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Surprise! We Love You. Now Please Help Us Recruit.

Depending on your view of the state of college admissions, the following tale will either make you smile—or affirm your suspicion that things are going to hell in a handbasket designed, created, and brought to you by marketing firms.

Here are the facts. Last Saturday, Wilkes University, a private institution in Pennsylvania, put its mascot, “the Colonel,” and 30 of its students on a school bus, which drove to five towns in the Keystone State. At each stop, this merry band of travelers, clad in bright yellow “Be Colonel” T-shirts, swarmed an unsuspecting high-school senior who plans to attend the university this fall. Members of this surprise greeting committee (the “Colonel Coalition”) waved yellow rally towels and signs that said “Welcome to Wilkes” and “Fall 2010.”

Tori Sallo, who works part time at All That Pizazz Salon, in Clarks Summit, was sweeping the floor there when, all of a sudden, the Colonel was standing beside her, holding a dustpan. Sydney Hanadel was working the register at Cook’s Pharmacy, in Kingston, when the Colonel got behind the counter with her. And then there was Lauren Para, who was dining with her family at Agolino’s, in Pittston. She was just biting into a quesadilla when she saw the bus pull up outside.

Soon, the restaurant was full of Wilkes students, who surrounded the student’s table and hollered “Congratulations, Lauren!” The Colonel, in his triangular hat and white gloves, presented her with a bag full of gifts—a Wilkes T-shirt, a Wilkes mug, and postcards bearing welcome messages from all the students on the bus. All the while, a member of the entourage snapped photographs.

“How did they know who I was?” Lauren wondered.

Photograph by Tom Ammon

Only later did Lauren discover that her parents had helped plan the surprise. She had been told that the family was going out just to celebrate her grandmother’s birthday. Once Lauren’s shock faded, she was touched by all the attention. “I liked how they made such an effort to welcome me,” she said.

The bus trip was the brainstorm of Wilkes and 160over90, a marketing company in Philadelphia that says it specializes in “human reaction.” In 2007, the company helped Wilkes develop a marketing campaign that involved putting up personalized billboards close to the homes of six accepted applicants who were still undecided about Wilkes. One billboard near West Scranton High School beckoned a student was then co-editor of the school newspaper: “Megan Smith, at Wilkes University, we’ll help you become a journalist.” Five of those six students later enrolled.

“You want things that align with your brand,” says Jack Chielli, the university’s executive director of marketing communications and government relations. “At Wilkes, we’re about personal attention. So we’re reaching out and forming personal relationships, and welcoming incoming students, and saying, We really care about you.”

Although last Saturday’s bus trip was meant for students who had already committed to Wilkes, Mr. Chielli thinks the stunt might just help recruit other students, whether they are undecided applicants or future ones. After all, the visits were part of a larger marketing strategy.

For one thing, Wilkes chose the bus’s destinations carefully, picking students in areas where the university wants to increase its name recognition, says Mr. Chielli. The university, which filmed the visits, plans to send videos of the bus trip to the five students and encourage them to share the clips online. “In marketing, you look for something that’s viral,” says Mr. Chielli.

The thought of enlisting admitted applicants in a cybermarketing campaign would cause some admissions deans to faint face first into their coffees. But like it or not, the Wilkes billboards and bus trips are reminders that higher-education marketing is fast becoming as sophisticated as that of any other industry.

“Five years ago, you never would have thought that Facebook would become part of your admission strategy,” says Mr. Chielli. “Ten years ago, you never would have been talking about what your educational brand was.”

The Colonel could not be reached for comment.

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