A new way of thinking

Marketing auxiliary services—both to students and university stakeholders—requires a new approach


That glossy brochure? Maybe not all that valuable. Those posters hanging in the student center? Most likely missed as the student walks by, eyes firmly on the smartphone in hand.

Marketing campus auxiliary services to students has changed significantly, but it is as important as ever as there is more competition for their time and many more opportunities to earn their business. It is equally important to convey the significance of auxiliary services to the larger university setting.

“The services that we provide to the university, both the internal and external community, are really critical to success in achieving the vision of the university,” said Pallavi Patel, CASP, assistant vice president of campus services operations at the University of Cincinnati. “Most of the campus life that students experience outside of academics are provided by auxiliary services, so we play a critical role in student success.”

As such, auxiliary services should get some of the credit for helping the university succeed. “The services that we provide, if they’re successful, can increase enrollment,” Patel said. “As we see growth, we see an increase in revenue, which allows us to bring better services.”

And those enhanced services can extend into the kind of experiences that can only happen on a college campus.

“There are so many opportunities within all of the auxiliaries, opportunities that students may never get again,” said Beth Alongi, assistant director of marketing for the student center, Southern Illinois University. “We want them to understand everything that we have to offer and experience our programs.”
Sharing that message, however, is more complicated than in the past.

Getting Students’ Attention

Students are distracted and they’re also skeptical. They’re less likely to listen to the campus radio station than, perhaps, Spotify. They’re more likely to check Facebook than the campus newspaper. Reaching them requires a new way of thinking.

At Rutgers University, it has meant moving away from traditional forms of media that no longer are effective, says Tony Doody, director of student life at the university. “We tend to use a mix of channels including social media, direct-mail marketing, and more guerilla marketing techniques.”

He likens traditional forms of media—TV, banner ads, email—as a presenter giving a presentation. These days, marketing efforts that function more like a cocktail party are more successful. “There are different talents required for those. I don’t know that universities and auxiliaries have really retooled themselves to keep up with that change.”

At Rutgers, that has meant employing the most effective way to reach students: peers who serve as brand ambassadors. The university has a team of 30 unpaid student interns who create videos, take photographs, and design websites. They have access to the departmental social media channels too, though professional staff monitor and offer coaching. (Students also get valuable experience to help them find a job post-graduation.) Then there are the student leaders, including Greek life and student government. They too are encouraged to pick up the marketing efforts, working alongside a professional staffer.

“There is a value to having students advocate for the work of auxiliaries,” Doody said. “Is a student going to look at a brochure and say, ‘I’m going to live here because I saw this brochure?’ Or are they going to go on social media and say, ‘Where should I live?’”

That theory is backed up by Nielsen research, which showed that 84 percent of consumers trust recommendations from friends and family. It is the most trusted form of “advertising,” according to the 2014 Global Survey of Trust in Advertising, conducted by Nielsen. It’s also growing, up 6 percentage points from over 2012.

At Florida International University, resident advisors (RAs) are key influencers as part of the marketing efforts of the holistic shopFIU, a branded program that promotes all auxiliary services through one brand. RAs are given free products and are told that they can ask for promotional materials for events—all bearing the shopFIU logo. That has helped get their attention when needed, such as when the university changed its meal payment plans. “If you haven’t engaged with the meal plans previously, you don’t pick up the brochure every year,” said Dr. Susana Guerra, assistant director, marketing and communications, at FIU. “This gets them to listen to us.”

shopFIU also presents to freshmen as part of orientation—giving all participants a drawstring bag branded with the shopFIU logo, which is now a common sight on campus. “We saw a dramatic lift in freshmen awareness of the shopFIU brand as a result of our efforts,” Guerra said.

Professors and other staff also have an influence, so something as simple as sending out a comprehensive calendar specifically to faculty helps generate interest in events, SIU’s Alongi said. “That’s a way to share information about all the things going on around campus. Professors often have an opportunity to have a different relationship and can have a different conversation with the student than we do.”

Doody believes that marketing is “really the work of everyone.” But that means giving them guidance. Rutgers developed a social media playbook that details when someone should respond, how to respond, and when it should go up to senior leaders.

Give Students Incentives

One of the best ways to get students’ attention is through giveaways—and that doesn’t even have to cost the university anything. At FIU, Guerra’s team worked with a snack vendor on an iPad mini giveaway. Students who were engaged with shopFIU on social media got a head’s up that the contest was coming and then clues about the snack that could deliver an iPad Mini. “It’s very cheesy, but it works and students engage and buyout machines,” she said. “It was mayhem. Our Instagram following went up 10 percent during this one contest. It definitely seems to resonate with students.”

Mystery Snack Attack

“Mystery Snack Attack” engaged students at FIU with an incentive to win iPas minis. shopFIU’s Instagram following went up by 10 percent during this promotion.

Once satiated with snack food, though, those students might have something to say. And auxiliary services should take advantage of this important insight.

“We explain this to orientation participants: ‘When you get that survey invitation, fill out your survey. That is how you get that exact service on campus,’” Guerra said. Case in point: anecdotal evidence suggested a Taco Bell might work well on campus. There was push back in today’s health-conscious environment. “When we measured it and asked the question as open-ended and closed-ended, the response was overwhelming. We just opened up a Taco Bell based on that consistent feedback on the shopFIU tracker survey.”

It also helps to let students know that you’re listening and, when appropriate, responding. That ties back in to Rutgers’ social media initiatives, which include using Radian6, a social media marketing platform that allows for tracking and responding to social media mentions of your university.

When the university hosted its King Neptune Night—which imports 19,000 lobsters from Maine to be served at the dining hall—one student mocked the idea on social media. The dining services staff was able to correct the misinformation and detail how fresh the lobsters were. “Students are often making commentary,” Doody said. “We have to be listening, and not just listening but have a plan to respond when needed.”

Marketing for Personal Success

The most successful marketing tenets will have reach beyond the immediate need of selling meal plans or boosting attendance at an event. They will provide lift that ripples. And that should include a ripple that raises the profile of auxiliary services in the eyes of the administration.

“Ultimately, it helps create a personal brand for the professional who works in auxiliary services as a role in the success of the university’s mission,” said Patel.

At the University of Cincinnati, that has meant a goal of having each director in auxiliary services departments receive the Certified Auxiliary Services Professional (CASP) designation. In the first year, six FIU staff received the designation while others continue to pursue it.

“We made a powerful statement to our leadership,” Patel said. “We’re committing to providing quality service to the campus community. What’s offered by NACAS in terms of certification and the experience and qualifications that it requires shows that.”

It means ensuring that each certified professional includes the CASP designation as part of his or her email signature. It not only opens conversations about the designation, it “consistently gives the message that we are here to deliver quality service to our customers and providing that service at a higher level,” Patel said.

It also has enhanced the teamwork among the various auxiliary services personnel as they have worked to pursue the designation together. A parking services director on campus had spent most of her career in that department and didn’t have retail experience in the bookstore. Working on the CASP designation allowed for cross-training and sharing of knowledge.

“The whole idea is to bring up the knowledge in other auxiliary areas,” she said. “That process itself helps you learn and grow. You assess yourself to say, ‘What are the areas to develop more in?’ That’s what personal branding is about: identifying the strengths that you have and the areas of growth, then taking specific steps to work on that.”

Whether marketing yourself or your programs, the same principles apply. Marketing to students, though, might bring an additional challenge: a new population each semester.


Sandy Smith
Sandy Smith is a writer and editor based in Nashville, Tennessee. A former newspaper reporter and editor, she fully understands the disruptive force thatdigital technology can be on any industry. She focuses her work in industry associations and business-to-business communications.

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