You are here

How Smart Marketers Are Investing Scarcer Resources and Getting Great Impact

University Business, May 2008

With numerous lenders no longer making student loans and others imposing stricter financial requirements, many colleges and universities may be tempted to offset anticipated enrollment declines with reduced spending for advertising, direct mail and other high-cost marketing programs.

Rather than make wholesale cuts, however, the better course is to prune selectively and strategically, looking to make smarter investments with scarcer resources. Many creative university and college marketers are working with reduced budgets by turning to web-based marketing, special events, media relations and social marketing programs, which cost less than traditional marketing tactics and often offer greater returns.

The Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago, for example, has successfully launched a number of highly creative initiatives that don''t require a lot of cash. Last fall, for example, the college announced a video competition titled "Flix2Clix" -- inviting the entire student body to create two-minute videos about university life for a chance to win a $1,000, $500 or $250 prize. The top five entries were posted on the university''s website, and viewers were invited to vote for their favorite.

Not only did the university obtain a number of high-quality videos that could be used for marketing purposes (all five of the top entries are still posted on the IIT site at, it created a viral marketing buzz that engaged students, prospective students and alumni.

To encourage votes, most of the entrants promoted their videos on Facebook. The results, according to Kristine Pasto, associate director of marketing, were 4,050 unique visitors to the contest site and a total of 8,565 page views. Of that traffic, 1,808 were referred from another site or search engine, with 39 percent coming from the IIT website and 36 percent coming from Facebook. Among those visitors, 192 were from other colleges and universities and 85 were from high schools.

The contest site, which was developed by students, was virtually free. Plans call for hosting it on YouTube next year, with the intention of reaching a wider audience. Pasto is also pleased with the results of a separate flyer campaign for potential graduate students that ran on Facebook. Targeting 24- to 35-year-olds from Chicago with undergraduate degrees in engineering, the campaign ran from February 28 to March 30 and generated 9,637,714 impressions and 1,059 click-throughs at a cost of $2.49 per click.

Pennsylvania State University is another institution that has used video in a creative way. The Website features a "reality TV show" called "1st Thirty," featuring four freshmen women during their first 30 days on campus. Shot by student camera crews, and directed to prospective students, the video footage was edited into seven segments that show the four students arriving separately on campus, meeting each other in the dorm, going to their first classes, their first football game, signing up for organizations, and finally settling in to campus life.

The high-energy site also features written bios of the four students and a forwarding feature that allows visitors to email the site to a friend.

Cindy Hall, assistant vice president of university relations at Penn State, says that the 1st Thirty concept stemmed from market research conducted with high school juniors and seniors and speaks to their concerns about making the transition to college.

While students did the filming, an outside firm, "Mind Over Media," did the casting and editing. Penn State produced the graphics and Website internally.

At the time of this writing, the site had been live for only a few weeks so tracking data was not available. A final episode, "Meet the Cast," is currently in the works.

California State University in Long Beach (CSULB) took a different approach to low-cost, high-impact marketing. The university hosted a three-day President''s Forum on International Human Rights with a focus on "Modern Genocides and Global Responsibility." Under the auspices of its new president, F. King Alexander, the event was designed to gain local visibility, engage the students and the Long Beach community in important global issues and enhance the university''s brand.

The February forum was developed in cooperation with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, the California Conference for Equity and Justice, and the City of Long Beach Human Dignity Program as well as other organizations. The program included a keynote address by Francis M. Deng, the United Nations'' special representative of the secretary-general on the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities, panel discussions, films and presentations on genocide today.

Interspersed were performances from the university choral ensemble, a Native American drum troop, Cambodian dancers and art exhibits to offset the weighty content of the informational presentations. Other elements included a career conference on the final day where students had a chance to talk to potential employers from human rights organizations.

CSULB spent very little on advertising - with one half-page, four-color insertion in the Long Beach Business Journal for approximately $1,100 and two $250 insertions in each of the two campus newspapers.

According to Elena Curris, public affairs and marketing communications affairs coordinator, the forum was promoted primarily through radio public service announcements, a few major stories in local publications, campus communications channels and word of mouth.

The forum attracted an estimated 6,000 participants from both campus and community and attracted international attention. Of the 9,516 visits to the forum website, approximately 426 came from outside North America.

The university plans to make the President''s Forum on International Human Rights an annual or semi-annual event.

Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Mich., devised a creative, low-cost program to increase its enrollment yield. Located in the Upper Peninsula, Michigan Tech is 10 hours from Detroit and eight hours from Chicago, its largest feeder cities. Going home for the weekend is not an option for most students.

Admissions Director Allison Granick Carter believes that many accepted applicants fail to enroll because they are worried about making friends, fitting in or simply feeling lonely.

To help newly accepted students start making connections with future classmates, Michigan Tech developed a social networking site called Rendezvous, based on Facebook and MySpace. Once students are accepted, they can create profiles, blog, post photos, ask questions or send "shout outs."

Another feature is the ability to create "affinity" or interest groups with like-minded fellow students. So far Rendezvous boasts 168 affinity sites on such topics as: Guitar Hero, Halo, residence halls, home regions, academic majors, joke sharing, left-handedness, music, movies and "English is not my Favorite Subject."

In some postings, students talk about visiting the campus, about meeting a professor or a roommate - all of which creates greater familiarity with Michigan Tech.

As of March 31, some 1,175 students who have been accepted for admission this summer or fall have created files on Rendezvous. This group has sent 55,000 "shout outs" (210 in one overnight period) and uploaded 2,232 images, including prom and pet photos, vacation shots, etc. In one recent week, the site (which is accessible only to accepted students) received 482 visits.

Carter says its real measure of success was dramatized at a December reception for prospective students held in Detroit. One of the Rendezvous participants sent a "shout out" requesting that fellow networkers wear bright-colored shirts at the event so they could recognize each other.

"There was a large contingency wearing bright shirts and giving each other hugs," she says. "There is no question that the peer-to-peer program, which cost less than $3,000, helps our recruiting effort."

Proactive media relations can also serve as an important marketing tool. One of our firm''s clients, Chicago''s Kendall College, which has one of the nation''s best-known culinary programs, was the site of a Food Network taping of "Throwdown with Bobby Flay." During the half-hour show, the popular host challenged the Swift Butterball "answer lady" to a turkey roasting competition just before Thanksgiving.

The Kendall campus, faculty and students got plenty of camera time during the program, which aired approximately 10 times for one week in November and was heavily promoted on the Network site.

We also leveraged this opportunity by developing local media coverage on the taping, which resulted in feature articles in the Chicago Tribune, the Daily Herald and several smaller community papers.

All of these programs were effective because they each incorporated some element of implied endorsement by an independent third party.

Content on the special Web sites set up by IIT, Penn State and Michigan Tech was essentially generated by the students and not the administration. Cal State Long Beach''s symposium drew positive media and public attention for acting on an important global issue - not by self-promotional boasts. Furthermore, partnering with recognized human rights leaders allowed the university to "borrow" against their credibility. And Kendall College''s starring role on the Food Network put it in the limelight before a highly select audience of food lovers.

So what other low cost-high impact programs your college or university might consider? Here are some ideas we''ve successfully implemented for clients:

1) Develop career and job placement stories for, and other websites geared to job seekers.

2) Place feature stories on students or recent graduates in their hometown newspapers.

3) Facilitate a student-written blog for each educational program and encourage contributors to promote their postings on their MySpace and Facebook profiles.

4) Gain local visibility by inviting area residents and businesses to attend school performances, exhibits and lectures.

5) Gain industry visibility by inviting a local company to sponsor a student (academic or career-focused) competition.

6) Develop a speakers'' bureau for your faculty and actively market these speakers for industry and chamber events.

7) Look for opportunities for faculty and administrators to write bylined articles and/or Op-ed pieces in the general press. While such ideas are comparatively low cost, they do take time and effort to execute well. It is easier to just hack away at the budget. But when you reduce spending with blanket cuts, you also reduce your returns. In the long run, a more strategic approach that calls for reallocating part of the budget to new, creative initiatives will pay off in bigger dividends.

Judi Schindler ( has some 25 years experience in public relations and marketing communications. She is a principal of Hodge Schindler Integrated Communications in Chicago (, which has a strong specialty in integrated marketing communications programs for institutions of higher education.

Register now for UBTech 2018

Register now for UBTech 2018, June 4-6 at the Mirage, Las Vegas. At UBTech 2018, you’ll network with a dynamic community of higher ed leaders who are shaping the future of campus technology and explore topics like cyber security, distance learning, campus learning space design, communications, personalized learning and more. Your UBTech registration also includes a free pass to the InfoComm exhibit hall.

Register now>>