Getting Consumers to Spend $150,000 With a Viral Effort

Colleges Change Their Tactics to Appeal to Today's Kids

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How do you get a consumer to plunk down $150,000 nowadays?

Verrrrry slowly. And with a viral ad.

In fact, the process may take years, says Andy Beedle, CEO of agency abeedle.com. That's because the consumers are usually about 16 when they start shopping, and 18 when they -- or their parents -- buy. What, exactly, have they been shopping for all that time?

College.

I'm not in the market yet. But the other day, my 12-year-old, Morry, showed me this funny video clip he'd seen on one of the free online games he plays. (Yes, we're cheap and we're raising cheap kids.) It showed a really rotten rapper singing the praises of his college, Roanoke, and getting rejected at mascot tryouts. Morry clicked on another clip, this one of a redneck also trying out. Rejected. A streaker? Rejected. A goth girl? Rejected. Every possible stereotype had a 30-second audition in front of a weary, bemused panel of judges à la "American Idol," and they all failed delightfully.

"Roanoke College," mused Morry. "I'm thinking of going there. Or M.I.T."

As this was our first college conversation, I had to find out more about this campy campaign. Is this the future of college recruiting?

In a word: yes. "We're a classic liberal-arts institution," said Blair Garland, director of marketing at Roanoke. ("We're not the lost colony," he added.) Despite his college's 166-year history, however, a survey of high school students aware of Roanoke found that most had no idea what its specialty was. How do you brand a college?

That's where Beedle comes in. His agency specializes in online marketing of colleges. It's a field Beedle grew into from his own years as a philosophy professor before turning adman/entrepreneur. The way colleges used to advertise, he said, was through their "view books" -- those brochures featuring college kids studying under a tree on the quad.

When a student requested the brochure, his name went on the college's recruiting list, and soon he'd be getting all sorts of correspondence from the school. "You'd get them to try to come visit the campus," said Beedle. "And then you'd try to get them to apply." It was a long courtship. But when colleges started posting their information -- and pictures -- on the web, "They wrote themselves out of the sales process. All of a sudden the student thought everything they needed was there on the web, so they didn't have to get in touch with the school."

When the Roanoke folks called Beedle, they wanted to get high school students interacting with them again. They also really needed a mascot. (Roanoke athletes have been "The Maroons" since a uniform shortage forced them wear maroon outfits 100 years ago. Their actual school colors are blue and gold). Beedle's solution: Turn the hunt into an online contest. Roanoke students portray the funny "Rejected" mascots, but high-school students are encouraged to send in their own mascot ideas or videos. So far, 300 have. And 30,000 have viewed the viral campaign. Now the school has all those names to start recruiting.

WildTangent, the company that runs freeonlinegames.com, says Roanoke's campaign is the future of advertising. Few folks, especially kids, mind watching a short spot while their game loads gratis, said the company's spokesman, Sean Sundwall. "And it's a lot easier to sponsor a Dora the Explorer game and know exactly how many people played it, for how long, than to sponsor a TV show not knowing if it was TiVo'd or whatever."

Let's just hope colleges don't advertise on Dora yet. Six years of shopping is enough.
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