Marketing AU – The “Great Minds” Advertising Campaign

Perhaps you’ve seen posters advertising AU using quotations and images of famous learners such as Marie Curie and Mark Twain. The Voice Magazine spoke to Erin Stevenson, AU’s Marketing and Social Media Manager, to give us some background and insight into the advertising campaign.

How did the campaign come about? Was it a bright spark of an idea or did it evolve over time?
The campaign was months of research and working with our team including our graphic and writing teams from Office of Sarah and It Came from Mars. This campaign started in 2014 and AU had introduced the new brand in 2013 and it was time to capture the imagination of prospective students.

The creative process of any marketing campaign is quite exciting. All ideas are on the table. We do deep dives into market research and data, we analyze the competition’s marketing efforts, we work with stakeholder groups to determine what our goals and objectives are with our campaigns and what we’d like to see AU accomplish.

As with any marketing campaign, you want to create an effective campaign that stands out amongst the rest. Because we advertise across the country, we have to look at what all the colleges and universities are doing across the country to gain a prospective student’s attention and figure out how we position ourselves in those markets.

Through discussion and the creative ideas process, it was agreed that we market to our strengths, which in the past, were perceived as weaknesses. AU is a non-traditional path, and it was time to frame that message in a positive way! We are online, we are distance education, we are flexible, we are open and we have students doing amazing things because we are different from the “traditional” bricks and mortar institution.

The historical figures campaign showcases how the “non-traditional” path isn’t a barrier or a negative thing but is an opportunity for those who refuse to be bound by traditional journeys. Some of our historical figures are women and by virtue of their gender and when they were born, were not allowed to attend university and had to find other means to pursue their education. Some of the men started out going to university but found it limiting and pursued other avenues to learn. Other historical figures we highlighted started their own institutions, allowing others who would have been denied access to an education a place to go.

Our 2014-2015 campaign was the first year of the historical figures campaign. In all, 15 historical figures were featured. Famous quotes from each person regarding education or the desire to pursue a dream was featured. This year (2015-2016), was a continuation of our campaign but with tweaks. The quotes were gone, and we incorporated not only new figures (six more), but we removed the quotes and delivered the message to prospective students that really sets us apart: “You don’t have to sit in school to stand among greatness.” This was a great evolution to our campaign and we’ve had really positive feedback with this campaign.

How long has the campaign been running, and is there an end date or will it keep going for a while?
we’re not sure if there is a year three (or more) for this campaign. We are working with our teams over the next couple of months to determine this. We have to evaluate the effectiveness of this campaign and see if we accomplished our goals and objectives that we set out to do.

Online education is exploding and more and more universities are offering online courses at their own institutions. Whereas [online education] was a space that AU “owned”, it is the space that offers opportunity for other universities to expand their offerings to their current and prospective students. The challenge for us is to continue to be the leader in online and distance education so our marketing efforts have to reflect our position and where we’d like to be.

When did the ads first run? What magazines etc. have they appeared in?
The first ads ran in the summer of 2014 and they appear in numerous places across the country. We ran targeted campaigns in Vancouver, Toronto, Edmonton, and Calgary with heavy emphasis on transit users (LRT, Skytain, etc). We also ran newspaper and digital ads in most of the universities and colleges in Alberta and Ontario (where we were allowed to advertise, some universities don’t allow us to advertise on their campus).

There are many education features that we also run ads in throughout the year. Those are evaluated on a case-by-case basis to ensure that we are advertising in a feature that our prospective students will actually read.

Are there plans to turn them into more than just print ads i.e. television commercials, or is print a more effective platform?
Television commercials are expensive and would basically wipe out our marketing budget for the year. We are very strategic in how we do our marketing spend. We do a lot of research into our target markets and learn how those in our target markets find us. We have to go to them; we have to be advertising in the space they’re hanging out in if we have any chance of getting the right eyeballs on our ads.

For example, in the fall, we ran a series of radio ads in Edmonton and Calgary targeting “visiting” students to AU. Many of you are visiting students, taking one or two courses with us to fulfill or fill a gap in your program at your home institution. The ads were great and we had lots of positive feedback on them. However, our results were mixed. While we saw an uptick in the number of visits to our website during that time from Calgary, in Edmonton we actually saw a decrease. We chose not to run further ads. But this is marketing. Sometimes your effort goes very well and sometimes you don’t get the result you want. External factors are a consideration and we always have to be cognizant of what other factors could be contributing to a person’s decision to go back to school. Calgary has been hit harder with the drop in oil prices than Edmonton has (with job losses). How is this contributing to an increase in enrolments for us? Generally, a downturn in the economy means an increase in enrolments at post-secondary institutions so we anticipate and look for that increase in cities or provinces experiencing a downturn.

We have a robust marketing strategy and we actually spend most of our marketing dollars on digital. Our students are online and those looking for online courses are likely going to go online to look for it. Most of our “good” traffic comes from search marketing so we put a fair amount of money into search and we’ve recently been fine-tuning our website to make it as optimized as we can for the web.

In addition to online advertising, we work with our partners (such as the CFL and CFLPA) to reach their fans whose demographic lines up with our demographic. And of course, social media is a great way to reach an audience at an affordable price point. Analytics for social media sites is rich in information that we can use to create really targeted marketing campaigns, so that we’re making the most of our spending, reaching only those that are likely to be interested in what AU has to offer. I don’t have a big marketing budget overall so we are very strategic on how we spend and we’re constantly evaluating how the campaign is working so we can engage with prospective students.

What markets have the ads run in? Is it Canada-wide or more local?
We do advertise across the country as we have students (and prospective students) in every province and territory. We have hundreds if not thousands of transfer agreements with colleges and universities across the country so It’s important that we try to reach as many of those prospective students as we can.

We also do some international advertising, in particular in the United States. As you can imagine, our university education is (typically) more affordable than a US university education. With our dollar being as low as it is right now, the cost for a US student to attend AU is an incredible value for them as an international student.

What has been the response to it? Has it got people thinking or inspired them personally, and what has the result been for AU as a university? Has its profile been raised as a result of the ads?
We’ve had a very positive response to this campaign. It’s different. It stands out. It’s very striking?the old historical images catch your attention amongst all of the other university ads.

But what’s most important are the stories these historical figures tell. People relate to them. People are inspired by those that forged their own path; by those that didn’t allow a system to dictate to them how they should learn; how these women and men went on to do incredible things and contributed to the very society that challenged them to learn and create “outside of the box.” Our students can relate. Many of us (and I include myself here as an AU grad, not once, but twice!) have been to university and college before and are not prepared nor able to go back to a bricks and mortar institution for various reasons. Many of us are years into our career and don’t want to take time off from our career, instead finding a way to continue working and going to school. Others have families and other obligations that fits better with the flexibility and opportunity that AU affords them. Being able to pay for one course at a time makes a university education affordable and attainable for many of our students. Being able to take a break from studies (whether to have a child, travel, move, new job etc.) and be able to return to it when they’re ready to go again is an attractive feature for our students. There are many reasons that an online and distance education works for so many people and our marketing campaign reflects those reasons.

Any specific anecdotes/good news stories you would like to share of how the ads have affected people who have seen it?
We had a high school in Toronto contact us looking for copies of the posters to put up around their high school. The quotes and the historical figures were going over extremely well with their students so they wanted them for their classrooms. We hadn’t made copies of the posters at the time but we did a small run and got them copies. They recently just contacted me again asking about our new ones- we’ll have to get them some more posters!

We’ve heard a lot of stories of people sharing our posts, liking our images on social media and to us, That’s meaningful. Our students and prospective students are connecting on an emotional level to the stories of Einstein and Curie and Lovelace and Parlby. Their accomplishments are a reflection of a journey our students relate to and we’re happy to continue to share the amazing stories of our students too!

If AU students wanted copies of their own prints, how could they obtain them?
We have a limited run of posters currently in stock but often times, It’s the cost of shipping that makes sending a poster across the country cost-prohibitive. We do have all of the posters available for download (they’re high res) on our Pinterest page- https://www.pinterest.com/athabascau/ for anyone to print out and frame.

Carla loves paper. She has far too many books, compulsively buys craft supplies, has several boxes of cards and letters from years back years that she just cannot throw out, but feel free to say hi to her on Twitter @LunchBuster

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