Houston Community College is a pioneer in serving diverse populations, enrolling upwards of 50,000-60,000 students annually. Last fall marked their very first student marketing poll in the college’s history with our Media Prefs survey. But it took HCC a lot of hard work, more so than our average participant!
Debra McGaughey, Director of Communication Services at HCC Central, ran into unique barriers to get on board. But with perseverance and grit, she overcame each challenge and says the effort was worth it:
“I don’t like taking no for an answer, not when something is this good,” says the director. “Joining Media Prefs was a no-brainer, and I wasn’t going to let anything stop this.”
“We haven’t had a student survey on marketing, ever, so this had to happen. I needed that data!”
Read on to find out …
Why did McGaughey never give up?
How did she overcome the hurdles in her way?
What fresh insights did Houston Community College gain from its new data?
… and McGaughey’s hard-earned advice on how to get on board with Media Prefs if you run into any holdups, so you can leverage your student data and take your marketing to the next level!
Houston, We Have a Problem …!
Houston Community College ran into some uncommon challenges to get on board with Media Prefs.
“We’re a big institution,” says McGaughey. “We have many different departments, and they’re so busy that it’s really hard to work across teams.”
The size of the mammoth institution can sometimes make it difficult to gain alignment and agreement between different departments, according to the director.
“We had heard about Media Prefs for a long time,” says McGaughey. “We wanted to be a part of this wonderful data set that we could use to help guide our marketing.”
However, the director says her first attempt “fell like a rock.” It was very difficult to get all the departments in league with the new idea. But when McGaughey later served as NCMPR president and attended a Media Prefs presentation, her resolve firmed.
“It made no sense for us not to be involved,” says the director. “I just said, ‘Look, we’ve got to push this.’ I got the blessings of my immediate superiors — but that’s not all it took.”
HCC’s Distinctive Challenges Along the Way
Houston Community College had a uniquely challenging journey. First, the Office of Institutional Research didn’t think it was best to promote the event on campus or social media, which is how students typically are introduced to the survey. Instead, OIR pulled a 10,000-student representative sample, which took extra time. Then, because of institutional policies, she also had to get approval from multiple departments all the way up to the Chancellor’s Office.
“Everybody’s so busy that your stuff just gets pushed down,” recalls the director. “You have to keep at it.”
The bad news: She hadn’t anticipated the multilevel review needed, nor the time it would take. Unfortunately, the clock was ticking, and Houston Community College could not make it into our spring 2022 survey on time.
The good news: On the bright side, now that McGaughey had learned the ropes, it was much easier for a quicker launch on their next try!
“By fall, we had cleared a lot of the hurdles already,” says the director. “It took a knockdown to get back up again.”
When asked what gave her the gumption never to give up, the director says, “I didn’t think we could go forward and speak confidently about what our students want and need without having data behind it. This was our chance to get it, and I was not going to let it go!”
Debra McGaughey’s Pro Tips for Securing the Student Data You Need
While HCC’s situation was unique, McGaughey says that if any community college marketers need help getting on board with Media Prefs, she has plenty of pro tips she learned the hard way!
1. Be Like HCC and Be an Early Bird
McGaughey learned that, especially for larger institutions like Houston Community College, it pays to be prepared.
“Start early and have your meetings fully laid out,” says the director. The second time around, McGaughey was totally prepared to gain the alignment and agreement she needed to get her student data, and it made for a much smoother launch.
From developing presentations to being persistent with emails, she says to make sure to get your point across: “When you show them the kind of data you’ll get, they’ll know it will work out.”
So, what’s McGaughey’s number one recommendation, especially if you have a large institution?
“Please give yourself enough time — you’ve got to start half a year in advance.”
2. Ask for Help and You’ll Get It ASAP
If you run into any sticky situations, McGaughey says help is only a call, text, or email away.
“Jamie Wagner, the Media Prefs Director, was very helpful,” recalls McGaughey. “I’d say, ‘Hey, I need this turned around quickly,’ and what I needed was back in hours. It was very swift.”
McGaughey also loved the Media Prefs training process, which broke down participation into super-simple steps. The sessions also gave her plenty of talking points to help encourage everyone from leadership to institutional research.
“If they asked me specific questions, I would have answers ready for them,” says McGaughey. “And what I didn’t have an answer for, Jamie helped me to get it.”
3. Don’t Be Discouraged and Keep It Fresh
Most community colleges have an easy time joining Media Prefs! But if your college has a unique situation that takes longer than usual, the HCC director says to stick with it.
“Don’t be discouraged,” advises McGaughey. “Just start early, make presentations, and emphasize the fact that this is great, fresh information, and I emphasize the word fresh.”
What does McGaughey mean by “fresh?”
She’s talking about getting the very latest student data, hot off the presses, live from the horse’s mouth, and cutting-edge marketing insights you can’t find anywhere else. Like a magnifying glass for your outreach efforts, you’ll discover exactly where students spot your ads, the best time to reach them, and what kind of messaging makes the biggest impact.
“Fresh, fresh, fresh data — that seemed to turn a lot of heads!” McGaughey says about her journey to getting alignment and agreement. Speaking of which …
4. Know How Your Department Aligns
“For us, OIR was a tough cookie,” recalls McGaughey. Her Office of Institutional Research was so thorough that the director also had to pass five human services survey tests before she could proceed! What helped her get through the hoops was a supervisor who had a good relationship with key people in the department.
“I’ve been at my college for 18 years, but I’m still an outsider to some of our departments because we are that big,” says McGaughey. “If you know who’s aligned with whom and you have good relationships, use them to get this thing done.”
5. Messaging Tips to Get Students Fired Up!
Once Houston Community College was finally on board for the Media Prefs fall survey, they ran into another issue: a low email open rate.
“Our students are burned out on emails — they don’t want to see an email coming from the institution again,” says the director. Plus, “We tried to put too much information into our messages.”
When they realized their emails were too long and dry, they rebooted to meet students where they were.
“We did a mid-campaign switch and made the language much more engaging,” says McGaughey. “We jazzed it up, shortened it, and got a better open rate.”
Her advice is to keep your message concise. Students just want to know about the survey and the prize they could win by participating.
“If your message doesn’t grab their attention, they’re not going to open it,” counsels McGaughey. “You’ve got to be short, sweet, and to the point.”
6. Build in Unbeatable Incentives
Houston Community College offered a bold incentive we’ve never seen before: a chance to win one of three $500 scholarships!
“When we told the folks who won, they were ecstatic,” says the director. “They loved it. It was a very good incentive to have.”
McGaughey got support from HCC Student Services, which offers $500 scholarships at annual registration fairs. The hefty award covers up to two to three classes for students who are in the district.
“It definitely helps. Many students are paying out of pocket,” says the director. “Offering a $500 scholarship was attractive.”
Why Media Prefs Was So Worth It to HCC
Though Houston Community College had to work harder than our average participant to sign up for Media Prefs, McGaughey said it was well worth the effort. The new data they gleaned from the survey more than made up for the extra work.
Here are just a few key takeaways HCC might never have discovered without Media Prefs:
“We found that billboards were surprisingly effective for those 30 and up!”
“You’ve got to have a very multi-targeted approach,” says the director about advertising strategies. “There is no one-size fits all. If you really want to tailor your message, you’ve got to look at it based on how old your audience is.”
“What we’re seeing is that everybody is listening to R&B and hip hop,” says McGaughey. “It has a very strong appeal across all ages and all ethnic groups.”
“We learned that printed news is dead to just about every age group,” says the director. “I know I’m not going to advertise in newspapers.”
The director was also pleased to get up-to-date feedback on the college’s website:
“We know our website is a sore point for us,” says McGaughey. “The survey confirmed what we already suspected. … If you don’t have a jamming website, you’re lost, because your website is your Macy’s window.”
HCC: Looking to the Future of Media Prefs Data
On top of firming up the college’s plans to redesign its website and refocus its outreach efforts, the useful Media Prefs survey results also convinced HCC to participate again next fall.
“Media Prefs is the best way to get information from your students that’s fresh and engaging,” says the director. “It will help drive your marketing strategies and tell you what your students don’t tell you to your face — and you need that.”
If you’ve ever wondered how your brand performs when you are not in the room, McGaughey says that Media Prefs is the perfect way to find out.
“You will be inundated in a good way with very useful data,” says McGaughey. “It was worth all that pain!”
Check Out Media Prefs!
If HCC could do it, anyone can. And don’t worry — getting started is usually hassle-free for most of our clients 😅. If you run into any snags, our Executive Director Jamie Wagner will be by your side 100 percent!