The Future of Promotional Marketing in Higher Education
by George C. Dehne

Can you think of a more difficult marketing task than asking a 17-year-old to make a lifelong decision with, in the case of private colleges, $100,000 of a third party's (their parents') money?

Can you think of an industry, outside of higher education, where the product's reputation depends almost totally on word-of-mouth?

Can you think of an industry, outside of higher education, where the competition for attention, customers, and money has gotten more fierce in the past decade, yet the "marketing" budgets have remained relatively modest?

And these are just some of the challenges for higher education. Yet surprisingly, little has changed in the promotion of colleges. Public relations offices continue to churn out news releases and, when in doubt on what to do, someone always suggests another publication. Unfortunately, traditional techniques and approaches just are not enough for your institution to be heard above the din.

We envision dramatic changes in the way colleges promote themselves in the future. We use the term "promotional marketing" because we are talking about the techniques for reaching the many constituencies of a college or university, not the "product" of an institution such as adjustments in the academic, social, residential and professional programs (which are also probably necessary).

This article stems from two points of view. First, as a specialist in student recruitment, marketing and public relations, George Dehne & Associates annually surveys more than 7,000 college-bound students and their parents, enabling us to identify emerging trends. Second, as a trustee at Allegheny College, I know the difficulty of keeping up with all the trends that will affect an institution's future.

So here are some "predictions" to help give you insight into how your institution might fare in the competitive future. In the new world of higher education marketing, we envision these trends:

These will be the new challenges for promotional marketing of higher education in the future.

A Caveat. There is a tendency among some trustees to view marketing in higher education as unsophisticated and amateurish. This may be the case at some institutions. But, to be fair, many admissions and public relations offices are running programs that foreshadow sophisticated one-to-one marketing and promotional programs just now being reported by the business media.

Additionally, colleges and universities are, for the most part, leaders in interactive marketing through the Internet. Some colleges already receive as many as one of three applications electronically and the Internet Home Page for many colleges receive as many as 2,000 to 4,000 "visitors" a week. Low promotional budgets have resulted in some of the most creative approaches to promotion found in marketing. When budgets are tiny compared to the task at hand, creativity has to be a plentiful resource.

There is a brave new world ahead for the promotion and marketing of colleges, but it is not that colleges are approaching from a standing start. Yet the task is awesome.

Service Versus Publicity
Promotion, and especially promotion that provides a service, can play a great part in increasing the visibility, prestige and status of a college or university. With publicity through the media, colleges and universities are at the whim of a fickle mass media industry. Even the best story about your institution can be sabotaged by breaking news.

The key to low-cost promotion is providing services to sources of students such as secondary schools and employers. The theory is simple: Colleges and universities are at their best when they educate. Educational materials that are made available to already financially strapped high schools demonstrate the institution's commitment to education, are low-keyed, and result in greater visibility. The materials may be posters, videotapes, computer programs or hand-outs.

Several clients of ours credit much of their current success to a consistent use of educational materials aimed at the classroom or the guidance counselor. Materials have included: Information on DNA for a college trying to attract more science students, Surfing the Internet designed for high schools and public libraries, Poetry Terms for a college pushing its creative writing program, A Description of the European Community as a way to promote one college's school of business, and The Brain for a university with a strong neuroscience program. Each of these included a teaching tool for those who requested help in incorporating the information into their classroom work.

Materials for high school guidance counselors have included How to Prepare for a Selective College, Mythstakes About Financial Aid, 25 Myths About Colleges and a Glossary of College Terms.

We have seen colleges and universities produce low budget videotapes on voting behavior, medieval music, moral theology, and the "magic" of chemistry.

On-campus workshops on how to choose a college, teen wellness, and tips for teens and parents are other kinds of services designed to endear an institution to a student or his parents.

High schools, with their very limited resources, not only appreciate, but utilize, materials and teaching tools that fit their programs and can bring an educational component to their classrooms. Adults, looking for ways to better understand the college selection process, also can be great targets.

This is not to say that a college and university should stop its quest for that one story in The New York Times that will seal its future as the institution of the 21st Century, but, in the meantime, the service approach can have a dramatic impact.

Utilizing Alumni
Alumni will need to play a greater role in the promotion of any college or university for practical and economic reasons. A resource that is generally underutilized, the alumni, if handled properly, can be effective players in the marketing and public relations effort. And their service is generally free.

To get the word out more effectively to new audiences, colleges and universities will need to reject the centralized public relations programs of the past where all promotional activities were controlled from the campus. The most successful promotional efforts in the future will involve alumni and parents in target areas developing promotional programs and generating publicity themselves -- with gentle oversight from the campus.

Who better to promote an institution in a given city than the community leaders, media mavens, and corporate leaders in a college's alumni and parent database? A campus public relations professional will be better utilized if he or she serves as liaison to task forces in target cities rather than churning out news releases that are eventually lost on the desk of city editors.

The keys to this effort include:

Alumni groups have come up with some of the following creative and effective ways to position their alma mater with important organizations in the community:

The possibilities are limitless.

Word-of-Mouth Marketing
There may be no more complicated marketing task than unraveling what creates the image of a college. Only a few constituencies really have an impact on the image and, therefore, the future of an institution. Reaching these constituencies requires a variety of approaches.

While goods can be promoted well in advertising, the business of marketing an intangible service, like a college education, requires the mobilization of people. For example, it's not the admissions office nor the guides to colleges, that alert students to a college. It is a wide variety of people with great or little ties to the college or university. In fact, in our national studies, only two of 10 college-bound seniors say they first learned of their enrolling college through materials mailed to their home, a college fair, an admissions publication, or a meeting with an admissions counselor from a particular school. These are the sources in which the college or university has some control.

More than eight of 10 college-bound seniors said they first heard of their enrolling college from friends/classmates/word-of-mouth, family members who attend/ed, a friend who attends, family advice, and to a much less degree high-school guidance counselors or high-school teachers. More importantly, a prospective student who learned of a college from a "third party" is nearly four times more likely to apply and twice as likely to enroll.

What does this have to do with a college's image? A great deal. A college is only as strong as the enthusiastic volunteer support of its key constituencies. A positive news story in a national media outlet may provide a short term "bump," but it will be the day-to-day references and referrals from individuals close to and simply acquainted with the college that will drive the image.

Appreciating the role of the various constituencies and effectively utilizing these groups requires approaching word-of-mouth marketing (or reputational marketing) in a deliberate way.

We have identified five keys to effective word-of-mouth marketing that colleges should consider adopting. The description of each is too detailed to list here, but they are:

High Tech Equals High Touch
We are not among those who believe technology and the Internet are going to change the world of communications overnight. Yet we are certain that prospective students, parents of students, alumni, and the public will increasingly expect to pick and choose the information they want electronically. Our studies show that seven of 10 prospective college students have access to a computer at home. About three of 10 have access to the Internet from home. These figures are increasing daily.

An institution's Home Page on the Internet will eventually become an institution's "front door" surpassing all but direct mail and word-of-mouth as the way for a prospective student to learn more about your college or university. At last count, we found 15 "search engines" for colleges. Some of these let students set certain preference parameters such as size, major, location, and safety. Once the parameters are set, the service provides a list of downlinks, or direct connections, to the college and universities that meet the specified parameters. More systems are on the way. This means your institution will need to know about all the search engines and your institution's place in them.

For the immediate future, complex graphics and video will be less important since most prospective students will access the college's Home Page via telephone modem from their home -- a terribly slow form of communication. (Nearly nine of 10 prospective students expect to contact colleges on the Internet from their homes, not their schools.)

What will be the keys to a successful Web site? We see five critical issues:

  1. The site will require a comprehensive Home Page that shows at the outset all the options available to the prospective student (and his or her parents). They will not browse through an institution's Web site. If they cannot find what they are looking for quickly and easily, they will move on.
  2. Each Web site will need a "Your College" at a Glance section that is well designed. Our research tells us, the most important questions prospective students first ask are: Does it have my major? Is it the size I want? Is it in a location that interests me? Does it offer scholarships? Students want the answers without a lot of verbiage.
  3. The distinctions of the college will need to be highlighted early and often. Because moving from Web site to Web site from a telephone line is so slow, prospective students are going to want to know why they should look further early in their contact. In our national studies, the greatest complaint prospective students have generally with college admissions communications is the fact that it is so difficult to find what makes each college or university different.
  4. There will need to be a mechanism to capture a student's name and address or at least an e-mail address. The danger of the Internet is its anonymity if the prospective student wants it. Any student can browse through a college's Web site, find everything he or she wants, but never leave a way for the college to follow up.
  5. The best Web sites will help students "customize" their search through the college's cyberspace materials by asking students to indicate the kinds of information they seek. The student/parent will then "check" the kinds of information desired. The Web site will then take the visitor through the site on a journey through an "edited" site based on the student's interest. Of course this approach has two advantages:
    • it lets a student/parent customize the information they want (critical to one-to-one marketing.)
    • it captures the name, address and interests of students/parents who look at the Site. Without gaining this knowledge, colleges and universities will be deprived of the information needed to recruit a student.

What about other technologies?

Additionally, technology has made it possible to customize materials for students in ways never before imagined. Several clients have produced a personalized table of contents for their admissions viewbook based on a student's interest. One client can produce a completely customized viewbook. The newest technology is a "paperless admissions communications" program where printed admissions materials are produced only as they are needed. The technology allows students to download the materials in a customized way from the college's Internet Web site or the college can download to paper the materials a student requests in "printed page format." The age of cost-effective, one-to-one marketing is not far away.

Reaching The New Generation
Effectively reaching the new generation of students for student recruitment purposes, and eventually alumni communications, will require a shift from traditional media and messages.

First and foremost, neither mass media advertising nor more strident claims about your institution will be effective. We found that only three of 10 young people believe advertising paints a true picture of a product. This generation is very skeptical about those things that they understand and that includes media and advertising. That is why simplicity and honesty are often more effective and credible in the admissions process -- even if it is not as "slick" as the mass media.

This age group hates to be bored. They seek entertainment in everything they do -- this not only includes what they expect from college, but how they get their information. One research study actually suggested that the attention span of most adolescents is about eleven minutes -- roughly the time between commercials in a typical television show. The need for more exciting and entertaining admissions materials as well a greater use of interactive techniques will become the status quo of tomorrow.

Interestingly,the day of the college video may already be over. Young people see film and video as the ultimate managed medium. After all, they have seen Jurassic Park but they know dinosaurs no longer exist. Great special effects, however, do. In our own studies, we found that only two of 10 respondents said a college video had a great impact on a student's decision to apply to a college. These young people know that you can manufacture a happy campus, complete with happy kids, and shoot a tree from a hundred angles to make it look like a forest. Student produced materials (even videos) or an Internet "chat room" where prospective students can ask questions of students, faculty and staff will have greater impact for many students than a flawlessly produced video.

Colleges will also need to be more cautious of the visual images. This generation is visually sophisticated. In our focus groups, we have found that students often ignore the foreground of admissions photographs and concentrate on the detail in the background. They look for truth in the details, not in the things we want them to see.

The final warning: colleges cannot think all students respond alike.In our studies of students concerning admissions communications we found a variety of differences. Science students, for example, prefer telephone calls to printed materials. Students interested in business are more likely to prefer electronic contacts such as e-mail or CD-ROM. Students interested in the humanities prefer student written materials to "official materials of the college," High SAT test scorers tend prefer personal letters to printed materials from the college.

As one can now tell these are not futuristic and far-fetched predictions. All the areas discussed already exist at numerous institutions. Yet change is difficult -- especially in higher education. Trustees do not need to get into the operational questions of promoting an institution, but they do need to ask several questions:

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