May 2015 Special Section What's Hot

Unity College, Meet Digital


Written By: Frank Avery

This February, Parisleaf took home its second consecutive Best in Show ADDY Award from the American Advertising Federation of Gainesville for its digital video series with Unity College. The Parisleaf team got together to share how the strategy came about, its success, and what higher education and business professionals can learn from the experience to build their own best-in-show campaigns.

Unity College is a remote rural liberal arts college that would make Henry David Thoreau question his environmental ethics.

Dubbed America’s Environmental College, the campus is situated atop a little hill in Unity, Maine. It surveys Appalachian pine trees that line the distance before going into the untouched woods surrounding Lake Winnecook.

If you’re a student looking for a fraternity or sorority house, you won’t find one. Parking garage for your car? Everyone walks. Groceries at Publix? You’ll just find the Unity Farmers’ Market. Not to mention, you definitely won’t find 93,000 football fans flooding the town on brisk autumn weekends. Instead, you’ll find the Unity College woodsmen, the college’s intercollegiate lumberjack team, practicing for their next regional competition.

Fifty years ago, Unity College was founded for students who are happy to leave all the traditional frills of college life behind. It’s a sustainability science liberal arts college located “in the middle of everywhere.” The school’s classroom is the surrounding 225 acres of woods, lakes, mountains and rocky New England coastline. Students practice their studies at tilled farms, weathered down greenhouses and animal rehabilitation clinics. They plant trees and mount solar panels instead of buying textbooks or hitting the library. They grow the world’s future leaders to tackle our planet’s biggest environmental challenges.

UNITY, MEET PARISLEAF
So, here’s a challenge.

How do you market a rural, niche, sustainability-focused liberal arts college to high school students and their families?

The school competes against Ivy League schools in a geographically dense higher education environment. However, one of its biggest challenges — its remote location — is also its biggest strength: It’s at the heart of a virgin environment.

The school had invested in multiple website redesigns with other partners to even the field, but felt each redesign lead to the same standard template. With falling enrollment numbers, it was imperative to look at all the options. It was time for a digital strategy.

A DIGITAL STRATEGY
Luckily, we at Parisleaf had already worked with Unity on a previous video and had been embedded within the college during its first-year program, NOVA. Working closely with the students for the video was key in putting together the strategy. We drew from this as we got started.

We were able to hear straight from the 18-year olds who chose the college right at the peak of their experience. We heard how they chose Unity College for the opportunity to establish relationships with teachers and peers in small classrooms. They chose it to fulfill their desire to grow as visionaries and activists. They were there to make a difference through the way we grow on our planet, not through growing their own paychecks.

So, our digital strategy was to put forth that facet of Unity College. We wanted to give the staff a set of tools that would communicate this lifestyle to students and families in the digital world rather than a packaged approach. To do that, we would leverage three main tactics:

Tell A Story in Video
Video was the crucial centerpiece tactic we picked that contributed to the success of the campaign. We had to create excitement but also offer periods of reflection and beauty to hit on a youthful idealism.

Frame Them with Good Web Content We needed to balance out the artistry of our videos with quantitative, tangible content for two distinct audiences: students and parents. We created an off screen experience on the website where we presented the college in a multimedia-rich platform. We integrated the videos with social media for our millennial audience. We then positioned the videos organically throughout the site for parents looking for credible data.

Support with Experiential Photography
We avoided staged shots of students behind beakers in labs. Instead, we documented the day-to-day of the college in the field in a photojournalism style. While we would occasionally stage select elements of the photos, we went for a natural, organic and raw aesthetic to reinforce the world-changing mission of Unity College.

THE RESULTS
Admissions are up. The president of the college uses the videos as one of his core marketing tools when doing talks about the college. Both advertising and higher education associations up and down the east coast have awarded the video series with top honors.

Most importantly, the tools feel like a completely natural extension of the college to its staff and students. The tone, the application and the final products have lined up to create a beautiful environment for anyone to share the story of Unity College. It’s a story that needs to be told, and we’re proud we were able to help share it.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Build Up a Partnership with Your Creative Team:
Because we were so embedded, we were able to grow and build trust around a common understanding of the brand. We avoided the mistakes other outside consultants had made when they treated Unity College like any other higher education institute.

Focus on Business Goals Together:
Rather than looking at us as a video vendor, Unity College looked at us as their internal creative team. They communicated their target goals, and we were able to look beyond a specific tactic. Because of that, we were able to build a goals-driven, integrated media campaign rather than a single ineffective tool.

Do Your Research and Be Authentic:
Being integrated with the students meant that we tapped into their point of view. The toughest part of marketing is being natural and organic, but we were able to experience being a student and therefore could convey it in a way they were open to accepting. Unity College valued that research phase, and the results reflect that investment.

FRANK AVERY As a former colleague once said, “Frank is creativity, talent and energy in a bottle.” He’s also a little bit humble-bragging by putting that as the hook to his professional biography. He’s been helping organizations realize they’re more influential than they could ever imagine by bringing together marketing strategy, scalable technology, and smart collaborations with exceptional creatives. He’s currently the Director of Communications for Parisleaf, a branding & digital studio.

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