Startup agency University Labs stresses brand marketing for colleges and universities

Four years ago, Keith Rhodes left his position as senior vice president and group director at the Young & Rubicam Group — New York, where he spent five years at the helm of a multiagency team that offered integrated marketing services for Land Rover North America. He took on the job of vice president and chief digital communications officer at Quinnipiac University, his alma mater.

“Today, many interactions with a university take place online, accessed by several different devices,” Rhodes said in a Quinnipiac press statement announcing his hiring. “It’s a complex landscape and consumers expect an experience that reflects the quality and value of the institution.”

Keith Rhodes, creator of University Labs

At the end of last December, Rhodes left Quinnipiac to create University Labs, a Stamford-based agency focused on providing marketing services and digital experience products for private four-year colleges and universities. The inspiration for this start-up, according to Rhodes, was based on his first-hand observations on the state of higher education marketing.

“When I joined Quinnipiac, I learned quite a bit about the disruption happening in higher education,” he recalled. “The agencies that serviced the higher education vertical aren’t very good — they were very low innovation and only offered homogenized product offerings. The big shops on Madison Avenue don’t know how to work with universities, and universities don’t know how to work with Madison Avenue. As a chief marketing officer, I was looking around and couldn’t find any good agencies. I chose to use agencies in the New York and Boston areas to get a higher level of inspiration from other industries in order to advance Quinnipiac.”

In launching University Labs, Rhodes argued that colleges and universities cannot afford to take an if-you-build-it-they-will-come approach to attracting students. For starters, he observed, the prospective target audience is getting smaller.

“There is a significant population decline that is happening over the next 10 years, and there are 3 percent fewer students graduating from high school,” he said. “Huge population shifts are occurring throughout the country, especially in the Northeast where you have a higher concentration of private schools. Part of the challenge today is that the demand is not there for all universities.”

Rhodes added that many schools are trying to woo students with what he calls “discount rates” on tuition, but this runs the risk of creating financial instability if too much discounting takes place. “They call them grants and scholarships so it sounds sexier, but its cash on the hood in automotive parlance,” he said, adding that this situation is not a secret among those searching for the right college. “Parents are negotiating hard and they know they can get it.”

In Rhodes’ estimation, colleges and universities need to take a cue from consumer brand marketing. “You have to differentiate,” he said. “For too long, universities have not really thought about themselves as brands. They need to think about their identity. They spend enormous amounts of money building beautiful schools, beautiful campuses and beautiful buildings, but their marketing and communications are a mess, and their websites are a mess.”

In positioning University Labs, Rhodes is seeking to create partnerships with schools by developing and implementing strategic marketing strategies unique to their needs. He aims to create individualized audits of the schools’ ongoing marketing and will tailor specific plans with clearly defined goals on how to use this new approach to generate greater interest from applicants. Rhodes is aiming for an initial four- to six-month engagement model to allow universities to develop strategies.

Rhodes insisted that college and universities chief marketing officers are looking for this type of help. “They have tremendous pressure on them in order to perform,” he explained.

One area where Rhodes is placing a strong emphasis is website design, which serves as the first impression that many students have regarding college choices. He has already introduced a cloud-based, enterprise-grade web content management platform called Sitelab DXP that will enable universities to construct and scale a website without the need for expensive and built-from-scratch code development.

“Greater than 90 percent of people will use that website throughout the process multiple times,” he said. “But if that website doesn’t feel like a fit, they will drop out of the consideration process.”

Since officially starting University Labs in January, Rhodes has targeted schools in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region, and he opened an office in Washington, D.C., to better serve the latter market. He has self-funded the endeavor and said he has kept his operating expenses “fairly low.” He said that he is developing a partner network that can support his product and service offerings.

For the long haul, Rhodes is eager to maintain an ongoing relationship with the schools and is not looking for one-off assignments. “I am not a job shop,” he said. “I am looking to partner with the universities and be, in a lot of ways, an outsourced chief marketing officer. I believe in higher education and I believe that I can help universities to expand and grow and to think about their audiences while developing great experiences.”

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