3 low-cost ways to do market research about your academic programs

It's a great idea for colleges and universities to use data to inform their brand strategy, but there are ways to do it without a huge budget, writes Deborah Maue for Inside Higher Ed.

The problem for many institutions is that they believe they need to do expensive and sophisticated market research in order to improve their brand, writes Maue, who is the vice president of strategic marketing and communications at Columbia College Chicago.

Maue argues institutions shouldn't be afraid of taking a few "shortcuts" to get more insight about their market. She encourages all institutions, no matter their budget, to look for creative ways to get diverse perspectives that can accurately represent the views of prospective students, alumni, and other stakeholders.

For those on a limited budget, Maue suggests three methods for conducting market research:

1: Focus Groups:

Current students can be a great source of information about the student experience at your university, writes Maue. You can ask them questions such as "Why did you choose this college?" or "What could the college do better," and other questions that ask about their motivation for attending the school and how they feel about their interactions with the school so far, writes Maue.

Just remember that the student experience might be different from student to student, she warns, encouraging campus communications leaders to include a mix of students from freshmen to seniors, transfer students, and students from different majors. To motivate students to participate, simply offer them pizza or a gift card, suggests Maue.

2: Social media:

Start paying attention to what's being said about your institution on social media, writes Maue. This can be a good source of unfiltered information about how students feel. Maue encourages communications leaders to make searching for posts about your institution part of your daily routine.

The insight you can get from these searches can be compared with the feedback that comes out of the focus groups, she adds. This way you will have a more comprehensive look into students' opinions.

3: Surveys:

Surveys have one big advantage over focus groups, according to Maue: There's no limit on the number of people who can participate. However, she warns that the downside of surveys is that it can be difficult to gain insight into exactly why students feel the way they do. Maue recommends doing both surveys and focus groups to capture the advantages of each one (Maue, Inside Higher Ed, 8/10). 

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