As business and commerce move at a more rapid and frantic pace, the act of listening has become an essential art. It can also be empowering, as Barnes & Noble College has found, making listening an integral part of the company’s operations strategy. In a recent NACAS webcast titled, The Power of Listening, Lisa Malat, Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer for Barnes & Noble College, explained that through establishing its series of revealing POV (point of view) panels, creating quick polls and developing in-depth studies into the preferences and challenges of key audiences such as Millennials, Generation Z and non-traditional students, research has driven the company’s marketing and growth initiatives. “It’s become the foundation for all of our business strategies — everything from product and service innovations to shopping experiences, engagement programs, teaching and learning, and a better understanding of the role of digital solutions,” she said. “It’s helped us elevate our mission and capabilities to be a true strategic partner to our schools and a support system to our students and faculty.”
With more than just the opportunity to learn from its research insights, that act of listening has also changed Barnes & Noble College’s relationship with its campus partners and customers. “It was a wake-up call to how we position ourselves and become engaged — and it wasn’t just about being a retailer, but more to really act as that complete campus support system that our customers need — more than fast lines and ringing cash registers.” Malat noted, “It was about the intersection of three C’s – community, connection and commerce.”
By listening to their customers, Barnes & Noble College has developed the kinds of support strategies that can help students as early as pre-college, connecting before they arrive on campus and helping them through the often stressful college transition process. “Through e-mail and social media, integrating the bookstore into orientation outreach by our store staff and by hosting events at the bookstore, we’ve learned about the value of being able to connect to students at key moments in their college journey,” said Tamara Vostok, Director of Consumer Marketing for Barnes & Noble College. “We’re building a stronger relationship with them at a very critical time.”
Although she admits it’s the kind of strategy that can certainly drive revenue for the store and for the campus partners it serves, Vostok stresses that those kinds of connections can help build the kind of support students really value. “Open rates for our emails are around 50 percent, and 80 percent of students researched say the programs were helpful — with an additional 71 percent saying that the bookstore helped them get established at college,” she noted.
That commitment to engage and understand first, then move forward with ideas and strategies based on the voice of customers, has given Barnes & Noble College a deeper understanding of its audiences and suggested key opportunities where it could help with specific issues. By listening and gaining a better understanding of Millennials career preparation skills for example, the company developed the Career Now initiative, backed by powerful online and on-campus programs, including increased opportunities to leverage previously underutilized campus career services programs and better develop the value students found in using faculty for career advice and guidance.
Listening has also helped with recent product and service innovations as Barnes & Noble College’s Market Research Specialist, Steve McSpiritt, explained. “With Gen Z now on campus, they represent a whole new set of needs and challenges,” he says. “To make sure we better understand how to engage with them, we researched their college expectations, aspirations and use of learning technology.” Though that process reported that Gen Z value an academic education, it also revealed important learnings that will help not only Barnes & Noble College provide better support opportunities tailored to the unique needs of this generation, but also the opportunity to share that knowledge with college faculty, instructors and administration. For example, the company has incorporated those learnings into teaching and learning tools in its new LoudCloud platform, providing faculty, advisors and students with more affordable and effective courseware options and extending the most effective support tools to students through analytical tools to help ensure and support their success.
Other groups with unique needs that Barnes & Noble College’s culture of listening has helped are non-traditional students, now representing some 74 percent of today’s student population. “They present a unique set of challenges and need to be supported to feel successful in their academic journey.” McSpiritt points out. More likely to be considered at risk, with low confidence about completing their program and less connection to the campus, Barnes & Noble College is developing new programs and outreach designed specifically to help meet the needs of this growing student group.
The common theme, emerging from all of Barnes & Noble College’s research, is that students of all generations and all walks of life are looking for that sense of connection and support critical to their overall social and academic college experience. Working to build those strategies with their college partners, the company has learned to keep those needs in mind as it continues to remain the relevant, vibrant hub on campus, supporting the mission of the communities and campuses it serves. “The takeaway is that we, and everyone working in higher ed and working on our campuses today, really need to listen to the voice of students, faculty and alumni — the voice of all of our customers — and really let those insights drive our strategies,” Malat said, adding, “because at the end of the day, if you’re listening, your customers will tell you where you need to go.”