Covering your bases

Image: iStock

Editor’s note: This article is part of a monthly series provided by the National Council for Marketing & Public Relations, an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.

From new student orientations to groundbreakings, the community event is one of your best tools for giving people a personal experience with your brand. But with so many colleges opting for an advancement model when it comes to communication, the strategy around this tried-and-true tactic has the opportunity to become more nuanced.

Even if your institution hasn’t yet opted to place foundation and marketing within one cohesive advancement department, the fact is that college communicators are increasingly called upon to deepen relationships – not just to fuel the new student pipeline, but to open doors to philanthropy.

Oregon’s Linn-Benton Community College has turned to community events as a way for doing both. A recent night at the ball field illustrates this approach.

The relationship challenge

Like many colleges, Linn-Benton Community College (LBCC) serves multiple cities, but one of the cities – Corvallis – also happens to be home to a very large neighbor: Oregon State University (OSU). While OSU is an excellent partner for transfer students and dual enrollment, its raving fan base and huge budget consistently overshadow Linn-Benton’s recruitment and fundraising efforts.

In response, LBCC decided that to better meet its goals, the college had to start making advancements. After all, the college has an awesome story to tell, and potential students and donors need to be reminded about why they should first consider LBCC.

A beloved summer tradition in Oregon’s Mid-Willamette Valley is attending a Knights baseball game with family and friends. The Knights are the local West Coast League team, and fortunately for LBCC, the team owner serves on the LBCC foundation board and is an alum of the college. With his help, the college created an “LBCC Night at the Knights” community event aimed at two very deliberate audiences.

Stepping up for student families

First, LBCC focused on stadium-goers as a prime audience for potential enrollment support. The goal was to remind the community that LBCC is not only “here,” but is actually a strategic first choice for college.

Holding the event close to commencement, LBCC invited all graduating seniors and their families to attend the game for free. In return, they were asked to wear LBCC’s signature color blue. Employees joined in the effort, too, creating a visual sea of LBCC blue that was more than 200 strong.

Every guest who came to the event that night was greeted by the college’s mascot, Rocky the Roadrunner, and given LBCC sunglasses and tattoos. To start the game, the college showed an LBCC overview video on the big screen, the choir sang the national anthem, and LBCC President Greg Hamann threw out the first pitch. The highlight of the event was a drawing for a $1,000 scholarship for the upcoming fall term. It was held during the seventh-inning stretch, and the media who were there to cover the game used the moment to talk about LBCC’s impact in the region.

As a result, LBCC’s social media engagement spiked, and more importantly, the college put information in the hands of many Corvallis families at a time when commencement was on everyone’s minds.

New donor relationships

Meanwhile, upstairs in the skybox, the college held “Part 2” of the event: a VIP viewing party and dinner for community leaders. In addition to foundation board members, the college invited key business leaders, education leaders, government officials and influencers in the area. More than 50 people attended.

Around the room, guests found “Did You Know” table tents with facts about LBCC. Board member and Knights owner welcomed everyone and addressed the crowd with his personal story crediting Linn-Benton Community College for giving him direction years ago.

This was not a typical donor event. In fact, most of the those in the room were not donors. The message was, “We aren’t here to ask you for money, but we are here to ask for your help in spreading the word about the LBCC foundation mission and to help open more doors to opportunity for people in the community.”

In the year since this event, many community friends have now become donors.

Tips for your next community event

The success of “LBCC Night at the Knights” wasn’t in the specific tactics used, but in the decision to take a strategic approach that keeps in mind multiple audiences. With an “advancement approach,” you can turn interactions into deeper, ongoing relationships and score real home runs for both your college and your cause. You can leverage this approach with any community event by bearing a few tips in mind:

Plan something unique for secondary audiences. VIPs can be identified and honored at every single community event you hold – no matter what it is. Designate those who are your current and potential champions and do something special just for them. They will remember feeling spotlighted, and they will up your word-of-mouth dividends exponentially. Don’t have an obvious VIP audience? Make one up. At new student orientation, why not invite high school counselors to a pre-coffee reception? How about recognizing faculty with a special badge? Get creative and make people feel great about supporting you.

Teach people how to be fans. At every community event, give out swag that is highly visible, and ask people to use it or put it on right then. The photos that you get when an entire crowd of people wears your hat or shirt is worth the investment alone. It provides evidence on digital media that people love your college and believe in it. And social science teaches us that when people wear a logo or place a sticker on their car, their likelihood of taking action with that brand sharply increases.

Let people in on the work. Asking people to come to a community event prepared to show support helps them take a step in working for your cause. What you’re really doing is teaching people how to be your advocates. Then, when it comes time to ask for something more significant, you’re dealing with an audience that has practiced their muscles in sticking up for you.

Tell your brand story. Always. Every single community event is an opportunity to speak about the larger mission and vision of your college. Never let this get away from you. Even a sign or a few words at a podium can remind your audiences that, ultimately, your purpose is about giving all people a better life. It’s the single most powerful story you can tell about your institution.

About the Author

Jennifer Boehmer
is executive director of institutional advancement at Linn-Benton Community College in Oregon and past president of the National Council for Marketing & Public Relations, an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.