Serving approximately 40,000 students, California State University, Fullerton (CSUF) has the largest enrollment of any institution in the California State University system. Reflecting the region’s rich and diverse culture, 40 percent of CSUF students are Hispanic and the university is considered a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) by the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU). An economic powerhouse, CSUF-related spending contributes nearly $1 billion to the California economy annually and supports roughly 9,000 jobs across the state.
Though CSUF had historically enjoyed strong state support, shifting budget priorities demanded that the university take a more assertive approach to independent fundraising. To achieve this, CSUF first needed to understand how it was perceived by key constituents, where it stood in the marketplace, and what tactics would be most effective in emphasizing the university’s many positive attributes. The information would not only help the school distinguish itself within the expansive state university system, but it would also serve as a foundation for sharper—and far more effective—messaging to prospective students, alumni, business partners, and community members.
As backdrop to an ambitious capital campaign, CSUF leadership engaged Stamats to launch and manage a sophisticated, multi-phased market research project to explore the university’s brand attributes, communication personality characteristics, and organizational values. Highly segmented by design, the research engaged the following 10 audiences:
- Current undergraduate and graduate students
- Employees (faculty, staff, administration, and emeritus faculty)
- Parents of current undergraduate students
- High school and community college transfer counselors
- Employers (past and prospective student employers)
- Community leaders
- Friends of the university
- Prospective undergraduate students
- Regional hiring managers
To launch Phase I of our work, Stamats visited the CSUF campus to conduct face-to-face interviews with project leaders, staff, alumni, friends, civic leaders, current students, and parents. The results of these discussions enhanced our foundational knowledge of CSUF’s challenges and helped us refine the attributes, topics, and statements that would later be tested through quantitative research.
In Phase II, we collaborated closely with university leadership to develop and deliver a web survey to all 10 audience groups. As part of the survey’s design, Stamats used an innovative best-worst scaling (BWS) technique to evaluate the relative strength of multiple factors that contribute to selecting an institution of higher learning or assessing its merits.
Best-worst scaling involves choice modeling to conduct the experiment. The frequencies associated with respondent choices estimate the share of preference for each factor included in the model. To illustrate, 25 factors were included in the best-worst scaling technique. The statistical design of the model indicates in what order and how often the respondent will see each factor. Each respondent was presented with five factors at a time and was asked to indicate the most important and least important factor from the set. The ensuing shares of preference for all 25 factors gave CSUF relative and absolute preference for particular messages that could then be used to prioritize communications going forward for 10 different audiences. CSUF’s performance on the same 25 factors was posed as a separate series of questions. CSUF team members found immediate application of the results in current communications and strategic planning for future campaigns.
To enhance the quantitative findings from the web survey, Stamats employed a new method of collecting information in Phase III of our engagement. Soliciting responses from one audience—close friends and alumni of the university—we conducted a qualitative online bulletin board discussion. The discussion board moderation guide, software platform, scheduling, technical assistance, discussion moderation, and analysis were all provided by Stamats. Not only did the feedback add depth to the web survey responses, but it also allowed our team to collect insightful commentary that gave real-world context to particular data findings.
With nearly 7,600 completed surveys, the market research Stamats provided has proved immensely valuable to CSUF in a very short period of time. Though it’s too early to report on specific metrics, insight from the qualitative and quantitative data has helped the university develop a more sophisticated voice—one that improves student and employee recruitment efforts, engages more diverse audiences, promotes effective fundraising across constituent groups, and helps CSUF stand out in a crowded and competitive marketplace.
We look forward to continuing our relationship with CSUF and exploring ways to express the university’s refined messaging through creative campaign work.