John Wilford, Managing Director, Rave Communications

The pace of change is rapid; youth audiences are being exposed to a dynamic landscape of brands, visual images, technology and media. Colleges can no longer rely in the media plan that is the same as the plan used five years ago with a bit of Facebook advertising thrown for good measure.

Colleges need to build their campaigns from the bottom up, soundly based on audience insight. Too many media plans and creative executions are created for adults, then dumbed down for youth audiences. There is an old Spanish proverb: "To be a bullfighter, you must first learn to be a bull". This doesn't mean you have to act and behave like a 15 year old, but you (or your marketing agency) have to fully understand the attitudes of future students. Only by understanding attitudes can we ever hope to change perception and behaviour – which is the ultimate objective of any marketing campaign.

The elements that need most thought in planning a campaign are creative, media and budget.

More than just pretty pictures

So many campaigns are created to please or appease decision makers within colleges. Few marketing departments rigorously test different creative options with prospective students. Some college marketers lean on the feedback from existing students, which is better than no testing, but existing student perceptions are tainted by the real brand experience. If a college is spending more that £50,000 on student attraction, then it's worth investing in some pre-campaign testing with 15 year olds in feeder schools.

As consumers, when we buy products or services, we like to think that our decision is logical and rational, yet actually the final decision is emotional. The brands which youth audiences are exposed to have sophisticated emotional positioning. Just think of Apple, Nike and Facebook. They all cause us to have an emotional reaction. So when you look at the creative options presented by your agency for this year's summer campaign, do you have an emotional response?

Go where people look

Media selection is tricky as we are trying to appeal to multiple audiences. Year elevens are the primary audience, but parents play an important influencing role in many households. As a rule of thumb, dedicate 75% of your budget to youth audiences and the balances to parents; however there will be some duplication with media such as outdoor.

Start your planning by placing digital marketing at the heart of your campaign – too often, digital is just an add-on. It is cost effective and more measurable than conventional media routes. It enables colleges to hit the target audience right between the eyes with little or no wastage. Digital advertising gives you're the ability to target prospective students based on age, geography, gender and even behaviour.

Media works best when campaigns are multi-media. Media should be in-home and on the street.

Timing is also an issue for colleges. Many colleges are looking for a summer campaign that will last from May to September. The problem is that budget will be spread too thin. Shorter, heavyweight campaigns are much more effective than longer, lower intensity campaigns. If budget allows, look at two peaks of activity in May and August.

Compelling Economics

Direct marketers dream of an average order value in thousands of pounds. A high income per student means that in theory marketing spend per student can also be high. How much would you pay for an additional 100 students? £10,000 or £100,000?

But if course we live in the real world, budgets are not bottomless. The amount you assign to your main student attraction campaign is one of the biggest strategic decisions a college should make. One of the main fac tors to look at is the intensity of competitive rivalry. If competitor colleges are high spending, you need to match them, otherwise you will lose share of voice. Also, talk to non-competitive colleges of a similar size to determine whether spend is reasonable.

It is essential to measure the performance of your campaign to identify the media that works. Using different phone numbers on media and dynamic phone numbers on the web makes measurement much easier.

John Wilford is founder and managing director of Rave Communications, a specialist marketing agency providing strategic advice, creativity, media planning and campaign execution to many FE colleges and sixth form colleges including Barnfield, Stratford-upon-Avon College and Cadbury College

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