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Using Testimonials in Your Higher Ed Marketing: Our Six Tips to Success

Chris Hazell / Abound and Colleges of Distinction

This is the third of seven articles in the “Are You Making This Fatal Mistake with Your Higher Ed Marketing?” series, detailing how to elevate your school’s brand in the minds of your audience using a proven and easy-to-follow framework that puts them at the center of your brand’s story.

Sure, your higher ed marketing is the outlet for you to share how you can help others, but your message will resonate even more when you’re not the one sharing it; rather, your brand will be most trustworthy with testimonials, or content featuring what others have said about your college or university. Who better to speak for you than those who have already benefited from your school?

Of course, using testimonials in your higher ed marketing presupposes that your audience does in fact have positive things to say about your school. If your offerings aren’t solving their problems or helping them reach their goals, then no technique covered in this article will do you any good. Every good brand knows how to tell a compelling story that promises something to their audience, but every good brand also—at its core—genuinely offers something that delivers on that very brand promise. Assuming your school has been making your audience’s lives better, you’re already in a great position to boost your marketing story with prominently featured testimonials.

The most challenging part of this can be tracking down those who have engaged your school’s services, be they committed faculty members, recent alumni, or long-time donors, and asking them to share their experience. But while it will require some leg work to accrue, organize, and present testimonial content, the effort is well worth it.

Tip 1: Build Testimonial Surveys for Each Audience

Fortunately, there are some strategies to gather testimonials that are just as simple as they are effective. One relatively easy way is to email current students, alumni, donors, or others in your audience a survey with a few questions and space for them to share about their experience with your school. Make sure you keep these surveys short, and don’t ask for too much! You’ll only get a few responses for a survey that’s going to take more than five minutes to fill out.

Not only can a survey like this provide you with valuable stats, but it can also help you build a repository of testimonial content. Even if you end up with more content than you need, you’ll now have a hub of testimonials to draw from over time. One last note—and this goes for all testimonial content: always make sure to receive permission to use what someone said on any of your material before using testimonials in your higher ed marketing.

Tip 2: Go Where Your Audience Is

Another effective way to build up testimonial content is to go straight to where your audience is located. At this year’s Homecoming, for example, you can reach the several alumni you know will be in attendance with a booth at which to share their two cents. Pull out a camera (or smartphone, if that’s all you have) and ask them to say a few words about what made their university experience so special. This is an easy way to capture short clips that can be placed on social media or your website with minimal editing. And you’ll probably find that most alumni are thrilled by the opportunity to reminisce with you about their alma mater.

Tip 3: Think Through How to Utilize Each Type of Testimonial

Faculty and staff are often great allies while you’re acquiring testimonials, as a graduating student or high-level donor may be more inclined to respond to a professor or university advancement officer with whom they have built a relationship as opposed to a faceless email address from the school. Requests from faculty can be especially effective when you need a specific type of testimonial, such as one from a music major or online adult student. With this in mind, consider how you can recruit fellow employees to connect you with the audience you need.

Despite all the work it could take to get testimonials, they are critical tools to show your audience that people like them have benefited from your university or college. This is exactly why restaurants with strong Yelp reviews have such an advantage: past customers give evidence and a “reason to believe” that others will be pleased with their food and service.

Tip 4: Video Testimonials are Powerful

Once you have your testimonial content, there are a number of ways to share it in your marketing story, from a concise quote on your website to a simple video on social media or within an article in your alumni magazine. As an example, check out this touching and inspiring video by the American Cancer Society, which features a girl named Zia Saylor who sold homemade bracelets to help raise over $11,000 for charity. The American Cancer Society could have told the exact same story with web copy, but visitors to the website find it much more powerful and compelling to hear it from a fellow donor themselves.

Such videos remain impactful for colleges and universities as well. Oklahoma State University, for example, features “Orange Memories,” in which students share how their time at college has helped affirm their authentic sense of identity as well as how they want to impact the world after graduation. Santa Clara produced a similar video featuring current students’ deep sense of community within a vibrant campus setting that offers limitless opportunities for engagement. While your university marketing collateral needs to communicate what makes your campus unique and connected, it must also be supplemented with testimonials that give your audience a compelling “reason to believe” in your story.

Tip 5: Get Creative When Displaying Testimonials

Videos aren’t the only way to deliver a testimonial, of course—it is cheaper yet similarly effective to pull quotes from conversations you’ve had with your audience. For instance, this well-designed print piece by Loyola University New Orleans College of Law features engaging photos of students that are accompanied by quotes, a simple way to prove that the information in the brochure is believable.

Tip 6: Long Form Testimonials Can Be Powerful

Additionally, you might feature testimonials in the form of longer articles or stories, such as in a university blog or print publication. Mazda does exactly this with their “My Mazda, My Story,” a series of long-form stories that highlight positive experiences that customers have had with the company’s various car models. In fact, this relates to another effective tactic for conveying empathy and authority with your brand: content marketing.

It’s important to thread consistent testimonials throughout your higher ed marketing story, as each example of what others have to say in their own words helps maintain the overall “reason to believe.” You should have them featured on your website and all throughout print brochures, landing pages, social media campaigns, annual reports, and anywhere else your audience is going to engage with your school. You don’t, however, have to bombard your audience with hundreds of testimonials for them to be effective. A couple of well-crafted videos and a few strategically placed quotes (like those in the aforementioned brochure) can do wonders in making the story you’re telling with your marketing both believable and compelling to your audience.

Steps to Consider:

Identify in your higher ed marketing where you are and aren’t using testimonials—might there be an opportunity to include more of them?

Consider the different types of testimonials you’re using. Do you you have many current student testimonials but few donor testimonials? It’s worth considering each major audience separately to ensure you have the right type and number of testimonials for each one. You may have a hundreds testimonials from alumni all over your website, but you won’t be speaking to all of your audiences if you fail to highlight donors or adult students.

In what format are your testimonials? Are they mostly quotes? Primarily blog posts? Remember that variety keeps your marketing engaging. How can you can diversify the format of your presentation?

Do you have testimonial content that you’re not promoting effectively? You may have responses from a survey that can be repurposed, or maybe other departments on campus have their own testimonial content that you may not know about. It’s not uncommon to have testimonial content that simply hasn’t yet been integrated or made public. (A reminder: Make sure you have permission to use someone’s quote, picture, or name before doing so!)

There’s no need to be overwhelmed! Start simply: think through some survey questions you could ask a specific audience and consider sending it out. Even if you’re not quite ready to turn those responses into marketing content, you’ll at least have it for when you are. It’s always best to work with those on campus who know the particular audience best. Once you know who you’re marketing to, how to reach them, and how to diversify an effective set of testimonials, you’ll be supported by those who can vouch for you—those who give people like them a “reason to believe.”

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