Saturday, September 27, 2008 | Category: PSE Fairs
Ken Steele’s field report from the 2008 Ontario Universities’ Fair, providing an overview of what’s new and what’s not for Canadian university recruitment.
From where we sit here at Academica Group, it’s been a really exciting year of considerable innovation in higher education marketing — institutions have been embracing print-on-demand personalized viewbooks, video blogs, virtual campus tours, YouTube contests, Facebook Pages, iTunes lectures, Virtual University Fairs, and the sort of real-time admission analytics provided by our own SkoolPool. More and more schools have begun to think strategically about their brands, and I’ve enjoyed working with several this year to create consensus around an institutional positioning strategy. Canadian universities and colleges have started to take seriously the need for information architecture expertise and usability testing in the earliest stages of website design. And of course, the demand for social media strategy has risen so rapidly that we’ve created a dedicated department in our Toronto office.
With so much innovation and change in the world of student recruitment marketing, I hope you’ll forgive me for expecting to see that innovation reflected at the annual Ontario Universities’ Fair, the largest higher education consumer show in the country. But for the third year in a row, I was disappointed to find only subtle changes in the ways most institutions are marketing to prospective students. (See my previous field reports from the 2006 OUF and 2007 OUF for the same lament.)
Of course, I should have known better. (Fool me twice, shame on me.) I am fully aware that academic institutions by their inherent nature gravitate toward the traditional and view innovation with scepticism — in fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that half of my job is about helping institutional marketers overcome institutional inertia. And I also understand that trade exhibits are expensive investments that must be amortized over several years, and cannot be replaced lightly. But I fear that in most cases, the true cause of stagnation in institutional marketing has more to do with a lack of leadership, than a lack of resources or imagination. In some cases, universities are caught between presidents, between marketing directors, or between brand strategies, and literally have no leader to provide marketing vision or approve any sort of innovation. In the vast majority of cases, it’s far less painful to stick with the status quo, which has already been vetted and approved by innumerable stakeholders, than to risk friction and frustration by investing the time to develop new approaches.
So in general, if you want to know what the 2008 OUF was like, you can re-read my reports from the 2006 and 2007 events. But there were indeed some things new at the OUF, and that is where I will focus here…
Algoma University is new: This year saw the creation of an independent Algoma U, in Sault Ste Marie Ontario, formerly part of Laurentian U. So there was a new presence in the exhibit hall, and a new presentation room running hourly presentations throughout the 3-day event. (When I attended, the presentation drew just two prospective students, but of course made the point that Algoma is a small, personalized institution where you’ll get plenty of attention.) Algoma’s visual identity seems to be in neutral at the moment — they’ve downplayed the aboriginal “Thunderbird” logo of years past, in favour of a fairly plain wordmark with emphasis on the word “University.” The Algoma booth features bright red and blue squares, vertical strips overhead containing individual letters that form the name, and a “sitting room” of sorts in the centre of the exhibit, where prospective students can gather around a coffee table and watch videos testimonials on a flatscreen TV. In some ways, the Algoma U marketers have spent their energy this fall creating a completely different brand, for “Colossal U,” which deserves a blog post of its own. I’m not sure this approach was necessary to gain attention — a new university would get plenty of attention in its own right — but it was certainly creative. I didn’t catch much evidence of the student reaction to CU’s exhibit, but representatives of other institutions sure had a lot to say to me about the approach!
McMaster’s new exhibit is striking: McMaster U launched a completely new exhibit this year, a series of semicircular walls that present attractive photomurals to the trade show floor, and create an intimate environment inside, where students can meet with advisors from a range of programs. The design, on white rather than black, is fresh and appealing, and includes close-cropped images of Mac sweaters and such from the viewbook. McMaster also bought most of the backlit overhead ad boards in the SkyWalk from Union Station. They clearly invested heavily in this year’s OUF.
York’s exhibit is also freshened up: York U is one of the country’s most consistently branded institutions (see their interdisciplinary campaign on AdSpotter). So it shouldn’t be surprising that when they spring for a completely new exhibit, it still bears strong resemblance to the former one. Like Mac, York has replaced a black ground with a white ground. Large bright photos of natural elements remain the primary visual. The neon-like red accents have switched from vertical to horizontal. It’s a fresh new look, replacing a booth that was getting tired, but the biggest change is the use of the anniversary “York to the Power of 50” logo (which I previously thought was reserved just for the capital campaign). York’s presentation, incidentally, remains the biggest and best-rehearsed at the OUF, with plenty of giveaways, well-integrated video, and a whole stage crew managing the spotlights and special effects. It’s not an approach that would fit with every institution, but if you haven’t attended a York presentation, you really should. It’s in a class of its own. (See my 2007 report on the “Night Club” and the “Game Show” for a detailed description.)
RMC is taking a completely new tack: The Royal Military College exhibit certainly looked different to me this year, although I can’t put my finger on what’s changed. The backdrop looks like a series of small campus recruiting backdrops strung together, the central poster emphasizing military service: “Fight with the Canadian Forces.” The orange backlit pillars look new to me, as well. In years past, RMC has had a beautiful viewbook, with a multimedia CD-ROM at one point, emphasizing the beauty of the campus and the traditional dress uniforms. This year, the RMC print collateral is a series of interlocking brochures enclosed in battlefield images of soldiers fighting in camouflage, promoting the Regular Officer Training Program. One gets the sense that RMC has stopped recruiting like a university, and started recruiting for the military at the OUF. No doubt this reflects the reality that Canadian Forces are now engaged overseas, and the fact that RMC has always been an option only for those willing to serve their country.
CAs declare that they rule the world: A smaller exhibit for the Chartered Accountants of Ontario featured a dramatic, well-executed campaign aimed at students who “Want to Rule the World?” and inviting them to presentations at which they can “Meet those who do, daily.” The CA campaign tied into brochures and collateral featuring the red velvet throne, and pushes students to a microsite atwww.guidetorulingtheworld.ca/ . (Scary. I’m just glad this wasn’t the RMC recruiting theme.)
Some minor booth changes: Forgive me if I missed you, but I think that’s it for major exhibit changes. There were some minor touches — Nipissing U added a brightly coloured ribbon to their exhibit, reflecting the new colours in their recruitment materials. The uOttawa exhibit featured a pair of “Internet Café” kiosks at each end, which I don’t recall seeing last year, and a central bank of laptops encouraging students to “create your personalized viewbook here.” (Academica’s Top Ten reported on uOttawa’s new print-on-demand viewbooks back in February).
Everybody’s running contests: Well, not everybody, but more schools than in the past have resorted to offering prize incentives to capture contact information from attendees at the OUF. While several schools still ask students to complete a paper form and slip it into a cardboard ballot box, many offer banks of laptops to directly capture lead data and avoid the need for data entry entirely. The prize incentives vary: Carleton offers a chance to win free tuition in year one, Ryerson a free laptop, Brock a MacBook, Fleming College a Nano-Chromatic iPod, Niagara College a Nintendo Wii gaming system, and York a bright red York-branded Vespa.
Bags are everywhere: Especially since security was tightened two years ago, and OUF attendees have been encouraged not to bring satchels or knapsacks to the event, many schools are handing out book bags in which students can collect viewbooks. Some are quality canvas bags, like you might get at the grocery store — I noticed those from Nipissing and Guelph in particular. The majority are still plastic — I think I saw bags from uToronto, Ryerson, and Western that were plastic. Carleton has stuck with its strategy of differentiation, handing out paper bags with rope handles — they were more readily available than others, but hurt your hand if you collected too many competitor books (perhaps that’s the strategy?). uGuelph had the most disciplined approach to dispensing their sought-after canvas bags, emblazoned with the slogan “My Bag is Not Plastic”: a dedicated kiosk at which I think students had to register on a laptop before getting a bag. (I don’t know; I couldn’t get through the crowd.) Last year, uGuelph ran out of bags in the first day because they were so popular.
Some new “trinkets and trash”: Even at conferences for grownups, exhibitors shamelessly hand out candy, pens, nerf balls, or whatever in order to attract even fleeting attention from delegates. So it’s no surprise that swag remains important for the teens attending OUF. Aside from the oh-so-practical book bags, the most common giveaways were university-branded pens. I didn’t get to see them all, but I think UOIT still had some of their electronic light-up pens. Nipissing introduced some new pens with retractable paper scrolls carrying their marketing message. King’s University College handed out bright green buttons that emphasized “Creating Change.” Western was not alone in handing out lanyards — you know, those fabric ribbons that hold your ID at a conference. (I can’t fathom what these students were going to do with them at OUF though.) Perhaps the most spot-on brand giveaways were the pink lipsticks from Brescia University College (great idea for a women’s institution, and one that nobody else is likely to imitate).
Narcissists still love having their picture taken: Nipissing U’s long-standing “picture yourself at Nipissing” backdrop still draws a line-up of students who want a free Polaroid photo with their friends. I’m frankly surprised the gimmick still works, because virtually every one of these kids is carrying a cell phone with camera or video capability these days. But now the Chartered General Accountants, right across the aisle from Nipissing, are imitating the strategy, offering students a chance to get their photo on the cover of a mock TIME magazine as “CEO of the Year.” I guess narcissism is still strong with these kids. (Lisa Drinkwalter, Nipissing’s manager of marketing and communications, tells me that Polaroid has stopped making the film and they’ve had to work extra hard to dig up supplies. Next year they may have to look at going digital.)
Viewbooks are getting abbreviated: The trend we’ve seen for several years is now getting quite pronounced: most universities are handing out “special edition,” “mini-viewbooks,” or “at-a-glance” brochures instead of hefty print materials, both to save money and ostensibly to save the environment too. Some institutions continue to invest in distributing comprehensive viewbooks at the OUF, while others have them available upon request. Out of the 35 institutions inside and outside the OUF, I was able to collect only 9 full-size viewbooks, suggesting that just one-quarter of institutions are still willing to shoulder the expense at the OUF, anyway. And I have to admit, in most cases the strategy is sound: give away the slick marketing visuals, get their interest, send them to your website or capture their lead data when they ask for more detailed information. I noticed a few institutions had faculty-specific brochures that were heftier than their overall institutional viewbooks. But don’t tell me that kids today don’t look at viewbooks — many of them spread the materials out on the floor and set up camp to compare and contrast right in the Convention Centre. (I know they don’t actually READ all that wonderful copy you write, but they do GET A READ of your institution from the headlines, cutlines, and of course the photography.)
Viewbooks are going green: No, not the colour — in fact, most viewbooks look to be red or blue. But “Forest Stewardship Council” FSC logos are definitely proliferating on the backs of viewbooks, indicating that the book is printed on recycled paper, and moreover that trees have been planted to offset the paper harvested. In some cases it means the printing company has used vegetable-based inks and disposed of waste responsibly too. Although many viewbooks are still brightly printed on thick glossy stock, quite a few this year are printed on uncoated paper: I noticed those from Lakehead, Trent, Queen’s, Windsor, Trinity Western, UNB St Johns, Fleming and McMaster.
Viewbooks are trying to act casual: Although it’s far from a comprehensive analysis, on first glance I noticed a definite preponderance of “post-it notes” and dog-eared scraps of paper in the design of many viewbooks, along with handwriting fonts, distressed typewriter fonts, and close-cropped “spokespeople” who recur throughout the viewbooks like campus guides. Often this approach is also picked up in institutional websites or fair presentations. I think the look echoes the packaging of rebel Hollywood productions like Juno and Napoleon Dynamite. I suspect it will be a short-lived effort at cool by the universities.
Ontario Colleges are promoting to university-bound students: Although Colleges Ontario will host its own Information Fair in late October (see my review of the 2007 edition here), they were prominent outside the OUF in the “Canadian University and College Fair Annex” operated by the organizers of the Student Life Expo. (Not surprising, since our research suggests about 25% of university applicants also apply to college, and even more of the 80,000 kids attending the OUF are actually college-bound students.) Small booths were also present for Niagara College and Conestoga College, while Fleming College caught attention with a very jazzy angular backdrop and a bright blue shrink-wrapped liaison vehicle, which will be visiting high schools this fall. The SkyWalk context was much more serious than in past years, since the commercial pitches for shavers and condoms were relegated to a tent city outside, under the CN Tower. I’m just surprised we didn’t see some of the larger, GTA colleges at the event.
Western schools are getting more aggressive: Although I’ve seen some of them outside the OUF in recent years, the number is growing at a surprising rate. Exhibitors this year included Trinity Western U, uVictoria, uAlberta, uCalgary, uManitoba, uWinnipeg, and uSaskatchewan (who put green pawprint decals on the floor of the SkyWalk). Alberta and BC universities were promoting their respective provincial university fairs, coming to Ontario in October, with postcards and backlit ads in the SkyWalk. (You can find out more about the Alberta and BC fairs at ChooseAlberta.ca, and BCandU.ca.) In addition to a wonderful viewbook, uCalgary had an inspired brochure, “Find Yourself Out West,” specifically targetting Ontario students, and featuring profiles of students from Ottawa, Barrie, Thunder Bay, Newtonville, and Windsor. (That was probably the single best-targeted print piece I saw at the OUF this year.)
Eastern universities remain interested in the GTA: As in former years, the good folks from Bishop’s, Memorial, St. Mary’s, UNB and Cape Breton U were recruiting in the SkyWalk, but this year they were joined by uMontreal. Although I didn’t see advertising for it, I know the AARAO tour will be passing through Ontario this fall, too.
That pretty much sums up the experience of attending the OUF in 2008. It’s hard to convey the incredible energy of a crowd of 60,000 or so teenagers, some of them with their parents and siblings, flowing through exhibits and wandering into presentations as most of them take the first steps in thinking about their futures. This year, we’ll be watching them with real-time analytics from SkoolPool and the UCAS Applicant Study, as they move through the process of considering, shortlisting, discarding and deciding whether they’ll ultimately enrol at your institution. It will be almost as much fun for us as it is for them!
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