The Story of Towson University
Towson University, located in Towson, Maryland a suburb of Baltimore, is the state’s second largest university by enrollment, having 19,793 students enrolled in fall 2022. The University holds six graduation ceremonies for each of its academic schools each spring and holds three ceremonies in the winter. Each year, Towson typically graduates around 2,800 students.
Prior to choosing MarchingOrder, the school used decentralized, in-house teams to manage its six graduation ceremonies. Without a formal registration system in place, keeping graduates informed of tasks and deadlines was cumbersome and inconsistent.
The various ceremony stakeholders were very siloed in their individual areas. Decision-making was fragmented and they lacked a clear strategy for best managing graduation and making it easy and more efficient for everyone involved.
“I don’t think there was any formal RSVP or registration system for commencement. It was just a homegrown approach with lots of spreadsheets and emails back and forth to make it happen.” explained Bethany Pace, Assistant Provost for Communication & Engagement.
“The University Store was responsible for providing the number of graduates that would be participating in the ceremony, through their inventory of who purchased caps and gowns. That information would be sent to the graduation office and they would create the name cards that students would give to readers when they walked across the stage.”
This antiquated approach made it hard for the university bookstore to provide accurate graduate attendance data to the event coordinators, which was critical to the success of the ceremony. Without accurate attendance data, coordinators risked having to deal with seating and capacity issues and bottlenecks caused by having to manage last-minute registrations, distribute name cards, and get accurate name pronunciations on the day of the ceremony.
Adding to their workload, the lack of a central communications system made it difficult for event planners to get graduates all of the information they needed and keep them informed of deadlines and required tasks that they needed to complete in order to participate. Since communications weren’t managed by a central entity, some graduates received conflicting information from different departments.
“There wasn’t really any central communication. We had digital signs and the website, but there wasn’t a comprehensive communications plan around it. Students just kind of figured out that they needed to buy a cap and gown if they wanted to participate, and it just went from there,” said Hillary Giddings, Communications & Engagement Strategist.
Before MarchingOrder, the email platform utilized to email graduates was inefficient and labor-intensive. The platform lacked essential features, such as tracking email delivery and open rates, and the capability to follow up with recipients who didn’t receive or open the emails.
“We all made it work in our own unique ways. It felt a little siloed. We had a great committee, but everybody did their role the way that they did it. There wasn’t really a lot of strategic thought to how these processes could connect until around 2017.”
Why Towson University Chose MarchingOrder
Towson’s ceremony organizers researched other vendors but found that they did not offer all of the solutions that they needed. And their sales and leadership teams were not very accessible.
“As we peeled back the layers it became really clear that we needed a solution that allowed us to corral all of the pieces in a more reliable way,” Pace explained.
“One of the most important things that stood out about MarchingOrder was the responsiveness of the team. Between Fernann (VP Sales & Marketing), Rebecca (VP Client Relations), Dan (Client Relations Manager) and Tyler (CEO), it was just like us being a small team within a team.”
Only MarchingOrder could provide all the products and services they needed to modernize their ceremony, and the personal support and access to make them comfortable and confident with their new approach.
How Towson University Implemented MarchingOrder’s Solutions
Although Towson’s event organizers understood that many things about their ceremony needed to be improved, they implemented changes incrementally to ensure success. But before making any changes, Pace and Giddings worked to get buy-in from stakeholders.
Getting Stakeholder Buy-In
“The committee was very large at this time. It was about 35-40 people and we realized that this was not going to be a discussion for all 40 of those people,” said Pace.
In order to gain approval from the larger committee, Pace and Giddings first held a meeting with a small, select group of committee members who were primarily responsible for executing the ceremony and who would be most impacted by the proposed improvements.
A smaller group of ten key stakeholders was invited to participate in discussions with MarchingOrder.
“We wanted to bring the stakeholders together with MarchingOrder folks, so that we weren’t the only conduit with the information. We wanted our institutional stakeholders to interact with the MarchingOrder team and see how wonderful they were, and to see how willing they were to help and how interested they were in how we worked, so that we could find a happy medium,” Pace explained.
Stakeholders shared their perspectives and feedback based on their experiences executing past ceremonies. They also were shown how MarchingOrder’s solutions could alleviate the challenges they had previously encountered and how these solutions would make future ceremonies easier and more efficient for everyone involved.
“That core group of ten people really helped champion the decision and they became advocates for us amongst their teams. And then, in the bigger committee setting, we started talking about MarchingOrder and how we were going to use it.”
Step by Step
With buy-in from the ceremony committee, Pace and Giddings made incremental updates to Towson’s ceremony each year to ease the transition and give team members a chance to master each new piece as it was rolled out.
The team analyzed their ceremony workflow and prioritized the areas that needed the most attention.
“We started at the beginning of the process, with registration, as opposed to the end of the process. We realized the solutions we were really going to need to establish first were at the beginning of the process.”
Step 1: Centralize Registration & Implement Ceremony Display
Towson first implemented MarchingOrder’s registration and name display solutions at their December 2017 ceremony. By starting with the smaller, winter ceremony, they could learn and get comfortable with the changes, then confidently roll them out at their larger spring ceremonies in 2018.
These small changes paid immediate dividends. Registration immediately became easier to manage and the new graduate name displays instantly showed graduates, families and administrators visual proof that the ceremony had improved from previous years.
Following the successful small scale December rollout and large ceremony implementation in spring 2018, the team continued to refine their processes and looked for more ways MarchingOrder could improve their ceremonies.
Step 2: Streamline Graduate Registration & Regalia Ordering
The following summer, Towson’s ceremony organizers asked MarchingOrder if they could find a way to connect its platform with regalia vendor Herff Jones,’ so graduation registration and cap and gown ordering could be a seamless “one stop shop” for graduates.
“We were really excited to implement that and see it come to fruition in December 2018. The innovation of MarchingOrder was impressive, in addition to all the other customer service and willingness to work with us. MarchingOrder’s innovation and insight was crucial in helping us improve our processes.”
Step 3: Improve Graduate Name Accuracy & Consistency
Next, in 2019, Towson deployed MarchingOrder’s professional graduate name recordings service, ProNounce, to improve pronunciation accuracy, consistency and reduce the amount of time between name announcements.
“MarchingOrder helped us to advance our institutional priority of creating a culture of inclusion in every aspect of the university experience. Because of these tools, such as having a professional name reader, there’s much less of a chance of human error mispronouncing someone’s name,” Giddings stated.
Using ProNounce for graduate name announcements not only increased the quality and consistency of their ceremony, but it also gave organizers back a valuable resource: time.
“It’s reduced rehearsal time. We used to have a pretty lengthy rehearsal getting them [live readers] to get the timing right and establish the right rhythm. We don’t even do that anymore. That whole hour and half of rehearsal time we were able to get rid of because we have ProNounce,” explained Pace.
“ProNounce worked like a very well-oiled machine and was a consistent experience across all ceremonies. We created more of a cohesive experience by having the [MarchingOrder professional] name readers and the technology to assist.”
Step 4: Better Allocate Guest Tickets
For Fall 2023, the Towson team realized they could leverage data collected from its registration site to better allocate guest tickets. Rather than assigning each student the same number of guest tickets, like they had for previous ceremonies, Towson would ask graduates to specify the number of tickets that they wanted on their registration form.
“One of the things we decided to tackle this year are the questions that we ask during registration to create a different kind of ticketing and guest experience,” Giddings said.
Next Step: Improve Communications
Next, Towson will work to improve graduate response rates by further utilizing MarchingOrder’s email and text messaging tools.
“MarchingOrder’s registration piece and communication features are really going to help us address that. We would never had been able to contemplate how to bring the two together in 2017. Those are ways we will continue to strive for excellence,” explained Pace.
Implementing MarchingOrder’s solutions incrementally improved Towson University’s ceremony organization and resource management, name pronunciation accuracy, communications, and reduced demands on faculty and staff, all while elevating its overall ceremony experience.
“We are better because MarchingOrder is our partner. Using MarchingOrder has allowed us to decrease the number of errors related to data collection and ceremony management by more than 50%. That said, the most significant impact of using MarchingOrder has been the 100% increase of morale and joy experienced by faculty, staff, graduates, and guests,” Pace and Giddings explained.
“Everything is a lot more streamlined than it was. We’ve reduced the workload for a lot of departments by using MarchingOrder,” said Giddings.
Towson’s approach shows that you do not need to completely overhaul your ceremony overnight. They achieved remarkable success by progressing step by step. And with exceptional support from MarchingOrder and direct access to its team of experts, including the CEO, Towson’s team was equipped to implement these changes at their own pace.
“Across the board it just elevated the ceremony. It just elevated the experience of something we already did well—but MarchingOrder just elevated that.”