Brandon Kirby, Director of MBA Recruitment and Admissions at Rotterdam School of Management discusses brand promotion, disrupting the market and the future of admissions in higher education.
How would you describe your role at Rotterdam School of Management?
I'm the director for MBA Admissions and Marketing. I oversee both the marketing efforts to increase interest and awareness in our programmes but also manage the admissions side. In other words, I have two different hats that I wear on any given day: the time of the day and the time of the year really dictates what I have to focus on.
I started the role almost a year ago. Previously, I was in the world of marketing and advertising in a small business so I had some operational, sales, development and a lot of marketing experience. I was brought in to offer a fresh perspective on the way RSM approaches admissions and marketing and that's where I've spent a lot of my time during this first year. Overall, ‘admissions and marketing’ is my title but I do a little bit of everything.
How many MBA programmes do you manage?
We have three programs that we oversee: Our International Full-Time MBA, our Executive MBA which is a part-time programme and our Global Executive OneMBA which is a 21 month programme designed for more senior candidates.
You've mentioned before that this is your first role in higher education. How has your previous experience in marketing helped you in this role?
There are two different sides. On the more operational side, I'm comfortable in a fast-paced environment, working with a lot of unknowns, making changes and giving things a try. I'm always willing to try new things and see what works. The higher education industry is mature in a lot of ways, especially from a marketing perspective, and there's not as much disruption as you might expect given that we deal in education and innovation.
On the marketing side, using B2C practices and more commercial methods allows me to review how we approach our marketing and have a more customer-experience focus. At the end of the day, we do ‘sell’ a product and have customers which is no different from Coca-Cola.
You said that you expected this market to be more disruptive. Do you think that will change?
There are definitely schools doing disruptive things. But one of the challenges is that business schools are traditionally aligned with parent academic institutions who have a lot history and heritage. Sometimes you face the classic sales vs marketing or sales vs operations dilemma. All the stakeholders have different opinions and often the challenges come when you're looking to do something different or shake the tree a little bit. People get sensitive and worried about the reputation and trust that has been built over the years, especially in academia.
As a marketer it is important to understand how to navigate the system and understand that you might need to make some concessions to get your idea going. Another challenge in higher education is the size of the marketing budgets. It's easier for companies that have large marketing budgets to do disruptive things.
What have been the biggest rewards of this job?
On the organisational and internal side the biggest reward has been watching our team really unite and do some amazing things together. This year our application volume and interest has gone up significantly which means all our marketing efforts are having a positive impact. That’s something that I’m extremely proud of!
On the marketing side it was great to get positive feedback from alumni on the content that we produced. There are lot of great things happening at RSM and I feel that we’re now showing the world how RSM follows through our mission of being a force for positive change in the world.
What are the main challenges you face in this role?
I think one of the biggest challenges for us is increasing awareness. RSM is a very well respected institution and our MBA has been consistently ranked as one of the top programs in Europe. Our research facilities are top 5 in Europe. There are a lot of great things not only about the school but in Netherlands in general. However, I feel in some ways we are still Europe's best kept secret, which in one hand is great but at some point you want to be recognised worldwide.
Is your focus to increase awareness outside Europe?
Both Erasmus University and Rotterdam School of Management are well known brands in Europe and are associated with quality education. But I believe there's definitely scope to increase awareness in Asia, Middle East, Africa, Latin America and North America. We have a 97% international student base so we already target people from all over the world, but we still have to educate people on all the other reasons on why they should consider us other than our programmes. We've done some organisational things internally and adjusted the way we approach the market to address and support our goal of increasing awareness around the world.
Can you specify some of the organisational changes that took place to support your increase in awareness?
We brought in a new member whose role focuses entirely on digital marketing and we’ve also shifted the approach in admissions to be more regional-based.
Your programme is already quite international. So what's the future goal for RSM MBA?
Programme growth is something that is important for most schools and something we plan to achieve while still delivering a quality programme. That's key! At the end of the day, your alumni judge you on the quality of education that they receive.
What are the current key selling points for international students?
Essentially, we look at it on a few different levels: The Netherlands as a study destination: One of the greatest things about the Netherlands, particularly if you're coming from outside Europe, is that it's one of the top non-native English speaking countries. The Dutch are excellent English speakers and always more than happy to speak English with people who come from outside. I'm American and I'm able to function at a very high level within the organisation as a native English speaker.
The Netherlands also offers a 1 year search Visa so when a student graduates from RSM they can stay in the country for up to one year while they search for a job which is a neat proposition compared to other countries.
If you look at it more from a lifestyle perspective, The Netherlands is also very attractive. It's a very young country, vibrant, open and aligned with emerging generations. Amsterdam, The Hague and Rotterdam are actually on the top 20 cities for Millennials according to Business Insider.
Rotterdam as a city: Rotterdam itself is very diverse and international with the largest port in Europe which attracts a lot of multinational companies. It's considered the gateway of Europe.
RSM as a top school: When you a look at the school we rank very highly in diversity, international mobility and return on investment. The RSM mission statement is to be a force of positive change in the world so we attract students who have an interest in sustainability, making a difference and having an impact. Then of course we have the academic component of the programme which is world class and offers a very collaborative environment.
What tools and channels do you use to promote the RSM MBA brand?
For me is less about the platforms that we use but more about the content that we put out there. We have really increased the amount of content that we put out there and also the quality of that content. We try and find relevant topics in the world that are valuable and interesting to read. For example, when Uber was having some problems with their CEO we wrote a piece on how an MBA could help you become a better CEO through the usage of emotional intelligence.
I think one of the challenges we face in this industry is being able to differentiate ourselves. If you remove the logo from some higher education marketing copy you might struggle to find out the differentiation points from one school to another. The way we try and do that is through smarter content, smarter opinion and thought leadership articles and videos. We’ve already finished our content plan for 2018 and I'm excited to see where that takes us.
Do you think recruitment fairs will continue to be a key channel for attracting MBA applicants?
This is a question that a lot of schools ask themselves and one another. One of the challenges is that it's difficult to pinpoint the exact moment someone decides to apply or come to an MBA. Some schools go to fairs and people know who they are already and want to talk to them. For us, the 1-2-1 format works better because we can interact with the applicant and really get to know them.
For applicants, these fairs are very useful because they ask questions to the school representatives. I think events have to be part of your overall strategy but you also need to learn how to leverage the leads that you get from these fairs. At RSM, we're also investing more in our own events such as masterclasses or get togethers. We did an event recently in Lima, Peru at an amazing location right on the shore of the Pacific Ocean for prospective students and applicants to have some drinks in a casual environment while meeting with RSM alumni..We're trying to take the Rotterdam experience and bring it halfway around the world.
What metrics and KPIs do you use to measure the success of your marketing activities?
We look at website traffic, event registrations, brochure downloads, CV assessment requests and social media engagements. I also focus a lot on the time spent on the website.
Let’s explore the admissions side of your job in more detail. How do you ensure you have a holistic admissions review process?
The first thing that is important to me is the interview. The interview is really the opportunity to learn and get to know more about the candidate and it's also an opportunity to find out why certain things on the application seem off. It's also important to not introduce bias and maintain integrity in the selection process so consistency in the way we conduct the interviews is key. But next year we want to focus a lot on measuring different competencies such as resilience, cultural awareness and collaboration. Moving forward, I'm trying to find more data points and tangible indicators to make our decision.
How do you think MBA programmes will evolve in the future?
I think we'll continue to see more online offerings and some programmes evolving to be more hybrid which will provide more opportunity and access to education. I think we'll also see an increase in modular and build your own programmes that students can start whenever they like. There's always the question on whether the popularity of MBAs will go away. Will there be a preference for specialised masters?
To me an MBA is not only about academics but also an opportunity to learn how to lead people and learn more about yourself. In an MBA, students go through an intense shared experience, which is impossible to have in a virtual environment. That shared experience is what makes an MBA special! While specialised masters focus on a functional area such as finance, marketing or operations, an MBA is designed to give you broader knowledge and train you to become a better leader.
Do you think the MBA recruitment and admission process will also change in the future?
We need to give the market what they want as opposed to what we think they want. It is critical to listen and engage with our audience. Education is often perceived as difficult to access and I don’t think that should be the case. You can still provide quality education and offer a top ranked programme but be more accessible and humanistic when speaking with candidates.