NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Facing budget cuts and smaller endowments, many colleges and universities are realizing that they can't rest on their laurels if they expect to attract the best and brightest. From the University of California at Los Angeles to the University of Maryland to Cornell, they are finding new ways to market to prospective students and raise their profiles for potential philanthropy and research funding.
With operating revenue many corporations might envy -- in fiscal year 2007-2008, UCLA had about $4 billion, University of Maryland, the flagship institution of the University System of Maryland, had operating revenues of $960.5 million, and Cornell had $2.6 billion -- these schools could afford to spend tens of millions on advertising and marketing. But they spend far less. "Schools in general have been slow to adopt what we feel are traditional advertising budgets," said Jim Paskill, president of Paskill Stapelton & Lord, a higher-education marketing and consulting firm.
Indeed, UCLA spent $1.25 million on this year's campaign, its second ever. That's double the budget of its first but still an estimated .03% of its operating revenue. "There is no question this percentage represents a comparatively small sum compared with other industries, yet within UCLA and among our peers, it is considered a very significant and highly unusual investment," said Lawrence Lokman, assistant vice chancellor at UCLA. He said the figure reflects only paid media spending, not the university's total marketing outlay.
"Like all institutions of higher education, we're in a tough competitive environment for getting share, mind and wallet," said Mr. Lokman, noting that marketing allows the university attract top students, fundraise, compete for research dollars, and show California residents how vital UCLA is to the local and state economy. This year, with President Barack Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, there was additional incentive to raise UCLA's profile in Washington.
Maryland has similar aspirations. The school recently hired its first chief marketing officer, Sid Yu, whose background includes business management and marketing for Nike and Marriott International. He was brought onboard to help Maryland fulfill its 10-year plan to elevate its standing and increase its number of high-achieving students, among other things.
"Marketing is about helping the university develop a powerful brand, defining brand with a big B," Mr. Yu said. Maryland spent $5.1 million on measured media in 2008, according to TNS Media Intelligence. "I think [the budget] will be significantly more [this year], but how we plan to use that will be different," Mr. Yu said, explaining that the school will go deep into the web and social media. He also said Maryland will reach out to different stakeholders in ways that may not constitute traditional marketing, such as school-sponsored panels and speakers, but build brand awareness just as effectively, if not more so.
Since 2003, Maryland has used the tagline "Fear the turtle," a reference to the school's mascot, a terrapin turtle. Mr. Yu said he believes that tagline will always be a part of the university, but "it does not mean that we won't be doing other types of communication efforts." He said he expects to break a campaign by September. The university's agency is Red Tettemer, Philadelphia.
UCLA focused on strategic paid media this year, running ads on TV in Los Angeles and Washington with the tagline, "Here. Now. UCLA." The campaign, which was developed by Paul Keye & Partners, Culver City, Calif., highlighted students and alumni and ran from mid-April through late May -- just as newly admitted students were deciding whether to attend the university. The school also continued to use a "UCLA, unabashed" tagline from last year, in print and online. Mr. Lokman said last year's campaign was "encouraging," creating a lot of buzz and stronger student-yield rates, although he conceded those could have been driven by something other than marketing.
Mr. Lokman said UCLA reached out on news websites such as the Los Angeles Times and Politico, the school's YouTube channel, a microsite, and e-mail blasts but relied more heavily on traditional media because it is more provocative and "informational."
Cornell University's business school, the Johnson School, has been much more experimental online. Randy Allen, associate dean for corporate relations, who came to the Johnson School two years ago after 22 years with Deloitte Consulting, estimated that under her influence the school invests 60% to 70% of its marketing budget on new media. (For its executive-M.B.A. programs, however, it devotes less.)
Ms. Allen said generally the school markets itself to two groups: prospective students and prospective employers for its alumni. TNS reported that the school spent only $28,500 on measured media in 2008, a tiny sum compared with larger schools. "New media doesn't necessarily mean you have to spend a lot more," she said. "If we do it strategically, we can target more effectively and do it more cost-effectively as well."
Applications to the Johnson School went up "well into the double digits" this year, Ms. Allen said, following two years of double-digit growth. To market for this year's incoming class, the school created interactive viewbooks on USB drives that it handed out or mailed to prospective students (it does most of its advertising in-house). They featured video clips and information about the school, along with the school insignia. The school also created video content for its website, as well as YouTube and Facebook, and developed the ability to push video content to mobile devices -- something it might implement next year. "That may be the next phase," Ms. Allen said, but "we're trying to be sensitive to their space and privacy."
Mr. Paskill said new and social media are still "a moving target" for many colleges and universities. "I haven't seen anything that approaches a repeatable strategy other than having a YouTube channel and various fan channels and stuff like that."
In the past, the University of Florida has invested in local cable TV and national print publications including Scientific American, Harper's Magazine and The New Yorker to promote its academics. The school spent just under $1 million in measured media in 2008, according to TNS. But this year, it won't spend any, said Joe Hice, associate VP-marketing and public relations for the university. The recession has had a significant impact on the university. In the past 18 months alone, it has endured $100 million in budget cuts due to reduced concessions spending and a weakened state budget.
"It's really tough to absorb that loss without having to give up something," Mr. Hice said. Still, he said he's optimistic that the strength of Florida's athletic program will continue to boost the school's reputation this year. With every Florida game that is broadcast on TV, the school receives a free 30-second spot. Mr. Hice estimated that the value of this free advertising is $4 million a year. "We're in a much better situation than universities that haven't had such strong athletic teams," he said. "We get a lot of exposure that way." The school's agency is Fletcher Martin, Atlanta.
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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the year for the most recent operating revenues for UCLA, the University of Maryland, and Cornell University; it was fiscal year 2007-2008, not 2008-2009. Also, the revenues for the University of Maryland and Cornell University were incorrect. To clarify, the University of Maryland referenced in this article is the flagship institution for the University System of Maryland.