The Tropes and Tricks of School Marketing

Posted by Will Weatherly on Oct 6, 2016 2:00:00 PM

If you’ll remember, we posted recently about the struggle for our prep school and college clients to create marketing material for their younger audience. Young people are tricky to market to in general — the requisite tone, background info, and humor all tottering on a precarious edge between relatable and cheesiness.

But there is something about young people wading through the 2-year college application process that is especially tricky to communicate with — and especially for our clients looking to create custom mailings. These mailings get sent to kids whose mailboxes are already full to the brim with every kind of pamphlet, leaflet, brochure, look-book, and postcard you could imagine. They get sent these so frequently, their mail-people probably think they have a thousand pen pals. And worse yet, many of these scraps of enthusiastic academic paper look exactly the same.

SPC sees many of these mailings come and leave through our doors, and so we happen to know the maligned genre of school mailing just as well as any marketed-to-death teenager. We’d like to show you some of the tropes of the trade, and then present to you some more unique approaches to the same information. Just as young people want to be talked to like unique individuals, they respond much more positively to mailings that come from a unique, singular vantage point.

The trope: Students basking in the sun on the school’s green — potentially playing a version of hackey-sack. Like some sort of 90s utopia turned institutionally-approved (and somehow — academic?)

The trick: This is the most visible trope in college marketing, but conversely one that gets overlooked the most. It’s because this image doesn’t do any work for the mailing; it’s been turned into shorthand for “this is an ad for a school” more than communicating anything about the school itself. We think images that have a more idiosyncratic, and potentially artistic, vision to them catch prospective students’ eyes much more. Do something iconographic or abstracted with the mailing’s front image, or find something architecturally interesting instead (and no, we don’t mean your school’s most impressive building — that’s as overdone as idyllic shots of kids laying on the lawn!). 

The trope: A list of “quirky” school traditions called things like “Pi Day!” or “Fall Weekend Xtreme!” Usually followed by the school’s mascot revving up a crowd of already revved teens, euphoria and school spirit abound.

The trick: This one is bad because it is also a filler for college tours — every college tour — as much as it is for mailings. Unlike the pictures of the green, however, not all school traditions are created equal. We really have seen some weird ones (don’t even get us started on what has happened during the University of Chicago’s scavenger hunt, or… whatever hippy-dippy thing Reed College does at its Renn Fayre). Even so, many college traditions just don’t stack up as they try to seem more unconventional than they really are. Instead, try and find some unique student stories rather than events. These are often much more evocative and individualized than any homogenized campus-wide event.

The trope: Pie charts of compelling statistics (alumni occupations, number of students in each major, those receiving financial aid) and always followed by the “fun” pie charts (number of students who have a crush on the school mascot, number of professors who have cute dogs, etc.)

The trick: Here, we see something valuable that the other tropes don’t include: an actual attempt at being informative, rather than just setting the school apart with fun (but useless) details. This is what good college marketing eventually should strive for, and so we applaud any attempt at including information in an accessible way. However, graphs are very common, and thus lose their effectiveness at proving superiority through numbers. Often, these charts are a way to convey many arguments very quickly, but we find that an approach that expands each separate argument (for example, alumni connections, or financial aid availability) into its own text treatment and graphic allows for the prospective student to get much more drawn into the topic of their choosing. Trust that your audience wants to spend some time with your school’s marketing material. If you’re doing your job right, they will want to do so anyway!

There are many more tropes to this area of marketing than we can cover in one blog, but we hope that this tackled some of the more egregious offenses. Strike these overrated strategies from your approach, and we promise that your marketing material will start to rise towards the top of an ever-growing pile of school mailings.

Will Weatherly is a Sophomore at Brown University and marketing intern at SPC Print Integrated.

Topics: Education Marketing