Marketing makes a move online

When freshman Samantha Ripinsky was going through the college admissions process, her garbage was filled to the brim with viewbooks.

“I tossed them all in the trash,” she said. “I didn’t even look at them.”

Even the GW material – her early decision choice – was thrown away.

“It was weird because every time GW sent us stuff, I thought, ‘Wow, it’s weird because they keep wasting money when they could just send (the information) through e-mail,” Ripinsky said.

Over the past 10 years, GW has changed its marketing to cater to this attitude, and there has been a push toward more cost-effective Internet communications. This has resulted in admissions marketing costing $600,000 a year – less expensive per prospective student than 10 years ago, said Director of Undergraduate Admissions Kathy Napper.

Napper said in 1997 that the University spent about $700,000 on mailing viewbooks – almost a quarter of the total marketing budget. Administrators at the time said the mailing process was costly, but necessary. Since then, as the Internet has grown as a marketing tool, there are several thousand fewer viewbooks mailed and more efforts directed toward courting online. Print materials are still emphasized because parents prefer them but their prevalence is fading.

“Generally, we seek to provide information that is in the format most acceptable to students,” Napper said. GW has tried to stay ahead of the marketing curve for many years, and this is true of its online presence. With this move to the virtual world, administrators said they are able to present everything – from life at GW to financial aid – more completely. Despite its benefits, marketers warned that online marketing must be used properly so as to avoid a “self-service” philosophy.

Keep it cool

Though the University’s advertising mediums have changed over the years, the philosophy behind the marketing has remained the same – keep it cool.

“GW historically has been an institution that really tried to do hip, youth oriented marketing, and that’s kind of the tradition at GW,” said Mark Neustadt, president of Neustadt Creative Marketing, a Baltimore company that develops marketing strategies for schools such as Tufts University and Wellesley College.

He added that about 10 to 12 years ago, GW was an industry trendsetter for its edgy marketing campaigns.

Senior Vice President for Student and Academic Support Services Robert Chernak said marketing should be consistent with the way the current marketplace wants to receive information.

“You have to be a little impressive,” said Chernak, who devised the phrase “Something happens here” at a brainstorming meeting.

Compared to other college admissions’ Web sites, GW’s utilizes more videos and interactive tools to gain the viewer’s attention. The main screen contains a video with music, and within the site are student blogs, downloadable GW screensavers and virtual residence hall tours.

Deborah Snelgrove, executive director of SASS Creative Services, said her department has focused increasingly on packaging information online.

“You would be inaccurate to state that the strategy remains the same (as in 1997), especially with the heavy use of electronic communication now,” Snelgrove wrote in an e-mail.

She added the University’s marketing should communicate the entire GW experience.

“When we develop . marketing materials, we emphasize the important sub-themes of ‘Classroom, Campus, City,'” Snelgrove said. “We communicate the total student experience.That includes academics.”

Financial aid

Because GW’s sticker price can be a shock to some applicants, financial aid is a large marketing priority. Increasingly, this information is based online.

Dan Small, director of Financial Aid, said the information being provided about financial aid today has become more “self-service” oriented. About 10 years ago, he said, all materials were in print.

“Now we’re moving to the Web site more, more than likely through e-mail,” Small said. “We’re seeing the whole area of financial aid moving more and more into the self-service . It’s all done online.”

The Financial Aid Office submits data to Snelgrove and her team, who then create an appealing package. Small said honesty remains his highest priority.

“(Creative Services) may say ‘Gee, can we say (a fact) a little differently this way . in the sense that it’s good information but it’s not misleading,'” said Small, adding that financial aid can be easily misunderstood. “We don’t want to misconstrue anything.”

U.S. News and World Report ranked GW as having the highest average need-based aid packages in the country. Small said they do not promote that statistic because it overlooks the post-college debt caused by loaned packages – a high percentage of GW’s financial aid.

“If we’re going to market it in we need to be careful in how we do it,” Small said. “We have to be honest and upfront, saying, ‘Yes, this is how we give.”

The importance of paper

Neustadt, of the outside marketing company, said the Internet can be used as an effective tool for disseminating information, but print is still necessary.

“You still mail students letters and brochures, because the Internet doesn’t work on its own to engage the prospective student: move him or her toward enrollment,” Neustadt said.

Admissions marketing is a very high-contact activity with staff that travel to high schools and school fairs and maintain a really large visit program. None of that is going to go away,” Neustadt said.

GW still utilizes a lot of concrete methods to attract students – with regional admissions directors, viewbooks and campus tours for high school guidance counselors.

Neustdat said this multi-faceted approach to marketing a school is relatively new and was not necessary 40 years ago. With more competition among colleges, different forms of marketing are increasingly important.

Neusdat said, “Admissions marketing is going to continue being a very high touch, very personalized effort.”

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