Monday, September 27, 2010

How NOT to target your marketing messages

A lot has been said about the Drake University's "D+ advantage" marketing campaign. Stamats offers a good explanation of its recommended strategy (the classic three-option conservative/edgy/"courageous" approach) on its blog, and I applaud the creativity and research that went into investigating on how the message would resonate with its target audience: college-bound teens.

Drake administrators learned a hard lesson when its other audiences (faculty, alumni and the news media) picked up on this unusual theme. According to the Associated Press, Drake has scaled back the prominence of the "D+" symbol and in doing so its president noted that "we learn from our experiences."

Drake is far from being the only university to struggle with the balance between appealing to younger audiences while not alienating other important groups. I've witnessed many battles of this kind over my career. Most IHEs are critically dependent on undergraduate tuition, and it's easy to forget the interests of others when targeting this all-important teen audience.

As fun as it is to develop a campaign that's outside the box, good communicators need to always think of how their messages will be received by peripheral audiences. What works for college-bound teens could have a much worse effect on the potential applicant pool for graduate and professional schools. The negative waves among academics might even be reflected in the U.S. News peer reputation surveys (and the graduate school ones are expected to be out shortly).

So how can university marketing departments successfully navigate these murky waters?
  • Never forget your overall brand. No advertising trend or campaign should ever contradict your institution's bigger brand strategy. Some universities have a culture that value being on the creative edge of society, while others are steeped in tradition. Most have a complex blend of diverse perspectives.
  • Consider the worst case scenario, then decide if it matters. Changing the tone of your copy or the style of your layout on communication vehicles that are specific to your audience are unlikely to affect other audiences greatly. Building an entire marketing campaign around a joke is a bit more risky. Determine how much risk you can assume with negative reactions from others, and mitigate those risks if necessary.
  • When in doubt, ask around. If you're not sure about how others might perceive your concept, just ask. Take advantage of the good relationships you've built with your counterparts around campus to get their candid feedback before you launch your new campaign. One of my favorite ad concepts for an NFL program (pictured) was rejected because my university has been investigating bringing back non-scholarship football after a nearly 60-year hiatus. One could argue that the ad would still work and draw attention, but it didn't pass the "is it worth it?" test.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Developing a brand strategy: In-house or outsource?

A colleague at another law school asked a good question in a LinkedIn group last week: "What is the best way to (re)discover or redefine your core values? Did you use a consultant or handle it in-house, and would you do it that way again?"

Great question, and since I've been short on extra time for blogging, I thought I'd share part of my answer here:

The starting point for assessing your brand identity is research with your key audiences (students, faculty, staff and alumni) to get a broader understanding than your own to help define the values. The research component is often why many places outsource this process, as independence (and sometimes investment, unfortunately) can add credibility to the results. If you anticipate that tough decisions will need to be made, an external group might be advisable as well (so that if the messenger gets shot, at least it won't be you). Research is now much easier to do in-house with online surveys and focus groups if you have someone who understands research methods well.

By analyzing your research along with your school's mission and values statements and the market environment, you can then move onto the more tangible pieces (logo, tagline, colors, ads/publications/website). Those pieces should also be tested with your key audiences along the way.

If you've got the talent in-house to accomplish the above, the top-down buy-in for your ultimate strategy, and (perhaps most importantly) ample time to devote to the project, then internal brand development may be an option for you.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

DOs and DON'Ts of building a great virtual tour

My office just launched our first multimedia virtual tour, complete with 360-degree photos, audio and video clips from our beautiful campuses. My web editor did a fantastic job of managing the project, and I'm thrilled with the results.

In a tight economy where fewer prospective students can afford to travel to potential graduate schools, a good online tour can improve your recruiting efforts with long-distance prospects. Multimedia features can provide a rich glimpse of life at your institution and transport students into your campus experience. Here are my tips on developing a great virtual tour:
  • DO start with great photography. Any online tour, multimedia or not, requires great photography. You can have all the technical bells and whistles in the world, but if the photography is weak, you might be better off not having a tour at all. Our 2008 redesign of our website included a photo tour with large, striking images of campus, and such tours can usually be designed in-house with the same images you use for other marketing materials.
  • DON'T just consider higher ed vendors. Even though we found our vendor has done some work for a few higher ed institutions, most of their work had been for hospitals and travel destinations. The quality of their work was very competitive with the major higher ed tour firms, but the prices were within our budget.
  • DO plan your photoshoot carefully. In addition to following the typical rules for photoshoot planning, consider the implications of working in a different format. A traditional photo that showcases an entire building and expansive horizon might not work in a 360-degree format, which may make the building look small in proportion to the sky and other natural features.
  • DON'T add technical bling for its own sake. A talking cartoon tour guide or student voiceover might seem cool at first, but such features can get annoying very, very quickly. If multimedia features don't add meaning to the experience, don't add them.
  • DO consider off-campus locations. As I already mentioned, virtual tours can be very important for prospective students outside your geographic area. By definition, those students will need to know more about life outside your campus. Highlight attractive areas in your local community, and include hotspots that show more details about professional, cultural or recreational opportunities.