What Destination Marketers Can Learn from College Marketers

imageFor the last four years I have been on the client-side of the college recruiting ecosystem, not as the decision-maker but as the parent eventually writing the check. And as the process reaches its conclusion this month I could not help but reflect on the similarities between the college recruiting and destination marketing (particular for meetings and events) ecosystems:

  • While the transaction scale is different, both ecosystems are focused ultimately on marketing and selling the promise of a destination experience with some kind of personal return for your investment.
  • They are both BIG MONEY industries. In North Carolina alone, higher education had a 2013 economic impact of $63 billion. Tourism’s 2013 North Carolina comparative was $26 billion. Boom!
  • With over 17 million enrolled students and almost 5,000 colleges and universities in the US (2005 data), the competition is intense for new students.
  • Both understand and have designed their sales and marketing strategy around the importance of developing personal and authentic relationships with prospective clients.

At the same time, while there are considerable similarities, there are a number of elements that I believe destination marketers could learn from their college recruit marketer counterparts:

  • Colleges understand that they are first a brand and integrate their brand DNA into everything they do in order to distinguish themselves in a complex, noisy world. Brand strategy is the pursuit of long-term authenticity as opposed to a cyclical campaign logo/tagline approach. Most (not all) also avoid the trap of trying to appeal everybody, which means they have taken the time to understand their essential brand truth as the nucleus of their story.
  • College marketers know and compellingly articulate their unique destination experience value proposition at every engagement point. And they start with answering the most important question of all right upfront: “WHY should you go to school here?”. They talk almost exclusively about personal outcomes and legacies not about how many dorm rooms they have or the quality of the equipment in their labs.
  • College marketers collect and use prospect data extremely effectively, narrowing their acquisition funnel and tailoring their messaging throughout a student’s four-year high school experience. At each engagement point (e.g. high school college fair, college visit, SAT/ACT test) colleges gathered data about us to develop a precise prospect relationship profile. The result: while in freshman year we received emails and direct mail from hundreds of colleges, by senior year only college programs of interest to my daughter (film school) were contacting us. Those that tried to sell us on attending a college for agriculture clearly looked like they hadn’t done their homework.
  • College prospect engagement follow-up was impressive. Personal. Authentic. Compelling. Southern Methodist University did it better than any DMO I have ever seen. Sadly, my undergraduate alma mater – University of British Columbia – failed miserably. No more alumni money for them.
  • Colleges have integrated technology as a client engagement tool rather than as a sales tool aligning nicely with the expectations/needs of prospective students. Upon application submission most universities use social media and other personalized digital marketing approaches not to sell but to keep students engaged in the period between application submission and acceptance decision. Florida State University even creates a shareable personalized acceptance video.
  • For film schools at least, many colleges use student-produced content to show the type of work being done at their schools. UCLA has posted a portfolio of current student work on their website. The University of Texas (and others) showcases some of the work of recent graduates that was featured in film festivals. Again…it’s about client engagement through relevant content and focusing on compelling outcomes, not hard-selling on university features.
  • Not surprisingly colleges use current students and alumni as their ultimate closers. They have figured out that no amount of hard sell on their part is going to convince a student to select a college as part of a slick sales pitch. Instead they make current students and alumni incredibly accessible throughout the entire process. New York University hosts what essentially amounts to a student site inspection weekend (they do not host your transportation or accommodation etc) run primarily by current students with participation by alumni. It was as tightly organized as any destination site inspection I have ever been on. There was no hard sell just opportunities for authentic conversation between prospects and current students/alums about the good, the bad and the ugly of student life.

tumblr_o2572r96UE1to8yb2o1_1280Finally…of course the destination is a critical part of the final decision. And college marketers know this. Every college we considered integrated elements of their host destination as part of their overall brand story, value proposition and engagement marketing. (UCLA’s recruiting brochure featured destination content as good as any DMO’s. SIDEBAR INSIGHT: Every piece of marketing content we saw used real students/faculty, not stock images or over-staged models.) But rather than positioning the features of the destination as a ‘reason to buy”, the destination was primarily positioned as to how it contributed to the college brand and value proposition for its (prospective) students. The University of Texas does a nice job leveraging SXSW for the benefit of the School of Radio Television and Film.

Some great destination marketing practices are happening outside the DMO. And herein lies a powerful opportunity for BOTH. The trend of the deepening of business relationships between DMOs and their local colleges/universities will pay dividends by developing mutually-compelling stories that enrich their respective brands and businesses.

Proof once again that we’re never too old to go back to school.


2 thoughts on “What Destination Marketers Can Learn from College Marketers

  1. Great piece Bruce MacMillan ! As a parent carying the suitcases for my 17 yr old across Europe to ‘select’ where to go to University, this puts DMO (or any kind of services marketing for that matter ) in a fresh spotlight. Must say approach of Universities across Europe is quite distinct and does focus quite a bit on the Destination aspect of the University as wel as giving ‘tasters’ of the University with open days. Some really get it, other Universities fail miserably. Both impact the future chartered course of the student and the parent. Quite a responsability in any case. Wondering why other service providers are not more keen on cross marketing with these prospects. Much to do, thanks for sharing these refreshing insights after having shelled out the funds to make it happen for your daughter. I’m just getting started (and saving up).


  2. Really good observations and piece Bruce – well done.


    Karen Bolinger Chief Executive Officer Melbourne Convention Bureau

    From my iPhone


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