Insights — Higher Ed Marketing: The Case Against Outdoor Advertising

Higher Ed Marketing: The Case Against Outdoor Advertising

Thought leadership / June 04, 2015

I have a confession: higher education outdoor advertising, specifically, higher ed airport ads, make me cringe. Every time I’m in an airport, higher education institutions—from online to traditional to privates to publics—have claimed a large portion of the airport displays. It isn’t uncommon to see multiple colleges and universities displays side-by-side in terminals. Here are a few of my hypotheses on why this is the case:

  1. Budget: We all know that higher education marketing budgets are tight. Advertising budgets are even more limited and may not be a consistent portion of your annual budget. While not inexpensive, outdoor advertising is comfortable for higher ed and where your competitors are, and in turn is often one of the first considerations when selecting your media partners and building your ad flow.
  2. Broad goals: The majority of institutions have similar goals: enhance reputation, increase visibility, recruit more students, and raise more money. While accurate, these goals do not enable a strategic advertising plan, and limit the effectiveness of advertising, an industry that is targeted in nature.
  3. You can see it: Often times internal audiences (students, faculty/staff, alumni) are priority for the launch of a branding campaign. It is also not uncommon for a campaign to be funded by a specific donor who wants to SEE their investment. The constant flow of traffic in and out of airports promises those impressions and is certainly an advantage, however measuring effectiveness or exactly how many and whose eyes see your ad is a challenge. After all, it is the airport: we all try and get in and out as quickly as possible and more often than not, spend our free time checking our mobile devices.

Campaigns focused on brand awareness or brand equity without a clear call to action compared to enrollment-specific campaigns may lend themselves to traditional media, but online branding efforts also play an important part in laying the foundation of an effective digital campaign. Furthermore, as we are all aware, the rise of mobile continues to dramatically impact usage and readership among traditional media. And even more important than changing media habits, mobile advertising now presents the opportunity to target by personas rather than by medium. These factors make a strong case against outdoor advertising, especially when working with a limited budget:

  1. Mobile: As Mary Meeker’s report indicates, ad spending doesn’t align with media consumption—24% of media consumption is spent on mobile, but media spend only accounts for 8% total Internet ad spending, presenting a ~$25B opportunity in the US. HubSpot calls it how it is: “mobile advertising is an opportunity brands needs to take advantage of while the market is still maturing.”
  2. Programmatic buying: Programmatic buying or real-time bidding enables a better digital advertising strategy that can be targeted precisely to a prospect’s or any individual’s online behavior rather than running a certain number of ads with a specific publisher. As AdAge notes, the real-time data allows you to “evaluate what’s working best (which geographies, times of days, audience segments, publishers) to narrow the target accordingly and only pay for highly effective ads.”
  3. Apps: Apps are the new content (and advertising) distribution channel. Native app usage continues to grow and in particular, Millennials and Gen Z have contributed to the explosive growth of messaging apps. As Contently points out, “If you want to reach your audience in the years to come, you’re going to have to penetrate these chat apps.”

Forget that airport banner (or that bus ad). New and advanced technological capabilities and changing consumption habits enable higher ed marketers to move beyond traditional media to leverage new mediums and tactics. Those who do will see the benefits and create stronger campaigns with more clearly defined goals and targeted personas, more accurate ROI, and the ability to strengthen your campaign based on real-time analytics.

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