Wilkes University badly wanted 18-year-old Nicole Pollock to be part of its freshman class this fall — so much so that it made her the star of her own ad campaign.
The small, private school in northeastern Pennsylvania plastered Pollock's name on billboards, pizza boxes and gas pumps — and even aired a commercial on MTV — in hopes of getting her to enroll. As one message put it: "We just hope you're on your way to Wilkes University next year."
Mission accomplished: Pollock recently picked Wilkes over her hometown University of Scranton. Even better for Wilkes, the ads put it on the radar screen of many of Pollock's college-bound classmates.
The quirky $120,000 ad campaign, which also featured seven other students, helps Wilkes stand out in a crowded college marketplace. It also demonstrates the lengths to which some colleges are going to reach today's media- and marketing-savvy teenagers, who are just as likely to shop for a school on the Internet as to rely on glossy brochures and college fairs.
New tools to get their messages out
Increasingly, schools are using podcasts, virtual tours on YouTube, live chats and other interactive technologies to get their messages out.
Wilkes' ads, now in their second year, are focused on the university's traditional recruiting area in northeastern Pennsylvania, as well as the Allentown-Bethlehem region to the south, and the Philadelphia suburbs, Long Island and Binghamton, N.Y.
The school finds out this week just how successful its campaign has been. Thursday is "decision day," the deadline for high school seniors across the nation to notify the college of their choice they plan to attend in the fall.
"This is pretty trendsetting and forward-thinking," said Nancy Costopulos, chief marketing officer of the American Marketing Association, which runs a yearly symposium for colleges and universities. "It positions Wilkes as an innovative and fresh kind of school."
The university picks applicants from markets where Wilkes wants to promote itself and who have a "mix of talents and determination," said Jack Chielli, Wilkes' director of marketing. Applicants featured in the ads must consent to have their names used.
The ads are the brainchild of Philadelphia marketing firm 160over90, which had a mandate from Wilkes to convey the message that the school gets to know its students personally and pays close attention to their needs.
In-depth interviews with students
To do that, the agency conducts in-depth interviews with participating students, their friends and families — learning their hobbies and accomplishments, their hopes and dreams, their likes and dislikes, even their nicknames.
It uses the information to design highly personalized ads that are placed where students are most likely to see them: on pizza boxes and billboards, atop gas pumps, in movie theaters and malls, and on MTV, VHI and Comedy Central.
- "Lake Lehman senior Greg Heindel: "You give your time at the soup kitchen, the firehouse, and your church summer camp. Wilkes University would like to give you something — a top-quality education."
- "Hey Kristen Pecka. Only your closest friends at Central Catholic call you Pecka-lecka-lecka. Choose Wilkes University and add 2,362 more people to that list."
- "Scranton High senior Nicole Pollock: Our goal at Wilkes University is to be as much a mentor as your mother has been. (Now, if we could only make her ravioli.)"
That last one, on a billboard close to Pollock's high school, made her mother cry.
Each ad also includes an invitation to "call a Colonel" — the school's nickname — and provides a phone number that plays a recorded message from a Wilkes student.
The marketing campaign appeals to what Costopulos calls the "look-at-me generation" — teens who grew up with social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace and are comfortable sharing their most private thoughts with the world.
Indeed, the ads have turned students into mini-celebrities in their schools and communities.
'You're the girl from the billboard!'
Briana Turnbaugh, 17, of Sugarloaf, Pa., said that when she went to a doctor's office for the first time, the receptionist said: "Oh, you're the girl from the billboard!"
Turnbaugh, who ranks fifth in her high school class of 800, ultimately picked Wilkes' crosstown rival, King's College. But she said Wilkes still spent its money wisely.
"I know so many people, seniors, who were impressed with (the ad campaign) and decided they wanted to go there or at least consider it," Turnbaugh said.
Chielli, the marketing director, said the recruits' choices are almost secondary. As long as the ads get students thinking about Wilkes, they are working.
Wilkes charges fees and tuition of more than $25,000, and nearly all students get some form of financial aid, not including loans. The school hands out $22 million in aid each year.
For Megan Smith, who had been leaning heavily toward another university before getting the star treatment last year, the ad campaign put Wilkes in a new light.
"They were interested in me and what I wanted from my college experience," said Smith, who is now wrapping up her freshman year at Wilkes.