On this week’s episode of our Performance Delivered Podcast, we speak with Dr. Joseph Sallustio. He is the Executive VP and Chief Operating Officer at Claremont Lincoln University, a nonprofit Graduate University that provides Master’s degree programs online to engage in positive social change. Joe is one of the nation’s foremost online higher education experts and has led a broad range of educational institutions, including regionally accredited nonprofit and for-profit universities, and a nationally accredited for-profit college. 

We chat about the changes to university settings due to coronavirus, as well as:

  • The expansion of education delivery options 
  • Differentiating the value in higher education
  • Offering socially conscious education
  • Awarding credit to degree seekers with relevant professional experience
  • Speaking directly to students with a specific buying criteria
  • And more

Mentioned in this episode:


Voiceover: This is Performance Delivered, insider secrets for digital marketing success with Steffen Horst and Dave Antil.

Steffen Horst: Welcome to Performanced Delivered, Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success Podcast, where we talk with marketing and agency executives and learn how they build successful businesses and their personal brand. I’m your host, Steffen Horst. The topic for today’s episode is effective marketing for higher education. Here to speak with me is Joe Sallustio, who is the EVP and Chief Operating Officer at Claremont Lincoln University a nonprofit Graduate University that provides master’s degree programs online to engage in positive social change. Joe is one of the nation’s foremost online higher education experts and has led a broad range of educational institutions, including regionally accredited nonprofit and for profit universities, and a nationally accredited for profit college. Specifically, his extensive experience in scaling marketing enrollment activities has driven the success of many of the institutions he has served. Joe, welcome to the show.

Joe Sallustio: It is an absolute honor to be here, Stefeen, thank you so much for having me.

Steffen: Thank you, Joe. Before we before we explore today’s topic, I always like to find out a little bit more about my guests. Tell our listeners about how you got started in your career, especially as it relates to marketing.

Joe: That’s, oh, boy, that’s a good question. I will tell you, I am the quintessential zero direction college student, I went to my undergraduate program at a state school in New York. I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do. So I found the easiest possible major I could find called speech communications, which I don’t even know what that is, I always joke, Steffen, that I have a BS in bs-ing. And that’s, that’s truly what speech communications is. Because I just didn’t know what I wanted to do. So you know, fast forward, I get out of my undergrad, I have absolutely no idea what I want to do. And I start working in whatever job I could find it, I started with a blood bank in Colorado. I moved to Colorado, I started with a blood bank. 

And here I am trying to recruit blood donors, which, believe it or not, was actually a pretty tough job, maybe one of the toughest jobs I’ve ever had, because who wants to get a needle put in your arm and stop in and give blood anyway, things progressed, I got into higher education very early, I was just very good at it. And I and I had done some outside sales work and not really liked it. And you know, higher ed, combined sales and education. And I enrolled students enrolled a lot of students and I started to really understand what it took to acquire a student and what costs were associated with that and how to spend money in where to spend money and how often I should look at how that spend is being allocated. 

And we we in higher education, look at conversion rates, you know, how much you spend, how many leads you generate, and how many of those leads turned into students, which is very similar to a lot of other other industries that are looking at sales or customers and for us, you know, putting that business infrastructure around higher education is really important. Otherwise, you don’t understand where your money’s going. And so that’s, you know, just progressed in my career and marketing. And enrollment really is the foundation for any organization, any institution in higher education that wants to be successful has to have enough students. And if you want enough students, you’ve got to be really, really good at marketing. And it just progressed and just, you know, increased through my roles and worked lucky enough to work with great mentors that gave me freedom and to be creative and have access to understand all the complicated concepts in higher education. And then here I am today. 

Steffen: Interesting. So you said you kind of tried to figure out what does it take to acquire students? So let’s let’s talk about that. From a marketing perspective, you know, as for any companies, there are several marketing solutions that can be used, whether it’s offline and online. What does it take to acquire a student?

Joe: In terms of actual dollars, or you mean the effort? Or both?

Steffen: Well, probably in the first place, the effort, right, because the dollar comes later on when they get the invoice for sure.

Joe: Well, here’s here’s the thing, Steffen, it’s a if you had asked me that question, pre Coronavirus, you would have gotten a slightly different answer than then there is now and here’s why I say that. Basically, every single institution in the country has gone online. Either because they want to or because they had to. And Coronavirus became a catalyst for things that were really already in motion. Right? There are a lot of institutions across the United States experimenting with online. Maybe they’re dipping their toe in the water but then Coronavirus hits and then everybody says okay, if I’m going to maintain my operations if I’m going to serve my students I’ve got operate online. 

Well, now everyone is toying with the digital frontier or entering the digital frontier. If you’re an institution who hasn’t invested time and dollars into digital marketing before because you either haven’t had to or haven’t wanted to. It’s competitive. It’s very competitive. And so the effort to acquire a student right now, particularly in my institution, right Claremont Lincoln University, has exclusively offered graduate degree programs. So we don’t have an undergraduate degree, we don’t have alumni that complete a bachelor’s degree and then come on to get a Masters, you know, so that we’re enrolling the same student and keeping our acquisition costs low. We’re enrolling students that have graduated from other institutions later in life, the adult student, it’s so it’s very difficult to find students where they are when they’re ready. 

And the student, Steffen is a consumer, right? More than ever, education has become commodified there, they’re looking at multiple institutions, they’re comparing costs, they’re really smart about how they pick college based on a return on investment based on reducing debt. So you have to cover so much more ground now than offering quality education, quality education, is what you have to offer. But there are other things you have to offer to the consumer. And so by the time you get to marketing, where are they? Are they ready? You know, what does it take to get in front of them? How many messages? And are you offering a level of service as a part of marketing that gives that student an opportunity to move through your process quickly, right, because nobody likes to wait anymore for anything. Amazon packages same day, right? If higher ed doesn’t meet that, then then we’re in trouble.

Steffen: Yeah. Now, before Corona, you know, everyone wants to go to the most prestigious university if you if you take the equation money out, right? I mean, if people could, they probably would go to Harvard, or I don’t know, stent forward, you name the university. Right. From an online perspective, is that is that similar? Do people also look at more the bigger known entities? Or are they much more open to look at universities, you know, like, like Claremont Lincoln University, which is a really an online university that doesn’t have, you know, campus? Does that level the playing field a little bit?

Joe: Yeah, I think it does. And, you know, going back to the first part of your question of, you know, if you take cost off the table, where would students want to attend? And you know, that is really interesting question. So much of that, is based on the the type of delivery, so many institutions, you know, you look at it, as you mentioned, Harvard and Stanford, they may not be able to offer online courses to an adult student that’s working, there may be more tailored to an undergraduate student that’s going to attend on ground. 

So the the actual delivery of the education is just as important, but specifically for online schools to your point, yes, it’s the playing fields really leveled. Right, it’s a level playing field. That’s why I go back to your point, distilling the value proposition is so important. I think that’s important in higher education. It’s also important for for any other industry right now, you know, there there are a lot of businesses that are closing, competition for customers is heating up, especially in the online space, and how do you distill your value proposition down to a point where people easily understand it, and that it differentiates you from the rest of the pack? You know, every institution in the country is offering online education. 

But why come to Claremont Lincoln University. And so I work very closely with my team to distill that value proposition down to a level where a student goes, Oh, okay, this is easy. I, I understand what I’m getting here. I understand that there’s transparency behind the cost. I understand what the ROI looks like, and I’m going to attend. So yeah, to your point. It’s, it’s competitive, but it’s important to really understand the marketing concepts that motivate consumers.

Steffen: So obviously, there’s a certain buyers and probably call it when it comes to what university someone goes to, right for for their future career or for the Korean General, right. If you if you go to an Ivy League, you know, your resume probably will make it higher up on a, you know, an amount of resumes in an HR office. Does that play a role, again, on the online playing field? Or, again, is that is that more leveled? Does it really matter? Where you do your education at the moment, for example, compared to a no COVID or non COVID time?

Joe: You know, I, for me, if you’re asking me, which I think you are, my answer is no. But it depends. It depends on what you want to buy. Most faculty in United States now our adjunct faculty, which means that they, they’re not full time employees, and they teach at multiple institutions. And so you might have a faculty member that teaches at Stanford, they also teach at Claremont Lincoln University, and then they might teach at a for profit University also. They teach as many places as they can. So quality of education and quality of faculty is pretty level across across the country. Right. 

So to your point, you might have somebody at Harvard, somebody at Stanford, and somebody at Claremont Lincoln, that so faculty are teaching where they can. It’s it’s a complicated question, because I think that it’s it’s, I don’t want to say you stumped me. But it’s hard to answer because you’re buying different things. If you’re going to a Ivy League University, you’re buying the network, as much as you are the education, the network, the deep legacy, the people that are alumni that work at financial companies, wherever that look highly on degrees from this, you know, this school. 

But for the majority of people across the United States who are looking for a degree, do you need the network? Do you have to have the network? Do you? Are you buying $100,000 network? Or do you just need a piece of paper that says you’ve completed a master’s degree so you can get the $10,000 raise at the job you’re already in? That’s a big question, right? For the undergraduate student. And it might make sense sometimes, if you have the money, right. And that’s a big thing in higher ed is about equity and access right now. You know, somebody from a lower economic courthouse isn’t going to Harvard, they can’t afford it. 

So you know, those Ivy League schools are designed for the wealthy. And that’s been something of much debate. So the answer is, it depends. It depends on what you want to buy, you know, and you’re buying different things. Look at some of the big universities have lazy rivers and dining halls that could rival a five star restaurant, you’re not paying that much money for the education, you’re paying that much money for everything else that surrounds the education.

Steffen: I see. Okay, lazy river. Sounds interesting, though.

Joe: It’s true. I mean, colleges put in lazy rivers around their campus, right? See it, you know, and and that’s what you’re buying, oh, wow, this campus, this college campus has a lazy river, I want to go there and you know, can turn 21 and have drinks with my friends and lazy river. It’s a it’s a different kind of world.

Steffen: Sure, sure. So what I heard basically, is that you said it’s like, it’s, you believe it’s more level playing field. Because, you know, professors can go to different university and probably have, you know, courses at different universities. So if that’s the case, how do you then No, I want to bring this back to marketing now. How do you then develop your value prop, if the individuals that teach at your university, most likely are not something that you can put out there and say, hey, you know, what, Gary Vaynerchuk, for example, teaches at university, and he doesn’t teach anywhere else. 

I mean, people would just come in, you know, sign up for your courses. Such an such an well known figure, right. But if Gary Vaynerchuk does the same thing at three, four or five different universities, I mean, there will still be a run towards all of them, but it will be spread out more. So how do you develop value props that you can communicate in marketing for higher education?

Joe: You have to look at what the consumer checklist is, and understand that first. When, but even before that, who are you recruiting? You know, for Claremont Lincoln, we’re looking at adult students that are already in a job experiencing some success that want to really perfect and understand socially conscious education. For other schools that are recruiting an 18 year old student, it’s completely different. Right? So who’s your market? Second of all, what is that market? What is your ideal student looking for in a school? You know, so you look at areas like cost, and debt, there are a number of students that are very, very smart, as I said, financially savvy, they don’t care necessarily about Gary Vaynerchuk. 

They care about limiting their student debt, so that when they get out and get a job, they’re not underwater. Two is time to degree. The longer you’re in school, is, the longer it’s taking you to get out and start making money. So for a lot of students, how fast they can get in and get out, is a really important factor. Number three, when you look at value proposition, can I go somewhere where I’m awarded credit for my prior learning, right? The best example of what I mean by prior learning experience is like somebody who’s in the military, if you’re a medical tech in the military, and you come out, and you try to enroll in school, and they tell you, oh, I know you were in the military, and you’re a med tech and in you’re saving lives, but you know, you need to start our program all over again. 

That’d be offensive, right? You need to be awarded credit, and reduced time to degree for your experience. And so that’s what students, you understand that checklist, then you can really distill down your value proposition to speak to those buying criteria. And that’s really what Steffen your question ultimately, is, we need to higher education needs to look at the student as the buyer with criteria. And the schools that distill down their value proposition to that level of buyer and seller are doing very well. When higher education institutions consider themselves traditional, you know, why do I have to go after the student they should come to me that’s a much different and harder thing to deal with, right. So that’s my answer. It’s so much of it is, it’s interesting.

Steffen: Yeah. I mean, at the end of the day, it’s the same thing any business has to go through, right? You have to find your target audience. You know, whether you have a sass company or you’re opening a restaurant, you have to think about who are you catering to? Who is your ideal customer? What motivates you ideal customer to come and buy the product or services that you offer from you? And then based on that, you need to develop your marketing? Because that’s the point you want to send out to the people that you’re interested in engaging with.

Joe: Yeah, and how does your how does your buyer change their buying habits given COVID? Right now we’re post COVID. How are those habits going to be different? And the companies that can predict that are better off?

Steffen: Yeah, yeah. Now, from it from a channel perspective, is there is there a big difference as it relates to starting to engage with prospective students? Or is it pretty similar to the systems that other industries use as well?

Joe: Yeah, I mean, we’re big in Google. And, you know, we’re PPC and and we’re doing a lot of LinkedIn, you know, our, our target student is a professional who’s working looking to upgrade their career and leadership. And so we do a lot, we do invest a lot of time in LinkedIn, because we see a lot of our students, our, even our current students have presence on LinkedIn, when you look at that channel, so it’s a really high yield channel for us. We do a lot of social ads, Facebook and otherwise, and that creates a lot of quantity, but not as not necessarily the quality. But that’s the balance that has the you know, there’s diminishing returns point, when we hit that point, we, we scale back the dollars, but until that point is reached, we were looking at volume. 

But yeah, I mean, you know, when a student is headed to Google, and they do a search for, you know, online master’s degree in ethical leadership or social impact in Claremont Lincoln University pops up and they hit one of our landing pages, the conversion is much higher than it is, you know, when we spend money on on Facebook advertising, for example. So we’re really keyed in on ensuring that our keyword set is pulling in the direct and relevant keywords that that pull a student to a landing page to at least give them an opportunity to look through the program that we offer. But yeah, I mean, we track channel metrics very closely. Because we’re a small, really nascent institution, we move money around by the day, sometimes, depending on what’s converting and what’s not.

Steffen: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And it kind of ties back to what you just said, in regards to Google’s like, if you have a clear understanding of who you’re going after what you’re offering, you’re able to be much more targeted, even from a paid search perspective, right. You don’t have to go after the universe of keywords that potentially could apply to to to kind of engage with people to engage with people that are looking for information for any master’s degree. And, you know, so I think that’s, that’s really important in that regard, too.

Joe: Yeah, we have a, you know, for example, we have a master’s degree in Public Administration, which is really a new degree for us. But we pull in some keyword, relevancy around social innovation, social entrepreneurship, public policy. Now, somebody might want a master’s degree in Public Policy, but most people don’t understand the difference between public policy and public administration. I didn’t until I got into it a little bit. So we pull in a sphere of people that it where it’s related, but we’re not going after unrelated irrelevancies, because we just don’t, you know, some of you some schools out there have the spend, I mean, there’s, there’s universities that are spending millions and millions and millions of dollars on on search ads, and otherwise, but you know, as a small institutions, we have to just be highly efficient.

Steffen: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I hear you, when we work and used to work with universities that have deep pockets, and especially from from a master’s program perspective, spent a lot of money and, you know, they can’t afford it just because of who those universities are. Now, as it relates to moving people through the funnel, obviously, you know, I don’t know how well Claremont Lincoln University is known. But when you go out there to communicate or to to attract students, you got to start at the top of the funnel, and then push awareness out how how do you do that? And how do you move the prospects through the funnel?

Joe: That’s a good question. And you know, you you’re dancing around it a little bit, but it’s okay. Claremont Lincoln is not well known. We know that we’re a small startup institution and part of our our marketing charge is to ensure that we are more well known as we are getting out there into the world. A lot of that comes from graduates, right graduates in the workplace, and, and so on, so that they become your legacy. But yeah, that’s that’s a real challenge for us. And I think that’s a challenge for a lot of small startup colleges and universities, for small startup businesses, is you have to get your name you have to you have to get recognition out there. So I you know, I look at it like this. And I think this applies to any industry. There’s a really delicate balance between what we call enrollment marketing or direct customer marketing. Right now, I need a customer right now. 

And my brand marketing that creates the foundation for customers later. And I look at how do I divide? There’s a lot of in betweens, right? But how do I divide that spend, if I’m behind on a budget, or I’m behind on my financials, that puts more pressure on the students right now, we’re seeing colleges and universities across the country having a lot of difficulties with declining enrollment, that puts it what happens is you have to make up that loss revenue. So I need students right now. So I’m gonna dump all my money in a lead generation. So I can turn a student around quickly. That takes money for my brand marketing. And so now I’m not going to be able to really put out messaging that’s longer term or brand recognition, Omnibus ads, because I’ve got the pressure now. 

So that seesaw that goes back and forth, is very difficult to maintain. Right. And I think that’s for any business, but certainly, it’s a big part for us at Claremont Lincoln is how do we become more recognized, and a lot of that comes through partnerships, right? So if I can create a partnership with an organization, and I can get referrals from that partnership for students, it reduces my overall acquisition costs for my direct marketing spend, it also helps my name recognition, right? Because the company’s associated with me, so we’re looking at alternatives that that help that.

Steffen: Now, for companies of different industries, it’s always difficult or challenging to, as you said, for you to find the right balance between brand and demand generation budget, how do you solve the challenge to make sure that brand advertising gets enough recognition when it comes to bring people in, and then also looking at how they are moving through the funnel? So what I’m talking about basically, is attribution at the end of the day.

Joe: Yeah, you know, we have, we have attribution modeling. It’s as you as you know, Steffen, it’s sometimes now with the way technology is, it’s very difficult to attribute, you know, conversion to a single channel, because people are looking at three or four channels. So we’re, you know, the, the best example I have of that is, is back in the past, when people ran TV ads, I think maybe lawyers are the only ones that run TV ads still on like cable TV, where, you know, somebody would see our commercial two or three times, but then they’d go to your website and submit a lead through your website and for higher education 10 years ago, that was a big challenge is where did this come from? 

I think now we’ve we’ve really looked at a student moving through the funnel, we try to track our UTMs and landing pages and all of that and bring them in. But it comes really what it comes down to for us is, do we have a student who is interested. And if we’ve generated that student, we can allocate a specific percentage of that interest to channels that we know are working. So to your point, it can get very complicated, it can be very simple. I think it’s everybody manages that differently. But for us, as they’re moving through the funnel for it’s a percentage allocation that we look at, you know, we we aren’t advertising in certain places. So of the three or four places, we’re putting our dollars, which is pretty, pretty well known through our through our studies, and through our surveying that there is at least seeing two or three of those channels before they submit their information. And so we’ve got to make sure that we are allocating percentage wise dollars to each of those channels to keep those leads coming through the funnel. 

Steffen: Okay. We just talked about the marketing funnel, right? Moving people from the top part, awareness, down to a point where they are willing to submit contact information and indicate interest and want to find out more. Now, the other part of the sales funnel part, obviously, is equally important. Because you know, once you have a lead, it needs to be worked in order to become in your case, a student. How does that work from a higher education perspective? How do you do that?

Joe: Yeah, great question. The quick answer is a student applies online. And this is one of the if I could the one of the biggest mistakes that colleges and universities make is they have very long application forms on their websites. Right. And most people look at as when you think application, you think like people imagine that they’re going through and filling out a ton of information to apply for school when somebody didn’t meet. So the application to me I’m thinking a little bit bigger lead form than a than a request for information. I want them I don’t want the person even if they’re interested in applying to spend too much time on my website so that my bounce rate starts to increase. 

I want them to submit the information and then I’m going to call them or connect with them later and have them fill out the bigger form once I’ve had a chance to connect with them. So there we bring them in, they apply. They go through a submission period they have to submit a resume and they have to submit unofficial transcripts right we have to verify that they’ve graduated from bachelors program and we You want to look at the resume. And that’s really it, we judge the judge is the wrong word. But we’re looking at the success of the student being directly correlated to their job and work experience. 

That’s, that’s the way we look at it. And then the student comes through and they hit the financing part, financial aid, one of the most complicated processes, you could possibly go through in financial aid, making it as easy as possible. With any major purchase you make in any industry, you never leave until you understand if you can afford it. Yeah, except a lot of times in higher education, where you apply and weeks go by before you get your financial aid taken care of. And it’s actually pretty ridiculous. So we move very quickly to get the student through the financial aid process. 

So they understand how much I have to pay every month, right? What’s my responsibility, out of pocket. And then we take them through an orientation period, we have email campaigns that keep them interested and part of the university community leading up to their start date. And we run monthly start intakes, so we aren’t quarterly or semester, like a lot of universities are where we’re monthly so that we can cater to the student consumer.

Steffen: Yeah. Now, you just talked about email marketing, when I talk to people from especially from the b2b sector, obviously, once a lead is generated there, they get marketing, qualified, sales, qualified, coming opportunity, and at some point, they they become hopefully, you know, a sale. Are those steps existing on the higher education side as well? If so, is this the same steps? Or they just have different names?

Joe: Yeah, I think it’s the same steps with different names. And we would qualify the lead, essentially, in our qualification process is simple. It’s do they do they have a bachelor’s degree do they have a GPA and their undergraduate that meets our admissions requirements, right, that’s the qualification process. And it happens, we have students that don’t have their bachelor’s degree, and they say, I want a Master’s. And we have to say, No, you know, so that we have to qualify them, and sure they meet our admissions requirements, then we basically enroll them, aka we sell them on the education, and then they go through financing financial aid, and then they become essentially a customer. 

So the steps I believe, are the same, a lot of the differences are around wraparound services that take place, you know, because we’re dealing with a student orientation, and, you know, exposure to the classroom, getting them the link, so they can access their first week of all work, you know, going through a census period, the first, you know, eight days of class to ensure they’re participating in discussion boards. So there’s a lot of students service, wraparound services, it’s not just you buy it, and you leave, and you’ve got it, we literally have to handhold students through the process so that they know what happened, education is as much about self confidence as anything else. When a student just goes, I don’t know if I should participate today. The next thing you know, three days go by five days go by and they say nevermind, I don’t want to start school.

Steffen: So do you, and this is probably my last questions/statement. So the after sales part, that, you know, obviously for for any business is required, but it sounds like for for higher education, or for any form of education, probably where people don’t come into your class is really important. Because I mean, if they if they don’t get into the rhythm of attending classes, doing, you know, getting engaged and doing the work, I mean, they might drop off sooner than you want them to. I mean, no one wants them to go off period, but they might drop off very soon.

Joe: Yeah, retention, and it’s not it’s for traditional universities, with on ground programs, it’s for online programs. retention is very important. So it’s really the hard work begins after the sale takes place. You know, you think about a car, for example, we have students that go on and every university does students go on leave of absence, where you’re hit with something and you take a break. So imagine you buy a car, you know, you buy your Tesla. And you know, after two months, you something happens and you go drive drive back to the Tesla dealership and you say, hey, look, you know, I need to take a leave of absence from my car. I just can’t afford to have it right now. 

So I’m going to just leave it here with you guys at the dealership. And, you know, Tesla says, I don’t think so you bought that car, get the hell off my lot. For hire edits, it’s okay, you know, we’re gonna do everything we can. And now we’ve got to put the investment into getting you back. You remind me to come back and get that Tesla reminding you to come back and that you still want to take on that Tesla and make the payments and get the benefit of having the Tesla when it’s going to be very easy for you to say never mind. And that’s what what retention is all about. 

Steffen: Yeah. Well, Joe, thank you so much for coming on to the Performance Delivered podcast. I really enjoyed our conversation. If people want to find out more about you or Claremont Lincoln University, how can they get in touch?

Joe: So our website is www.claremontlincoln.edu. For anybody that wants to find me, I’m on LinkedIn and and you can also find me via my podcast the Ed Up Experience which focuses on education, higher education. And that’s www.edupexperience.com. 

Steffen: Wonderful. Well, thanks everyone for listening. If you liked the Performance Delivered podcast, please subscribe to us and leave us a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast application. If you want to find out more about Symphonic Digital, you can visit us at symphonicdigital.com or follow us on Twitter @symphonicHQ. Thanks again and see you next time.

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