THE BLOG

What March Madness Teaches Us About Engaging our Students

04/03/2015 04:16 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2015

March Madness is in full swing, and millions of college students have conducted more intense research in completing their brackets than they likely will be willing to do in completing their courses, and they will be glued to their mobile devices for the latest live updates.

If universities could engage students the way sport teams interact with fans, we would have a captive audience more likely to return each semester and persist year-to-year.

Unfortunately, colleges and universities consistently struggle to win at the retention and graduation game.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 79 percent of students will progress to their second year, but only 59 percent of undergraduates enrolled full-time will graduate within 6 years. These numbers are even more concerning for minority college students who often struggle to feel a part of campus culture with approximately 40 percent of African-Americans and 52 percents of Hispanics graduating within 6 years.

While the mission of higher education institutions is most certainly educational, the push to adopt a more business like operational model is difficult to ignore.

Most faculty and academic administrators recognize the need to operate efficiently and to function with a stronger entrepreneurial mindset, but few would agree that universities should function as corporations.

This would, in most ways, defeat the primary mission and focus of an institution of higher learning. The corporate model is atypical to most to educational institutions, yet higher education, like sport teams, can benefit from the adoption of some basic marketing principles.

A foundational principle in marketing is to know your customers. Sport teams strive to form meaningful relationships with fans, and in doing so, they must clearly understand their fan base.

For those in higher education, this means understanding the demographic profile of our students as well as their beliefs, attitudes, and lifestyle characteristics.

While demographics provide fundamental knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, and lifestyle characteristics are key in engaging sport fans, and they are paramount in understanding each institution's student population.

College basketball fans will have no shortage of avenues with which to engage in the madness of March. Sport teams stay current in their use of technology to engage fans using social media, mobile applications, live feeds and statistics, and promotions specifically designed to generate awareness and demand attention.

Similarly, universities should leverage student services using social media and launch contests or promotions that capture students' attention and allow them to gain authentic, hands-on experience with support services and university culture. Using technology in fun and captive ways makes learning more enjoyable and encourages a sense of community and belonging among students - essential elements in encouraging repeat attendance among sport fans and increasing persistence among students.

Having worked in marketing, communications, and game operations in the sport industry, I am still amazed at what sport fans will do for a free T-shirt, and the same holds true for students.

During freshmen orientation, universities may consider an Amazing Race type treasure hunt in which students must visit various campus landmarks or support service offices. While at those venues, students must complete a "road block" type task requiring use of a specific service. The first set number of students to tweet the most photos and complete the treasure hunt can earn free T-shirts or gift cards to the bookstore.

Just as sport fans may wear a cheesehead or wave a foam finger on the Jumbotron, students often know best how to gain and keep their peers attention. Similar to word-of-mouth advertising, peer-to-peer marketing can be incredibly effective.

Universities should involve student leaders and groups in developing and launching contests that require students to engage with campus services or activities through social media or in-person. Student-led campaigns are authentic and allow student leaders to develop leadership skills while encouraging engagement among their peers.

Numerous colleges and universities utilize Pinterest and encourage students to follow boards and post a variety of photos from athletic events and traditions to campus landmarks and merchandise. Current and prospective students may also take virtual campus tours. This type of engagement can be expanded to feature and encourage use of student support services, all of which foster engagement and retention.

Without detailed student profiles, educational institutions cannot appropriately address student needs and have little chance of retaining students year-to-year. This information helps sport teams interact with fans to address their needs and desires, and it will do the same for institutions in reaching students.

A comprehensive engagement strategy inclusive of social media increases fan loyalty for sport teams, and it will help institutions increase student retention by forging more authentic and meaningful relationships with students.