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How I Convinced My Faculty to Embrace the Surfboard

Getting campus buy-in for nontraditional marketing approaches can be daunting, but the rewards are often worth the challenge. Guest blogger Pam Hardy shares insights on how to convince faculty to think outside the box. 

June 10, 2015
 

Professional schools tend to be risk-averse, perhaps none more so than law schools. It’s a serious profession with a serious approach to its discipline. As a creative professional, this can be challenging. Pushing people outside their comfort zone takes tact and skill, but if done right, the rewards are worth the risk.

The Great Recession dealt a devastating blow to legal hiring, but it provided our law school with the opportunity to do something totally different than our peer schools or anything we’d ever done before to distinguish ourselves from our peers. When our creative partners suggested a visually emotional appeal with a surfer on the cover of our signature admissions piece, we accepted the challenge.

This was not your traditional law school approach. We think business suits, not wetsuits. Luckily our forward-looking dean was on board, as was our admissions staff. This support proved crucial in convincing our toughest constituency: the faculty.

I braced myself for what I imagined would be scathing criticism. “Marketing” is viewed with some skepticism on campus, and the last view book rollout was not well received due to its top-down implementation. Taking what we learned from the last redesign, we embraced the following values to not only gain faculty approval, but also to generate excitement about our out-of-the-box approach.

Transparency

We started by building a case for why a redesign was necessary, who we were trying to attract and the realities of our competitive landscape. We shared data through collaborative meetings and faculty presentations, and emphasized that our audience was 20-something prospective students who are bombarded with similar-looking law school brochures filled with buildings and business suits. We underscored our need to stand out in a crowded market and offer something that other schools aren’t, and we educated faculty about the enrollment and financial risks and realities of not doing so.

Collaboration

We asked for faculty input along the way to ensure they felt heard, even if they expressed a dissenting opinion. They helped us better describe the curriculum and the ways in which we highlighted our clinical programs, although they often wanted us to give their program higher billing.

I was pleasantly surprised to find a number of faculty allies who recognized that, while this might not appeal to them as a 50 or 60-something professor, it wasn’t supposed to and that it might encourage prospective students to consider us. This early support was essential in the success of the project, especially that of our Vice Dean for Academic Affairs, who is highly respected by both faculty and staff.

Reinforcement from Target Demographic

In some respects, the riskiest part of the project was the significant reduction in body copy. Paragraphs were no more than two sentences, and bulleted lists replaced text blocks. Members of the admissions staff closest in age to our target demographic served as our test audience, urging us to cut, cut, and cut again. This feedback was helpful in allaying faculty concerns.

We completed the project just in time for the fall 2014 recruiting schedule. So far, the reviews have been almost uniformly positive. Prospective students are drawn in by the light and bright cover image. Recruiters from other law schools ask if they can take a copy back home to show their bosses, and the Association of Marketing and Communications Professionals recognized us with a Platinum Award.

While it’s too early to say if the updated materials have positively affected enrollment, our numbers are holding steady while some schools are experiencing double-digit declines in applications and deposits. I’ll call that a win.

So, am I suggesting that everyone market themselves with surfboards and wetsuits? Of course not. But don’t be afraid of a bold idea. Do your research, find your allies, build your case for support early and often, and emphasize how your idea best serves the needs of your students and prospective students. And have faith in your faculty! They just might be willing to ride that wave with you.

Pam Hardy is the director for marketing and communications at California Western School of Law.

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