Most of us have fairly defined sales cycles. A prospect comes our way and with the right marketing alchemy of time, place, and message, they’ll buy.
But what if you’re managing sales cycles that range from a few days to five years? This is the challenge Chris Bevel, director of marketing at University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry, faces daily. Every day, his team reaches out to a wide-ranging audience, from people requiring immediate oral health care to aspiring dentists who won’t get DMD behind their names for several years.
We sat down with him at RampUp on the Road Chicago to discuss his unique challenges as an academic and healthcare marketer.
RampUp: How did you come to be a marketing professional for an academic brand?
Chris: I always put a high value on education in general, but I had never worked in education, particularly higher ed. I have also always put a lot of emphasis on healthcare, fitness, and nutrition and never worked in those fields either. The great thing about this role is that it actually combines the two into one. We train healthcare professionals, and part of that educational process includes students seeing patients. They train in simulated environments for the first half of their curriculum, but in the second half, they’re working with actual patients, so I’m essentially marketing to both. Our education and academic programs are graduate programs in nature, so I’m trying to attract prospective students for the school as well as patients to our healthcare enterprise. I also work with partners in research to highlight all the terrific experts we have in various facets of oral health research in order to attract national-level funding and donations, as well as deepen our relationships with various foundations and institutions that support us financially.
RampUp: That’s interesting that you have so many audiences. I’ll just pick on two that you mentioned, one being the prospective graduate students and Ph.D candidates and the other being patients who are coming to the University of Illinois at Chicago for healthcare. One I see as having a very long sales cycle and the other being much more immediate—people who need care urgently. How do you target these audiences and how do you measure the success of your marketing?
Chris: With the patient marketing side, you can think of us as essentially a dentist. Much like a private practice, it’s really a local marketing play, so we target prospective patients who would have a need for any sort of dental care. We have patients who drive hundreds of miles to see our specialists, and we are very proud to offer that level of service.
We also target our marketing to those not only seeking dental care services, but also to individuals who may also see a lot of value in our mission, which is not only to train the future generation of oral health professionals, but also to serve the community by providing low-cost dental care to patients who are not financially able to pay for dental care or who are Medicaid and Medicare recipients.
On the academic side, it is a much longer journey, as you mentioned. The first thing that I had to do as a marketer is to better understand that journey because I was brand new to the world of academia. I started by talking to current students as well as prospective students and got plugged into our pre-dental club, which includes undergrads here at UIC who are on the dental school track. They were an excellent microcosm of potential customers to talk to and learn from.
What I learned is that the journey for potential dental students can be very long, from four to six plus years, and the decision to pursue dentistry might be made as early as middle school. Some students are influenced by a parent or a friend or even by a dental care experience.
For me, the first step was understanding that journey, understanding the key moments and key people who have influence over those decisions.
RampUp: How are you measuring the influence your work has on enrollment?
Chris: Well, for enrollment, we measure email signups and traffic and engagement on our website. We collect feedback from students on the usefulness and the value of the information as well as feedback on events that we host. We essentially want to boost our offer acceptance rate and reduce our offer rejection rate. We may extend 70 offers of acceptance, but not all of them accept.
My goal as a marketer is to engage with students who are the cream of the crop in order to establish an affinity between them and our brand. If they get to know us earlier versus later in the process, they are more likely to have the information they need to make their ultimate decision. At the end of the day, we want them to see us as the most helpful college of dentistry that they encountered, even if they don’t choose us.
That is the KPI we are looking for, which will essentially boost the class quality as well as the academic and the retention rate. For us, it’s more about lead quality and increasing our engagement and strengthening our relationship with the highest value and highest potential candidates for our program.
RampUp: With this in mind, what is your greatest marketing challenge?
Chris: Connecting with those high potential candidates as early as possible in their journey. This means growing our top-of-the-funnel awareness and compelling them to connect with us through micro-targeted inbound strategies where those candidates would be – search and social. It also means equipping our admissions team with tools and branded content to make great impressions at our recruiting events.
RampUp: What martech tools and platforms do you use to nurture leads? Do they differ based on audience?
Chris: We use ActiveCampaign for CRM and marketing automation, i.e. segmentation, lead generation, email marketing, event marketing, and nurturing communications.
We integrate this with our web (Google Analytics) and admissions metrics to optimize the conversion funnel and measure outcomes.
RampUp: What is your advice to other marketers managing sales cycles of varying lengths and requirements?
Chris: Start by analyzing the customer journey. Look for those make-it-or-break-it moments – key moments that are most influential in customer decisions. If certain segments have different journeys (as in our case with foreign-trained students), map those separately.
Then, develop content and programming that is most helpful in those moments, for a specific journey or persona. Deliver the content in those moments in the most effective channels, and make it shareable and discoverable via search.
RampUp: What skills have you been able to bring to UIC from your experience in marketing at FedEx?
Chris: Well, certainly the content marketing skills are transferable, so we try to employ the best practices of landing-page design and building a pleasurable and effective conversion path.
Managing a CRM platform has certainly been helpful because that’s what we’re doing now in terms of managing the communications and measuring and deepening the engagement with prospective candidates.
At FedEx, I worked with everyone from IT to customer service to finance. Here I’m working with people in the healthcare realm and student admissions. It’s different, but both positions still have the ultimate goal to support the organizational objectives.
RampUp: What’s your favorite part about marketing for UIC’s dental program?
Chris: It doesn’t get boring. Every day brings a new opportunity to learn a new aspect of marketing, try out a new piece of content to see if it works, or a new campaign or channel.
As a side project, I’m building a healthcare-centric app geared towards kids. I’ve certainly never marketed to kids, so every time I turn around, I’m learning something new. I try to apply my previously used skill set in the business world to what I’m doing now. It keeps it interesting.