If you’re at any number of public places in Pennsylvania during the school year, perhaps you’ll witness what Joe Lyons describes as “The Sea of Orange” – dozens or even hundreds of school children clad in orange shirts imprinted with a white bell. You might guess it’s a field trip, but it’s not the school you’d expect. The kids, after all, attend virtual school. “We’re very dedicated to the social development of our students. It’s part of our mission,” explains Lyons, executive director of communications for the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School (PAVCS).
The sea of orange reveals just one major way the face of education is changing. Online K-12 learning is a $300 million market representing over 1 million students and growing, at an annual rate of about 30%. The PAVCS alone enrolls 3,800 and holds events across the state, including a “Discovery Days” event that functions both as a year-end celebration and the school’s open house/enrollment kick-off. During those events, the school hands out a variety of logoed merchandise, including imprinted apparel, journals and visors. In addition, the school advertises in print, radio, television and Internet media.
“Charter-school laws in Pennsylvania require that you install open enrollment,” says Lyons, “which means that you have to be open to everyone. The way they ensure that is that we are all required to do marketing.”
Virtual charter schools may represent the wave of the future, but it’s quickly becoming the reality of the present. Students across the country and world now enroll full-time or can supplement their normal classes by taking additional ones online.
For Mike Connor, president of school consultancy Connor Associates Strategic Services, online learning has arrived. “In terms of mastering educational content, it’s going to be more cheaply delivered and delivered toward the way a kid learns through online learning,” he says. “I think that’s going to change the whole ball game.”
Schools were always believed to be beyond the effect of recessions, and colleges flourished in the past decade, increasing enrollment of 18- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. by 4% from 2000 to 2008. But both public and private schools have begun to flinch. “Education used to be recession-proof, at least until the last economic downtown,” says Fritz McDonald, vice president of creative strategy for Stamats Inc., a leading higher-education marketing firm. “But in this particular recession, endowments took a huge hit, and obviously state budgets have taken a huge hit, and those two events are having a huge impact on the college and university world.”
One study by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (an association of private colleges) "predicts that by 2025, half of all the private colleges or universities in this country are going to have to close, merge or change their missions if they're going to survive,” says Mike Connor, president of Connor Associates Strategic Services, a school marketing and planning consultancy. “That's a pretty sobering fact because we're only 15 years out from that."
As a result, schools must visibly change the ways they market themselves. McDonald points out that colleges have become conservative with their marketing plans, yet they’re adopting social media at a faster rate than Fortune 500 companies. “They’ve been in the old recruiting model for a long time, and what they’re going through is a kind of sea change because of digital technology,” he says. “They’re confronting the fact that, for example, the Web is becoming the hub of their marketing and recruiting.”
Yet, it’s still proven that promotional products have a lower cost-per-impression than even prime-time television, with just 0.5 cents per impression as compared to TV’s 1.8 cents. When social media is paired with promotional products as a marketing strategy, several audiences can be conquered at once.
Connor sees value as becoming even more important for schools to justify, starting with what he terms “internal marketing” (word of mouth among a school’s current students and parents) and coinciding with regarding the entire school as a marketing organization. “They just can't claim it,” he says about schools’ demonstrating their value. “They can't just say, 'We're the best.' They got to be able to prove it."
The task for schools is going to be incredibly difficult as they grapple with what exactly constitutes a 21st-century curriculum. The standard brick-and-mortar school is no longer the only game in town. Home schooling is increasing by 15% per year. Charter schools now enroll over 1.5 million students in more than 5,000 schools. Independent study, online education, specialty schools and more all threaten the current order of education. “Education is going to be available anywhere, and from a variety of different sources,” proclaims Connor.
Even in the big-time world of college athletics, the new Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center made a monumental splash. With a price tag of $19 million, the Syracuse University practice center garnered national attention – not only for its fancy accoutrements, but for the $3 million individual donation that came from the school’s national-championship-winning alumnus and the facility’s namesake.
The dedication for the building was packed, featuring the men’s and women’s coaches, current players, Anthony himself and 250 donors and invited guests. To commemorate the event, which took place in September 2009, Syracuse put out a call to several promotional product distributors to solicit ideas. Creativity ultimately won the day when one distributor presented his idea: a navy mug with a picture of the building and the university’s trademark “S” logo. The kicker: special ink that caused the image to change when the mug is filled with liquid.
The Melo Center dedication showcases all the best qualities of a successful promotion in the education marketplace. The never-ending slate of events. The multitude of departments and student groups. The constant emphasis on marketing and recruitment. And lastly, a reward for strategies that go beyond just the cheapest price.
A business study conducted in fall 2009 found that nearly half of educational institutions expected to spend more on marketing in the second half of 2009 than the previous year. (The next-closest industry was only 27%). Nearly two-thirds (64%) of schools increased or maintained their promotional product spending in 2009. And out of all the industries surveyed, the education market had the highest number of respondents who believed promotional products deliver a positive return on investment.
Promotional marketing in the education sector is typically steady, because the market is believed to be a recession-proof one. “I don’t think it’s as adversely tuned into the peaks and valleys of the economy,” says one promotional products distributor. “I think it is more stable. Yes, during down times they may have fewer students. But they don’t eliminate departments, and their budgets may be reduced, but they’re not eliminated.”
Not only is the face of school marketing changing in the digital revolution, but the very idea of what constitutes a school is being radically transformed. The result is great challenges for those who fall behind the curve – and tremendous opportunity for those who can forecast the future of education.
Schools’ schedules are jam-packed with events. “There’s always something on a college campus that they want to commemorate,” says an account executive for an ad specialties company that works with schools like Texas Tech, Loyola-New Orleans, Auburn and many more.
A huge variety of items cater to educational institutions, thanks to the number of people involved and the wide range of individual preferences. When it comes to alumni groups and administrators, “They’re very concerned about how their logo looks, and they’re looking for classics,” says a rep for a custom-apparel company. “They’re looking for mugs, stainless-steel thermoses, things they know will last five or 10 years and alumni will look at and say, ‘Yeah, that’s something I want.’ ”
In comparison, the rep adds, “The students are looking for what’s hot now.” In translation, that means fashion that’s in tune with the times and tech toys that appeal to students’ electronic interests.