IN THE JULY ISSUE OF UNIVERSITY Business I broached the topic of experience marketing and laid a broad foundation for how to develop an experience marketing strategy. For this month's column, I want to look at two examples of extraordinary experiences delivered by two colleges. In reviewing a myriad of potential examples, I wanted to focus on examples that had these three qualities:
They are easily replicable at institutions that are large or small, public or private.
Providing these experiences does not require significant dollar resources.
These experiences deal with relatively common campus activities-activities that almost all institutions need to routinely undertake.
Before we proceed I want to review what experience marketing is. Experience marketing is a holistic approach to identifying and managing, to a specific end, the key touchpoints that define an experience that a customer has with a productor service.
Like all aspects of integrated marketing, experience marketing is holistic. In other words, it requires a systematic approach and typically includes cross-functional teams.
Done right, experience marketing benefits both the student and the institution.
Identifying, in this case, means using research to isolate the individual touchpoints that combine to form larger experiences. Touchpoints are the physical, communication-based, and human interactions your customers experience during their relationship with you and your brand. To manage means to be purposeful rather than casual.
My friend Jeff Kallay is the "experience evangelist" at interactive recruiting company TargetX. Last year he wrote a blog on the campus visit experience at Hendrix College (Ark.). With his permission I want to run a portion of his blog. It is, in a nutshell, a primer on how to deliver a great branded experience.
Says Kallay: "For years I've been preaching to college admissions folks that their campus visit should be an experience not just a passive tour. During the past three years, I've toured many campuses. While several campuses have impressed me, I recently returned from spending two days on the campus of Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas and it really wowed me.
This top-tier, national, liberal arts college knows who they are and which students will thrive there. They are crafting one of the most engaging campus visit experiences I've come across. They call it 'The Hendrix Experience' (and the homage to rebel rocker Jimi is authentic to the place).
Loren Pope, former New York Times education editor, and author of Colleges That Change Lives (Penguin Books), says of Hendrix "... this Shangri-la north of Little Rock must be one of the most beautiful campuses." So they've got the esthetics down. Here's a breakdown:
When I went into the admissions house, they had my name on a welcome sign.
I received a simple customized tri-fold that included my schedule for the day; a schedule determined from an online form (or telephone call).
After picking from a list of three classes (I chose "The Modern Middle East"), I was outfitted with a backpack and escorted to class. A PhD lectured on "The Ottomanism of the Young Turks" and then it was off on a campus tour.
My tour guide, Megan, told great stories and really engaged the three of us (I hitched with a prospective student and her mom) with questions and answered our questions honestly.
Halfway through the tour we said good-bye to Megan and were introduced to Courtney. She took us into the Dining Hall where we were joined by two other students as we enjoyed lunch. Mac and cheese came highly recommended.
After lunch, the prospect and her mom went on to visit the dorms, and I was in meetings for the rest of the day. But, on our way to the meetings I stopped by my mailbox for the day. Waiting for me was a note from an administrator and a coveted blue slip (indicating I had a package). My box of memorabilia included a tie-dyed t-shirt, Frisbee, water bottle, pencil, chocolate, and candies. All items were very authentic to the Hendrix student experience.
The t-shirt proudly proclaims "Not just another college visit."
And considering that Hendrix's entering freshmen class is its largest, of the highest academic quality, and from a broader national audience, I'd have to agree. It shows that the right experiences help us fight through the clutter, render authenticity, and fight selling on price. ...
The admissions staff at Hendrix (including interns and walkers) are not only setting a higher bar for other colleges and their visit experiences, they're true experience economy leaders crafting an experience just about everyone in the experience economy should strive for: one that is engaging, memorable, authentic, has a signature moment (or two) and a whole lot of fun!"
When done right, experience marketing benefits both the student, who has a better experience, and the institution, which benefits from increased response.
The Hendrix campus visit experience bears this out. In five years, individual visits have increased 48.8 percent, and the yield since implementing the Hendrix Experience has increased from 28.7 percent to 38.7 percent. Best of all, 72 of the 410 freshmen applied to be members of the volunteer Hendrix HEAT (Hendrix Experience Admissions Team).
It's hardly surprising that the program won the TargetX Award for "Revolutionary Campus Visit Experiences."
Could any college adopt Hendrix's strategy? Certainly!
My next example is from Abilene Christian University (Texas). ACU, like many schools, is deeply committed to delivering the best possible educational experience. One example of that commitment is the university's "Body & Soul" program. This program pairs current health care professionals with students who are majoring in some facet of health care.
Done right, experience marketing benefi ts both the student and the institution.
An article in the Winter 2007 issue of ACU Today notes, "Body & Soul is a distinctive pre-health professions program at ACU. One of the program's main components is its shadowing program, which pairs pre-medical and pre-dental students with Christian physicians. It gives students a taste of what's in store for them as well as an edge over their competition for admission to medical and dental school."
In its third year, the program now has more than 30 participating doctors who share their practices and faith-the "soul" in the Body & Soul program-while passing along guidance and encouragement that helps shape how these students look at the profession.
Not only is the program of keen interest to current health majors, but regional high school students and advisors are noticing the program too. Two years ago, the science departments had 98 pre-health majors enrolled. This year there are 137. Another statistic is equally as compelling. Historically, the acceptance rate of ACU graduates to medical and dental schools has always been well above the national average of 45 percent. In the past three years the acceptance rate has soared to 80 percent.
Students talk about their experiences in the pre-health professions program on ACU's website. Jenny, a sophomore premed major, shares, "By shadowing a doctor I learned about the ropes of being an orthopedic surgeon. The doctor showed me X-rays, showed me how knee and hip replacements work, and told me how everything worked once it was inside the body. I have known that I wanted to be a doctor for a long time; shadowing not only gave me more knowledge, it also reassured me about my future. I learned not only how to help the patient, but how to treat them as a person as well. Being a doctor takes more than knowledge, it takes a person with a caring heart, and I learned that through this program."
Rather than spending dollars, ACU spent time identifying an opportunity to increase the quality of the brand experience it offers to pre-health students.
Another student, Jim, wrote: "I was sitting in the waiting room after watching an actual operation. The mother and father of the patient were there, and to my surprise began asking me questions about their daughter and how the operation went. The mother was shaking and the father began tearing up. ... While the surgery was exciting, it opened my eyes to the fact that these patients were just normal people, from real families that care an incredible amount for their loved one."
It does not take vast resources to create buzzworthy experiences. And the events themselves, like the campus visit experience I described, can be commonplace. All it takes is a willingness to identify and enrich key touchpoints, to equip and engage faculty and staff, to train well, and to continually improve. But first, there must be a willingness to change positions with your students, donors, and other audience groups, and to work at seeing those experiences from their perspective.
Robert Sevier is a senior vice president at Stamats Communications. This column is adapted from his upcoming book, Brand Momentum: Strategies for Achieving Critical Mass, scheduled for publication in early 2008 by Strategy Publishing (www.strategypublishing.com).