My son is a high-school senior, which means that the volume of college recruiting direct mail has been careening into our home mailbox faster than the Long Island RR rolling into Penn Station at rush hour. As my friend Helen Klein Ross has pointed out, direct mail marketing may be in decline in most places… but it's alive and well and thriving in college marketing.
What I find amazing, though, is less the heavy reliance on direct mail than the fact that most of the collateral looks exactly like the stuff I received a generation ago, when I was looking at colleges. You know what I mean: Catalogs with pictures of students sitting in ragged circles on a grassy patch somewhere; a still of a professor gesturing dramatically, apparently delivering an intense, animated lecture to a roomful of rapt youngsters; a wide-angle shot of groups of students crisscrossing the campus quad, that appears to have been snapped by a rooftop sniper.
Then there’s the copy. Like this: “Ours is an extraordinary environment specifically designed to support and broaden each student’s individual vision.” Or this: “An extraordinary experience that offers a remarkable place to learn, to be inspired, and to pursue your individual passion.” Oh, wait: That says pretty much the same thing….
(And these are all from art schools, by the way, which you’d expect that -- as a group -- might take a more imaginative approach to wooing the creative soul.)
Among the mail mob, though, one college stood out. Instead of (or possibly in addition to) the usual four-color, nicely photographed catalog, the Maryland College Institute of Art (MICA) sent a slim, self-published paperback titled, An Artist’s Guide to Choosing a College. In about 150 pages, the small book covers the essentials of what steps a would-be art student needs to take in his or her education.
Choosing a college can feel like playing darts in the dark (you approach it mostly on feel, and in the end just hope you are getting it reasonably close), and this small volume attempts to help you sort it all out by answering questions (What’s the difference between a BA and a BFA? What are the benefits/downsides of attending art college versus a university or liberal arts college?) and suggesting the issues you should think about. (There’s whole section on Which art college? Twenty questions to ask that offers some smart advice about things newbies like us might not have otherwise thought of: like eyeballing the size and student mix of a particular major as a measure of its strength, and not just the size of the overall art program itself.)
So what’s the difference between the colorful collateral approach to marketing and MICA’s approach? The former was about them; the latter was about me. (Well, it was about my kid.)
In other words: It all came down to the content. The former might be pretty and evocative in its own right, but the overall impression was short-lived and entirely forgettable. The former didn’t offer us anything valuable, or give us a reason to hold onto it. Within a day or two, the slickly produced, pretty stuff had moved from the mailbox to the kitchen table to the recycle bin.
MICA’s small book, meanwhile, was valuable. It was useful. It gave us a reason to pick it up time and again, to keep it around. It arrived maybe six weeks ago, and since then it moved from the mailbox to the kitchen table to my son’s bedside, which is where I found it just before I sat down to write this post.
My son applied to MICA two weeks ago. Was it the artist guide that made the difference? In part, yes: He knew he wanted an urban art school, already, but the book kept MICA top-of-mind when the actual application time rolled around.
What’s more: It told us, in a subtle way, that the college cared about finding the right kind of student for its program: Don’t care for urban? Want a larger, more diverse campus? Then MICA probably isn’t for you. All colleges obviously want to attract students who are suited to them, but MICA inspired our trust a little more than the others by not being afraid to spell out who might not be happy on Baltimore’s Bolton Hill.
Which brings me to you: Are you marketing like MICA or like the forgettable others? Ask yourself:
1. What is your business doing to stay top-of-mind with your customers or would-be clients?
2. Are you creating content that would-be customers can use as a resource for their purchase decisions?
3. Are you creating stuff that makes their lives easier, or walks them through a difficult decision, or helps them perform a task more efficiently?
4. Are you creating content that helps them save money?
5. Are you distributing whitepapers, or checklists, or tip-heavy booklets that they can use and keep, either offline or online (or perhaps both)?
6. Are you adding value? Or are you producing stuff that’s quickly disposed of?
Graphic: D Sharon Pruitt