The Medium, The Message, The Method

Marketing professionals offer ten tips for deans and communications officers who want to pull together an integrated marketing plan that showcases their unique strengths and plays to every audience.
The Medium, The Message, The Method

If marketing pro Andrea Fitting was retained by a business school with an unlimited budget, she knows exactly how she’d promote the client. The CEO of the Fitting Group of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, would have the school sponsor a worldwide business plan competition with multiple winners, who each would walk away with half a million dollars. She’d advise that the competition be judged by the school’s namesake, as well as university faculty, and she’d advertise it in every medium from television to print to the Internet.

“I’d love to work with that client. I’m waiting for the phone call,” she says with a laugh.

How do you use marketing and PR to brand your school, recruit students, and raise your profile? Media experts share their insights.

But the reality is that most business school administrators have to operate within much more limited budgets as they strive to distinguish their schools in today’s hypercompetitive market. And many of them are uncertain about the best way to develop a promotional plan that will establish their brands, raise their visibility, intrigue potential students, and satisfy alumni.

“A marketing campaign should give people a sense of affiliation with a brand they’ll own for the rest of their lives,” says Libby Morse, senior vice president and creative director at the Chicago, Illinois, office of marketing communications firm Lipman Hearne. "An MBA has to be more than a credential. It has to make a statement about the people who have earned it."

These marketing professionals offer ten tips for deans and communications officers who want to pull together an integrated marketing plan that showcases their unique strengths and plays to every audience.

1. Stop looking over your shoulder. “Don’t worry about what the Ivy League schools are doing, and just do what you need to do,” says Fitting. “Figure out the kind of student who would thrive at your school and who would then go out into the world to do wonderful things. Figure out how to speak to that person.”

2. Focus on what makes you unique. “Put a stake in the ground. Pick something you’re really good at, and talk about it all the time,” says Fitting. Make sure you’re highlighting an area of expertise that suits your location, she adds. For instance, you will be better able to market your school’s focus on entrepreneurship if your region supports startups, has access to venture capital, and contains a large number of successful business owners who can mentor your students.

But it’s crucial to pick a brand strategy that actually differentiates you from your peers. “Too many schools make the same kinds of promises, using the same words, like ‘global’ or ‘ethics,’” says Morse. “Schools need to make sure they’re not just selling an MBA, but selling a distinctive experience. They need to articulate their own worldview or their particular perspective on business or markets.”

She points to one of the agency’s clients, Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School in Baltimore, Maryland, which positions itself as the school that “teaches business with humanity in mind.” Says Morse, “That statement says everything, both about the school’s academic quality and its worldview.”

Articulating that worldview—and promoting your school based on it—has another advantage, Fitting says. “It means that every school doesn’t compete with every other business school. It competes with a smaller set that has similar offerings or cultures.”

A great idea is one that is able to live in a lot of different media.

3. Define your marketing goals to determine you medium. Are you trying to establish yourself, change your brand, promote a specific program, attract potential students to an informational session?

“You need to think about why you’re marketing to determine where you should be marketing,” says Alexia Koelling, vice president of integrated marketing at Lipman Hearne. “For timely or succinct messages, like news about an informational session or an upcoming deadline, online marketing makes the most sense. But for a larger branding initiative, more often than not, I’d include print. A page in the New York Times carries a lot of weight.”

4. Choose your advertising vehicle. Look at the content of the medium, the audience it reaches, and how its image fits with the school’s message, and don’t limit you-self to obvious choices. For instance, a top-ranked school promoting its brand would certainly advertise in places like the Financial Times, says Morse. But it also could consider getting involved with the TED Conferences, which dedicate themselves to interesting ideas.

“Make sure your placement reflects your institution as well as the ads do,” says Minesh Parikh, associate vice president of Lipman Hearne. “The whole ‘the medium is the message’ idea is still true.”

At the same time, recognize that there are advertising vehicles where you might not belong. “If there’s a good school that hasn’t achieved high media rankings, should it advertise in Business week magazine’s Best Business Schools issue? That probably doesn’t make sense,” says Parikh. “An ad has to be reflective of who you are and the promises you make.”

And be aware that the campaign you launch needs to work in a number of different forums. “We don’t just think in terms of where we’ll place ads, we think in terms of what the big idea is, what the benefit is, and what the takeaway is, adds Morse. “A great idea is one that is able to live in a lot of different media.”

 5. Give special attention to digital media. “Social media is hugely important, especially when you’re recruiting, because students live on social media networks and they’re influenced by their friends in these networks,” says Fitting.

To create a strong online presence, notes Parikh, the firs step is to perfect your Web site. “Make sure it reflects who you are and allows people to find the information they’re looking for,” he says. “Students are the primary audience for the Web site, but there are other audiences—such as corporate recruiters and business leaders—so make sure the site communicates to all of them.”

Second, realize that people are accessing digital media through a variety of devices, including their smartphones. “If someone is looking at your Web site through an iPhone, is it still conveying all your key points?” asks Koelling.

Third, participate in the social media channels that make sense for you, from Facebook to Twitter to YouTube—and monitor all online conversations about your school. Those conversations are going to take place whether you chime in or not, but some of them can harm you if you don’t respond to them quickly.

“It’s key to have a very focused and clear sense of self so that, no matter who is talking about the university, you’re still putting out a consistent message,” says Koelling. “But you also must react to any negativity. You’re never going to stop people from having a bad experience and posting about it. But if you just let those negative comments sit there, they can be very damaging.”

Schools need to assign a staff member the job of reading online posts, then finding the appropriate person at the university who can respond. “That person can either say, ‘I can help you, here’s a solution to your problem’ or ‘That’s not correct. Here’s where you can go for more information,’” Koelling says. “He or she can guide the online conversations.”

6. Exploit the power of video. “It’s very, very effective, because it’s evocative, engaging, memorable, and fun,” says Fitting. “That’s especially true if it includes music, because music appeals to our really basic, primitive human natures.”

The best videos are short and relatively unpolished, says Fitting. “This generation has grown up with do-it-yourself filming, so they don’t mind funny camera angles. In fact, the whole documentary-style approach works really well for these students.”

Video is also a powerful medium because it can be accessed in so many ways, she says. Even if it “lives” on YouTube, schools can use Web site links, banner ads, and URLs in printed materials to drive students to the video. And because smartphones allow users to watch videos online, they’re now wholly mobile.

7. Join like-minded communities online. In addition to creating videos and establishing your own digital personality, make sure you’re a presence on other sites that are consistent with your brand. For instance, a school that’s positioned itself as a leader in sustainability should encourage its professors to join conversations and post useful information on sites that discuss green business.

“Showcase your school’s MBA to these communities,” says Koelling. This strategy might take a long time to pay off if you’re primarily focused on increasing enrollment, she notes, but if you’re trying to build a brand, “this is a great way to create broad word of mouth in communities you care about.”

8. Export your worldview. Don’t just join communities that share your perspective; create events that capitalize on it. For instance, the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in Illinois holds an annual management conference in which some of its top professors discuss what’s ahead for business. “The Booth School is all about taking ideas apart and putting them back together, and these conferences are a great example of a school identifying its brand and translating it into an event,” says Morse.

But the impact of the conferences lingers long after the debates are over. Videos of the events are posted online, and the school also posts interviews with the dean and the conference moderator, analyzing their reactions to the discussion. “These videos allow the people who attended the conference, as well as the alumni who didn’t, to stay connected to the institution,” says Koelling.

9. Always remember those alumni—and other stakeholders, too. Alumni have a huge stake in the ongoing success of their alma maters, so it’s important to factor them into most marketing decisions. When alumni are pleased with how the school is doing, they donate funds, mentor students, and offer jobs to graduates. “Alumni should never feel as if you have walked away from their experience, even if you are seeking ways to reach new audiences,” says Morse.

And don’t forget that other external stakeholders are also deeply interested in your messages. “Other people, from HR managers to recruiters, notice the brand, so it has to resonate across audiences,” says Parikh.

Adds Fitting, “The brand message should remain the same no matter what. But the submessages—the ones aimed at different audiences—have to vary according to the audience’s perspective and desires. Students, parents, faculty, and recruiters are all looking for different experiences. But to create the message, you have to remember who you are.”

10. Make sure that message focuses on the experience. “Most schools talk about their features—their curriculum, their campus, their history. They fail to engage emotionally with students,” says Fitting. “Instead, concentrate on the total experience.”

In fact, you should turn your entire promotional campaign into an invitation. “Higher education in general falls into the trap of promoting itself by saying, ‘We’re the institution that…’” says Morse. “ Instead, a school should say, ‘You’re the kind of person who…’ That doesn’t contradict the idea that you should have a distinct worldview. You need to say, ‘We believe this, and if you think that way too, you should come join us.’ You have to extend an invitation to people by appealing to the way they perceive themselves. You do this by offering both a window to yourself and a mirror to other people to let them know they belong with you.”

And hold that mirror up for as long as alumni want to look. “Any institution of higher education should feel like the mother ship, the place all its graduates belong,” says Morse. “If business schools don’t create that feeling, it’s easy for an MBA degree to become a commodity.”

But if they do articulate their vision, export it to people who share it, and make sure all their marketing messages nurture their relationships, they’ll be well on their way to creating places where students will want to belong for life.


Impressing the Press

While it’s important for schools to develop integrated marketing campaigns, it’s equally essential that they understand how to position themselves to receive media coverage in articles and broadcasts. 

“Obviously, there’s value in any kind of attention you can get, whether it’s through traditional marketing means or media relations,” says Chris Stout, account executive at media relations firm Gehrung Associates. The company, based in Keene, New Hampshire, specializes in higher education and research institutions. “If you’re really going to enhance your credibility and reputation, you need both.” The advantage of a news article over an ad is that the article is a third-party endorsement, he says. “It’s not you saying you’re great, it’s someone else saying it.”

He recommends five ways administrators and marketers can position their schools to attain that valuable media coverage.

1. Take advantage of news opportunities.

Make sure marketing staffers thoroughly understand the institution and “have the flexibility to jump on new events that are happening right now,” says Stout. “You need to find ways to make your programs or professors fit stories in a timely manner. That means you must know the institution, know who’s available, and know what information they have. And that means you must talk to faculty, interview the staff, and talk to students—beat the bushes a little.”

He adds, “If I see an article that quotes deans from three of the top ten schools and then the dean of a school that’s not even ranked, I think, ‘How did that happen?’ Well, it happened through hard work on the part of the marketing department.”

But you also must make sure the journalist you’re contacting is likely to be interested. “Not every business reporter will care about a finance story or a career story. Pick up the phone and call the reporters and the editors. If you build a relationship with these people, you’ll know what they’re interested in. They’re more likely to open your emails because they know you’re not bothering them with information that doesn’t suit their audience.”

2. Develop expertise—but be flexible.

It’s useful to have a subject matter specialty that makes you the go-to school when a certain kind of headline has made news, says Stout, but you don’t want to limit yourself by being known for only one thing.

“Don’t decide not to pursue an opportunity just because it doesn’t fit you marketing or branding position,” says Stout. “Whether you’re trying to reach prospective students or faculty, what’s really important is getting name recognition. If one of your marketing pro-fessors is doing something interesting, and you can get coverage, go for it. The more exposure you get, the better your reputation.”

3. Carefully choose where to pitch the story.

Most well-known publications compete with each other, Stout points out; they’re less likely to run a story if they know you’ve sent it to everyone else on your media distribution list. “When you do things  en masse, you limit how much coverage you might generate,” he says.

He tends to start with the top-tier publications first then move to other outlets if they’re not interested. But if an article does appear in Bloomberg Business week or The Wall Street Journal, he says, it often trickles down to other media outlets, including online ones, ensuring a story gets maximum coverage.

4. Don’t forget the local angle.

A top-ranked school will benefit from national o international coverage—but since it is likely to draw a sizable number of potential students from its region, local coverage is also important. “If a school is based in Illinois, we would target pitches to the Chicago Tribune and Crain’s Chicago Business, not just national publications,” Stout says. That kind of local coverage is also important, he notes, because many alumni still live near their alma maters, and they’re always interested in seeing their schools in the news.

5. Promote your school by promoting your coverage.

Once a piece about your school has appeared somewhere, make sure all your stake-holders are aware of it. Post about it on blogs, include links to online versions of the article, and talk it up every chance you get. “The social media really play a role in getting the word out after a story has been published,” says Stout. “That’s when the school can go online and say, ‘Hey, look at us, we’re in the Washington Post.’”