Let’s assume I am back at the helm of a small university (which I was from June 2005 to December 2010). Let’s also assume my institution is thinking about a marketing effort targeting working adults. Are you with me so far? Now let’s replace “me” with “you”; I’ll pretend I’m you and here are the steps I will take.

First thing is to look at the current list of enrollees and pick out those who are over 25 and taking courses part-time. Then I’d ask our admissions reps for some information about each of these adult students. I want to know why they enrolled and why they chose our college. What do they like about us? What would they change (ask them to pick one thing)? What was their biggest surprise – or shock – once they began the coursework? I want to “get inside their head,” and hopefully after five such conversations, I’ll identify our institution’s key selling points.

Once I have a good idea about our attributes – from the students’ perspective, not my marketing manager’s – I will meet with my internal marketing manager and discuss what I’ve learned. I will also ask her to take these selling points and wrap them around a few sentences/statements of no more than eight words each (seven is the optimal number). When we have these sentences/statements I may call back a few of the adult part-time students I spoke with earlier and ask them to react to the sentences. What I’m searching for are the right “messages,” i.e., the words that immediately connect with the hopes and concerns of other adults who may be considering a return to college.

This is, of course, guesswork at this point, but it’s a wise approach to take when starting the process of reaching prospective adult enrollees. As the messages are tested I will find which one(s) resonate with the people I’m targeting. I know there’s no better way to nail down the right message, so I follow through with this in preparation for the next step.

Now that I think I know what my institution’s messages are (for the working adult), I now must decide how to best reach this target market. The cost will be a concern as I am always sensitive to the fact I have a limited budget, especially for a new approach (think “test”) to a specific market segment. I have a few obvious choices relative to reaching this target market. To name a few, I will be considering: a PR/publicity campaign; print (postcards?) using mailing lists; online ads (probably Facebook); affinity groups (associations, unions, religious sects, etc.). I will look at the costs for each approach, and maybe consider using a combination approach. But whatever I choose I will limit the financial exposure by testing both the message and the media. And I will make sure my admissions people know what to expect…and how to handle the expected response.

I have the messages, I’ve selected the media, I’ve alerted each person in my organization who will be involved with this new campaign and instructed them how to respond if they are involved in the entire process. To be sure, all these decisions are not mine alone and, to get buy-in, I have involved many people – and their thoughts and opinions – in the decision-making process. Experience has taught me that business decisions are nothing more than guesses, hopefully, educated guesses, but that the decision may be wrong. No matter the response to the News campaign – the “test” – we will all learn something.

After a relatively short period – using online ads will tell me something quite quickly – I will meet with my people and critique what we’ve done and the response we’ve received. What have we learned, and what should we modify…or throw out? With modifications to messages or to the type of media, I will then go back and spend a little more to see if the modifications work. I will keep doing this until my team and I are satisfied that we are on the right track to recruiting students who are working adults. Lastly, I will adjust the budget to reflect our return on investment. And will keep reviewing performance on at least a weekly basis. That’s how I will bring in working adults, increase tuition revenue, and carve a niche for current and future programs that are ideal for this target market,