3 Compelling Digital Marketing Lessons from Colleges

My son is a high school senior.

[Pause for dramatic effect.]

Of course, it makes this mama emotional. More so because Zachary is the youngest of three. Senior year. You know what that means. Yup. College application time. Time for Zachary to do marketing … himself.

But the college process starts long before they’re seniors. For most, it begins around 9th or 10th grade.

A large factor depends on the PSAT.

In our school district, students take the PSAT in 9th grade as a practice for the official one in 10th. Colleges started digital marketing to Zachary when he in 9th grade after the PSAT. That’s because students fill in their information when they take the PSAT. Unless the student checks a box that essentially says “Don’t frickin’ send me stuff,” colleges start bombarding students afterward.

The digital marketing stepped up big time after 10th grade.

Thanks for coming to Digital Marketing with Prof. Meryl. Here are three digital marketing lessons from the college application process.

Lesson 1: Accessibility Boosts Your Brand

In the past couple of years, my son and I visited college websites. One thing struck me. Very few colleges captioned their videos that introduce the school and take viewers on a tour.

They’re missing a huge chunk of their audience. Generation Z — how appropriate that my son’s name is Zachary — loves captioned videos. It allows them to multitask and focus.

Check out these stats:

  • 86% of those who use captions are NOT deaf or hard of hearing. [Source: Two polls*]
  • Captions increase overall brand awareness by 19% [Source: AdTechDaily]
  • 69% of people view videos without sound when they are in public places and 25% in private [Verizon Media and Publicis Media]
  • 80% more likely to watch the entire video with captions available [Verizon Media]

Wouldn’t you say these are reason enough to make an effort not to rely on zero or automatic captions?

How accessibility affects your reputation

Don’t be like MIT and Harvard. They got sued for lack of captions.

When an organization lacks accessibility, people may boycott it or talk about the organization negatively. I remember seeing a lot of people talking about MIT because of the caption lawsuit. Accessibility supporters are a passionate lot. They are more than happy to share what’s on their minds. And they’ll do it publicly.

One organization known for certification held a webinar on accessibility. Yet, they didn’t provide accessibility. They also didn’t provide qualified experts. You can bet folks talked about it on social media. And it wasn’t good.

One university’s in-person information session video had captions. This one thing instantly won over this mama. The little things matter in digital marketing.

People experience temporary and situational disabilities. This is happening to a friend who is a teacher. She says she can’t see her students through the clear panels. On top of that, she can’t hear her students because of masks.

Accessibility isn’t limited to those with the disability. People without specific disabilities benefit from accessibility too. Bake accessibility into everything.

Brag About Accessible Online Courses

When schools and universities had to scramble to offer online classes, I worried about them depending heavily on videos and audios of lectures.

Sheri Byrne Haber read 25 articles about putting classroom materials online. Only one mentioned accessibility and it was just about captioning videos — nothing else.

I love taking college classes. However, I’m grateful that I wasn’t enrolled in a class when the pandemic hit. That’s because I was born deaf and depend on lipreading to listen. With the sudden switch to online learning, I’m not sure how it would’ve worked out.

But there’s no excuse not to be prepared to offer accessible online classes by the time Fall rolled around.

Remember, not everyone can have the volume on for different reasons. Try to offer at least one alternative for each media.

I know … I know … educators are already overwhelmed with the whole switching from in-class to online. This … on top of all the work they put into their classes.

Make it easier by regularly asking students if they’re having trouble accessing or using any of the material. Invite them to contact you privately.

It’s a stressful time as is thanks to #ThingThatShallNotBeNamed. As a result, students with disabilities may feel more stressed than the average student. Now, they may have another barrier in accessing course materials. Ensure the course materials don’t leave anyone out.

Colleges and universities that bake accessibility into everything need to brag about this. It can mean the difference in getting a student to choose one over the other. Yes, even if the student doesn’t have a disability. Accessibility shows the organization cares.

Remember Gen Z loves captions. If they learn that a college captions its courses, they may choose the school over another when they’re neck and neck.

I chose one fitness business over another because they captioned their classes … better. Both of them captioned their classes, but the winner’s captions were more readable.

Accessible course materials may also help students with different learning styles. You’d be surprised how many people without disabilities say they use accessibility features.

Lesson 2: Spotlight Your Brand in Email Marketing

As mentioned earlier, my son’s inbox overfloweth after he took the PSAT. I didn’t think it couldn’t get worse.

Oh, but it did.

Thank you, SAT.

Email marketing is one of my favorite digital marketing activities. I couldn’t help but notice several trends in the emails from colleges and universities.

During his sophomore and junior years, the call to action in the emails was to request a free guide, poster, or [other freebie]. At the end of his junior year, the messaging changed to encourage students go on a virtual tour, join a video call covering a topic of interest, or connect with your assigned counselor.

Obviously, if the pandemic didn’t exist, they’d be pushing on-site campus visits. Instead of a topical video call, they’d have special days on campus. Like Junior Day, Scholars Day, and so on.

But one trend appeared in all of the emails: Their messages all sounded the same. When Zachary clicked to unsubscribe, it became evident they used the same email service provider. Except for the college’s name and colors, the unsubscribe page appeared identical.

It’s fine to use a service for email marketing. But don’t rely on the service’s templates and “personalize it” by slapping on your school colors and logo. Personalization is more than your school’s name, logo, mascot, and colors. It reflects your school’s values, brand, and personality.

Thank goodness I asked (urged, forced, made him … take your pick) Zachary to start his visits in 10th grade. If I had not, he would’ve only visited half of the schools thanks to the pandemic. It’s amazing how much more you learn about a university by visiting the campus.

Sure, you can go on a virtual tour and see the insides and outsides of buildings. There’s something about the tour with college students that gives you feeling about the campus’ personality. The brand and values stand out more in a campus visit than in digital marketing material. After we visited, the university’s materials carrier on its brand and values. They matched.

Back to the emails. The messages from the colleges reminded me of emails like this:

I haven’t heard back from you. This tells me one of three things:

  1. You’re set.
  2. You’re interested, but no time to reply.
  3. You’re drowning. Let me know and I’ll send help.
Email that uses "I haven't heard back from you" template
Email that uses “I haven’t heard back from you” template.

Bet you’ve received a variation of the email. It was funny the first time. The second time, it lost power. Now every time one comes in, the eyeballs go a-rollin’.

Use templates as a starting point for ideas and brainstorming. The final version shouldn’t look anything like the template. They can’t capture your brand’s voice and identity.

Just say no to templates. Let your brand shine!

Gotta give props to one college for a creative unsubscribe message: “No more texts or emails. We’re breaking up.”

I’ve seen the break up email from businesses, but this was the only one I saw from a university.

Lesson 3: Stand out with Swag

This is supposed to be about digital marketing. You’re probably thinking swag doesn’t count. Swag can actually impact your digital marketing.

For instance, one university gave shirts to all of its prospective student visitors. My son wore his A LOT because he likes its softness.

Guess what lucky school benefited from Zachary’s reluctant first day of school picture last year? Yup, the University of Oklahoma.

What does swag have to do with digital marketing?

Well, lookie here! OU is getting free advertising from this post. I’ve posted the photo on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. None of the posts had anything to do with the school. He wore the shirt on his birthday. Naturally, it showed up on social media in the obligatory “Happy birthday to my kid” posts.

And get this! I’ve seen kids wearing the “GO OU” shirt on social media. Heck, I played Words with Friends with a childhood friend. To my surprise, her avatar picture showed her son wearing this shirt! It started a conversation. His mom reported that went to OU.

What you give away as swag really matters. Even if it’s a t-shirt.

Not just any tee will do. The shirt has to look good and feel comfy.

Only one other school gave him a shirt. Then, we bought him shirts for two of the other schools he visited.

Yet, out of these four shirts, he wore “GO OU” the most. Does that mean OU is his No. 1 choice? No. He liked the shirt because it was soft. Plus, the image is simple without any cheesiness.

Who’s going to see the shirt? Fellow high school classmates thinking about college. Friends and parents who catch the photos on social media. Brilliant marketing.

It’s important to pick the right swag. It needs to be useful, so it’ll be seen.

One school put a presentation on a USB pen. It won’t be as visible as a shirt. Still, he uses the pen. It keeps the school top of mind! Genius!

Reverse digital marketing in social media

I’ve received swag from companies who saw my social media post. They sent it as a thank you. That’s smart digital marketing like OU’s shirt. Why?

  • Brand reputation: I respected and liked the company more.
  • Word of mouth: I posted pictures of swag on social media.
  • Top of mind: I think about them every time I use the swag.

Swag enhances your digital marketing efforts.

Digital Marketing Class Dismissed

Zachary is almost finished with his college applications. Here’s hoping he’s doing a good job marketing himself.

Well, class, this concludes your four lessons on digital marketing. Now go forth start cooking with accessibility. Revitalize your email marketing by reflecting your brand and values. And finally, find ways to make people’s day with swag and get seen.

Got swag? Send it my way, pretty please? [Bats eyelashes.]

* An old survey found 80 percent of the people who use captions are not deaf and hard of hearing. I conducted two polls in 2020 receiving more than 150 replies. And that number climbed to 86 percent in both polls.

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2 thoughts on “3 Compelling Digital Marketing Lessons from Colleges”

  1. This is a great post, Meryl! I think your point about swag being part of marketing strategy is a good one. T-shirts really do pop up in unexpected places and in photos that get shared to social media – I hadn’t thought of that before.

    I also wanted to comment on the statistics that 86% of those who use captions are NOT deaf or hard of hearing. I’m personally a great example of this. I’m a mom of an infant and most of the time I spend on social media is while I’m nursing her. I always have the volume and ringer off on my phone because I don’t want to distract her or wake her up of she falls asleep. Because of this I pretty much only consume videos on the web with captions turned on. I read videos rather than listening to them. If a video doesn’t have captions, I skip it.

    • Amber, thank you for sharing a great example of how someone with hearing would want or need captions. Love it! I’ve heard from spouses who use captions to turn off the sound while their loved one slept. So many situations that call for turning off the sound and turning on the captions. A Verizon Media study did find that 69% have the sound off in public. In private, a whopping 25% still have it off.

      I’ve gotten some awesome soft shirts like the one my son has and they’ve shown up in social media too. In fact, I was on a video game night last night and had my Peleton shirt on that they sent me for completing 100 workouts in one area. Now I’m talking about them here!


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