Today’s Colleges: Sophisticated Marketing Machines
By Joe Messinger, CFP®
September 15, 2023
We have to warn you. The competition for your student is fierce. Many parents already know what we’re talking about. When your student reaches high school (often after they register for their first ACT or SAT exam), the deluge begins. The snail mail, email, phone calls, social media, and more start to come pouring in. And make no mistake, they are tracking any and all contact a student has with the school. Today’s colleges have perfected their marketing message and will work hard to get your attention. Families may find it helpful to understand a little about what’s next. Today’s colleges are sophisticated marketing machines using creative multi-pronged approaches to gain your attention and track every interaction you have with them.
Why do they go to all the trouble?
It’s a crowded field. There are nearly 4,000 universities in the U.S. currently – and that number is constantly on the rise. Every student has heard of Ohio State or Duke or Michigan, but how many have heard of Goucher or Wabash College? These mid-tier private colleges and universities have real value to provide but struggle to get their name out there. Their margins are slim. They need those students.
With debt at the current levels today, colleges need to make the argument that they are the best option for a student. Colleges need to make sure a student feels that they belong there. They need to tell the story of their brand and create that connection with a student who is taking a real financial gamble by choosing their college.
Get ready for the increase in “junk” mail. Colleges you have never heard of before will send you a postcard, letter, or creative mailing. Literally, hundreds of pieces of mail are on their way. Some get really creative, and you may wonder how can they afford to spend this much money on a mailing. As we said before, the competition is steep. Colleges need to get their name in front of your face.
Today’s students are not as influenced by the postcard they receive in the mail as much as we were in the past. Students may simply throw it away (we probably did that too); however, colleges will gamble that a few students will see the image or message presented and take a moment to Google the college name.
We would suggest that taking to Google is a good idea. That college name you may never have heard of before may have an excellent program in just the major your student is interested in, and they may have money to award in merit aid as well. It is worth hanging onto that postcard for just a bit.
Email is where your student will get the bombarding. Many high school students rarely check their email. However, when they are in the college application and admissions process they need to check their email every day to make sure they don’t miss any important deadlines. The colleges communicate directly, so you probably won’t even be aware of the number of emails they are receiving. Again, encourage them to dig around in the emails that seem more appealing than the others. (And by “appealing” we mean those that speak to the student with their content.) They might be surprised by what they find. Think of it as preliminary college research. Understanding all the options that are out there as they create their college list.
Phone calls and other contact
Not all colleges take the step to make phone calls to a student who hasn’t reached out in some way. But some will. They are making the student feel important and sought after. Take it all in and use their message in your research, but as with any kind of cold call, take it with a grain of salt. These are professionals…even the students who call are taught what to say.
Social media in all its forms is an excellent tool for colleges (just like every other business out there). With social media, they can get others to speak on their behalf. Colleges can paint the picture and tell their story about who they are and why you will want to be there. They can demonstrate their skill at customer service. And all of that can be done without coming across as “marketing.”
The truth is Facebook is one of the top search engines. Try it out. Search “University of Cincinnati” on Facebook. You will not only find their primary Facebook newsfeed, but you can also find pages created by their school of nursing (and other majors), undergraduate admissions, public posts by UC as well as others, videos, and much more. All this information is valuable for getting a good sense of a school.
The social media message of a college can be spread by Instagram or Snapchat or whatever platform teenagers might be paying attention to, and the most skilled colleges will have a presence in those places and they will track your likes, clicks, etc.
After your student has been accepted
The marketing message can become more highly focused. After all, they know all about your student now. We have seen targeted email campaigns from colleges to accepted students. They know your student is out-of-state, interested in studying accounting, thinking about studying abroad, worried about financial aid, and each email will speak to each of these concerns. They understand, and they are the best fit. What a powerful message that can be! We have even seen videos created with a student’s picture used around campus…a sort of “we picture you here” kind of thing.
The complexities of the marketing machine that is college admissions are too complex to completely discuss in this blog. We didn’t even touch on the official campus visit–a whole marketing campaign in a small package with a neat bow tied around it. Our takeaway is just to be aware of the message and the skill behind crafting it and to use it to your advantage in your research to find your best-fit college. Most people go “shopping” for college first. Instead remember to set your college criteria (major, distance from home, enrollment size, etc.) so you can begin to compare and contrast schools as they come up. And most importantly know your College Pre-Approval™ amount and be sure to visit the school’s website and net price calculator to see if it is within your budget.
Updated August 2023
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