College Marketers: How Not to Get Schooled by the Competition

The college application season is in full swing and schools are competing hard to attract the best and brightest to their student ranks. Marketing materials are a central tactic schools use to differentiate themselves.

As both a parent of a college-bound teen and a 25-year veteran professional communicator, it is fascinating to judge the outreach materials on the receiving end, from glossy brochures to postcards to emails. Conservatively, we’ve received hundreds of direct marketing pieces, despite having checked the “opt-out” box on the standardized testing applications. While I certainly offer a point of view on what is appealing and well-done – crisp, clear copy, key messages, calls-to-action and attractive images – it’s more instructive to share the opinion of the target market: my 17-year-old daughter.

From a focus group of one, her direct feedback (not mine!) is below.

  1. Size matters. If it’s big and glossy, it will stand out. And it if has clear plastic cover, it will get unwrapped vs. a generic envelope with a return address.
  2. Creativity counts and gimmicks work. 3-D puzzles. Games. Posters. Pop-ups. Those all get noticed. But expecting recipients to go online from an offline marketing piece doesn’t work unless the timing is perfect, e.g. the phone is already out.
  3. Mass mailing that feels like bulk mailing is a fail. In the eyes of my high school senior, the worst are plain postcards with an invitation to visit, interview in the area or apply NOW. The most creative copy won’t get past the feeling of being mass-mailed, and a postcard screams mass mailing. (Side note for marketers reading this post: we receive, on average, five of these postcards a day.)
  4. Cross-reference mailing lists to make audiences feel less like a number. On some days she’ll get two brochures from the same university, one addressed to her given name and one to her nickname. In theory, it should be easy to eliminate the duplicates based upon the mailing address.
  5. Authenticity She was most passionate about this point and shared: “Don’t tell me my drive and ambition make me a premier candidate. You don’t know anything about me. Tell me WHY I’m a good candidate – is it my ACT scores? AP? Grades? False flattery gets you nowhere.”
  6. Emails can be effective. But only if they go beyond the formulaic copy that includes, in overwhelming frequency, “Congratulations on your academic achievement, please apply and please visit.” What does work? Emails that tell you where they got your name (AP test scores, ACT, academic awards). Ones that tell a story of a current student. And while sometimes corny (and evoking an eye-roll), emojis stand out, especially custom-made ones from the school.
  7. Frequency doesn’t matter as much as One school emails her twice a week, but it’s always fresh content. Once it included the school’s specific essay prompt and went a step further on why that prompt was chosen (current students wrote it). This went well beyond the standard “apply now” email. Several times a student has been profiled with a catchy and clever headline (“Show me the Mummy”). The schools that send multiple emails saying the exact same thing in each outreach are on the shortest path to the “unsubscribe” button.
  8. Proof points are critical. Showing student success stories that start with the very specific internship or class before moving onto school-wide accolades (a.k.a. marketing-speak) are effective and memorable.

A few things surprised me, like the appeal of posters and that frequent-yet-interesting emails are welcomed from a kid that prefers Snapchat and Twitter over email. I was also surprised that plastic-wrapped, oversized brochures are eye-catching to a teen, especially in this day and age of sustainability and recycling. So while the specific feedback was interesting, my biggest takeaway to all communicators: know your audience.

Sharon Hegarty is managing director of the Detroit office and leads the firm’s higher education practice group.

Scroll to Top