September 22, 2008

Marketing Lessons From College Tours My daughter and I are shopping for colleges. We just completed an illuminating west coast swing where we toured 7 schools in 4 days. And while this year will see the largest number of students chasing a fixed number of slots since the 70s, its fascinating to see how each school presents and positions itself. Some seem to have learned and internalized the lessons of personalization, engagement and customer-focus. They anticipate and manipulate the process for sifting and comparing data from equivalent institutions and the process for sorting out the conflicting rational, emotional and financial needs that arise between college-age children and baby boomer parents. Others strike a take-it or leave-it posture. And still others get half-way there. Here's what I observed and learned along the way. Put Your Best Face Forward. Tour guides are archetypes. The kids who lead the tours are the face of the college. As you walk around, you assume that these kids are the people your kid will interact with and befriend. They are a primal indicator of what the school and its student body are like. Their ability to handle questions and tell you "what its really like" play a huge role in how prospective students perceive the college and project themselves into a future experience. In some cases their choice of words and turns of phrase, posture, outfit, eye contact and energy level provoke immediate and visceral responses. There were several hat she loved and I hated and visa versa.Most are cute, energetic and eminently presentable, though what they know and what they say count too. Think carefully about who you put forward as your face and spokesperson. You are perceived as them. Rehearse and train them well. Teach them to understand their task through the eyes of their audience. Focus more on engaging the audience rather than spewing out the statistics about the biology labs or the art studios. Practice pacing, anticipate FAQs, understand how your prospects make decisions. Prioritize and Target Themes. Every school had a positioning and a shtick. One claimed to have the largest number of PhD candidates. Another had the biggest number of Fulbright Scholars. Another was the greenest place on earth. Yet not every school aligned the party line with the visiting party. In one surprising case, the emphasis on multi-dimensional environmentalism that included vegan offerings in the cafeterias,the low-volume flush toilets in the dorms and returning all the lawns to their natural desert habitat overwhelmed all the other more relevant selling points. Consumers remember one or two things about every product they encounter. This shorthand is stored and becomes the point of comparison with like products. Marketers need to start by deciding what take-away they want prospective customers to remember. Then they need to engineer how to frame and communicate that message. This requires a prioritization of messages and mapping messages to discrete constituent audiences. In the case of the green college, the green message probably plays very well to current students, alumni and prospective donors. But for us, prospective students looking for criteria to sort a school in or out of a consideration set, being green isn't a useful or relevant criterian. Differentiate. Every college invests in campus facilities, good faculty, innovative curriculum and student life. Most kids and parents are trying to figure out how one is different from the other and/or better suited to the personality and interests of the prospective student. Most schools have an identifiable student psycho-demographic and most know who they generally compete with. But few pro-actively draw the comparisons for you. When one guide explained that 2/3rds of the campus were introverted nerdy kids, it was a clear differentiating and persuasive statement. It would also be interesting to test different messages to prospects with different levels of interest. Imagine if the schools really laid it on for early decision prospects and soft-soaped saftey school prospects. Crafting a USP is the fundamental marketing task. Consideration and purchase is driven by differentiation. Draw the differences early, clearly and often. Customers want to understand what you have and what they will experience if they chose you. And they need to have a way to quickly and accurately remember you separately and distinctly from competitors who look and feel a lot like you. Influence the Influencers. The kids express preferences and the parents shape the final decision. Both sets are affected emotionally and rationally by a full range of stimuli and responses during the shopping process. Colleges have to play to both audiences...
The Pre-Xmas Ecommerce Tune-Up Now is the time that multi-channel retailers rush to tweak their websites,to optimize holiday sales. From now till October 20th, e-tailers are making pinpoint investments in technology,messaging, functionality and applications desperately hoping that a dime spent now will pay off in a torrent of dollars after Cyber Monday 2008. Shopping for my nephew on PacSun and SkateAmerica gave me some good insights into the things online merchants need to address. In some cases these sites have built-in sales prevention mechanisms that need to be fixed quickly. Consider this Fix-it list: 1. Don't Bury the Goods. Both sites allow you to search by SKU number. That's the good news. The bad news is that probably as a result of their search engine tool choice the search returns a page that you cannot buy from. It's some geek's idea of confirming the search. But its a bad idea because it forces an added excruciating click to get to a page that you can actually buy from. Imagine my torment. I had SKU numbers. The kid tells me what he wants. The search works. But I can't buy in one-click! And in the case of SkateAmerica, I have to guess which store the stuff might be in and then hunt for the search by SKU box which is buried at the fold and appears in 8 point white type on black -- hard to find and easy to miss. Not everybody is so intrepid in making good shopping promises. 2. Serve Your Customers. Shopping online is much harder and much less intuitive than you think. Customers, even veteran shoppers, need much more reinforcement and help than most retailers plan for. Staff the site at least 18 hours a day. Anticipate all the glitches that a customer can encounter on the way to your site. For example, Paxon's form kept telling me that my e-mail address was already in use. They didn't accept or process my $314 order which I ultimately abandoned. But somehow they managed to capture 3 separate e-mail addresses I tried to use and sent me 3 welcome e-mails. PacSun offers live chat -- good news. But -- bad news -- only 7a-4p PT. Maybe they handle this in the backroom at some of their West Coast stores. I guess the dudes are out hanging ten the rest of the time. It was called out in tiny text type maybe to signal how lame these guys are. But in general if you go to the trouble of licensing and installing live chat you ought to call it out with a LARGE button and you oughta be there there when customers want to engage you. When you send customer service an e-mail they promise to get back to you in 2 business days! For this target audience you might as well advertise response in two millenia. The 800 number exists but is buried on internal pages. And guess what? The phone folks also only hit the air waves from 10a-7p ET.Kind of funny hours for a brand squarely aimed at the 15-25 crowd who are likely to be busy at school, work or texting from 7a-3p across all time zones. The 800 number, preferably one dedicated just to your website, should appear consistently on every page. 3. Reinforce Customers By Channel. I signed up for the e-mail newsletter to get a 15% new buyer discount. Instead I got an e-mail inducing me to shop with a prominent orange button but only offering me a discount at the store. Its a shame because they don't have stores on my coast. So in an instant they raise my expectations and dash them. The welcome message is deceptive and annoying. Either drive the copy by geography or reinforce customers in the channel you acquired them. While retailers fantasize about cross pollination, most buyers have a dominant buying channel. Its usually the first one they used to initially find you. 4. Cross-Sell. Both sites displayed standard cross sell items. Neither were memorable. Neither site dynamically understood what I was doing. Nobody noticed size, color or merchandise preferences. In my e-tail fantasy, the site does what my Mom used to do in her store -- recognizes what I'm buying and hooks me up. If I'm buying medium sized goods a site should dynamically point out and serve up discounts and deals on my size. Or the site should notice I'm loading up on black and red items and offer me either more of the same or matching...

Danny Flamberg

I am a veteran marketing consultant working with leading and emerging brands

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