Editor's note: This is the second in a series of articles written by students who were enrolled in Jennifer Bloom's graduate class in student affairs administration at the University of South Carolina during the spring 2009 semester. As part of her course syllabus, Dr. Bloom required each student in her class to submit an article to The Mentor or other publications for consideration.
Academic advisers often struggle to find ways to effectively market their services and programs to students. The Academic Centers for Excellence (ACE) at the University of South Carolina (USC) were no exception to this problem. ACE provides study skills, individual coaching services, and math and writing tutoring to students on academic and financial probation as well as to students who live in university housing. However, ACE was having difficulty raising student awareness about the services it offers. According to a 20072008 perception study conducted by USC's University Housing, only 50.4 percent of on-campus residents were aware of ACE. This reflected a 9.4 percent decrease compared to the previous year and followed numerous years of a steady increase in student awareness of ACE (University of South Carolina University Housing, 2007).
In order to raise student awareness, the authors developed a marketing plan based on Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) principles. The purpose of this article is to share the IMC process used to develop a marketing plan for ACE and propose it as a template for other academic advisers who wish to raise student awareness about their services and programs. This article will first share background information about ACE and Integrated Marketing Communications and then detail how to implement a marketing plan.
Background on ACE
The Academic Centers for Excellence were founded at the University of South Carolina in 1995 in response to a new movement toward academic success in the residence halls (C. Robinson, personal communication, March 13, 2009). ACE was developed and housed in various residence halls on campus with student convenience in mind. Students could receive free tutoring in math and writing at any ACE location. In 2005, ACE graduate students began individually coaching students on study skills needed to succeed in college (C. Robinson, personal communication, March 13, 2009). The current focus of ACE is to:
Offer all students at the University of South Carolina an opportunity to learn and apply the skills needed to succeed in college. ACE provides free academic success coaching, writing consultations, math tutoring, and a variety of other resources to help students at Carolina reach their academic goals. (Academic Centers for Excellence, 2009, ¶1)
Integrated Marketing Communications
Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) involves coordinating the various promotional elements and other marketing activities that communicate with a firm's customers (Belch & Belch, 2007, p. 9). By using what is called a promotional mix, IMC takes a holistic approach to marketing so that all aspects of marketing work together in harmony (Marketing Communications, 2009). IMC is typically utilized by the business sector, but this article addresses how it can be adapted for use in other areas as well.
Seven aspects make up a promotional mix, which includes tools used to carry out a company or organization's communication objectives (Belch & Belch, 2007). Communication objectives are the goals an organization plans to achieve through marketing. Example communication objectives include raising awareness, increasing comprehension, and developing a call to action (Belch & Belch). A promotional mix includes advertising, direct marketing, interactive media, sales promotions, publicity, public relations, and personal selling (Belch & Belch). Although there are seven aspects to the promotional mix, not every aspect is utilized with every IMC plan, but a brief explanation of all seven aspects is included below. Advertising is any form of communication about an organization, product, service, etc., that is paid for and is not personal. It is also the most widely known and discussed aspect of a promotional mix (Belch & Belch). Direct marketing occurs when a company communicates directly with the consumer and can then generate a sale or another response from the consumer. Interactive media occurs when there is a back-and-forth nature to the flow of information. Sales promotions, sometimes referred to as just promotions, typically highlight a product's extra value or might offer an incentive to an individual so that he or she purchases the product or service. The most common form of a sales promotion is a coupon (Belch & Belch).
The next aspect of the promotional mix is publicity. Publicity, like advertising, is a non-personal type of communication. Unlike advertising, however, publicity is not directly funded by the organization, product, service, etc., that gains the publicity (Belch & Belch, 2007). Public relations is typically lumped together with publicity, because they are both non-personal and not paid for by the organization. Public relations is the practice of controlling the stream of information between an organization and people who are important to the success of the organization (Grunig & Hunt, 1984). Public relations programs put information control in the hands of third parties who then report the information to the public. The final aspect of a promotional mix is personal selling, a form of communication in which a seller personally tries to persuade the consumer to utilize the organization's product or service (Belch & Belch).
One industry that is successfully utilizing Integrated Marketing Communications is Major League Baseball (MLB). Major League Baseball suffered recent damage to its image due to allegations of steroid use among players; however, numerous companies are still lining up to partner with MLB. For example, the official vehicle of Major League Baseball is Chevrolet and the official breakfast cereal is Wheaties. Other corporations that have deals with the MLB include Home Depot, DHL delivery service, Ameriquest, Gillette, Pepsi, Nike, and many others (Belch & Belch, 2007).
There are even individual MLB teams that are implementing IMC plans. For example, the San Diego Padres are currently utilizing Integrated Marketing Communications. Five years ago the Padres moved into a new stadium, Petco Park, which is located in the heart of downtown San Diego. Petco and the Padres effectively implemented promotions when they signed a sponsorship agreement that included naming rights to the new stadium. This was a good move for Petco, because the family atmosphere of the park aligns well with the corporate objectives of the company. This was also a positive arrangement for the Padres, because the team was able to partner with a nationally recognized company known for its family products. The Padres team also utilizes other marketing aspects besides advertising and promotions. They publish an e-newsletter called The Friar Wire that keeps fans up-to-date with Padres events (Belch & Belch, 2007). This is a great example of direct marketing as well as interactive media, as the Padres directly communicate with potential customers via an interactive media, the Internet.
The next section will showcase how an advising office can follow the Padres' lead in developing an effective Integrated Marketing Communications plan.
Implementing the Marketing Plan
Advising offices seeking to better promote their services and programs would be well served to use some aspects of a promotional mix when designing a plan to market their services and programs. It is very difficult to implement a plan that utilizes all aspects of a promotional mix; therefore, it is necessary to figure out which aspects best suit particular services and programs. This section covers the step-by-step development of a marketing plan and uses the plan developed for ACE as an example.
Before implementing marketing materials, offices or programs should first look at what population to target and how to effectively position the office or program. Successful positioning involves decisions about how best to fit a product or service into one or more segments of the market so that the product or service is set apart from the competition (Ayer's, 1976). This communication happens through the message itself, so it is imperative to critically think about how the program or office should be conveyed to consumers.
ACE, for example, is positioned as the one-stop shop for a student's academic support needs.
Next a target audience needs to be identified (Belch & Belch, 2007). A target audience can include certain individuals, groups, niche markets, market segments, or the general public as a whole. Each audience is approached a little differently, so it is important to identify a particular target audience. For example, the ACE marketing materials target undergraduate students residing in on-campus university housing. Aspects of the promotional mix that work well with these individuals are advertising and personal selling. Advertising can successfully attract the audience's attention, while personal selling involves trying to individually persuade students to use a product or service. Personal selling is important, also, because each individual has specific needs and wants (Belch & Belch). Advising can successfully utilize personal selling, because advising typically is very personal and tailored to the needs of the student.
Once the target audience and position are identified, the next step involves selecting a theme to incorporate into the marketing plan so that a harmonious look and feel appear throughout. This harmonious look and feel is important for the IMC plan to thrive. ACE employs a Wizard of Oz-type theme with the tagline: Cocky, I've got a feeling we aren't in high school anymore. Cocky is the name of the University of South Carolina's mascot. This is a great opportunity to directly incorporate the mascot and the university into the marketing materials.
Once the target audience, position, theme, and tagline are identified, the next step involves determining where and how to implement the marketing plan. Because ACE leaders want to target students who live in residence halls, the materials are placed in areas where on-campus students commonly visit. That includes all residence halls, the student union, as well as the ACE locations. The objective is to place the materials in high-traffic areas that the target audience frequents. Advisers should strategically place promotional materials in appropriate locations such as classrooms, the student union, and/or dining halls.
As part of the implementation plan, advisers need to develop a media schedule, which is a graphical representation of the planned release of each aspect of the marketing plan. The purpose of the media schedule is to time promotional efforts so that they will coincide with the highest potential buying times (Belch & Belch, 2007, p. 315). Within a university setting, potential buying times could include instances when students might be stressed or have academic difficulties (for example, midterm exam time), when advising typically occurs, or other particular moments on a given campus. For ACE, a media schedule was developed that optimized exposure during times that students most need support: the first six weeks of the fall and spring semesters, advance registration time, and right before mid-term and final exams.
Academic advisers often struggle to find ways to effectively market their services and programs to students. Through the use of Integrated Marketing Communications, which takes a holistic approach to developing a marketing plan, and with the help of a promotional mix, advisers can effectively and efficiently market their services and programs. The first step in developing IMC marketing materials is to define the target audience, and the second step incorporates components of a promotional mix. Every marketing plan, however, need not include every aspect of the promotional mix. Carefully selecting the most appropriate aspects for inclusion will ensure that a targeted and focused IMC plan is developed. Academic advising offices can use the principles outlined in this article to effectively develop a marketing plan.