Every School Should Use Billboards in their Marketing Strategy

Billboard photo on I-75Last Friday my family and I left for our annual vacation in the Smoky Mountains. During our drive, somewhere south of Atlanta on I-75, I noticed two billboards high above the trees.

The interstates are littered with billboards. Typically, billboards help to identify a key restaurant on our journey as we look for the next Cracker Barrel or Chick-fil-A when we are hungry.

However, these billboards were different. These billboards were advertisements for two private schools (at least I think they were but I couldn’t see them clearly from the road).

As you can see from the photo that I took with my iPhone, the billboards were difficult to see.

I began to imagine the conversation in a marketing meeting at one of these schools. Someone, probably a board member, recommended that the school leadership purchase some billboard space, which would in turn generate more new students. From there, the conversation among the school leadership focused on the location, and with thousands of cars driving on the interstate daily, the decision focused on maximum exposure.

The reality is that I have been in these conversations many times in my work with schools. In fact, in my role of headmaster in 2001, I made the decision to invest in billboards in hopes of generating new student enrollment.

You know what happened? Absolutely nothing. No one called as a result of our billboards. Sure, the current parents and students were excited that they saw the billboards. However, it was a very bad investment of my limited marketing dollars then, and it is a bad investment today.

Imagine a parent driving down the road. First, they have to be looking at the billboards to notice your school’s billboard. Second, they have to be looking for what you are offering. Most parents don’t see a billboard for a school and then decide to take action. Third, they have to decide to take the next step and to call because of your billboard.

This rarely happens.

In my consulting work with schools, parents don’t tell me that they decided to call a school because they saw a billboard. They call because a trusted friend encouraged them to consider the school as a result of its impact on their child.

I think billboards, for the most part, are a waste of your school’s marketing dollars.

The only case I could make for a billboard campaign is for a school with a large marketing budget that wants to create some brand awareness. This campaign would need to be part of a larger, more comprehensive effort. However, even with this investment, the return will be minimal to none. One would have to go into this campaign realizing that inquiries won’t be the result and that the only purpose is to create some local brand awareness for your school.

I have worked with a couple of schools in Memphis where the market is very competitive and these schools chose to use billboards as part of their brand awareness campaigns. Again, as long as it is part of a comprehensive strategy and not a “shotgun” approach, then I might be convinced. However, you will never be able to realize a return on this investment.

From my perspective and experience, I would much rather spend a school’s limited marketing dollars on Inbound (Web-based) and WOMbound (Word of Mouth) strategies.

So the next time you are discussing marketing strategies and someone suggests a billboard, ask them when the last time was that they decided to make a call or purchase a product because of a billboard they saw (besides the restaurant or gas station on a trip).

I hate to break it to you—billboards are a waste of money and one of the most ineffective and costliest marketing strategies you can implement (I apologize if these billboards are from your school).

Parents don’t select a school because they saw a billboard.

Don’t do it (at least for most of you!).