Best Practices for Marketing Campus DEI

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In the dynamic landscape of higher education, marketing and communicating DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) values calls for innovative and intentional approaches. By adopting a number of guidelines, institutions can better showcase their diversity goals, practices, programs, past successes, and future commitments.

Consumers care deeply about DEI, particularly as it is expressed through branding and marketing. For example, 59% of individuals say they are more loyal to brands that stand for DEI as evidenced through their marketing efforts, according to the report “The Difference Diversity Makes in Online Advertising” by Facebook Advertising.

This is especially significant when viewed next to the evolving demographics in higher education, where an increasing number of students of different races, ethnicities, nationalities, ages, sexual orientations, gender identities, socioeconomic statuses, abilities, and more are currently attending colleges and universities.

“Right now, we have the most diverse adult population in U.S. history,” says Shelley Willingham, chief revenue officer with The Diversity Movement, a business consulting agency. “If we’re not capable of reaching [and connecting with] that group, that’s putting companies and universities at a competitive disadvantage.”

Shelley Willingham

Willingham, as well as Amma Marfo, content designer, consultant, and speaker, and Holly Mendelson, co-owner and co-publisher of Insight Into Diversity and marketing communications consultant, are experts in the DEI marketing space. Together, they offer strategies and tips for colleges and universities seeking ways to effectively market and communicate their DEI commitment.

Continually Weave DEI Throughout the Entire Brand-User Experience

Given its importance to current and prospective stakeholders, dedication to DEI can be showcased as a primary component of an institution’s brand and incorporated throughout a stakeholder’s entire user experience.

“[Institutions] compete for students, employees, grant and donor money.— you want to use everything in your arsenal as a competitive reason why your school should be chosen over another,” Mendelson says. “Besides academics and sports, a college’s diverse and inclusive climate can be a deciding factor.”

It’s critical to include any and all information pertaining to an institution’s DEI work and efforts as part of all school- and brand-related communications. This includes press statements, print and online media, awards and rankings, student and staff recruitment and retention materials, social media, website, institutional reports, and more. It’s imperative that an institution’s commitment be upfront, consistent, and visible across all platforms.

For example, on university websites, users shouldn’t have to search for DEI pages to find what they are looking for, as this may communicate it’s not of primary significance or worthy of showcasing, says Mendelson. When diversity and inclusion are highlighted from the first look — on the homepage — it makes a statement about that institution’s priorities.

There should be persistent dialogue about DEI topics across disciplines, departments, and offices, so that it is ingrained within the campus culture, Willingham says.

“Although a lot of this work is generated in DEI offices, it doesn’t exist there exclusively; it’s about the essence of DEI that is pervasive throughout your entire organization,” Mendelson says. “That’s for all constituents — current and prospective students and employees, surrounding community members, donors, campus recruiters, grantors, and alumni.”

Diversity Should Not Be a Legal Obligation, but Instead an Opportunity

Many colleges and universities think that stating their adherence to legal mandates is sufficient. How DEI efforts are accomplished, versus simply following the law, needs to be communicated in a completely different way. It needs to be ongoing, intentional, and incorporated into every message a campus sends to stakeholders.

Holly Mendelson

Communications must touch on all the dynamic forms of diversity and not exclude any populations, Mendelson says.

Because many schools combine offices to oversee DEI along with Title IX and compliance, it’s possible for language to come across as overly legalistic or academic as a result. However, personalizing communications to ensure a hospitable tone, and marketing DEI separately from compliance, is a must.

“You need to be mindful of the words that you’re using, that they’re warm and welcoming and communicating what your campus climate and culture is like,” she says. “People want to know that they will be successful and can thrive at your institution — including compliance in that conversation will negate that feeling.”

Being proactive in showcasing your DEI efforts can make or break the decision for an employee to stay on your campus, or to join your campus as a new employee. For example, language in job listings must be inclusive and not just the status quo. Information on human resources web pages should include current employee demographics, describe professional development and mentoring opportunities, and list the diverse organizations and affinity groups open to employees.

As more and more states are removing DEI offices and programs, this is an opportunity for your campus to stand out, says Mendelson.

The same efforts should be made to encourage current and future students to be part of a diverse and welcoming campus environment. This can be as simple as ensuring that your student ambassadors are pointing out opportunities for diverse students as they take their campus tour. Make sure your website includes information about student demographics and names the clubs and campus organizations for underrepresented students.

Amma Marfo presented a workshop focused on using
a design-thinking model and creativity framework for
promoting justice and equity in higher education at the Social Media Strategies Summit in 2022. The Diversity Movement and the American Marketing Association’s “Best Practices Guide to Inclusive Marketing,” updated in 2022, also provides a number of insights on marketing for diverse populations.
Read more at bit.ly/TDMguide.

Inform Your Work with Diverse Teams

In addition to crafting informative messaging in collaboration with staff across university offices, such as an LGBTQ+ office, multicultural center, or international office, establishing designated teams for this is also a best practice, especially if these are staffed with diverse employees, Willingham says.

“If you don’t have that diverse [marketing] team, use your community to build informal groups that will help you connect the dots where [your team] may not have experience,” Willingham says. “When you have diverse groups of students, when you have diverse opinions from your faculty and your staff, you know you’re creating an atmosphere and an environment for people to thrive, for more creativity, for more innovation.”

Throughout the design process, efforts are often adapted based on data collection, says Marfo. Utilize your employee resource groups and different campus offices to get feedback on your messaging. Run ideas by a variety of campus constituents or use focus groups to gauge truthfulness, appropriateness, and inclusivity of messaging.

Getting input from a range of perspectives can help identify potential issues and ensure that communications are conveying what was intended.

Ensure Authenticity

Another crucial best practice is to continually ensure authenticity, Willingham says.

“We want to make sure marketers are mindful of not creating an atmosphere or an illusion that there’s progress with a certain community if there really isn’t, because that can really hurt the communities that you say you protect and care about,” she says.

For example, although institutions may have commitments to DEI, their campus populations may not be representative of those goals. It’s okay to be transparent about this and clearly communicate the ongoing efforts to further progress.

Honesty is also essential in marketing imagery, which should be genuine and representative of the actual community.

Transparency around DEI efforts can attract students and staff, says Mendelson. It’s helpful to offer testimonials from different communities that are sincere and not scripted so that outsiders can get a sense of the environment from those who have been there.

“Hearing a person’s story directly can often bring a message to life in a way that a brochure or website can’t,” says Mendelson.

Be Mindful of all Audiences

The best practices of DEI work are constantly evolving, and leaders strive to find new ways of supporting their values, says Marfo. It’s important to remember the areas of marketing that aren’t typically top of mind, such as with alumni outreach, grantors, or donors.

If your campus has made great strides in DEI, make this an opportunity to stand out among your peers and your campus community. The payoff can be enormous.●