In Admissions Hunt, Some Colleges Consult the King of Clicks: BuzzFeed

February 14, 2017

At first glance, you might not see a list of reasons to live in Philadelphia as an advertisement for Temple University. And that’s kind of the point.

In recent years colleges and universities have dipped their toes into BuzzFeed marketing, whether it’s with "11 Gifts to Humanity," from researchers at Indiana University, or "13 Things You Could Actually Buy" by not having student debt from the University of Wyoming (No. 13: 138 Stetson cowboy hats). Stephen Loguidice, BuzzFeed’s vice president for brand development, said the company had reached out to universities to pitch the idea of marketing themselves to prospective students through the internet giant.

BuzzFeed initially approached universities that were "doing interesting things" with their marketing, Mr. Loguidice said. Temple was an early client, with six pieces of content starting in 2015. Mr. Loguidice works with the universities on marketing and said, "we’re probably reaching out as much as they’re reaching out now," as more colleges have been drawn to the idea.

"In the last 12 to 18 months we’ve worked with five or six different higher-education partners, and that’s not counting the online-only institutions," Mr. Loguidice said.

Many of the ads appear as "listicles," which provide a numbered list of points related to a given topic, such as "11 Picturesque Places In Wyoming," many of which aren’t too far a drive from the University of Wyoming campus.

The advertising is meant to speak specifically to one small subset of prospective students. Mr. Loguidice said typical marketing strategies cast a wide net and hope to catch a small percentage of a large pool of potential customers. "We look at that in reverse and think, If I can talk to this small, specific group right here about something that is so relevant to them, every single person in that group will embrace that," Mr. Loguidice said.

BuzzFeed is famous for trafficking in such lists, not all of which are selling something. "If you drill into just the DNA of BuzzFeed, you see ‘things only lefties know’ or ‘short-girl problems’ or ‘30 ways you know you were raised by Asian immigrant parents.’ These are all real pieces of content that we’ve created that have gotten millions of views," Mr. Loguidice said.

They’re popular, Mr. Loguidice said. But their focus remains relatively narrow. "Lefties are only about 10 percent of the population, but anybody that’s a lefty or knows a lefty sees it [the post]. Like, I’m actually a lefty, and my mom sent me that post — I didn’t even see it on my own, and I work here."

If you’re looking for a case study to explain Mr. Loguidice’s reasoning, there’s probably not one better than Ana Holley, a freshman at Wyoming studying environmental and natural resources. She didn’t choose the university because of its BuzzFeed advertising (which started after she enrolled), but because two BuzzFeed posts the university has produced, on picturesque scenery and affordability, align with her reasons for attending college in Laramie, Wyo.

"I’m an environmental major, and that’s what I wanted to do, and it’s a great area for that, and the price is great too," she said in an interview.

Ms. Holley shared the BuzzFeed post for outdoor enthusiasts when she saw it, in January, regarding it as a good way to market the university to people like her. That it was a BuzzFeed piece even lent it a kind of credibility, she said.

"Because it’s in partnership with BuzzFeed, which is pretty much a new way of reaching out to people, I feel like it doesn’t feel school official. It’s not like a school website. Because it’s BuzzFeed, which has all sorts of things on there that appeal to people my age, I thought that it was a really great resource to do that," Ms. Holley said.

‘Social Lift’

Emily Spitale, associate vice president for strategic marketing and communications at Temple, said a targeted approach plays to certain elements of undergraduate marketing, and it’s not just that young people are online all the time.

Good college marketing works in steps, Ms. Spitale said, and the first step is to get students familiar with a college that could be an option for them. That’s where BuzzFeed, Instagram, and other social-media platforms can be most effective.

"At that part in that journey, Instagram and the really fun, exciting things that they use every day might be the best place to go. But then, as they get into the journey a little more, they start to get a little more serious," Ms. Spitale said.

Temple was one of the first universities to start using sponsored content at BuzzFeed. Now the institution is listed as a case study for success in BuzzFeed marketing. According to BuzzFeed’s numbers, the Temple content has gotten nearly 800,000 views, and for every 10 views that it paid for, three users saw the posts because they were shared by someone they know — a metric BuzzFeed calls "social lift." The number speaks directly to how people share a story they see, just as Mr. Loguidice’s mom sent him a listicle about the struggles of being left-handed.

Mr. Loguidice wouldn’t give specifics on the cost of the marketing strategy, which mainly depend on the amount of distribution. He said the content is sold as a package, with the cost based on how long the content will run, how many variations there will be, and how often it will be promoted.

“The one thing is, we don't charge for the creation of the content. It's built into a bigger package, which is all centered around distribution.”
"The one thing is, we don’t charge for the creation of the content. It’s built into a bigger package, which is all centered around distribution," Mr. Loguidice said.

A big selling point for the BuzzFeed strategy, Mr. Loguidice said, is the data that come with it. "One of the key things that we do, and most people don’t realize this, is we’re a technology company," he said. "To be able to provide data and insight to them in real time … is immeasurable."

Ms. Spitale said that’s true across higher-education marketing. "We’re getting smarter every day, and we’re finding more and more out about our users, our prospective undergraduate students, and how they want to interact with our university," she said, adding that more data suggest that digital advertising will play an even bigger role in reaching younger audiences in efforts to hit admissions goals.

"There’s a need for and some smart reasons to start looking even at 15-year-olds," she said. "How they use technology, how they get their information, and process that information, changes a lot more quickly than it did before."