The tough competition among students for coveted spots at Ivy League colleges and universities is well known, but for the majority of educational institutions, the competition for busy prospective applicants is just as fierce. Educational institutions have to stand out amid the barrage of information hitting high school juniors and seniors to find those potential students that are the right fit for a variety of diverse and specific programs.
Timing the marketing push is important for many higher education efforts, says Ben Carlson, chief strategy officer at marketing agency Bradley & Montgomery, which worked with Muncie, IN-based Ball State University on a recent campaign. “In another industry, we’d call it the sales cycle, but it’s longer than a typical cycle,” he says. “You start targeting kids when they’re juniors and seniors in high school and see the results when it’s time for them to submit applications and make the big decision.”
Though higher education marketing has traditionally been dominated by static, glossy mailers featuring green campuses and relaxed dorms, forward-thinking educators are embracing contemporary marketing techniques — such as variable data printing, viral Web sites and online social networks — and finding these advances can increase applications and enrollment.
“The challenge that we face in reaching [prospective students] is that everyone is busy,” says Cam Cruickshank, VP of enrollment management at Ohio-based Tiffin University, which targets both high school students with extracurricular activities and adults with jobs and families interested in continuing education. “We try to best understand each individual student’s preferred mode of communication.”
Traditional undergraduates, for example, “want to see pictures and read copy about living on campus, joining fraternities and going to football games, going to class,” he explains. Adult learners, on the other hand, want to know about time, cost and completion, and whether they can fit an education into their busy lifestyle. To reach these different audiences, “variable print was the way to go,” he says.
While direct mail is still a popular university marketing method, online communication is quickly becoming more so, as students tend to be what Cruickshank calls “secret shoppers” — more likely to go online for information than to pick up the phone. For an entrepreneurship program at Ball State University, a bold, creative online strategy with strongly themed viral elements helped the school discover bold, creative students who thrive outside of the box. “Too often people will say that something is viral and then just throw it up there and walk away,” says Carlson. “We jumpstarted it by using existing students to get the word out.”
Other programs seek students where they socialize, on networking sites including Facebook, YouTube and MySpace. “To talk about Web 2.0 is not enough,” says Kelly Cutler, CEO of Marcel Media. Staying cutting-edge, she adds, is key: “It’s about showing your prospective students that you’re ahead of the curve.”
Despite all the options, outlets and openings, educators and marketers in the higher education space are asking the same thing. “The question,” says Cruickshank, “is how the heck do we stand out and stay different — how do we keep a brand so that we’re remembered?”
Ball State University: Web site with viral campaign
For the school’s entrepreneurship program at the Miller School of Business, students are encouraged to “break out of the cubicle.”Miserycubed.com entices prospective students away from the lifestyle of a corporate drone, with information to help students spread the word about the program. The site features activities that motivate and promote, such as a kit to make ironic inspirational posters and a feature that lets visitors send an e-mail to their future self with predictions about professional life. Viral elements were distributed by students in the program.
USC School of Cinematic Arts Summer Program: Social networking
In late 2007, the program set up profiles on social networking sites Facebook, MySpace and YouTube, where students can become “friends,” send inquiries and get updates. As of mid-January, the MySpace profile had 91 friends, while the Facebook group had 99 members. The YouTube profile has been valuable in demonstrating the quality of work that program participants create.
Tiffin University: Variable data printing
The school uses information collected on its Web site to customize the information that prospective students receive. One example is a mailer sent to those interested in the school’s criminal justice program, which features pictures of law enforcement officers and students of different ages. Since implementing the variable printing program in 2006, enrollment in graduate programs has increased by 20%.