I have had many conversations, particularly in markets where institutions are subject to severe competitive pressures, where the VP of enrollment says, “We need to expand our geographic reach. What do you recommend?”

I am a fan of big ideas and believe that you must try new things to get new results.

I am also a practical realist who recognizes that colleges and universities have limited resources. Before waging a full-scale assault on an unfamiliar set of zip codes, I recommend experimenting with a pilot program.

Pilot programs mitigate risk, test assumptions, and identify the resources necessary to achieve results. It is an opportunity to collect data, and what can be measured can also be improved.

The first microSEARCH™ campaign we ran at enrollmentFUEL was part of a pilot program to help Drury University expand into a new market. Since then, we have refined our best practices for developing  pilot programs, and developed a better recipe for success, built around these six steps:

  • Set a clear goal. You get it, so we know we don’t have to explain?.
  • Review your assumptions. What do you believe to be true about competitors, the market in general, required resources, barriers to overcome, and the odds of success? What are the strengths of your offering, and what type of students do you attract? Will you have any brand strength in the new market? A clear-eyed view of where you are starting helps you avoid unnecessary missteps.
  • Put together a proof-of-concept model. This step is often used in product design, but it can also provide valuable structure forcing you to demonstrate a viable opportunity for market success. This exercise allows you to identify unmet needs in the market you want to enter, and lets you develop a solution on paper before committing resources. It also helps you identify important milestones, indicating whether or not you will be on track to meet your goal.
  • Determine the necessary resources. Your proof of concept model can help you determine these. While it is good to be frugal, underinvesting, either in marketing dollars or staff hours, may prevent success if you don’t create enough force to push a big idea forward.
  • Plan and execute your campaign. This is when hard work and research pays off, helping you bring creative ideas to life. Customize your campaign for the audience. Focus the messaging on relevant decision drivers, where you can stake out a winning position. If you have invested in geographic research, look for ways to apply the insight to the new location. Connect with the local alumni network, and leverage those connections.
  • Assess results. How closely does the real outcome match the predictions you made in your proof-of-concept mode? Were assumptions proved true? Did you experience any surprises, positive or negative? Can positive results in a market be reproduced on a larger scale?

We would also recommend that you consider more than one location for expansion. Comparing options clarifies plusses and minuses, and helps you select the optimal place to experiment. It also helps you explore (and often quash) suggestions from helpful trustees who are convinced you will find a huge market and easy pickings in a city they personally favor.

In the coming years, many institutions will experience mounting competitive pressure in their primary geographic markets. To grow, they must recruit students from new locations. Some schools will go with the trustee’s suggestion, throw all their chips in the pot, cross their fingers, and hope the big bet pays off. Others will take a more measured approach, crafting a budget-friendly pilot program to test their big idea.

To reach a new place always involves a journey, but you don’t have to travel alone. If you’re considering entering new markets, find someone who will listen as you talk through your idea. That could be a friend, a colleague, a peer, or you are always welcome to contact me because big ideas – and big success – often start with a single conversation.

Mike Wesner
Chief Imagination Officer