Championing Adult Students


Embracing New Audiences 

As the state’s premier urban research university, IUPUI offers more than 200-degree programs from two of the state’s top universities. To better serve the needs of today’s evolving student demographic, IUPUI created a Degree Completion Office to assist adult students in their journey to finish or start a degree program. SmallBox partnered with this initiative to help reach a new audience through their own voice, while still maintaining the greater university's brand.



Building Upon an Established Brand

When many folks think of a college student, they picture the traditional, 18-year-old recent high school graduate; someone who’s probably leaving home for the first time. Since its accreditation in 1969, IUPUI has strived to provide an elite, traditional experience for undergraduate students—the keyword being traditional.

The true challenge for the Degree Completion Office was to engage and gain awareness of today’s changing student demographic without undoing the university's intentional efforts in providing a traditional experience, while also providing a nurturing, supportive entry point for the new, nontraditional audience.

As our project partner, Eric Sickels, Director of Communications and Digital Strategy describes the effort, "Our project wasn’t about overtaking the adult college market. We wanted to be strategic and find returning adult students who would really benefit from an IU or Purdue degree program."


Always Lead with Empathy

When effectively solving for any audience's needs, it’s crucial to always begin by understanding the folks you are serving—in our case, a very wide range of nontraditional students.

Why? Empathizing produces positive results for your efforts in the short-term and in the future. An intentional research process helps allay biases about how and why people interact with your brand, creates more meaningful solutions that are more readily adopted, and allows you to operate in a human-centered way.

Our IUPUI partners truly grasped the importance of starting with empathy. Eric explains, "SmallBox helped us break apart our goals and processes first so that we could create the building blocks of a full campaign aimed at prospective students. We didn’t just jump into creative pieces that may or may not have worked. SmallBox helped us create a story around our audiences, think about what they needed, and then develop what was going to be best for them."



@teresatatum and @lydiology collabing on marketing strategy for IUPUI's Degree Completion Office.

A photo posted by SmallBox (@smallbox) on



To do this, we led an audience mapping session with the Degree Completion Office team and IU's marketing department, conducted audience interviews and an extensive survey, performed competitor audits and keyword research, leveraged existing field research, created audience profiles, and did a whole lot of knowledge-sharing throughout. Phew!

After a deep empathy dive, we were able to easily frame our audiences' needs. Our plan of action took the form of a four-pillar marketing strategy, focused on audience prioritization, messaging, a supportive website, and digital advertising. 

The process with SmallBox really helped us define who our customer is, and then share the benefits of completing a degree at IUPUI. [They] helped us get the right content, to the right people, at the right time.
Eric Sickels, Director of Communications and Digital Strategy
Eric Sickels, Director of Communications and Digital Strategy


Taking to the Web 

The crux of our project was to create an easy and welcoming portal for a range of visitors. After our in-depth discovery centered on understanding target students, we planned for a new Degree Completion Office website—a hub within the larger IUPUI ecosystem that would cater to the needs of new and returning learners, many of whom haven’t stepped foot in a classroom in decades. 

The goal of the website was two-fold: to create an intuitive experience that would act as an effortless entry point for a potential student to connect with Degree Completion Office. Most prospective students require these key pieces of information that needed to be easily available on the new site:

To emphasize the office's commitment to personalized support for returning students, we included short biographies and photos of each success coach and career consultant. Two of those team members wrote resources with real examples and advice from their years of working with returning students. To drive it all home, we highlighted three unique stories of IUPUI adult students.

And to draw in potential students, we focused digital advertising on Google, Bing, and Facebook with a slew of targeting mechanisms. Our adult student, geo-targeted campaign was the first of its kind for the Degree Completion Office, and for IUPUI. 



"Through the Roof" 

In a little less than a year's time, our combined efforts have brought in 165+ potential leads through the website form alone. According to Eric, IUPUI and IU have been impressed with the initiative's success. "Our site traffic and conversions are through the roof and our student success coaches are working with students they would have otherwise never met," he says. "We’ve also been able to better define our office and process to students and stakeholders alike."

We’ve learned that an adult student’s decision-making cycle can span weeks, months, or years; we look forward to seeing how IUPUI’s brand will continue to grow in the nontraditional education space for years to come!


Before, we were just another adult program in a sea of never-ending online and modified schedule options. Now the campus and prospective students better understand how we help them select programs that are flexible for their schedules and pair them with schools and majors that count life and employment experience for credit.
Eric Sickels, Director of Communications and Digital Strategy
Eric Sickels, Director of Communications and Digital Strategy
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