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Branding specialists find students in their spaces

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Rachel Vandernick is Elizabethtown College's web content and social
media manager. The school motto emblazons a wall at the Brossman
Student Commons at the Lancaster County college.
Rachel Vandernick is Elizabethtown College's web content and social media manager. The school motto emblazons a wall at the Brossman Student Commons at the Lancaster County college. - (Photo / )

It wasn't long ago that prospective students got their image of a college through only printed brochure mailings, word of mouth or actual college visits.

Thanks to social media, students and their parents already have an idea of “what they’re walking into before they actually get into the space,” Millersville University’s Adam Owenz said.

So in the same way that Volvo aims to sell car-buyers on safety, Lexus promotes performance luxury and Subaru its safe handling in winter weather, schools are continually evaluating how their brand is promoted to would-be students.

College brochure mailings are not obsolete. In fact, brochures continue to be a popular form of communication, but social media tackles the online variety of platforms.

“Every social-media platform is essentially a channel that allows you to tell your story, even while none of the other stuff — all of the print, all of the digital — has ever gone away,” said Owenz, MU’s executive director of marketing and communications.

“Every year there’s another trend,” he said, “When one of these new tools comes along, we have to ask, do we want to have a presence in this? And, at what point do we want to have a presence? And what is it we want to do with that platform?”

It helps to talk with, or employ, students who are up on the latest social-media trends, he said.

For example, less than a year ago Millersville decided to beef up its presence on Snapchat, where it had just a few followers at the time.

Owenz hired a student to exclusively create audience-building content for Snapchat, and the dividends have been immediate.

“That’s the number-one social network among the younger generation, so if we’re not there, just because I don’t use it, that doesn’t mean it isn’t going to be the compelling way we’re going to build our brand,” he said.

Adam Owenz is the executive director of marketing and communications at Millersville University.
Adam Owenz is the executive director of marketing and communications at Millersville University. - ()

“If (prospective students) are following other schools, and the schools look like an awesome club you want to be a part of, and we’re either not there or have kind of weak content that doesn’t look interesting,” his school may be losing out on attracting them, Owenz said.

When getting the brand out there to future college-age students, big and glossy doesn’t work on social media like it might in a brochure.

Owenz, in his school’s cyberbranding efforts, wants to convey “this sort of fear of missing out, this ‘there’s something really great going on here,’ almost like your favorite celebrity you might follow on social media … you try to pique their interest so they want to come.”

But at the same time, “everything needs to be very real … the super-polished kind of gets overlooked, looks fake.”

With the influence of platforms like Facebook Live, “if you can show something real that comes off as genuine, that’s more powerful than a video where you maybe spent tons of money,” Owenz noted.

The goal is to show the next generation how they will fit in at his public state university, and “what type of person does fit in here,” he added. “Every type of brand has its niche you don’t see everyone riding a Harley-Davidson, the people who want to ride a Harley-Davidson, that’s what they want. And our brand-building is trying to tell the story of who we are.”

A good brand conveys to students what the particular mission of a college is about, said York College official Dominic DelliCarpini “You should communicate what the college is attempting to be and what it’s attempting to supply to its students, because one of the key elements of a college is that you’re going to try to bring in the kind of students who will particularly flourish,” said DelliCarpini, a professor of writing studies and dean of the college’s Center for Community Engagement in downtown York.

Although attracting the best students is a competitive business, he continued, “We want to have the right kind of students, the kind of students who are going to succeed at York College, so getting the brand right is really, really important,” DelliCarpini noted.

York College is currently emphasizing the theme of “From Day One.”

“We want to attract students who want to learn from the start, by doing,” and the school wants to convey that “if they come here, they’ll be working on experiential education, and they’ll be doing the kind of things they want to do with their lives,” he added.

As the methods of getting the message out continually change, “digital branding, how brands are perceived, how you communicate in that space, is a topic that’s always evolving,” said Rachel Vandernick, web content and social media manager at Elizabethtown College, a private college where the school motto is “Educate for Service.”

Getting the college’s message out the right way can be “the first step in making higher education attractive,” Vandernick said, and doing it well digitally “meets them on their terms,” she said.

Drawing on the school mascot, Elizabethtown emphasizes the theme of an “enduring Blue Jay community,” and how college alumni and current students are part of a continuing team, with grads as “the ones who are opening doors for our students, with internships and practicums, graduate-school plans and the like,” she added.

“It used to be that you could push out a message and that could be a brand. Today, it’s really about relationship building, about communicating values and the community that shares that, and creating a conversation around that.”

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David O'Connor

David O'Connor

Dave O'Connor covers York County, manufacturing, higher education, nonprofits, and workforce development. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at Follow him on Twitter, @DaveOC_CPBJ.

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