How to Have More Productive Conversations about Billboards

Andy Shaw

If you live in a billboard-friendly state such as Pennsylvania, it won’t take long before you see a college advertising an open house or a new academic program.

Billboard salespeople must love higher education because we will just open up our wallets and say “Take all my money!”

Any savvy higher ed marketer knows that billboards have only a small chance of converting someone into a potential applicant, let alone a deposit. You’re basically asking a random passenger to be at the right point in their life to consider your type of school, and then to see the billboard, and then to think, “Now THAT’S an idea!”

Do we still get billboards? Yep. You bet.

At my medium-sized private college, we have an ongoing billboard campaign, with an emphasis on open house season because at least there’s a clear CTA. Honestly, it’s still pretty cool to see a giant billboard alongside the road while I drive past, knowing I had a part in its creation along with our marketing agency.

Let’s be very, very, very honest though. The reason you are getting billboards is probably for the rest of your campus community. It’s so faculty and administrators and board members have visual and tangible proof that you’re doing your job.

I hear “So-and-So University just put up a billboard!” so many times I’ve lost count. That’s how so many of us monitor how well a competitor is marketing. Isn’t that nuts? It’s just one component!

But I understand. The nature of a billboard means it’s hard to NOT notice it, so of course, others will wonder where your university is if you don’t match competitors billboard-for-billboard.

Here’s what I want you to remember, and what I tell others all the time:
You have no idea what competitors are spending in online advertising. Or how many pieces they are mailing. Or how much they are texting or posting on social media. You can get a decent sense, especially if you mystery shop. But it’s just an educated guess.

And that’s only because you’re in marketing, so you can do ballpark figures on how much their advertising spend and print budget might be.

Most people on campus aren’t doing that.

I would certainly hope your geo-targeted, hyper-specific social media campaigns aren’t showing up constantly in their feeds (or you are wasting money). The downside is that means they don’t see how much work you’re doing to get the right kind of student with custom content.

Even a loyal follower won’t see all of the social media posts you produce. And most people on campus wouldn’t ever see your email flow or mass mailings.

It’s not their fault! They won’t think of it as you do; they aren’t your target market, so of course, they aren’t seeing most of what you are developing.

The next time you hear a “Where’s our billboard?” take that opportunity to educate them.

  • Show an office or department a sample of what all your office produces to reach prospective families. If you can, show them specifically what you do for their particular area. Not only will that be a great olive branch, but they might point out some areas to expand or improve. (Yes, that can mean swallowing some pride, but you’re also not an expert at every single area of campus!)
  • Make it easy for the rest of your enrollment team to see what you’re making. Can you create a shared folder that has final proofs of print materials and digital ads? Are they able to get view-access to the entire comm flow?
  • Incorporate others into your workflow. Adding a counselor as a proofreader means they can quickly get a sense of what you’re putting out there. Run an email by another department to both check the facts and so they can see you’re talking about them.
  • Have any billboard work as part of a larger campaign. If the visuals/text are cohesive with your other work, it makes it that much easier for those both on campus and off to realize there’s a broader message and to instantly know it’s connected to your college.

Billboards might be part of your communication plan, and you may even use a customized link to help track the ROI.

But a billboard is certainly not even close to your communication plan’s big picture. Even if it literally is one.

Andy Shaw is the director of enrollment communications and operations at York College of Pennslyvania, a private four-year residential school. He also is a speaker, columnist, comedian, and father of three toddlers.