Monday, February 26, 2007

Campus of Dreams Marketing to the ME Generation

So how do you market to the Me Generation? Maybe you don’t. At least not in the old traditional academic way. You know, the Field of Dreams view book approach in which you shape a reality you want the potential students to see. (Even if you have to fake aspects like pictures of students who don’t go to a school.) The goal of this approach is to manipulate the reality and the image to manipulate the target audience. So the Campus of Dreams.

I am sure you can picture it now. A group of four or five students (one white, one black, an Asian, an Hispanic and maybe a male of an alternate lifestyle) walking together (all healthy, well dressed like a TV show teen) across a sunlit but slightly shadowed green campus with some wonderful building slightly out of focus in the rear of the scene. Then in other pictures – reading a book while leaning against a tree, sitting in class while a better looking faculty member or a model hired to look like a teacher smiles while writing on the board and so on and on.

You know, the campus of dreams where marketing ideas from the past are supposed to attract students to that new dorm you just built out in what was a parking lot. The Build it and they will come. Not the building but the image. We think the cliché worked in the past. Maybe then. Not at all now.

This was a marketing concept built on control of image and the buyer. It was marketing 101. If we marketers control the message and the image, we can control and manipulate the mind and emotions of the market. That will get us the results we want. We will make the school look like the college we wanted to go to. That’ll do it. And for a while it did just that.

An example. When I designed a community college marketing campaign in 1998 for a school that had eleven years of enrollment decline with “traditional college marketing” we came up with a campaign called “Harvard on the Hill” (a traditional slight against community colleges) we decided to position ourselves against well know schools in the first two years as a transfer option. Most community colleges can compare themselves very favorably in those years against name brand schools in class size, student teacher ratios, cost…followed by transfer to a four-year school. So we developed billboards that had text such as “A Harvard education. Just $62,540 off.” Start here. Go there” Or “First two years of Georgetown. Just less Hoya Paloya. Start here. Go there.” And so on. We backed it all up with detailed advertorials that flushed out the numbers and details.

I received letters from other schools complaining that this was no way to market a school. It was “anti-collegiate.” “Not academic.” “Too (choking sound) commercial.” They were bothered by the humor we used and by comparing ourselves to othet schools. These all came from colleges and universities which were then having no enrollment issues. Now..? A couple school trustees even questioned the marketing as perhaps not appropriate to an educational institution. “They seem out of control” one said.

Ahhhhh. Perhaps that was the secret.

Now the real test of marketing. Marketing is to finally sell product, services, and purchases. That’s what even image marketing or branding is supposed to do. So, if the campaign worked and enrollment went up, it worked. It worked. Then when there was a change in leadership, they went back to the old academic marketing and enrollment dropped again.

Lesson. The old ways are not the best ways. They do not work. We just put so much money and tradition into them that we must believe they will work. They don’t. they are control-based.

Perhaps what needs to be done is realize that to a very large extent what we call marketing doesn’t work. And maybe didn’t really work well in the past. Though it may have pleased the internal campus and even won an award from peers, did it really sell enrollments? Not really sure. But I am sure now that what is thought of as traditional collegiate marketing will not sell to the ME generation market.

As Scott Donaton, Editor of Advertising Age was quoted in the December 2006 WIRED (p 231) The era of control is over: “You can either stay in the bunker, or you can try to participate. And to not participate is criminal.”

It is criminal because schools are spending huge, ever increasing amounts of money to market for enrollments. But they are doing it with traditional collegiate control the image and message approaches that will not work with the ME generation. This is a generation that does not respond to a message unless they can at least participate in forming it.

So now, what will work?

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