Winning in higher education using research and insight

Editor’s note: Ashley Miller is principal of marketing insights and analytics at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind. Kevin Micklitz is founder and CEO of Sunseed Research, Madison, Wisc. 

If you participated in higher education of some kind, think back to that time. How many universities did you consider? Who helped you make your decision? Ultimately, what reasons did the university give you that made you believe it was the right choice?  

With over 4,000 higher education institutions available today and an undergraduate market continuing to experience declines, the need for a differentiated and effective messaging strategy in higher education is more important than ever before. When a prospective student is trying to decide which college or university may be right for them, there are many factors that go into their decision-making process including but not limited to affordability, prestige, balance and safety. While the student is weighing multiple options on where to attend, their parents/guardians are critical influencers and decision-makers as well.

At Purdue University, a land-grant institution in Indiana of nearly 40,000 undergraduate students, there is an ongoing desire to understand the audiences we serve through research and insight. As you can imagine, there are many reasons to believe (RTBs) that we tout proudly across the university. In early 2022, we had the opportunity to partner with Sunseed Research to help us understand how our ever-evolving constituents respond to current and proposed RTBs.  

Using a MaxDiff approach to test messaging  

Through this partnership, we wanted to learn whether the RTBs we had developed over time resonated with our audiences, how this changed at different points in the decision-making journey and how we could best optimize our messaging for the future. We explored multiple approaches and decided that a MaxDiff approach would be the ideal methodology to answer our questions. Using MaxDiff allowed us to test 30 different messages that touched upon Purdue University’s brand pillars: accessible prestige; safety and security; supportive transformation; shared drive; thinkers and doers; and balanced life. The research design provided clarity on our overarching goals:  

  • Which messages do the best job of making respondents want to learn more about Purdue University? 
  • What mix of messages would provide the greatest reach inside a given segment? 
  • What messages work best for different sub-segments of the population? 
  • Does exposure to these messages ultimately increase interest in Purdue University?  

We tested these messages with several key audiences:  

  • Prospective students: High school students who had not yet applied to the university but were interested in pursuing a four-year college education after graduation.  
  • Admitted students: Students who had been admitted for the fall 2022 semester at Purdue University – West Lafayette campus. 
  • Parents: Adults who indicated they had a high school student interested in pursuing a four-year college education after graduation. 

Frozen tuition is important but it’s not everything 

One of the frequent messages we have used over the past 11 years as a university has been our ability to keep tuition frozen, an aspect that has been unique to our institution. While the frozen tuition message resonated across the audiences, the research uncovered more nuanced findings. For example, we observed that tuition freeze had less impact with individuals who lived farther away from Indiana. This was an important finding as it then allowed us more opportunity to concentrate on the messages that resonated with an out-of-state audience such as return-on-investment and the ability for students to work on real-world projects with well-known companies. These nuances were seen across the different audiences and with students at different points in their journey. Affordability messages were most impactful among parents, while prestige and employability were well received by already admitted students.

Overall, we saw that three main messaging themes performed well across the majority of sub-segments. The three themes included messages around affordability, preparation for the real world and external recognition from well-known and well-respected sources.

Audience segmentation is important for determining appropriate messaging

TURF: Creating meaningful connections by improving messaging 

While knowing which message to use is critical, we also needed to know which mix of message(s) would give us the greatest likelihood of making a meaningful connection. Using TURF (total unduplicated reach and frequency), we were able to determine which combination of messages would appeal to the greatest number in each of our audiences. To our surprise, the frozen tuition message wasn’t the one that would universally give us the best reach. We found that heavier messaging around students who can work on real-world projects (along with a few others) would maximize reach.   

While there were consistencies between the groups, there were also differences the TURF identified that would have been difficult to discern from the MaxDiff outputs. For admitted students, incorporating rankings related to our graduate program was a message that needed to be included in the mix. For parents, learning more about the 200-plus majors we offer at Purdue University showed the greatest incremental increase in reach. These insights provided another opportunity to further tell stories that showcased the depth of disciplines that students can study – from mechanical engineering, game design, nursing, marketing and more at Purdue University. 

Developing messaging and sharing insights across campus 

With over 2,000 completed surveys, we were able to segment the data by region, academic area of interest and basic demographic characteristics. With our partnership with Sunseed Research, we also developed an online simulator that allowed for further analysis based on key questions posed after sharing the insights across campus. The online simulator has been instrumental in developing further strategies and tactics. A few additional learnings by using the tool have included:  

  • Messages around diversity and cultural centers score higher among those interested in Liberal Arts.  
  • Even with the removal of affordability-based messaging, TURF results remain high across all groups with safety and study-abroad messaging being added to the mix in its place. 
  • Study-abroad opportunities perform higher with female students than with male students.  

We continue to learn more and more about our messaging using our online simulator and with additional conversations and presentations across campus. As others explore similar methods of testing, here are a few key considerations to keep in mind:  

  1. Ensure a variety of messages: Messages that cover a wide variety of topics and themes can help you better understand which content areas to focus more on and others that may need less attention.  
  2. Length of message matters: With the variety of messages in mind, be sure that that they are also similar in length to minimize bias due to message length.  
  3. Educate others on the methodology first: Consider the varying levels of expertise in areas of research and insights. An initial introductory video can help you share learnings with your team, so conversation may be spent on developing action items from the data rather than explaining the research.  
  4. Everyone learns differently: When educating on the methodology, you may find you will need to use multiple mediums – think video, lunch and learns, one-page leave-behinds that hit the highlights, etc. This may seem like extra work but at the end of the day, it allows you to get your message across to multiple users so they can carry the story forward to their respective teams.  
  5. Simulate often: The online simulator provides an excellent opportunity to be strategic and tactical. With the simulator we are able to self-serve and war-game without having to continually bring in a partner for additional analysis. We continue to ask questions regarding students who reside in state versus out of state, first-generation versus legacy and even by those who fall within a particular attitudinal segmentation mind-set over others. Continuing to leverage this tool from our partners at Sunseed Research has extended the use of the initial research findings, which helps us make better decisions overall.  
  6. Show some quick wins: At Purdue University, we have a dedicated webpage at that tells a variety of inspiring stories about Boilermakers. The findings from this research provides a road map for some of this content and is a meaningful way to connect research into action.