By Lori Dresner, Managing/New Editor
With enrollment posing an increasing challenge at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, the university has had to find new and creative ways to catch the attention of prospective students. UMSL Marketing is currently exploring new routes of advertising as well as building upon ones that already exist in order to reach the appropriate audiences.
This year, UMSL Marketing is using television advertising as a new strategy to highlight the university and what it offers. Ronald Gossen, Chief Marketing Officer and Senior Associate Vice Chancellor for Marketing and Communications, explained how UMSL Marketing created UMSL’s first television advertisement. He said, “We did what we call a campus beauty spot, the idea being, ‘Let’s do a spot like you see in the middle of the football games on Saturdays when the colleges that are playing get to show their campus.’”
The marketing team created the “beauty spot” using drone shots to showcase some of the campus’s prime amenities and facilities. The spot debuted on local news channels in May. It features scenes from some of UMSL’s sporting events, the Recreation and Wellness Center, classroom settings, and campus events, in order to capture the campus’s atmosphere in its entirety.
Gossen said that the spot took about a year to produce so that the fall atmosphere on campus could be captured. The spot has been running during the University of Missouri-Columbia and University of Illinois football games, as well as some other games, since those are the audiences UMSL is looking to target. “It’s our first venture in it,” said Gossen. “TV advertising is very expensive and our budget is so low that…we’re doing what we can.”
One challenge presented by a low budget has been trying to run the spot often enough to make an impact on target audiences. Gossen said, “Generally it takes from four to seven times of someone seeing or hearing something to really remember it, unless it’s hugely creative…And I think [in] an entire week we get seven spots for our budget. That’s not a whole lot, and no one’s going to see all seven spots.”
He said that UMSL Marketing learned a long time ago that people have misconceptions about the university. One of those misconceptions regards the campus’s appearance. “The only real way to sell what the campus looks like or convince people of what the campus looks like is television, and that’s why we went to using TV,” explained Gossen.
Before he moved into his position of Chief Marketing Officer about six years ago, UMSL did not have a marketing platform. At the time, many universities felt that marketing was unnecessary because they were academic institutions whose reputation spoke for them. However, Gossen said that UMSL was losing prospective students because outsiders did not know where the university was located, and some assumed that because the university is located in an urban area that it was economically disadvantaged.
“The bottom line is we’re in a hugely competitive higher education market,” said Gossen. UMSL has 22 brick and mortar competitors in the St. Louis area, not including the online competitors.
He continued, “When you look at a university’s brand or any brand…if you do not manage your brand, then the competitors or happenstance will manage your brand for you. And that’s what was happening to the university.”
UMSL Marketing began building the university’s brand about six years ago when they came up with the unique selling proposition of ‘UMSL: Serious Education. Serious Value.’ Gossen explained that a unique selling proposition is what an institution or a company “can say to promote itself that others cannot say.” He said that UMSL was able to capitalize on this selling proposition because they offer a better value and higher ranked programs than many other colleges and universities in the St. Louis area.
UMSL Marketing has continued to build upon the popular ‘I Chose UMSL’ campaign as well. The ‘I Chose UMSL’ slogan first appeared on billboards that made appearances alongside local interstates in 2012. The billboards have featured many current UMSL students and alumni in various capacities.
“[‘I Chose UMSL’] has been uniquely successful because we’ve been able to use different iterations of it,” said Gossen. He explained that they started the campaign featuring alumni “to show the outcomes of what happens when you come to UMSL. You become a community leader. You become a titan of industry. You become a senior elected official.”
The campaign eventually morphed into an “opportunities and outcomes” theme, where two billboards would be placed a short distance from each other to show outcomes of individuals who chose UMSL. The first billboard would feature current students, such as three of UMSL’s scholar athletes, and the second would feature as successful alumnus of that same capacity, such as the athletic director at Clayton High School, to show a successful outcome.
Another phase of the campaign included ethnic marketing in Bosnian and Spanish with the billboards placed in those ethnic groups’ neighborhoods around the region. Programmatic marketing was another strategy. One iteration focused on UMSL’s biotechnology program and used catchy sayings to market the program, such as “I chose UMSL to make war on Parkinson’s” or “I chose UMSL to make a splash in the gene pool.”
The current stage of the ‘I Chose UMSL’ campaign features combinations of students and alumni. Gossen said that UMSL Marketing is currently working with the Masters of Public Policy Administration (MPPA) program during this phase of the campaign. A number of billboards currently feature graduates of that program.
“That’s an easy thing for us to market because we know who wants to get a master’s in public policy. It would be people in government that want to get ahead or people in nonprofits. So we used fine examples of those to promote the program,” said Gossen.
Another recent noticeable marketing technique has been the addition of the ‘I Chose UMSL’ slogan to the student, faculty, and staff parking stickers.
UMSL has also expanded marketing efforts to 22 counties in Southwestern Illinois whose residents qualify for in-state tuition rates, according to Gossen. The university is using billboards, digital advertising, and social media marketing to geotarget those specific counties.
This semester, UMSL enrolled less than 500 freshmen for only the second time in 30 years. At the September 19 census date, there were 415 first-time freshmen enrolled at UMSL. Total undergraduate enrollment was 8,033, total graduate enrollment was 2,671, and total professional student enrollment was 168 at the census date. This marks a 6.4 percent decline in the total on campus enrollment from Fall 2015. UMSL’s graduation rates, however, remain high, as the university saw their largest ever graduating class in 2016.