Director of Public Relations and Marketing at South Texas College, Daniel A. Ramirez, joins Interact Communications Founder and CEO, Pam Cox-Otto for a discussion on marketing survival tips, including using data (and heart) to build marketing plans.
Good afternoon everybody. I’m Dr Pam Cox-Otto and I’m here today with our Community College Marketing MasterClass. And today I’ve got a special friend with us and I’ll let you introduce yourself.
Daniel Ramirez: Oh, thank you for having me. My name is Daniel Ramirez, director of public relations and marketing at South Texas College, a small community college located on the Texas Mexico border and serving about 35,000 students every semester.
Pam Cox-Otto: And you have a huge market area, right?
Daniel Ramirez: Yeah, we serve as two counties that are part of our taxing district and you know, partner with all the local high schools, one of the largest dual populations in the country and service everything from those straight out of high school all the way to those adult learners looking to kind of continue or come back and elevate their careers.
Pam Cox-Otto: Give us an idea of the demographic, your student population, I mean full time to part time roughly?
Daniel Ramirez: You’re going to find that our full time is probably the heaviest set. I couldn’t really give you an exact number on that, but we find that most of our students average age is around 24, 25. So you’re going to have that, big population of the students that are just coming out and that’s balanced off by those students that are coming back. For one reason or another maybe life happened, maybe they just started working and realized that a college education is where they need to be. It is a predominantly Hispanic market, so we are a Hispanic serving institution, very family driven, family-oriented. So a lot of the decisions that our students make are built around the families that they often live with, support and that support them as well.
Pam Cox-Otto: You know, the fact that your average age is around 24 speaks well of the fact that you’re capturing them earlier in their time into adulthood because community colleges, the normal average age is around 29 so that means you’ve saved them from five years in hell, out there wandering the wilderness and trying to decide what comes next. And that speaks well of your dual credit program as well. That pulls those numbers to a lower number.
Daniel Ramirez: I mean we’ve got our dual credit, it’s, you know, can be upwards up to 17,000 students a semester.
Pam Cox-Otto: Wow.
Daniel Ramirez: Yeah. We partner with every high school ISD in the area and then we also actually start reaching and messaging these students even at a very young age in elementary with our adopt a school program. So we’re really trying to build this college-going culture that takes something that used to be very agricultural driven. It’s become a service industry. But one thing nationwide, you’ve seen a lot of people leave after high school, so they struggle that population. 40% of our high school graduates ultimately go nowhere from a higher education, military work. I mean, so we’ve still got a healthy pond that we can pull those students into and trying to reach them to, to continue their education.
Pam Cox-Otto: Talk to me about the kinds of programs you have.
Daniel Ramirez: We do have our career technology programs that you would traditionally see with the technical college or your welding, your automotive, your diesel, you know, things that are really sort of certificate driven that also go into the two year but that are really aimed at getting people to help support the industries that need them there. We do have a large, what we call our transferable courses. So your maths, your sciences, the quote-unquote basics that go along with it. But we also have a very strong nursing program that services that industry. It’s, it’s very health-related in there. And so we, we work very hard to connect with the local hospitals, doctors. And so really it’s one of our more popular programs and we’re hoping by this fall to even offer a bachelor’s of science in nursing. So growing tremendously, and then of course, like I said, we do have continuing education. If you can think of the program and we probably have it within our hundred and 20 plus programs that we’re offering.
Pam Cox-Otto: Well, you know, one of the things that has always impressed me that Texas is a lot of the community colleges that are not in the major urban areas, you’re very self-contained. You are so deeply integrated into the community, into the business and industry and to the people providing services. You’re a direct conduit for employees, for services. That’s really an impressive kind of mixture.
Daniel Ramirez: Yeah. The college was really founded to be this regional catalyst for prosperity. You know, realizing that the four-year university that was in the area was out of reach for a lot of people, not just money wise, but just in terms of, you know, they didn’t feel like they could make it. And so, you know, the college was created 25 years ago and just has continued year after year to live by that mission. We don’t want to be a four-year university because we don’t want to outsell to the audience that we’re trying to reach, but more importantly, the audience that we know we can make a difference in. But that being said, I think last time we looked, there’s about 27 higher education options in the area that we serve from four-year institutions to online to for-profits. So it’s become a very competitive market, which is why we do a lot of the things we do within our marketing plan because we have to stay top of mind.
Pam Cox-Otto: Well, let’s talk about your marketing plan. We’re lucky to be working with, you we’re working on a brand right now and we’re in the middle of a rollout soft rollout into rollout and we did a lot of research leading into that. I know you’re a data guy. Talk to me about what you brought in terms of a data awareness to the job.
Daniel Ramirez: Well, I’ve been at the college for 17 years. I’ve worn many hats. Started off as a web designer. You know, was basically that person that they said, hey, you like this. Why don’t you help us with it? And so kind of said, I’ll do it, you know, and kind of grew from there. And before I knew it, they trusted me with the department. But I’ve always been an analytical kind of guy. And so one of the challenges that we always had is people made the direct correlation between marketing and enrollment. You’re pushing an amount of money into marketing. Enrollment should, therefore, be better. And, one of the things I took away from one of the first times I heard you speak was that we’re often graded on the efforts of others in marketing. But if we don’t have the data to show what we’re doing, we have nobody to blame but ourselves.
Daniel Ramirez: And so I started looking and making sure that we have our marketing metrics that we do need to make sure that people are aware of, you know, the click through the view rates, you know, the, the average views, all of those marketing metrics that we look at, the impressions. But we still got asked the question of, well, how does this impact enrollment? And so that’s when I started bridging the gap, basically saying, okay, if show me the enrollment numbers, let me look at that composition. Not just total census, but traditional dual stop-outs, continuing, transfer. Let me break down and dive into those numbers because then year after year you start noticing trends and patterns. And so we really are active about building leads, not just number of leads, but quality leads and really seeing if I get a lead to somebody to fill out a form, they’re now a lead. What happens to them? Because at that point, marketing hands it off to the enrollment team. They’re in the funnel and there’s a lot of leaks along the way. And so we started asking, well how many started an app? How many finished an app, how many actually enrolled in came on the first day of class? And once we started seeing that, I’ll give you an example. Last spring we had about 2300 leads and only 5% actually matriculated.
Pam Cox-Otto: Wow.
Daniel Ramirez: Yeah, it’s really scary. And so once you start seeing how many started an app, if you could have just nudged them to complete an app and then nudged that group to take the next sort of small step, I mean, we would have had 7% matriculation. Our enrollment numbers wouldn’t have been flat. They would have been in the positive. And so my job is saying nobody else has asking this, so I’m going to be the guy that’s asking it because when somebody then asks me, well that’s pretty bad, why aren’t they better? I can turn around and say, well, as marketers, we hand this off to the enrollment funnel. So maybe you really should be asking them. And we work with the enrollment team to say, how can we support you? You know, maybe your message isn’t clear enough. Maybe you need other channels of communication that aren’t being leveraged. Let’s really work together. But initially it was about just having an arsenal of data to defend all the decisions in combat. The constant question of enrollment is down marketing. Why is it down and what are you doing to fix that?
Pam Cox-Otto: One of the things that was my first experience when I was a director of marketing was when enrollment was up. It was big as we have incredible faculty, a beautiful facility, and of course really great programs. And then when it’s down, it’s marketing has messed up and how could that possibly be? I can’t be if it’s good, I had nothing to do with it. And if it’s bad it must be me. Right. And that, unfortunately, that’s, that’s pretty much a constant across all the community colleges in America.
Daniel Ramirez: Yeah. You hear that constantly. We say that around here and everybody chuckles and everybody laughs because everybody’s been through it and still is going through it. And even to our extent, even with all that I present and all that I give, there is still that sentiment that persists out there. And, and I feel a big portion of my job as well as just sort of strategy and data analysis is getting in front of people to constantly show them what we’re doing, how we’re doing, why we’re doing. Because in that absence of information, they assume we’re doing nothing. And so that can be a challenge for some people because you know, you’ve gotta be able to tell it to the board in a way that they understand versus faculty in a way that they understand all while not necessarily throwing people under a bus and kind of saying it’s your fault, but really just saying, open your eyes. Let’s start asking the right questions so we can figure out how to solve this together.
Pam Cox-Otto: Well, and at the end of the line we’re a system, you can’t deliver people to the seat and you have to depend on other folks to be helping you. And they certainly aren’t necessarily great at going out and grabbing people off the street corner. That’s marketing’s gift is to make them look and make them connect. So the issue is how do we tie that together in a way that’s extremely tightly woven so we can tell when we’ve got their attention and when we’re losing them. Yeah. You know, the nudge I, one of the things, have you read the BJ Fogg information on nudges?
Daniel Ramirez: No. I’ve listened to an NPR hidden brain segment where they were talking about summer melt and some of them nudge campaigns they were doing there.
Pam Cox-Otto: Well, the whole concept of nudge is, it came out of England. And the idea is is that there’s certain moments where it doesn’t take much to keep me going or to make it all fall apart. And the trick is knowing when that moment is to nudge. Right? And one of the things that I think is really interesting about most community colleges is we have certain points where we track them, right? I use the Willdabeast, you know, tracking them around the, they’re going from waterhole to waterhole, but we count them at certain waterholes. We count them when they apply, we count them when they go to see a counselor, we count them when they register. But a lot of times in those, in between segments, we may have a communication or two, but we’re not requiring them to respond back to us. So we don’t know if the intent has been maintained. We sent them something, but they may have made a decision to go to UT or someplace else. And unless we find a way to ping them in a way that gives them a nudge that reminds them to give us feedback, we have no idea what their intention is at that moment.
Daniel Ramirez: Yeah. And one of the ways we’re hoping to combat that is we’re actually exploring AI chatbots to help because not only is it going to remind them about what we want them to do, but we can also dive a little bit into their intent. Are you still interested, yes or no? And if they’re not, then now we have limited resources on the recruiter and outreach side. So now they know who they need to focus on, who have a higher intent of wanting to continue. Do they need a call? Do we want to invite them in? So we’re testing it out and piloting it, but the intent is to better understand that intent and more importantly, connect them with the right people that can help them through that next phase of the funnel while managing resources and trying to reach them where they are through their phones or through Facebook messenger. And just once again, leverage technology to, you know, we have the data that’s showing there are key points. Now how do we implement strategies to take that data, add some heart to it and get them to move along. And that’s a fine balance. It’s a fine balance because like I said, as much as I love numbers, I also realize you can suffer from, you know, paralysis by over-analysis and you do at the end of the day, the numbers not going drive them in. It’s about the emotion and the tie and how the college can help provide a solution to the problem they’re facing. So balance.
Pam Cox-Otto: Well, and you’re smart because one of the things that’s the biggest mistake that I see with community colleges is their message is all facts, small class sizes, jobs after graduation, all sorts of things, starting salary. It’s not that that isn’t important, there’s a certain segment that will absolutely respond to it, but there’s a second segment that basically just wants to hear, make your mama proud. This is the gift you’re giving your family that you don’t even realize yet. And that moment of heartfelt commitment, people need that. They need to feel that.
Daniel Ramirez: Yeah. And not make it seem like, you know, make your mama proud, enroll today. You know, you got to have it, so where that way they don’t feel like they’re being sold something where it’s inside them to say, I do want to do that and this college is going to be the way to help me get there. And believe me, we still face it every day where we have the, you know, everybody’s a marketer, everybody’s a master communicator and everybody’s going to have their 2 cents about what we do. And that’s just been through year after year of learning and growing where you know, I approach something in a certain way and maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. And then I adjust and you know, 17 years into this job and I’m still learning. I never will claim to be an expert, but every day I’m driven to learn something new and apply it in a unique and different way that’s going to ultimately help the college try to reach what they want to reach. And I’ll be the first to admit if I fail on something because then I learn from it. So that way I don’t fail again.
Pam Cox-Otto: Well, you’re actually one of the best people I know with looking at data and looking for sources of data and continuing to use that as a guiding light. It doesn’t mean that everything should be driven by data. I know people say that. That’s a watchword, but rather, I think data can be used as a way to keep us on the right path. But at the same time, we’ve got to be building the heart. That’s the main piece that we’ve gotta be doing. Connecting.
Daniel Ramirez: Yeah, I think the perfect example of that, and I’m copying something that I saw today is a star trek analogy of Spock and Kirk, you know, Spock is going to give you a data-driven campaign, but it’s not going to have the heart because that’s where Kirk steps in and they balance each other out and they’re a better team together than they are independent of it. And that’s a great way to look at it because I love numbers, but I will be the first to admit that sometimes you can get lost in the numbers and sometimes you can tweak the numbers to make it look like something. And you’ve got to be honest about how you’re using those numbers and realize that there needs to be that emotional tie. There needs to be that heart, but the data can help you identify those pockets and then build the emotion into those.
Pam Cox-Otto: So I’ve been asking this of folks as I’ve been running around today at NCMPR. And one of the things I’ve been asking folks, we have an awful lot of new marketing folks out there. When I see the little tag that says Newbie, I’m thinking, wow, there’s a lot of turnover and new folks coming in. What’s your best piece of advice for somebody who maybe, this is their first year working at a community college and you want to see them stay? What yeah, could you give them?
Daniel Ramirez: You know, really it’s to, at these events especially, is take advantage of meeting people. I did a reflection on LinkedIn the other day where it’s just like, you know, I remember myself at my first conference quiet, trying to absorb everything but not really meeting people and now I am shaking the person’s hand next to me. Who are you? What do you do? To the point that people will probably be frightened by me.
Pam Cox-Otto: No they’re not. Nobody ran at least. Right.
Daniel Ramirez: Exactly. Exactly. But there’s resources abound that I don’t claim to know everything, but if I can share some information that’ll help somebody? Take advantage of that. And I think that if you are new and you are overwhelmed, we’ve all been there. And if somebody can say, I was there and let me kind of share some of my learning pains along the way, then they are going to be farther ahead. I am where I am because my boss didn’t tell me I’m training you to be the director. She was just like, you have initiative, you have drive. Let me give you an opportunity and see what you can do with it. She trusted me, empowered me, and then I saw that as well. I don’t want to let her down and if I had questions, I asked her, I asked people and to this day it’s like, how are you doing this? Or how are you doing that? And so that’s the thing is have that inquisitive nature. You know, if you see something that you like, ask somebody. If they give you a card and say, hit me up, give me a call. I’ll be happy to talk to you. Don’t just say yes I will and not follow through. Take the time. Because you may find that this person is going to give you a wealth of resources, and I love that about these conferences. Somewhere along the way I became a person that was listening to a person that I was actually sharing their experiences and their knowledge and what they do. I don’t know when it happened, but I grew up to that point that people actually want to come and sit down and listen to me. They actually want to ask me how I’m doing what I’m doing. And it’s a rewarding feeling because a lot of times, like I said, you know, work can bring you down. There are days where I was like, I don’t want to do this anymore. But when people are engaged and it’s like, wow, you’re doing some great things. It just reaffirms that, you know, I love my job and I love what I do.
Pam Cox-Otto: Well and we do it for the right people. People will tease me, but I say we do the work of angels. We are the college that lifts entire families up and brings the opportunities that aren’t everywhere laying on the ground like diamonds.
Daniel Ramirez: When I first joined the college, I think one of the first events was that first week of employment. There was a gentleman who went from, you know, living paycheck to paycheck, trying to make ends meet and all of a sudden through the nursing program was able to turn around and, and he was making 70- 80,000 and you saw how this had changed his life and his family’s life. And it’s just this feeling of I’m in the right place. Well one, it’s like I’m in the wrong business because I’m not making that. But, but after that, it’s like, like you said, there’s this reward of where else can I go that what people see, and they always forget because you know, now they go to our website first, their touchpoints with the institution, more likely than not, or something we produced in marketing. And it can be that sort of push, that driver that says this is the right place for me and their life is going to be changed by all of the experiences of the college. But that marketing piece, whether they realized it or not was the thing that said, I don’t have the time. You know what? I’m going to make the time and go because this is the place that that seems right for me.
Pam Cox-Otto: When we do what we do really well, the worst thing that happens is somebody comes to college and their life’s changed for the better. I can live with that.
Daniel Ramirez: Yeah, I can too.
Pam Cox-Otto: Thanks for joining me, Daniel.
Daniel Ramirez: Oh, thank you, Pam.
Pam Cox-Otto: It’s always a pleasure to see you.
Daniel Ramirez: Likewise.
Pam Cox-Otto: Well, that’s it for today, but join me again next time for Interact’s Community College Marketing MasterClass and today you’ve been with one of my favorite masters, Daniel Ramirez. Thanks, everyone.