Ask Collegewise: Marketing mistakes?

Katie asks:

What's the biggest waste of marketing money you've ever spent?

Well, that's an easy one. 

In 2004, we developed a new college admissions class we were really excited about.  We spent $10,000 to 1) purchase a mailing list, 2) design expensive brochures, 3) drop a direct mailing, and 4) build a storefront for our website so people could enroll online.  9 people signed up for the class (at $295 a piece).  You don't need an MBA to do that math and realize that we made a huge marketing mistake.

The class was (and still is) a great product.  The mistake we made was thinking we could buy peoples' attention with traditional marketing methods (and waging a $10,000 bet it would work).  That's the most expensive–and least effective–way to generate interest in your counseling services.  Very few people will see an ad or receive a piece of mail and decide to buy college counseling because of it. 

Tough lesson learned:  You can't buy an audience's interest.   

Knowing what I know now, I would have first offered the class at a reduced rate to friends of our existing customers, something they could "give" to people to get a little taste of what we do at Collegewise.  I would have offered it on campus at the high schools where we had good relationships with the counselors, split the profits with the school (so we'd both win), and maybe let them choose 1-2 deserving kids to attend on scholarship.  I would have done the same thing with the test prep companies we enjoy a good relationship with, and leveraged their permission by having them announce it to their customers. 

So yes, it was a $10,000 mistake, one I'll be careful not to make again.


Want to help kids get into college?

For the last five years, our counselors have been volunteering at College Summit, a program that helps under-resourced students apply and get accepted to college. And one of the things I like best about them is that you don't need any experience with college admissions to volunteer.

Each workshop is staffed by experienced college counselors who handle the admissions advising.  But volunteer "writing coaches" help the students find their best stories for college essays.  College Summit trains you in their system, so you don't need any experience with college admissions, teaching, writing or editing.  All you need is a willingness to help and a desire to do a good job.  At the workshops I've attended, the writing coaches have ranged from a high school English teacher, to a retired police officer, to a director of a Jewish community center, to an engineer for the city of Los Angeles.

So if you're a counselor, you can lend your college counseling skills to a group of kids who really need them.  But if you've never been involved with the college admissions process and would like to do something to help good kids find their way to college, look into being a writing coach.  You can find out more about all of College Summit's volunteer opportunities here.

I think every teacher should read this book

TeachWithYourStrengths I don't like most career/personality tests.  Maybe that's because the one I took at school when I was sixteen told me I should be a mortician (I swear I am not making that up).  I think most of those tests are blunt instruments that either tell you what you already know about yourself, or give you results that you can't really use.

But I feel a lot differently about the Gallup Organization's "StrengthsFinder" test.  I've taken it, all the Collegewise counselors have taken it, and I made all my friends and family members take it.  I've yet to recommend it to a single person who wasn't fascinated by their results.   

And they have a version that's specifically for teachers. 

What are strengths?

Gallup defines strengths as natural recurring patterns of thought, feeling or behavior that can be productively applied.  The StrengthsFinder test identifies your top five strengths and describes exactly what they mean.

For example, the test won't just tell you you're outgoing (if you're outgoing, you know that already).  It's more specific than that.  It will tell you if your strength is winning new people over, or developing deeper relationships with people you already know, or gaining the respect of those you admire, or appreciating what is unique about each individual, or bringing people together so everyone feels included.  You're more than just outgoing.  Each of those is a very different and uniquely valuable strength.  You might have one but not the others. 

Or maybe your strength is a sense of confidence in yourself, or an ability to arrange and manage complex situations, or a desire to continually learn new information, or an ability to draw on past experiences, or to fix situations that are broken.     

Whatever your strengths are, the test identifies them.

How does Gallup tell you to use your strengths?

What I love most about Gallup's philosophy is that they don't believe in expending time and energy to fix weaknesses.  We're taught in American society to believe that: that if we just try hard enough, we can be great at anything.  Gallup says that that just doesn't hold up, and they're right.  I'm never going to win a gold medal in the Olympic marathon no matter how hard I try.  Yes, you can get better at anything.  But if it's a weakness, something that you don't have the innate talent for and almost certainly wouldn't enjoy doing all the time, don't bother.  It's not worth it.  Gallup argues that it is much more effective and gratifying to spend that time learning to maximize your strengths. 

Why is this exciting for teachers?

One of the criticisms of the StrengthsFinder book (you buy the book and get an access code to take the test online) is that once you learned your strengths, there wasn't much advice about what to actually do with them. But "Teach With Your Strengths: How Great Teachers Inspire Their Students" lets you take the same test, then tells you how you can apply those strengths in your teaching and your career, with examples of how great teachers are putting each of the particular strengths to work. 

If you're a teacher or a counselor, I think it's a great read.

For private counselors: You’re marketing all the time

EnvelopeThis is the envelope I got from AAA yesterday.  So, why are they yelling at me?  I've been a AAA customer for 20 years.  Have I not always paid on time? 

People often ask me how we do our marketing at Collegewise, and when they do, they usually want to know about ads, speaking engagements, mailings, and other traditional ways of getting your name out to people.

But it's important to remember that when you're a private counselor, you're marketing all the time.  The way you answer the phone is marketing.  Your outgoing voice mail is marketing.  The tone of your email, the directions to your office, the way you write a to-do list for a student, your out-of-office email reply when you're at a conference, the wording of your invoices, the way you use your materials, whether or not you seem genuinely happy to see people when they arrive for appointments, and yes, what the outside of your envelope says–it's all marketing.

How hard would it be for AAA to do something else?


For private counselors: how to build a (better) website

If you're a private counselor hoping to grow your business, you've probably thought about building (or have already built) a website.  The good news is that the rules for making good websites for small businesses have changed.  You don't need to
spend thousands of dollars to build a one  You don't need flash
animation.  You don't even need to be fancy (Google is the most popular
website in the universe and it has a ridiculously simple

But the bad news is that it if you don't give people exactly what information they came to find, and make it easy for them to find it, you're going to lose them.  Today's web surfers have short attention spans, and most people aren't going to spend ten minutes on your site trying to find what they need to know.  They'll spend maybe a minute and then move on.  So if you're looking to build, or improve, your website, make sure you make it easy
for people to find the answers to these five questions:

1.  Who are

It's surprising how many private counselors have websites
that continuously use words like "we" or "us" but never come right out and say who's actually helping the kids.  Instead, they say things like, "Our expert advisers have a wealth of experience and have
guided countless students to admission to the nation's finest
universities."  What does that even mean?  Who are you?  If I enroll my kid, who is he going to be working with? 

If you
don't feel comfortable putting your name and a real bio on your website, you might consider not having a website at all.  Instead tell people who you really are.  Be proud of your background, even if you're still relatively new to this profession.  And don't say "We" if you
really mean "Me."  There's no shame in working by yourself especially if you're
good.  Families don't care if you're a big company or a one-person shop. 
They just want the right counselor for their kid.   

2.  What
do you do?

Be clear about what services you offer and what kind of student tends to match well with you.  Are you good with kids who have learning disabilities?  Do you know a lot about athletic recruiting?  Are you particularly knowledgeable about a few specific colleges?  Don't try to sound like you can help everybody (none of us can).  Instead, come right out and tell people what they can hire you to help with, what you do well, and maybe even what you don't do. 

3.  Where are
you located?

We got this one wrong on our own website for years.  We made people navigate all the way to the "contact us" portion of our website to find out where our offices were.  Big mistake.  Put your office location(s) on your homepage. Tell people right away where they'll need to go to work with you.  Don't worry about losing customers because of geography.  If that's going to be an issue for a family, you might as well tell them upfront; don't make them call you to find out what "Greater Los Angeles area" means.          

4.  How do I contact you?

Do you have an office phone
number?  An email address?  Do you care which one people use?  Don't
make people sift through your website to figure out how to get in touch
with you.  Make your contact information blatant and easy to find.  Put
it (or a link to it) on every page. 

5.  What do I do next if
I'm interested?

Don't put your prospective customer in the awkward position of having to contact you to ask what the next step is.  Come right out and tell them what you want them to do.  Do you offer an introductory consultation?  How do they schedule one?  And don't make the visitor fill out a long online form to request an appointment.  That's like forcing potential suitors to complete a long questionnaire before they can even ask you what your name is.  If the information really is important to you, have them fill it out after they've scheduled the appointment.        

Everything else on a website is secondary and probably more important to you than it is to your potential customer.  You can always add more pages and information later if you get repeated questions about testimonials, a newsletter or whether or not you have a blog.  Give your visitors what they’re looking for when they first find your section of cyberspace, and more of them will become your customers later.  

PS:  I've
learned a lot about websites and marketing from Seth Godin.  If you
want to have an effective website up as soon as possible for very little
money, check out his blog post here.  If you've built a website and want to make
it better, check out his book "The Big Red Fez."

PPS:  Our own website could do an even better job of making it easy for our visitors to find the information they want.  So we're making those changes now.  I'll share them here later next month when we're finished.   

More for private counselors: fire your worst customers

Not all customers are created equal. 

I don't think the customer is always right.  Sometimes the customer is wrong.  Sometimes a customer is predisposed to be unhappy.  One bad customer demands the time and attention of three good customers (for the revenue of one).  They don't become fans.  They don't spread the good word.    You might satisfy them, but you'll never delight them.  And worst of all, those customers drain the morale from you and your staff.  They take time and attention away from people who are more likely to appreciate and benefit from what you're doing.

So, why would you spend all your time trying to make those customers happy.  What would happen if you fired those customers in a supportive, nurturing way, acknowledging that you liked their kid and wanted things to go well for her enough to give them their money back and refer them to someone else. 

Paddi Lund, a dentist in Australia, fired half his customers so he could spend his days with patients he enjoyed working with.  His business actually grew because of it.

Sprint once sent a letter to over 1,000 customers who were calling and complaining too much (up to 25 times per month). 

And we do it here at Collegewise. We work with great families.  We don't have to let a customer go very often because we try to choose our customers carefully.  But we do it when we need to, and believe me, it makes a difference.  We don't assign blame.  It's not that they're wrong and we're right.  It's just that we don't feel good taking their money if we don't think we can do the job they want us to. 

Imagine how much happier you could make your best customers if you didn't have to spend time trying to please your worst ones?

Tip for private college counselors: choose your customers

The most successful businesses know what kind of customer is most likely to like what they do, to spread the word, and be a loyal fan.  The smartest businesses spend all their time trying to please that particular customer.

Appleguy If you’re looking for cheap electronics that get the job done without being flashy, you’re not an Apple customer.  Apple is as much a fashion company as they are a computer company.  If you don’t care how flashy and cool your new phone is, Apple’s not trying to win your affection.  They want this guy who will raise his sleek new Iphone like an Olympic medal.  This is who Apple is built to please.

Southwest airlines doesn't hide what they do well.  If you want the cheapest ticket and you don't care about your seat selection, a meal or a movie, (and if you might be amused by singing flight attendants), Southwest is your best bet.  They’ve built their entire airline to delight this particular customer.  They don't pretend to be anything else. 

Trader Joe's doesn't try to earn the business of the shopper who wants to buy motor oil at the grocery store or who wants 10 varieties of Ragu spaghetti sauce to choose from.  It exists to delight people who rave to their friends about the wasabi peas or avocado salsa or peanut butter filled pretzels they found at Trader Joe's.  Trader Joe's doesn't find new customers for its products; it finds new products for its customers.  And its fans won’t shut up about it!

If you're a private counselor who's just starting out (or if you're already one and want to grow), think about who you want to please.  What kinds of students/families do you work best with?  Who seems predisposed to appreciate what you do best? 

What would happen if you engineered your entire practice to attract and delight only those kinds of customers?

At Collegewise, we know what kinds of families tend to be happiest with us.  And we built our programs to make those families happy.  We're not the right choice for everybody, but we're OK with that.

If you want to build a business that delights customers, start by choosing customers that are most likely to be delighted by what you do. 

For counselors: time to rethink your PowerPoint presentation?

At most of the conferences we attend, presenters feel compelled to use PowerPoint as part of their presentations.  But the truth is that PowerPoint isn't really improving most of the sessions.  It's not making the presentation more compelling, or helping the audience understand information any better.  If anything, it's sometimes even more confusing to see a list of ten complicated bullet points up on a screen than it would have been if the presenter just explained the most important idea she's trying to communicate. 

I'm a big fan of Seth Godin, and he's got a helpful guideline, for free, that made me rethink how I use PowerPoint, and even made me reconsider whether to use it at all.  If you'd like to use PowerPoint to make your presentations even more memorable, it might be worth a read.

For private counselors: our hidden camera concept

One of the criticisms of many private counselors is that they help too much, that they write essays and polish applications and take over the process from the person who needs to own it–the student. 

It's important for all of us in the private counseling community to set a good example for kids and for others in the profession.  Most of the private counselors I've met are good people who just want to help kids.  But sometimes it's not clear where your professional obligations cross with your ethical obligations.  When that happens and you're not sure what the right thing to do is, we have a concept here at Collegewise that helps us; we just imagine that there's a hidden camera in the room and that an
admissions officer from the student's favorite college is watching us.

Of course, it's important to use good common sense.  We don't need a formal policy to tell us that it's not OK to write an essay for a student or to encourage a kid to lie.

But whenever we're in a situation where we need reassurance that we're doing the right thing, the hidden camera concept is our way of asking,

"Would an admissions officer applaud what we're doing?  Would she thank us for taking good care of that kid, for keeping the process honest and even making the college's job a little easier?  Or would she see a violation and think, 'This is what I don't like about private counselors.'?"

Here's an example.

A student tells us she wants to write her essay about volunteering on a blood drive.  After discussing it with her, it's clear to us that she's picking that story not because it was important to her, but because she thinks it will impress the admissions office (bad idea, by the way).  It's our job to advise that kid without taking over the process. So we imagine the hidden camera, and say…

"Absolutely–you can write about that.  You've also got lots of other things you could write about, too, things that you seem a lot more excited about when you talk about them.  It's up to you, but those could be good stories, too.  What do you think?"

I think the admissions officer would applaud that.  She'd probably think, "Thank you for protecting me from yet another cliched, 'How a community service project taught me the importance of helping others'" essay.

But if the kid comes back and says, "No, I want to write about the blood drive because community service is really important to me," we're at a crossroads.  We're being paid to give good advice, and we know this essay isn't the best choice.  So we have two options.

One option is to respond, "If community service were really that important to you, you would have volunteered for more than just one blood drive.  You need to pick a different story if you want your essay to help you get into selective colleges."

But any admissions officer watching us on the hidden camera would throw a red flag.  In this case, we're not letting that student make her own decisions.  We're injecting perspective that the student doesn't have on her own.  The hidden camera tells us that stopping a student from writing what she wants to write is a violation, even if the advice is good.

The hidden camera tells us what to do.  In that situation, we'd respond,

"OK–then that's what you should do.  Maybe you can tell me more about that experience and what made it so important to you?"

Now we get a thumbs up from the viewer.  Chances are, that student will realize on her own that she really doesn't have that much to say about the topic.  But if she forges ahead anyway, we can keep giving her good advice–we'll tell her to include lots of details, to write in her own voice, and not to worry too much about trying to impress the reader–and will do it without actually taking over the process. 

If you're just starting out in private counseling, you should read the NACAC Statement of Principles and Good Practice.  It's the industry guideline for counselor and admissions officers. 

But when you're in one of those situations where it's not necessarily clear what the right thing is to do, the hidden camera never lets you down.