The Presidential Campaign – Another Tool in higher education’s marketing toolkit

It might take some of our readers by surprise to hear that there’s currently a Presidential Primary election sweeping the nation. Although many people wish they could stick their fingers in their ears until November to avoid the school yard insults, he said/she said retorts and mudslinging coming from both sides of the aisle it’s also a higher education observer’s dream. He’s being a bit dramatic? Nope, we stand by this statement.

As unlikely as it may seem from the outside, this election has become a considerable part of many university/college marketing recruitment toolkits (or it should be). It’s true. Let’s move the beyond the ‘youth movement’ whereby Sanders and Trump, apparently, are galvanizing the millennial generation into activism and greater political involvement. The reality is that university and college campuses are being used as stumping grounds and rally locations throughout the US.

Former President Bill Clinton has been campaigning for Hillary in Penn State University in advance of the upcoming Pennsylvania primary while the candidate herself has visited Monroe Community College and Carnegie Mellon University in the last few months. Senator Sanders has made trips to Iowa Western Community College, Penn State (very popular it seems) and Liberty University. Donald Trump has returned to college himself by visiting Plymouth State University and Radford University (not sure he visited Trump University)and Ted Cruz has made trips to Regent University and Boise State University.

The point is that the media circus that follows these candidates brings massive opportunities (and threats) to marketing and recruitment teams in universities and colleges. The advertising equivalent of hosting a rally on campus for a front-runner or boisterous underdog can be calculated in the millions of dollars. Your institution is under the national (and international) spotlight and for a period of time the eyes of the nations’ media, prospective students and parents are watching with undiluted attention.

Note: A quick mention of the threats as a certain real-estate mogul has spurred students in some institutions to protest and have openingly criticized their university/college for inviting him on campus. There's also the negative impact of associating your institution with a candidate that may become mired in scandal.

But let’s be positive and say that this coup of securing a rally on your campus is the gift that keeps on giving. How your marketing and recruitment teams turn this focus into online enquires, applications, offers and acceptances is the true value of all the attention.

Here are a few simple (and obvious) tips to amplify the impact of the political circus:

Student Generated Content: These rallies capture the gamut of human emotion; the hopes, the fears, the joy, the excitement and the unifying spirit of your student population. Are you encouraging your students to create content (video, imagery, blogs etc.)? There is endless mileage from this content. You often use footage from sports triumphs as part of your marketing/engagement mix; why not from activism related content?

Don’t let your Social Media be like ‘Freaky Friday’: Have you seen the movie Freaky Friday where Jamie Lee Curtis swops bodies with Lindsay Lohan? The premise being that a 40+ mother inhabits her teen daughter. All the daughter’s school friends knew something wasn’t right – the vocabulary, the behavior was just off. This is the equivalent of people of ‘more advanced years’ trying to write content to attract millennials. It feels off to them. Let your students capture the spirit of the event and, importantly, support them in the distribution of this content. Either through the official university social channels (scary I know) or sync up with their own. Lend them video equipment; give them a budget for props etc. Give them the ability to make their enthusiasm about campus life become a beacon for your prospective students.

Calls to Action: The hope is that this buzz and attention will drive traffic to your university website. But once you have them there is it obvious what you want prospective students and their parents to do. Publicity is one thing; do you have a desired action from them. A campus visit? A prospectus? Whatever it is make sure it’s obvious on your website and easy to do.

Personalization: Is the website experience a one-size-fits-all one? Or have you enabled personalization based on geographic location and behavior? Remember, this election cycle is gripping the world i.e. prospective international students. Have you created an online experience for them?

These elections are touted as the most significant in a generation. There are obvious risks of a university or college aligning itself with a particular candidate or party. However, there is no denying that the marketing potential of these elections for higher education is both rare and limitless. 

Have you seen examples of universities and colleges capitalizing on the Primaries? We’d love to hear from you.