Robert Moore
Senior Consultant, CEO Emeritus

Direct Mail, or Direct to Recycling?

Gaining a parent’s perspective on higher ed marketing mail

My son is a high school senior. As such, he is—in the parlance of higher education marketers—either a “suspect” or a “prospect.” He has received an incredible pile of direct marketing materials over the past weeks and months—some 400+ by informal count, including postcards, elegant posters, full brochures, and personalized letters. This doesn’t include digital and social outreach, which is equally intense. And I confess to being flummoxed: I know that these materials do work, sometimes; we have evidence of that. IMHO: the best was from the University of Chicago—a postcard showing all the places on or around campus to get coffee, artfully smudged with coffee-cup rings.

But how do we as marketers assess the relationship between direct outreach, the decision-making continuum (even the process of assembling a “consideration set”), and—eventually—the decision itself?

Some simple observations:

  • The pieces my son received early in the process got more attention than those that arrived mid-stream. Early on, getting mail is a new experience, and it diminishes the fear that many prospects have: “I won’t get in anywhere!”
  • Mid-stream, it took something really exceptional to stand out. For months, we might get as many as six or seven pieces from different institutions every day. He would barely paw through the pile to see if there was anything there from any of the institutions in which he was already interested—but not much triggered an impulse for him to look at a new, possible candidate. His interests were set: he was looking at liberal arts colleges, probably not in the Midwest and definitely not in Illinois or Indiana (embedded prejudices can be difficult to dislodge), and not the place his sister had gone—though Macalester made a valiant and creative effort to stimulate his interest.
  • As his consideration set hardened, he would look at the pieces from the three or four schools that really interested him, to see if there was new information. But if you weren’t in the set of schools he was already considering, just put that brochure back in your pocket—it ain’t happening.

My son’s consideration set was of course affected by the fact that he’s my son, and has therefore been exposed to a great many different colleges and universities—both physically and in dinner-table conversations. He’s had the chance to “walk the quad” at a dozen schools, and has developed a strong sense of what he wants. And, interestingly, his number one choice was a school that I had no prior knowledge of—and that was, perhaps, part of its attraction: he wasn’t “directed by dad.” He found it, and decided on it, on his own.

And it had little or nothing to do with direct mail solicitation. He found it through social media search—Naviance and other aggregating websites. It appealed to him because of its range of disciplines, its somewhat snarky attitude towards its own Great Books curriculum, and because of its name: Ursinus—very close to the name of the protagonist of a sword and sorcery book he’d been working on for a couple of years. And he loved the materials they sent. They were good enough that they triggered not one but two campus visits, which sealed the deal. He applied Early Decision and was accepted. When he called me to tell me he’d gotten in, he was so excited he could barely breathe or speak. I could hear his heart hammering in his chest even though I was 700 miles away. “I got in, Dad, I got in!”

And we couldn’t be happier. Now, that profusion of direct marketing materials is just the basis for a blog, not something to be taken more seriously than that.

Read “Walking the Quads With My Son” for more of Rob’s perspective on his son’s college search.