Tube Draws Future Students to Web

Posted on by Chief Marketer Staff

To reach your target audience you need to be where it lives. For colleges, that means the Internet.

Video is becoming the media of choice to drive students to the Web — via DRTV — and then engage them when they land on either the school’s site or a portal such as YouTube.

The executive MBA programs at Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management in Ithaca, NY and the State University of New York College at Plattsburgh are two examples of how colleges are using video, online and off, as part of an integrated strategy to attract both teenage undergrads and adult graduate students.

Ron Ladouceur, executive creative director at marketing agency Media Logic — which works with both schools — notes that in the past, almost all higher learning institutions used television because there simply weren’t other options.

Today, however, for TV to work for a college, the school needs to have a well-defined market that can be addressed through the medium affordably. “You need to remember the basics,” he says. “You can’t expect TV to be a be-all and end-all and do all the work.”

SUNY Plattsburgh — a four-year public college in northeastern New York state, about an hour’s drive from Montreal — has been doing DRTV for about six years as part of a campaign that includes print, direct mail, e-mail and the Web.

“One of the reasons we in admissions found DRTV appealing was that we’ve faced declining populations in northern New York, our primary market,” says Carrie Woodward, assistant director for freshman admissions. “We needed to find ways to gain exposure in secondary markets further downstate, where the numbers of high school graduates are stabilizing or growing. DRTV gave us a way to do that rather inexpensively.”

The school has more than 6,200 students, approximately 5,500 undergrad and 700 graduate. About 1,600 new students are enrolled each year, some 1,000 freshmen and 600 transfers.

The campaign created with Media Logic didn’t take a traditional approach in that the spots don’t feature lush shots of the campus or testimonials from students and faculty. Rather the ads begin with images of students being sucked up and out of the screen by an unknown force into the SUNY Plattsburgh logo. A short voice-over at the end describes recent enrollment successes and poses the question of why so many students are drawn to the school.

“Admissions were already up over 30% and TV was a way to build on the momentum we had and show there’s a buzz about the school,” Woodward says.

The spots run in the fall, around the time high school seniors are making decisions about where to apply, and in the spring, when they’re deciding where to enroll. Target markets are the capital district of New York, as well as the mid-Hudson region (south of Albany, north of New York City) and northern New York state. Vermont is being tested this year as well.

The call to action in all marketing materials is the Web site ( The commercials are also being posted on YouTube, as are other videos highlighting academic departments.

Web traffic is monitored when the spots are airing, and inquiries are tracked by region. But the return on investment of applications and enrollment can be difficult to determine.

“ROI is hard to track sometimes because the media approach is so multitiered,” says Brendan Kinney, associate vice president for SUNY Plattsburgh’s Office of Institutional Advancement. “It could be a combination of things that got them to ask for information or to apply.”

SUNY Plattsburgh receives a little over 9,000 applications annually. But, according to Media Logic’s Ladouceur, ROI can’t be checked solely by the number of applications received, because students frequently apply to anywhere from eight to 20 schools.

As for other media, print ads are placed in high school and junior college newspapers. Media Logic has designed a series of postcards for the school which creatively mirror the TV campaign. They’re sent to cold lists around the same time the TV spots are broadcast. E-mail is used to follow up. Another direct mail prospecting piece looks like an airplane boarding pass and plays on the theme of the school being the ticket to one’s future.

“We’ve actually had a few students call, wondering how they can use it. We’ve earmarked those students so if they ever apply, we’ll know that they’re not as bright as we might hope they’d be,” Woodward laughs.


Other than a few campaigns aimed at those who recently took the Graduate Management Admission Test, Cornell really isn’t using direct mail to promote its executive MBA programs, says Tom Hambury, director of executive programs for The Johnson School at Cornell University, where courses are intended for midcareer senior managers and professionals.

Two such MBA programs are administered by The Johnson School. One is classroom based and conducted once a year with 65 to 70 students at a facility just outside Manhattan. The other is run jointly with Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario and offered through live interactive videoconferencing in 19 cities across the United States and Canada.

Because prospective grad students typically work in offices with high-speed Internet connections, video is an ideal medium for reaching them, Hambury says. The school began posting videos on in January.

E-mail blasts to purchased lists help drive traffic to the site, and print is used in areas near course locations. Ads have appeared in the Eastern, Pacific Northwest, Ohio and Texas regional editions of The Wall Street Journal. Radio also is part of the mix in most markets outside New York.

The videos show students and alumni talking about the program, highlighting benefits like networking, the faculty and the school’s reputation.

“The thing about executive MBA programs is that they’re widely available,” Hambury says. “People have access to many options so it’s really hard to differentiate. In all the programs you learn things like financial accounting, operations management and human resources.” In the videos Cornell tries to convey the intangibles of its offerings and the experience of being in the program.

“It’s hard to say we teach financial accounting better than anybody else,” Hambury says. “Heck, our [instructors] were all trained in the same two dozen schools and they all use the same textbooks, so it’s really hard to make a case that the educational aspects are going to be very different from school to school.”

The brochure — the staple of school marketing in the past — worked, but it was static. Video helps bring the school to life.

“Today,” he points out, “people don’t want to hear generic comments. They want to hear what people say about how hard the program is, what the workload is like, what it’s done for their careers, why they chose Cornell above other places. [Video] allows us to do it in a way that’s real and live.”

To judge the ROI, Cornell is studying Web analytics to find out where people are going on the site, what they do there and where they drop off. It’s also noting whether people are registering for events and if they’re using the site to apply for admission.

“Ultimately, the name of the game is applications that are good and turn into acceptances and enrollments. That’s the funnel we’re looking at,” Hambury says. “On the other hand, we also know that people often [consider] executive MBA programs for a few years before they apply. I’m hoping we’re reaching people who maybe not now, but next year or the year after, will be applicants. The program costs $125,000 and takes two years of your life. It’s not an impulse kind of thing.”

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