Besides being famous, what do Tom Hanks, Steve Jobs, and George Lucas have in common?

They all went to community college.

Community colleges are the national gateway for millions of Americans who seek an alternative path to the traditional four-year college experience. And the Maricopa County Community College District in Arizona is THE largest in the nation, serving more than 220,000 students each year.

Beginning in 2015, we were consulting with their Marketing team on organization structure and process with the goal of building an internal agency that could easily be accessed by all their community colleges. After facilitating and leading an effort to create a consolidated marketing hub, we turned our focus to serving individual colleges with their unique challenges – starting with Rio Salado College in early 2018.


  • Marketing strategy
  • Brand development
  • Creative campaign development
  • Website redesign
  • Social Media 

A Forerunner That Was Falling Behind

Rio Salado College has been on the forefront of providing innovative educational opportunities to meet the needs of today’s students for the jobs of tomorrow. In addition to the tried and true curriculum of Accounting and Paralegal programs, exciting new curriculum unheard of just a decade ago were offering students career opportunities they would never have imagined: careers in Nanotechnology, Senior Living Management, and Sustainable Food Systems.

But like many community colleges, Rio Salado was facing pressure from new entrants: last-mile training programs, job sponsored apprenticeships and online credentialing, many which offer alternative and enticing financing arrangements.


The Challenge

How do we successfully compete against new entrants to raise awareness of the exciting new and existing online curriculum from Rio Salado College while driving aggressive enrollment numbers…and do it in such a way that we can build once and scale fast?

Flipping The Script By Putting Students First

When we scanned Rio Salado’s competitive landscape to understand the options from a student’s perspective, one thing was clear. The competitors weren’t talking about the students, they were talking about “Them”, promoting their impressive rankings, programs, or fancy testimonials. It was a sea of messaging sameness and a showcase of failed CX.

Our inspiration for a decidedly different approach came not just from talking with students, but from Rio Salado itself. Specifically, the first pillar of their 2020 Strategic Plan: STUDENTS FIRST. What this means is that the student is at the center of Rio Salado and the focus of all decisions and investments. And from our perspective: CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE.

Before they are students, our audience is a diverse group of individuals with different motivations ranging from a mid-life career change to pursuing an in-demand career (i.e. STEM) in a shorter amount of time. And we realized that the only thing that was holding them back was that pesky little voice in their heads:

“You were never good in school, why would you go back?”

“A career change at 49…who are you kidding?”

“How are you really going to fit this into your life with kids, your current job and all your other life responsibilities?”

“How do you plan on paying for this?”

The antidote to that pesky inner voice? The inner cheerleader that resides in all of us. The one that pushes us out of our comfort zone to pursue a better future. The one that says: THE YOU, YOU WANT TO BE.

We took this motivational, student centered idea to the places we knew our competitive set had ignored. And because we knew this all-important test would be the catalyst for future programs, our approach was to build it once, learn fast, then scale.


The Nanotechnology Test

Our build it once test was for Rio Salado’s new Nanotechnology Program. With open seats in the program, the campaign and materials needed to raise awareness about a field that qualified students were overlooking and in result generate student enrollment inquiries.

We set out to show that nanotechnology — where science and engineering meet at the nanoscale — is a 21st-century game-changer and that anyone can be part of the field making it happen. Working closely with the Rio Salado College team, we outlined a key messaging framework used to create:

  • A new landing page focused on the customer experience and dedicated entirely to the nanotechnology program
  • A three-video series that speaks to the student and faculty experience (two targets - students out of high school, and members of the workforce who may be looking to go back to school for a career change)
  • Assets utilized in engagement emails
  • Search placement through Google AdWords
  • Facebook & Instagram placement

There was a lot riding on the test. Could we hit our enrollment goals?  Did we create the right deliverables and messaging framework? Did we maximize the customer experience for student prospects? Because if we were successful, we would apply the same approach to other programs in need of support.

And a success it was:

  • 4x number of enrolled students in Nanotechnology program compared to the previous semester
  • 91 prospective student inquiries for the Nanotechnology program over 3 months

Scaling the Program With Key Learnings

We learned a lot from the success of the Nanotechnology test that we could quickly apply to six other Programs:

  • Addictions and Substance Abuse Program
  • Dental Hygiene Program
  • Justice Studies Program
  • Paralegal Program
  • Senior Living Management Program
  • Sustainable Food Systems Program

Learning #1: Less is more

We could easily overwhelm the student with a firehose of information about Rio Salado’s curriculum but that’s the opposite of delivering a positive customer experience. With strategic copy and UX design, we created a landing page optimized to educate and convert prospective students.  The landing page gave us one opportunity to provide potential students all the critical information they needed in a user-friendly environment with the goal of getting them to take the ultimate action:  Contacting an advisor through filling out the form or calling the number direct.

Learning #2: Video drives conversion

We didn’t have a big television budget like our competitors. But we knew the message of “THE YOU, YOU WANT TO BE” would best come to life via video. Our hypothesis was that video content on the landing page would generate incremental lift.  And our hypothesis was true: these video landing pages converted 80% better when compared to landing pages without videos.

Learning  #3: Target around mindset and intent

No television budget? No problem because we knew that the best way to reach our target audience was through search and social.  With custom Nanotechnology targeting of our audience through Facebook and Instagram combined with smart STEM-related keywords via Google AdWords, we ensured that our clients could meet their cost/enrollment goal without breaking the bank.

With these learnings in hand, we were able to efficiently scale a suite of digital assets for the six other curriculum, with the confidence that our test approach worked.

8 Weeks and 6 Projects Later…

We have inspired countless students to become the “YOU, YOU WANT TO BE.”   In addition to meeting an aggressive 8 week timeline to complete six videos, six landing pages and multiple campaign assets, we also delivered a bonus gift to our clients: foresight.  By bundling talent, shooting and production, our client’s marketing investment went further, faster. 

And these marketing savings can now be redeployed to continue to drive student enrollment, at an efficient cost/enrollment and inspire thousands of future students to enroll at Rio Salado College.

What Our Clients Say

"I can't possibly be effusive enough in my compliments for the entire firm. I have received nothing but the utmost service and professionalism in every way."

- Rick Vaughn (Faculty Chair, STEM – Rio Salado College)