By Kate Austin, Senior Director

Part of the University System of Maryland, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES) is an independent research and graduate education institution with sites located across Maryland. Scientists and students at UMCES conduct cutting-edge research into today’s most pressing environmental problems, particularly around coastal environments and their watersheds, like the Chesapeake Bay. So when UMCES asked The Hatcher Group to conduct a market research study on the feasibility and demand for launching new educational pathways (targeting enrolled UMCES students and working environmental professionals), we jumped at the chance to help them better understand the needs and preferences of our environmental leaders.

Are you surprised that Hatcher conducts high-quality market research in-house? In fact, we consider market research a critical first step when launching any new strategy or marketing plan. We embed landscape analysis and market research into the discovery phase of every project. Market research helps us move from guessing what your target audience wants to knowing it. It provides actionable insights based on direct feedback from the people who are most likely to use your product or service. In higher education, market research is particularly important. It creates a roadmap, backed by data, to shape, position, and market new programs to prospective students in a notoriously volatile marketplace.

In our work for UMCES, The Hatcher Group conducted a market trend analysis and target audience research to help them answer two fundamental questions: Is there market demand for the program offerings being considered, and what do prospective students need and want?

As part of the market trend analysis, our team of experts conducted an audit of peer higher education institutions and their programs to identify opportunities to capitalize on unmet demand. We analyzed national and regional labor market data to gauge potential job growth and evaluated higher education degree conferral trends in Maryland and nationally.

With a solid understanding of the market demand for the proposed programs, we turned to gathering data about prospective students. For this work, we conducted target audience research through virtual focus groups with internal and external stakeholders and one-on-one telephone interviews. We designed and deployed an online survey of potential students to better understand their demographics, behavior, motivations, preferences, and needs. Through the focus groups, interviews, and survey, we probed questions about UMCES’ identity, its unique values, as well as the role of UMCES within the environmental science field. In addition, we discussed program structure, price, subject matter, naming, and learner motivations.

The final step was to synthesize our key findings from the market trend analysis and target audience research into a comprehensive report and presentation to the UMCES executive committee. Knowing research and data are the language of colleges and universities, we included robust quantitative data as well as qualitative observations and recommendations –including marketing personas – for use in their decision making on program development and future marketing strategies.

Market research is not the most glamorous cousin in the public relations and communications family, but it is undoubtedly one of the most important. No matter the offerings, if any, UMCES chooses to move forward with in the future, we are grateful for the opportunity to provide them a solid foundation, built on reliable data and actionable insights, to support our environmental leaders.

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