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College Marketing Misses the Mark

Strategies don’t connect with teens
April 17, 2017

As the parent of a high school junior, I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of college marketing.

I’ve spent most of my career crafting marketing and communications strategies, often for education clients, so this change in perspective has been eye opening.

I’ve been shocked at how:

  • Little colleges do to stand out from each other, despite significant effort and expense.
  • Behind the curve they are when it comes to using technology effectively to reach students.

Direct mail lives… but does it deserve to?

Judging by the tsunami of mailers my son has received, I can report that direct mail is not dead. The direct-mail industry acknowledges a sustained decline in volume, but argues that marketers that still use that medium because they’re competing with less clutter.

This is not the case in the higher education space, which appears to still rely heavily on direct mail.

My son looks at almost none of these sheets of pressed dead trees delivered by the U.S. Postal Service. He’s unaccustomed to sorting through mail of any kind. It’s not part of his daily — or weekly — ritual. If it’s not a package, he’s not interested.

So are these mailers aimed at parents? His mother and I don’t read them either, although we at least feel obligated to put them in a growing pile that we will probably never excavate.

Email: Cheaper but any more effective?

Today’s high school students view email as a necessity – parents and teachers still use it and sometimes they have something important to say – but it is not their preferred medium.

My son estimates that he has received hundreds of emails from colleges. He says one college has emailed him 50 times at least. “They’re all the same – ‘five easy steps to get through the college application process,’” he says. They do not make a lasting impact. (At least they’re cheap, even if ineffective, for the colleges.)

College tours paint by the numbers

Over spring break, my 17-year-old son and I visited nine colleges in a week. We learned that most colleges still rely on PowerPoint presentations. Watching them felt like work.

Then we followed predictably sincere and enthusiastic student tour guides walking backwards through campuses.

While there was some suspense in watching whether one guide walking backwards would run into another leading a group in the opposite direction, the larger relevance was largely lost on us. Picturesque campuses tend to blend together.

Self-guided tours? That was even worse. One very prestigious public university – known for producing some of the tech world’s giants – recommended that we download on our phone a PDF map with numbers to call for descriptions of particular landmarks.

Two problems:

  1. PDFs don’t work well on smartphones.
  2. Teens don’t make phone calls.

My son is used to Pokemon Go, the augmented reality game that blended animated characters and real-world locations (but was so last year). He also has discovered virtual reality delivered by devices like the Google Cardboard headset, available for $9 at Walmart.com. (Promotional VR headsets can be bought for $2 apiece.)

He’s not used to trying to read PDFs on his phone.

What’s missing?

Here’s what we didn’t get on our college tours:

  • Storytelling. We heard many facts and we got a lot of data. We saw dorm rooms that looked like the other dorm rooms. We watched PowerPoint presentations. We didn’t hear compelling narratives about students whose lives were changed by the colleges.
  • Although each school had us as a captive audience for two hours, none of the presenters or tour guides asked us to pull out our smartphones and connect with them or their schools on social media. Instead, one high-profile school followed up with a handwritten note from a student – a personal touch that is still impactful to thank grandparents, but left my son unimpressed.

It’s not exactly breaking news that teens live on social media, predominantly Snapchat and Instagram. What may be eye-opening to adults is that the teens are reluctant to stray from these platforms to go old-fashioned websites. So a college website may connect with parents, but it’s not the best way to reach their children.

My son is ready and eager to be impressed by a college that connects with him. So far, most have fallen short of that challenge.

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