Do colleges need to go back to school and learn marketing?

It’s college-shopping season.  For high school seniors the clock is ticking.  Juniors are starting to realize this party’s not going on forever.  And so we parents of overscheduled teens must encourage our young scholars to visit colleges, to narrow down the field, to ask themselves “Where would I fit in?”

College MailAnd we must empty our mailboxes.  Because colleges like to mail stuff to high school students.

I don’t believe direct mail is dead, but I’m questioning it for the purposes of college recruiting. I wonder how much real direct marketing discipline is going on here:  the testing and measurement of multiple variables.  Customized messages.  Special offers.  Because it seems to me that we’re just getting “ads in the mail” at our house.  That’s not direct marketing.  That’s a waste of paper.  Especially when it’s mailed to teenagers, a group that loves to open and read paper mail about as much as they like to use their phones for talking.  They don’t.  And they don’t.

Smart marketing to this group is not easy.  The college prospect is a moving target:  A 17 year-old who rolls through the pipeline from junior to senior year in high school, visiting a few college campuses, listening to clueless peers, feeling nudged by parents and being forced to make a decision from hundreds of options with more propaganda than data, more emotion than logic, and a thousand distractions from the ACT to homecoming games to band practice.

Most universities have two marketing departments:  One in the business school full of Ph.Ds who teach marketing and publish heady research papers full of econometric models, and another that markets the school’s brand to prospective students.  You’d think an institution with two marketing departments and a big marketing budget could get marketing right.

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