Adult Student Marketing on the Move: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
To reach prospective adult students, colleges and universities are increasingly promoting their institutions on highway billboards. I see them everywhere. I am guessing that you do, too. “Gateway to your Success,” “Don’t be Ordinary, be Extraordinary,” “Inspire your Mind,” "My College Understands Me,” “Rein in your Career,” or “Blank University wants to Educate Blank City” (just change the name to your city: same billboard, different cities).
Outdoor advertising, especially billboards, has become a staple of adult student marketing. But, it can be very expensive. And, how well does this really work to recruit potential students? In higher education, do billboards make a difference? When should an institution spend the money and when should alternatives be considered? Here are seven things to remember when you are developing your advertising plan to include a billboard campaign:
1. Identify your goal:
Are you attempting to increase visibility in a certain geographic area? If you are trying to raise awareness in specific geographic areas where you have determined that there are potential pockets of prospective adult students, billboards can be effective. Likewise, if you are announcing a new program and want as many people to hear about it as possible in the vicinity where you will offer the program, billboards may be a good advertising alternative. The key here is that billboards raise awareness for products and services…period.
2. Monitor results:
There is little sense spending the money on ANY advertising campaign unless you have a plan in place to monitor the success or failure of the campaign. If your web site hits increase, your email box begins to fill up with inquiries, or your 800 number begins to ring off the hook, you need to be able to attribute that increase to specific actions. In this case, for the increase to be attributed to the billboard campaign, the right questions need to be asked in order to gather the feedback you need to gauge results.
3. Differentiate your message:
There is nothing more wasteful than a college billboard with a message that could be about ANY college. “We offer real-world experience,” “Our faculty inspire students,” “Get your degree online” are not all that differentiating. While the message may motivate prospective students to search online, they likely will not stop at your institution’s web site. As colleges and universities continue to offer similar programs geared toward the same audience, your institution runs the risk of being perceived as a commodity. If your message sounds like Every Other University, you have not effectively differentiated your institution. Don’t waste your money on a mediocre message.
4. Write about benefits:
Good billboard messages get right to the heart of the benefit (not to the institution, but to the prospective student). Got a unique but popular degree program? Offering a co-op education with work-study options? A study abroad program…condensed time to graduation? Credit for work experience? Speak to the benefits that attract your students. If it is a bowling league or a bridge from one career to another, choose your very strongest message to appeal to the group that you seek.
5. Consider the traffic:
Unless your institution is offering full programs online, we know that the majority of adult students working and going to school will choose an institution that is no more than 50 miles from work or home. And, 50 miles is a long shot these days with all of the increased competition among universities and colleges that offer all or a portion of their programs online. Don’t waste billboard space or the money advertising in areas where students are unlikely to find the drive doable. Even online programs are more attractive if the student can drive to the institution to take a look around. This brick and mortar presence offers credibility, but it has to be close enough for consideration. If your programs are online, consider billboards close to airports and mass transit stops. These are likely to attract students who may be looking for a way to complete their education, but who cannot easily get to a campus.
6. Stand out from the clutter:
One of the problems with billboards is that once one school puts one up on the highway, more follow. Most have a photo of a student or a faculty member…maybe the two of them in a lab…or something we can recognize as a college scene from our car at 70 miles per hour. Although there may be a lot of traffic, there is still not a lot of eyeball time. Make it count by standing out visually—through color, design, animation, and innovation as well as the right message.
7. Consider the opportunity costs, not just the costs:
Making the decision to advertise via billboards needs to be considered with all of the traditional and non-traditional advertising options. To reach adult students in metropolitan areas, for example, it may be money better spent to advertise on buses and inside the subway/train systems. There’s not a lot to look at while sitting on a train. Airplane magazines are another good alternative, especially for online graduate degree programs.
I hope that these tips about using billboards to reach adult students are helpful.
Drop me a note to let me know what you think…what has worked and what hasn’t for your institution?
If you need help assessing your recruitment funnel or evaluating your marketing mix for the adult student, we would love to hear from you.