater way to keep people, because our goal is to really get people to come and look, engage with the website, fill out the request for information, and stay, learn a little bit more about us.

Corrie Wilder: So that's the next goal is to take all of that hyperlocal stuff and get people to continue to engage with us.

Host: I always love to ask people who came from outside of higher ed, especially someone like you who had quite an extensive career pre higher ed, what were some of your greatest takeaways? Or aha moments of Oh my gosh, I can't believe enrollment marketers aren't doing this thing.

Corrie Wilder: The biggest thing about higher ed marketing that I found challenging is that we're in a culture where we almost feel guilty selling a product. That we feel that we're here for the public good and higher education is something that everybody needs and everybody deserves, and that is rightfully so, and communicating about it is almost a little bit not nice, a little, a little off that we don't do that because that is really not the way of academia.

Corrie Wilder: That's not the case. We are selling a product and we don't need to be selling it. In a hard and fast way. You don't need to be giving the hard sell all the time, but you need to consistently explain why you do what you do and why it's beneficial for the region. So there are ways to sell your product that don't feel like I'm selling advertising on a television show, for example.

Corrie Wilder: And I feel that is a very big difference in attitude for people who have never been in industry. We have a lot to give, right? And you can't give it if you don't want to tell people about it. and if that means it brings in tuition dollars for us and we can offer more, that's awesome. that's an incredible thing. And it's a wonderful feeling to be able to serve your community in that way.

Host: what are some challenges that your institution is currently facing?

Corrie Wilder: we're a small fish in a big pond, so we compete for resources and attention, ? Really common for new branch campuses within larger systems. So that's a challenge we deal with very often. I can't be shy. I have to be able to talk about money and not worry about it. I have to be very willing to hear no and then go back again and go back again because it's just a lot of organizing throughout a system and there is finite resources.

Corrie Wilder: So you have to be willing to work within that system and not let it frustrate you and not let it get personal. so that's been a real learning curve for me.

Corrie Wilder: and one of the things as an institution that we are dealing with, as an upper division campus, we are struggling with community colleges, developing their applied baccalaureate programs.

Corrie Wilder: as they grow in offering bachelor's degrees. The universities are now competing for students at the bachelor's level, where it used to be a very, I hate the word, but very synergistic relationship, you have these community colleges and the students go, they get their associates, they move on, and they get into university and they go for their bachelor's degree.

Corrie Wilder: When a community college develops an applied baccalaureate, they now have a four year program. As people are more interested in pursuing a degree in one place, that could really become a challenge for us.

Corrie Wilder: If we're going to be competing for some of the same students, we need to understand what that means, why it's happening, and how we can best serve the region for their educational needs and best serve the workforce.

Host: Related to resources. Do you have any strategies or advice for someone going into a budgetary? Conversation on how to get the things that you need to bring in the numbers.

Corrie Wilder: What I have done is every year, like most marketing directors would, you have to put together your goals, objectives, and budget. Talk to leadership about it, but you can't let it stop there, I develop many programs with many budgets throughout the academic year. So for example, I would like to start getting more community involved in our space.

Corrie Wilder: It's a beautiful space and we have this incredible place for speakers. So I have an idea that we could host a speaker series or do some kind of series of events, but I can't just say. Oh, yes, I'd like to bring in some speakers and This is on my budget annually.

Corrie Wilder: What does that even mean? So what I need to do is develop my proposal. Why is this beneficial? How will it bring in the numbers? What's the projected return on investment? And as long as I'm taking care of those things, even if you get a no, That doesn't mean that the idea is dead, and it doesn't mean that it wasn't good.

Corrie Wilder: It's just , they might not have the resources for you at that time, but you've worked it through. And there are times I've worked proposals through and said, Oh, what a lousy idea that was. I'm not even bringing that to the chancellor. So it really helps you to go through that exercise. So your main budget's really important.

Corrie Wilder: But when you have those larger campaigns, we did a pretty extensive, integrated marketing campaign this past academic year. And I had to go through just that one campaign and talk about which channels I'm using, why I chose to purchase the media space that I did in the way that I did, and how I anticipated that to increase our numbers.

Corrie Wilder: And that worked very well. I'm really excited about that one. We actually increased our, request for information. Forms by 335%. Over the course of that particular campaign, we're all departments of one here. So when you're creating a campaign, you can't be in a vacuum. when you're under resourced, you need to make sure that you're very clear about how you're using your resources and how it will benefit the institution.

Host: What do you think are some of the top pain points that other enrollment teams are facing right now?

Corrie Wilder: people's ideas of what is important when it comes to higher education, the value of higher education in general, don't believe for a second that it's becoming less valuable in people's minds. I think it's just changing in the type of value.

Corrie Wilder: It needs to have in people's minds and that is an enrollment marketing challenge that we've never been faced with before So you've never had to convince somebody why a college degree was a good thing to do now instead of later We've never really had to say maybe it is a good idea if you work and go to school instead of just go off right after high school to go.

Corrie Wilder: Or maybe it is a good idea to have an apprenticeship and then go to college. There are a lot of pathways that we need to consider to help raise the value in our communities, our workforce, and in academia. So I think that's a big challenge, , we need to understand our place in our communities and that's changing very quickly with the way the economy is going and the way jobs are changing.

Host: What is one recommendation that you have for institutions struggling to meet their enrollment goals? Yeah.

Corrie Wilder: Think about the students that are not your typical students, ? So when it came to us, we said, we don't enroll freshmen. No, you're right, we don't. However, we can still serve. an area of the population that will help us grow a couple of years from now.

Corrie Wilder: So everybody's really looking for immediate, short term get the butts in seats. Everybody gets really nervous about not being able to fill those classrooms. And it's a struggle and it will still be a struggle for a while. And we're going to hit an enrollment cliff in 2025. Everybody's waiting for it.

Corrie Wilder: My advice would be look for the other opportunities, there's no more low hanging fruit. We need to start looking into some. Untraditional ways of reaching a new kind of traditional student. And there are lots of ways to do it.

Host: And you also need to be collaborative in those efforts with the rest of campus because if you're bringing a new type of student or a new population to campus, your academic advisors, student services, all of these other departments need to be ready and willing to assist that student with their specific needs and, unique challenges.

Host: brought to the table.

Corrie Wilder: Absolutely. We have no choice but to collaborate. We are all in one place. if the admissions director is putting together a program to bring in a different kind of student, And the director of student services is not prepared to receive those students.

Corrie Wilder: That could be a real big challenge and gets all in the way of your retention numbers. So it benefits everybody to collaborate and make sure that if you're going after a different population, some college, no degree. If I'm looking for that particular unit and I start noticing, wow, we have a really interesting growth in this area.

Corrie Wilder: We need to really understand who those students are and what their unique needs are.

Host: What do you see for the future of higher ed marketing?

Corrie Wilder: I think that we're gonna be using a lot of traditional methods. modern strategies as well. I think we're gonna be seeing this real pronounced shift in personalization, . I think personalization has to come from everybody, and we're gonna see a lot more of that.

Corrie Wilder: And A. I. is going to make it easier For institutions to believe it or not, that sounds like it would be less personal. But I actually believe that some of those, learning models can help us, better personalize our marketing and academia. So I think looking at the AI and machine learning that can really help us delve deeper into like student behaviors, ?

Corrie Wilder: And preferences.

Corrie Wilder: With everything out there, though, I really, I think that ultimately . It's all gonna be storytelling. No matter what method you use. Really, the future of marketing is telling your story in a compelling way that reaches the people that you want to reach in the place and time that you want to reach them.

Corrie Wilder: AI can help you do that, but it can't do it for you. So I think that we're all starting to learn that we need to develop our story and be very clear about it.

Host: So when You mentioned personalization. Do you mean personalizing the message by who it's going to?

Corrie Wilder: [00:29:00] Personalization goes beyond the dear name in an email so I do think that's An important delineation to make when we talk about personalized marketing when I'm talking to you right now This is personalized marketing. I'm talking about my institution. I love where I work I believe in our mission And I'm telling you that.

Corrie Wilder: And if I'm lucky, I've told my story in the right way. And you believe it too. So when you'll talk to people about this, you'll say, I spoke to this really interesting person. They work on this tiny campus in the region. And it makes me think that these regional campuses are something to take a look at because there's more opportunity there than I realized in the past, for example.

Corrie Wilder: So I think that anytime you're telling your story, you have to tell it in a way that's compelling to the person you're telling it to. That's the personalization that I'm talking about.

Host: How can someone connect with you if they'd like to do that?

Corrie Wilder: , I'm on LinkedIn. and you're welcome to email me. And I am happy to collaborate with anybody, answer questions, get involved [00:30:00] in some groupthink. I love it. get in touch.

Host: This is the Filling Seats podcast, hosted by StudentBridge, where we help enrollment teams achieve more by fusing authentic storytelling with industry leading technology and personalized digital experiences.

Host: If you're looking to attract more, amaze more, and achieve more, visit To connect with this episode's guest, check out the show notes. If you enjoyed this episode, leave a rating and review, and don't forget to subscribe! For more information about the podcast or to let us know you'd like to be a guest, visit

Host: Thanks for listening!