How word-of-mouth can impact your college brand

Your students are talking about what it’s like to go to your college. Why does it matter? Because their opinions are one of the most influential forces at work when it comes to new students making decisions about attending — and staying — at your institution.

Social media make this phenomenon more possible than ever before: as soon as students leave your college, they share their experience with friends and family on their Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other channels — especially if it wasn’t a positive experience. In fact, according to Stella Services, a dissatisfied customer will tell between 9 and 15 people about their experience.

The good news about all this chatter is that you can harness it for greater brand reputation. It’s called “word-of-mouth marketing” (WOMM), and it’s a low-cost tactic that is rooted in the deliberate commitment of giving students and parents an experience worth sharing from person to person.

To get started, consider that there are generally three reasons students will broadcast their opinions about you:

  1. They have a particular experience with the college, the service and the education. They either love your college, they hate your college, or you’ve given them something specific to talk about and/or you’ve made it easy for them to talk about your college.
  2. Your college has affected how your students personally feel. They feel good, they feel smart, they feel important, they want to help people and they want to express themselves.
  3. Students want to be connected. They are part of the college family, they belong to a community and they are part of a team.

And it’s not just students — parents, community members, business partners, alumni and employees are your greatest advertisers, good or bad. They are talking about you on social media, over the backyard fence and at the local grocery store. A WOMM program means giving them something to talk about and then participating in the conversation to continue its rich and substance.

Tips from the field

There is an endless list of great topics your stakeholders might choose to rave about from excellent service, convenience and quality of instruction, to new services or a cool community or student event. WOMM does more than tout accomplishments though; it invites your stakeholders to connect with one another about positive experiences. Try a few of these low-cost communication tactics:

  • Share your events by asking a few of your local partners to post the event information on their own social media channels.
  • Participate in career days and invite college students or graduates to speak to high school students about their experience.
  • Write a college blog highlighting a community member or local business owner.
  • Ask a business owner to write a guest blog about a positive student hire, and promote the blog using the business owner’s photo on your college social media channels.
  • Ask a student for a testimonial and use it on your college website, print promotions and social media. Having a student share something positive about their experience is the best WOMM you could ask for.

This article is part of a bimonthly series provided by the National Council for Marketing and Public Relations, an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.

WOMM happens whether you like it or not, so inviting your college community to join the effort is key. Participating in the conversation, responding to positive and negative comments, learning ways to improve student services at your college and, most importantly, providing exceptional customer service training to faculty and staff is going to strengthen your college brand.

Here are a few ideas for encouraging faculty and staff to understand how excellent customer service can encourage excellent WOMM:

  • Create a “secret shopper” experience and build a customer service training program around your findings.
  • Create a “turn a co-worker in” program where employees recognize and call out co-workers for going the extra mile for students.
  • Recognize your faculty and staff. Smart companies know that their employees are their greatest asset. (I once read a tweet by Estelle Metayer, “A CFO asks CEO: “What happens if we invest in our people and then they leave us?” CEO: “What happens if we don’t, and they stay?”)
  • Have faculty encourage their students to share photos of their latest culinary creation, an engine they are working on in auto lab, or a photo of a prop from a class presentation.
  • Publish your college’s preferred hashtags widely and invite everyone to use them to promote great examples of student service.

Students want to feel connected, to be part of the college family and to belong to a community. By engaging in WOMM, your college can create a culture in which positive experiences are routinely noticed, shared, and work in concert to spur on a college reputation truly worth talking about.

About the Author

Michele Kersten-Hart
is manager of multimedia and web services at Oakland Community College (Michigan) and serves as president of the National Council for Marketing and Public Relations.