Flying back from the Poets&Quants partner conference in Boston, I am reflecting that the event was more consistently themed than probably anyone intended. It’s not surprising, when a bunch of top business schools come together to discuss the industry, we learn that our challenges aren’t so different. The economy is up, so applications are down, but career placement is up, per the usual expectation in higher ed. The “Trump Effect” has caused an unprecedented decrease in international applications. For the first time ever in the history of the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) survey, preference to study in the US dropped below 50%. And student prospects are demanding ever more customized, flexible and high value education solutions.

Of course, these trends aren’t unique to business schools and apply to most of the higher education industry. This market turbulence has us all asking the same questions:

  • How can we best meet the new demands of the learner?
  • What does it take to break old habits to find better solutions?
  • How can we focus on engagement as a key success metric, rather than scale or reach?

Fortunately, we have a lot to say around the themes of starting with the learner, breaking old habits and creating meaningful engagement. We were invited to attend the conference with our client, Michigan Ross School of Business, to present a case study on our highly successful work launching the MBA Summit -- a first-of-its-kind livestream event that offered invaluable advice to prospective MBA candidates across the nation.

So how do our themes come into play? Here’s how:

Starting with the Learner

For Michigan Ross, we first responded to the challenge of reaching the top-tier full-time MBA prospect to build the reputation and consideration of the business school by listening. We deployed a version of our proprietary process called Hacking Human Behavior™ to use big data from online conversations to get at the unfiltered mindsets, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of the target. This involved using tools like Meltwater and Radian6 to go way beyond macrotrends and mine thousands of online conversations across the globe that revealed not only salient questions student prospects had on their journey, but the emotions and drivers behind them. They had a lot of high-stakes questions and weren’t getting a lot of good answers. This represented an important need for student prospects and opportunity for Michigan Ross.

Breaking Old Habits

Originally, Michigan Ross sought a paid media driven solution for their full time MBA challenge. But after listening to the learner, we gave them a controversial recommendation: They didn’t need paid media. They needed to be the thought leader to answer the critical questions we uncovered through social listening and fill in the gaps for the top-tier prospect. They needed to bring much desired authenticity and credibility by answering the hard questions at every stage of the journey in an unbiased two-way discussion. Oh, and we recommended they invite their top competitors to join them. While this might cause many clients to break into a sweat, Michigan Ross agreed to break old paid media habits (banners, meh) and take a calculated risk. So, the MBA Summit was born.


This risk has dramatically paid off. We didn’t measure the success of this campaign through volume of qualified impressions. We blew the lid off of typical engagement metrics like paid media clicks. By leaning into the livestream aspect, providing honest answers from different perspectives (i.e. current students, alumni, admission directors and employers) and ensuring broad access to content, we fostered meaningful engagement from close to 10,000 people (and climbing) across 92 countries, viewing our panel videos and securing 750K+ pre-event impressions alone. People asked honest questions and got honest answers in real-time. As a result, the feedback on the post-event survey included a proliferation of words like “frank,” “honest,” “helpful” and “diverse opinions” to describe what they loved about the event.

It’s an exciting precedent for our work ahead with Michigan Ross and a peak at what’s really possible for the future of marketing in higher education.

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Christy Kelly is a VP, group account director at Gatesman and a passionate advocate for integrated, relevant marketing communications, specializing in higher education.