March 19, 2018

Breaking New Ground in Higher Ed Marketing | From the Bell Tower

As more higher education providers offer their wares to students in an ever-expanding array of price and structure options, we can expect to see more competitive positioning among the players. Where would the academic library fit into this environment?

Advertising to reach new students is nothing new for colleges and universities. You will drive past their billboards, hear them describe their merits on the radio, see their attractive students and faculty on the television and in print media, and get targeted with their Internet ads. One community college took its advertising a step further, and gained some attention for their approach. The average higher education institution adheres to the “we are special” school of advertising. It’s designed to differentiate that college or university by bringing attention to something unique, perhaps a degree program or a flexible enrollment process, in an attempt to convince prospective students that it’s the best choice they can make. Ozarks Technical Community College broke what might be an unspoken rule among competitors—never mention your competition. OTCC took aim right at their competitors and gave it to them with both barrels.

Venturing into forbidden territory

Anyone familiar with higher education advertising knows that other institutions are politely ignored. Making claims about an institution’s advantages over its regional competition is thought to be off limits, but these are tough times and past practices are just that. In the new normal, a community college like OTCC can make a case to prospective students by aiming for the wallet. Using a clever “The Numbers Speak for Themselves” tagline, the commercial makes it graphically clear that OTCC costs at least $10,000 a year less than the next lowest priced college, and many thousands less than a for-profit institution. For the other, higher-priced institutions mentioned in the commercial, a retaliatory advertisement might be effective. Surely they could point out the resources they have that OTCC students never get. Instead, they did their best to pay as little attention as possible.

Taking on the competition

What should higher education make of this “what took so long” shift in higher education advertising? I imagine that most administrators and nearly all faculty find OTCC’s aggressive commercial stance off-putting. Well, there are probably a few administrators who applaud it as a gutsy move. While the commercial hardly has the tone of two political rivals going after one another, it certainly does take a more business-like approach. Given that business practices, particularly commercialism of any type, are highly suspect in academe, it’s unlikely we’ll ever be inundated with these commercials. While it’s all right to denigrate your institution’s rival sports teams, going after them on the academic playing field is something entirely different and taboo—at least for now.

Are attack ads next?

Cost is another factor. Television advertising is expensive, and the only institutions that can really afford to use it extensively are the for-profits chains that invest heavily in marketing. That means few institutions will head to the airwaves any time soon. What if OTCC’s groundbreaking commercial does catch on with other colleges and universities? Higher education advertising methods could take an entirely new direction that focuses on competition, and routinely makes use of data on retention, graduation rates, low fees, number of full-time faculty, student debt, and other variables to make the competition look bad. But outright attack ads? Don’t expect one institution to highlight the failures and weaknesses of their crosstown rival any time soon. Competitive approaches could become more commonplace if, as an Inside Higher Ed report pointed out, the focus is on students and their parents as consumers who are often confused about how to make good college choices. While it may be hard to fathom colleges and universities reduced to using the same advertising style as car manufacturers promoting their vehicles’ advantages over other makes (stronger engines, safer, better fuel economy), consumers exposed to competitive advertising over the course of their lives are hardly going to be shocked.

Go where the librarians are in the know

Fortunately, I think academic librarians will be free from whatever shift in competitive advertising takes place in higher education. I can imagine we librarians would relish the prospect of the campus library getting mentioned in institutional ad campaigns, although what are the odds of that happening in a 15-second television commercial costing many thousands of dollars? Nor do I doubt that a few of us, those with a more competitive streak, might actually enjoy the opportunity to see their strengths compared attractively against other libraries (more content, easier to use, smarter librarians, hi-tech study rooms, cozy cafes). It’s almost fun trying to imagine what that television ad would look like.

But in the end, our profession is about cooperation, not competition, so it is equally difficult to even contemplate the conditions under which any academic librarian would submit to a request to provide data for use in making their regional rivals out to be a bad college choice. For now, we will remain content to let our wise colleagues in the marketing department navigate the new landscape in competitive higher education advertising. That is unless you really are just dying to take a poke at your fellow librarians in a way that only Mad Men would truly appreciate.


Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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