How to Create the Perfect Higher Education Billboard

Template for the Perfect Higher Education Billboard

Given the field I work in, I pay a lot of attention to billboard campaigns.  I suspect this makes me different from many of the publics we target.

One thing I’ve noticed in my years of careful Billboardspotting is how remarkably similar all outdoor advertising is for colleges and universities.  It’s eerie.  It’s almost as though everyone is watching what everyone else is doing and copying it in some sort of marketing feedback loop.

This is likely what is actually happening, which explains the creative entropy.

I had thought this phenomenon was exclusive to the Midwest, but on a recent trip out East I observed exactly the same thing from toll plaza to toll plaza.  Everyone is running the same ads.

When everyone is running the same ads – it’s the same as everyone running NO ads.

I say all of this NOT to the creatives and marketing professionals creating the ads: they are likely well aware of the marginal effectiveness of the ads they’re producing.  The unfortunate reality is that more creative campaigns were ruled out by the most heinous entity on any college/university campus: A COMMITTEE.

So what I have say is those who might find themselves on committees or who are in higher ed leadership…

Let’s be honest: outdoor ads are expensive.  Despite what ad sales reps say, the idea of “impressions” as a metric for measuring the reach of any given form of advertising is ridiculous and they get ridiculous-er with every advance in digital advertising which allows for detailed tracking of consumer behavior.  Claiming that $4,000 isn’t $4,000 because the “CPM” amounts to fractions of a penny is bunk.

While we’re being honest, let’s also remember that people don’t make decisions rationally.  Even big ones.  ESPECIALLY big ones.

Sure, there are some people who are swayed by accreditation, small class sizes, and low tuition arguments.  A whole lot more people are swayed by factors completely unrelated to the quality and value of a school’s academic offerings.  Moreover – the odds are that YOU ALREADY HAVE those people going to your school because they’ve carefully done their research and you came out as the top option.  (This means that you’re wasting your time by targeting them).

For example; how many people do you think attend Michigan State University or the University of Michigan because they’re fans of their athletic programs?  It’s probably higher than you think.  A recent report featured in Inside Higher Ed found that football programs correlate strongly with alumni giving.

Given the cost of outdoor advertising, there are really only three reasons they should be used by a college or university:

  • General Awareness: If you’re a school that has fat coffers and can splurge on general awareness advertising – by all means buy up billboards.  (If you are such a college, I’d like to note that I would be happy to entertain any cushy job offers).
  • Credibility:  Some educational institutions have a significant deficit of credibility – primarily the newer for-profits but also some state schools.  For them, billboard advertising is a way of saying “look – we have the money to spend on billboards – we’re not some fly-by-night operation that will take your money and run.”
  • Innovation:  This would be using billboards for something other than what they’re intended for (like general awareness).  For example, what if the purpose of a billboard campaign featuring students was intended to endear those students friends and families to your college so that they blogged, tweeted, and posted about it online?  That might actually work:

Unless you meet the above three criteria, you’re not maximizing your advertising budget by running a bland* outdoor advertising campaign.  Remember – you’re competing against every other school that is running virtually the same message you are.

*I define “Bland” advertising campaigns as anything that easily earns approval from a board of trustees or executive leadership.  If they’re not sweating about your ad campaign offending someone – you’re not trying hard enough.

HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENT: I would LOVE it if anyone who happens to read this blog snaps a picture or two of higher education billboards that they see and link to them in the comments section.  Let’s see how many of them bear a striking resemblance to the template in the illustration above.

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