Interview: Market like the Army and Navy Academy

If you run a small business or are responsible for its marketing activity, you can probably relate to the daunting task of keeping up with the ever-changing ways to reach customers online. Perhaps you are wondering… how do I turn my target audience into customers and drive them to my website if they have never heard of my company in the first place? Not long ago, raising awareness about a brand was as simple as advertising in a local magazine or handing out coupons. How does this work online?

Even as technology evolves at warp speed and new online tools spring up regularly, rest assured that the fundamentals of building a marketing communications strategy have remained relatively constant.

Whether “optimizing for search”, “tweeting”, or “posting”, it seems that every day there is a new way to engage customers, generate leads, and manage your brand. Just ten years ago, you may have been considering creating a website, sending out flyers, or advertising on the radio. Today, you are most likely making decisions about Social Media Marketing and Search Engine Optimization and Pay Per Click marketing.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by the vast array of online marketing options or are simply confused about which activities deserve your time and investment, you are not alone. Many businesses are facing the conundrum of how to navigate the online world. While some have yet to dip their toes in the water, others are diving in headfirst.

Recently, I caught up with Nicole Knight, the Director of Marketing and Communications for the Army and Navy Academy, located in Carlsbad, California, to find out how she is tackling marketing decisions for the Academy in 2010. The Army and Navy Academy prides itself on offering a superior education to young men thanks to its small class sizes and rigorous yet supportive college curriculum, which is designed to provide a foundation for excellence in leadership, personal growth and respect.

During the interview, Nicole highlights how she has integrated online marketing initiatives into the overall marketing strategy at the Army and Navy Academy. According to Nicole, this shift in strategy has not only been cost effective, but also has helped the school to attract its target audience exactly where it lives today – online.

Can you tell me about some of your major responsibilities as the Director of Marketing and Communications at the Army and Navy Academy?

My job entails marketing, communications and community/media relations. Responsibilities include:

· Controlling and updating on-line social networking sites like Facebook + Twitter.

· Working with and contacting the media to distribute press releases.

· Project Management of specific marketing campaigns for lead generation for the Admissions team as well as enhancing brand recognition locally, nationally and internationally.

· Planning and execution of annual internal and external publications.

· Editor-in-chief of bi-annual 50+ page magazine: Army Navy.

· Continuous branding of the school to internal and external communities by establishing a unique brand look and style.

What do you like most about your work?

I most enjoy the flexibility of my job that includes working on a variety of projects and marketing initiatives daily. I also really enjoy servicing parents and witnessing first-hand the substantial changes their young boys make while attending the Academy. It feels similar to having 300+ younger brothers.

What separates Army and Navy Academy from its competitors?

What separates Army and Navy Academy from competitive private boarding and day schools is our leadership program. Army and Navy Academy offers small class sizes, extended “support” hours for students to receive additional tutoring, and also follows a service academy model very similar to that of West Point. Leadership Education Training (LET) is threaded into the students’ entire school day experience. Through this training, Cadets learn self-accountability, self-esteem and respect for others. Of course, with the lower side of our campus reaching the Pacific Ocean, our location allows cadets to enjoy unique sports and clubs like the surf team in addition to a traditional athletics program. The Army and Navy Academy truly is positioned perfectly, between the Pacific Ocean and the coast highway in the village of Carlsbad, making it a dream location to attend high school!

During this time of year many companies are planning their marketing strategy for next year, can you give us some insight to your process? What information do you collect?

Planning is key. With the support of top administrators and the Academy’s Board of Directors, the school has undertaken a new attitude towards marketing. We are aware of the need to expand our marketing initiatives beyond those traditional avenues: print, radio, and television. With the explosion of Social Networking and the Internet, we realize the future is online and our prospective families are shying away from traditional messaging by exploring vehicles such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and search engines. While we still run small direct mail campaigns to highly targeted groups and also advertise in a few local and international print pieces, we are now investing more of our time, energy and budget into referral sites, search engine optimization, brand reputation enhancement and social networking sites.

Has the information changed that you collect?

I’ve been with the Academy for just over four years. In 2006, we did not have a clearly defined marketing strategy and virtually no representation on the web. We’d never run a SEO campaign and advertised only in those vehicles that our “big” competitors did. Our website was your basic site and didn’t offer more than landing pages, contact information a few photos and links to stagnant documents. This past May we launched a brand new site with capabilities that include, videos, photo galleries, interactive pages, links and a portal that our parents can log into to view specific class and athletic schedules for their sons.

A lot of similar businesses are facing cash flow issues right now, what would be your suggestion to them?

My suggestion to other businesses is to think outside of the box. Think of resources and individuals who can help to get the word out about your product without shelling out thousands of unbudgeted dollars. Think back to basic rules of networking and viral marketing. The cost of setting up a Facebook fan page is zilch. Update your page 2-3 times a week with helpful hints or ideas for your target market/customers. Link your Facebook page to automatically update a Twitter account and you are killing two birds with one stone. You customers or potential customers want to hear from you, they just don’t want to be inundated with your sales pitches. Use the “drip” method and you’re messaging will make it through all the other advertising “noise” out there. Also remember this is NOT the time to quit advertising or cut your budget. This is the time to be creative, look at where the majority of your leads or customers are coming from and invest your dollars there. I highly recommend working with a team of experts to advise you on SEO, PPC or brand reputation campaigns. Now is not the time to throw your budget out the window. “Trying out” your ideas on which keyword phrases or print campaigns will work best. Check your website tracking analytics, look at the numbers and ask for the advice of the experts!

How is Army and Navy Academy leveraging the web for lead generation?

Right now, we are running a brand reputation management and SEO campaign to establish and maintain our positioning on our most frequently searched key words and phrases. We are essentially giving the search engines what their looking for – from videos, to press releases to reviews/testimonials from our parents and alumni.

What are some key factors you look at when exploring a new online advertising opportunity?

Key factors we examine before beginning a new on-line advertising opportunity are demographics of the viewers and the numbers. What is the ROI and is it going to be worth it?

As the Director of Marketing and Communications, what’s your biggest challenge right now?

As the Director of Marketing and Communications, my biggest challenge is finding the newest and most effective avenues to expose our unique product to those who best benefit from an Army Navy Experience. Our supportive teaching style may not be “it” for every 7-12th grade young man, however “it” has helped over 6,000 young men over the past 100 years go on to reach their full potential and lead lives of excellence.

How are you targeting these customers? Is it specific or broad?

Targeting customers is key in the business of education. Recent studies support the extreme differences in how boys and girls learn in the classroom. The Army and Navy Academy prides itself on educating young men of good character. We target those young men who thrive in smaller class sizes without the added distractions often found at public schools. The public education system works for some students. We cater to boys who want the extra support to “get ahead”.

Do you see yourself leveraging a social website like Facebook in the future?

Already do. Look us up: Army and Navy Academy – click on the fan page with the Academy’s seal.

-Erin Carpenter

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