When the marketer becomes the target: Lessons from college admissions

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This is the final week for high school seniors to choose the college they will attend, so the sophisticated marketing pitches to secure still-uncommitted students are reaching a crescendo.

For the first time, I have a high school senior targeted by these smart, sometimes aggressive marketing strategies. It’s a fascinating experience. Undecided students and their parents are served a variety of highly targeted emails, postcards, letters, brochures and social media content by colleges and universities eager to secure members of the Class of 2021.  

Professionals in marketing and communications fields create countless programs based on targeting and connecting with specific audiences; when we and our high schoolers become the “targets,” we’re getting an educational perspective as consumers. Some campaign tactics speak to the prospective student. Others speak to the anxious parents of the student.

Smart emails target parents as well as students.

Smart emails target parents as well as students.

This year PCI has five parents and one grandparent with high school seniors selecting their colleges. Around the office, we share the ups, downs, twists and turns in this unique journey we’re taking with our kids, and we analyze the brilliant marketing techniques we see from some of the colleges.  

What makes these college campaigns so impressive and effective? College admissions pros know their audience. They understand they are talking with families during an exciting and stressful time as high school seniors transition to a new chapter in their lives. They know what students care about and what parents prioritize, and these are not always the same things. They have data that helps inform and shape messages that connect with students and parents.

Here are just three effective and strategic communication principles used by colleges:

Know your audience 

Know their concerns, anticipate their questions and proactively provide answers and support: What makes this college right for me (or for my child)? What is available to help make this college affordable? How can this college prepare a student for a successful future?    

Tell compelling, personal stories 

Show the passion for the college through the stories of successful alumni, graduating seniors and current students.

Build a relationship with the student and parents

Stay in contact throughout the process. Show interest in the student as an individual. Send reminders to convey the message: “We want you here as part of the XYZ University family.”

Our agency works with a variety of educational institutions, helping them devise strategies to tell their stories and demonstrate their impact and value. For several in our office, it’s a new experience being the “target audience” for the razor-focused marketing to college-bound seniors.

Beyond the campus visits, brochures with inspiring messages and financial aid packets, examples of marketing tactics that have impressed PCI’s seniors and their parents include:

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  • Sponsored Instagram ads targeting accepted students who are still undecided. 
     
  • A personalized letter from the mayor of the university’s city welcoming the accepted student to his city. (The mayor is an alumnus of the university, and offered another third-party endorsement of the quality of education.)
     
  • Snapchat stories featuring a window on college life. For example, one post featured the college president on his weekly Saturday morning run with students on campus. Message delivered: “College president is an engaged guy who cares about students.”
     
  • Hand-written notes from university department heads, coaches and current students welcoming accepted students. 
     
  • Parents of current students in your community offering to talk with you about their child’s experience; and university-organized gatherings for parents of accepted students in the Chicago area to foster a bond and a network among parents.
     
  • A box of branded university spirit items, including a pennant, car window sticker with the college logo and a sticker for a laptop. The box also contained a homemade craft item from a current student welcoming the incoming freshman to the university family. University-branded T-shirts are provided at all accepted-student events.
     
  • Attractive foldout U.S. map dotted with the locations of many successful university alumni and their impressive titles. (This one left an impression on my college-bound senior.)
     
  • A video highlighting the assets of the college experience with a tag line: “The only thing missing is YOU!”
     
  • Facebook Live sessions featuring college admissions and financial aid representatives answering questions from parents and students.
     
  • A list of five insider tips parents need to know, which included signing up for the First-Year Experience Parent Facebook page and resources.
Facebook Live campus tours were popular with Admissions offices this year.

Facebook Live campus tours were popular with Admissions offices this year.

All of these are smart, targeted and beautifully branded in school colors. Marketers and communications experts know it takes several points of contact to make a message resonate. Colleges around the country are demonstrating they can do this well as they recruit and secure the Class of 2021.

Finally, a big high-five to the parents, guardians, grandparents and friends who make up the collective village of supporters for college-bound seniors. Decision Day on May 1 begins a new chapter for these young people whose life experiences now include having been wooed by marketing-savvy colleges and universities, one of which each will call home this fall.


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Jill Allread, APR is Chief Executive Officer, Public Communications Inc., and has been a co-owner of the agency for more than 20 years.