I have a friend with a son who is a sophomore in high school. This morning, she told me that she can't believe how many money colleges waste precious funds on expensive direct mail communications. She described the quality of the paper, the outsized packaging, and the heft of the packages they've been receiving-all of which she tosses in the waste bin.
Direct marketing mail campaigns are often cost-effective
As a marketer, I told her that her would-be correspondents may not be wasting their money. After all, college tuition for four years is now in excess of $100,000-perhaps more than her fully loaded salary as a manager at a Philadelphia-based research organization. If only 1 or 2 students that they contact eventually enroll, a school can easily justify the cost of the mailing.
Success depends on a compelling value proposition
I suggested she open a few to see if they had a message that would compel her to act, something that was important to either her or her son. So, she opened one that arrived yesterday.
Sell, don't tell
As she expected, it was just like all the others. It started by pointing out that her son ranks higher than most students in the country. They knew that.
The letter said that they are seeking students who want the types of challenges and experiences, from which others shy away. Then, the letter told him they were looking for students.
Response mechanisms can erect barriers
Finally, before closing by asking that her son visit their website or send them a card, they said they were a prestigious liberal arts college-even though they confided, they prefer to think of themselves as a school that nurtures collaboration for big results. The Admissions Director included his phone number under his signature.
Good design contributes to the message
The collage of pictures on the letter didn't seem to add to the message. In fact, if one just saw the pictures, he or she would be hard-pressed to guess what the sender was advertising.
Most prominent was one of the Dalai Lama. Another was of clinicians in an operating room.
Others were of people talking, a building, an outdoor snapshot, a row of apartments, and kids kicking a soccer ball. There were also headshots of people of different races and national origins.
Calls to action must resonate
The calls to action encouraged students to give the school a chance to get to know them before they apply-and offered to provide advice that would help them apply to any school.
She threw the package away. Now perhaps there are students with whom one of these marketing messages will resonate-but I think the schools can do a better job of convincing their correspondents to take the next step.
Capitalize on the data you have
Clearly, this school was able to get students' names, PSAT scores, and zip codes. Even without additional information, they could probably guess the student's sex-and assume that he or she was a sophomore in high school.
Think through the implications
From just the zip code, they knew that her home is in a middle-class community several hundred miles north of the school. From that they could have discerned that the recipients likely weren't aware of the school and would probably require financial aid. Yet, nothing in the communication addressed either concern.
Step into the buyers' minds
The letter writer had sufficient information to recognize that the main marketing messages wouldn't resonate. Having had no previous interaction with the school, which didn't have a national reputation, neither mother or son was likely to care that the school was seeking students-or wanted a chance to get to know the son before he applied. Moreover, there was no reason to believe that the family would contact a complete stranger for help applying to other schools.
The letter also didn't speak to the son's needs. In March of his sophomore year of high school, the son wasn't seeking out more challenges. Instead, like most boys his age, he's focusing on the here and now: his schoolwork, his friends, his extra-curricular activities, and sports.
Timing is everything
Unless the school could obtain information from the PSAT administrators that would enable them to speak to his current needs, a letter to the son was premature. Also, the chances are slim that any teenage would call an adult and this marketing communication didn't offer an email option.
I had to agree with my friend's initial assessment. Even organizations that seek small response rates can't afford scattershot approaches.
Create campaigns that generate leads
How much more effective would this lead generation campaign have been if the sender had:
- Focused on its most promising prospects
- Spoken to their needs and concerns
- Tailored its message to where prospects were in their buying process
- Tested its calls to action
- Offered multiple response mechanisms
My guess is that the college could have gotten a far better return on their marketing investment-if only they'd thought a little more about the audience-rather than focusing exclusively on their own goals. The question is how often do businesses make many of the same mistakes?
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