In this blog series, we profile the recipients of the first-ever Percolate Customer Awards, given at Transition 2016 to individuals who are innovators in their field. We asked them what inspires them to do their best work and how they’re addressing an increasingly complex marketing landscape.

The ‘Breaking the Mold’ award was presented to The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania for their ongoing initiatives to build a global education model for the 21st century.

Accepting the award at Transition 2016 was Stefan Frank, Director of Social Media at Wharton, who transitioned from a career in entertainment and media to become one of higher education’s most innovative marketers. Frank and his team are acutely aware of how education is changing in response to technological and socioeconomic trends, which in turn informs their communications strategy. We sat down with him to understand how Wharton is breaking the mold in building its brand amidst a rapidly changing, global education landscape.

Most people don’t think of higher education when it comes to social marketing. What are your goals for building a social brand for such a storied institution?

From my perspective, the importance of social media mirrors the shift in higher education. Online education is so important and disruptive now, and this puts a lot of pressure on full-time programs, even elite ones like ours, to deliver on the value proposition. Social can help ensure our brand message remains powerful and honest, so students feel valued when they come in.

On the other hand, there’s a whole host of people getting a Wharton education who might never set foot on the main campus. We’re really talking to new “customers”, if you will – a spectrum of learners taking a free online course on a platform like Coursera to an executive taking one of our customized courses for a fee. That’s relatively new for Wharton and higher education in general.

We have a lot of discrete goals from a business standpoint, but also from a marketing and brand awareness standpoint. For example, many people in San Francisco are not aware that Wharton has a presence there, and that’s a huge opportunity for us – especially given how many grads – including Google CEO Sundar Pichai —  now work in Silicon Valley.

Has your target audience changed alongside this digital push?

Now, we’re targeting a lot of people that we hadn’t in the past. Online advertising wasn’t always part of Wharton’s portfolio. Social, digital, and even our website have become so much more important than before. We track and analyze other higher ed organizations for benchmarking purposes, but we also look at completely different sectors like media and entertainment. We know we’re competing in the news feed with those voices and brands, so we have to know what’s going to engage them. We’re pretty hyperaware of that.

What are some channels you’re experimenting with, and have seen positive results from?

We’re constantly experimenting. For example, when I came on three years ago, we used Twitter to drive conversation and answer questions related to student life — almost like a customer support channel. We learned over time that our students migrated to other channels like Snapchat and Instagram, which can also help tell the story of Wharton. But it’s less about marketing and more about building awareness, developing that community, and an understanding of what Wharton represents. We found that our students really enjoy that, and that it has influenced decision-making for some prospective students. The more we can reveal about Wharton upfront, early in the process, then the better it is for us and them.

In Charles Duhigg‘s The Power of Habit, he writes, “Small wins are a steady application of a small advantage.” How does this relate to your marketing strategy or mindset?

If you can convert one person or a small group then you have the opportunity to convert a lot of people. People who come to Wharton and go on to become alums are usually very well positioned — they bring a lot to the school and the alumni network and have incredible ideas and influence. To reach and delight one — or a small percentage of the people at Wharton — means you’re going to reach a large, influential community.

We do focus very much on the on-the-ground, one-to-one communication, because we know the possibilities of that ripple effect are there. Our MBA population has one of the largest representations of women and international students — so there are a lot of distinct voices and individual views, but there is also a larger community that really gets along and knows how to work together. It is a pretty powerful message for an incoming student to know that it doesn’t matter where they come from or what they know, but that they’re going to bring something valuable and it’s going to be welcomed and respected. That’s what we try to show.

What’s surprised you about your career that’s brought you to this point?

 I started out as a film major and I worked in Hollywood and traditional media as it’s now known. The constant throughout it all has been storytelling. It used to be long-form storytelling that took several years to make and the box office was your only metric. That wasn’t fulfilling for me as a creative person so I went back to graduate school, got into public radio, and then the museum world where we held town hall-style conversations.

Then the offer at Wharton came along — here was a world-class brand open to a new discipline. There was the opportunity on social to build the brand, and I could watch in real-time how this conversation was evolving. It’s storytelling but it’s small in scale and can be amplified around the world almost immediately. That’s what I really enjoy about my work.

In social media there is something new being developed every day. A new platform, a new feature, a new device. You are constantly pivoting, moving around, and trying to figure out what’s going to work. There’s so much information coming at you so having a really smart team is really critical. I’m grateful to have an amazing team that keeps me on my toes but also rounds out my knowledge.  

Where do you find inspiration?

Personally, I find it through my daughter. She’s seven and she’s incredibly curious: she asks all the questions that you would ask if you didn’t have a filter or weren’t conditioned not to ask. She’s always a breath of fresh air, makes me laugh and keeps things in perspective. Creatively, the fact that I can walk around and listen to tons of different points of view through podcasts or go on Instagram and see some new part of the world or be exposed to a live event happening on Periscope is very inspiring. I just think that technology is incredibly inspiring because there is so much information at your fingertips now so just continuing to explore and look under rocks and go to great events like this is incredible.

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