By Pamme Boutselis
At SNHU, we believe our success is defined by the success of our students. Our mission revolves around that core belief — “It’s part of our DNA,” says Steve Hodownes, CEO of SNHU’s College of Online and Continuing Education — and everything we do is designed to provide the support students need to be successful. Throughout the past year, the question became, how do our students and alumni define success?
Last summer, SNHU took to the road in a branded tour bus to find out. Staff and crew traveled 8,000 miles across the country, through more than 30 states, to meet some of the 34,000 students who study online with us to learn what success means to them. Along the way, they met campus and online alumni and connected students and alums with faculty and advisors, the majority for the first time.
Paving the Way
Early in 2013, the COCE leadership team met with Millyard Creative, COCE’s internal marketing agency, to discuss future TV campaigns and explore how they could convey that no other school cares more than SNHU.
“We really wanted to find an authentic way to convey to prospective students what it is really like to be an SNHU student,” said Vice President Scott Durand. “SNHU has always had a focus on adult students and a culture of caring. The new commercials needed to deliver on our mission and promise to do everything we can to help our students succeed.”
With this clear directive in mind and a lot of late-night brainstorming, Millyard Creative came up with an idea that Interactive Media Director Seth Odell calls “beautifully complex and simultaneously simple.”
What if we were to get in a bus, drive across the country and meet our students? It would provide an opportunity to hand-deliver diplomas and bring students and alumni together with the instructors and advisors committed to their success.
“Advertising online education doesn’t usually get to the heart of the matter, of what really matters to students and what they hold dear,” says Darryl Jelley, associate vice president and creative director of Millyard Creative. “We wanted to show students achieving their dreams and telling what that success meant to them.”
Many months of strategic planning and communication with students, alumni, adjunct faculty, senior leadership, advisors and admissions teams led to See Yourself Succeed, a nationwide celebration of student success. The six-week journey across the country and back again culminated with an additional week of travel to Boston and to each of SNHU’s five regional centers in New England. In addition to visits with students in their hometowns and workplaces, celebrations were planned in areas with large concentrations of online students — Clearwater Beach, Fla.; Dallas, Texas; and Santa Monica, Calif. — to celebrate student success.
See Yourself Succeed is SNHU’s first fully integrated marketing campaign. It had potential for TV spots and print collateral and included an interactive social media element, offering advance news and daily updates on the journey via a dedicated blog (succeed.snhu.edu), Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tagboard, Flickr and Pinterest. The SNHU bus, designed by Millyard Creative Art Director David Westerdale, featured the campaign’s hashtag, #SeeYourselfSucceed, and the social channels. One member of the COCE social team was on board throughout the journey, offering live social updates daily.
The social aspect of the campaign started in the weeks prior to departure, building excitement throughout the greater SNHU community. When the bus arrived in mid-July at COCE’s Manchester, N.H., Millyard location, it was amid cheers from excited staff. While only a handful of Millyard Creative team members, senior leaders, advisors and other staff were able to be part of the physical journey, this was an experience that the entire community embraced. The blog and other social media activity enabled those not on the trip to connect with students, congratulate diploma recipients and give shout-outs to their advisors and instructors.
“The interest level was far higher internally than anticipated,” Hodownes says. “The impact this made on us, as well as our students, has been amazing.”
On the Road
From the moment the bus departed July 15, students and staff followed the journey through social media, enthusiastically embracing and celebrating the success of students as they received diplomas, shared their stories and told how SNHU supported their efforts. The stories were inspirational and moving; each stop was a humbling affirmation of the work we do.
As the bus made its way down the East Coast to New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Laurinburg, N.C., SNHU students went out of their way to meet up with the bus and share their stories. Back in Manchester, people such as Amy Stevens, COCE’s associate vice president of eLearning, followed along. Stevens says the blog became her “morning motivation.”
“Sometimes in the day-to-day work of administration, you get disconnected from the students you are trying to serve and to read about them in this format made the work we are doing here more ‘real,’” Stevens says.
By the time the bus reached its first event in Florida in the second week, it was clear that this interactive campaign was about far more than anyone had anticipated. Some students traveled four hours one way to be a part of the celebration of student success. They were eager to meet the people helping them succeed, and to tell of advisors and faculty members that meant the world to them. They also told of the late nights doing homework, of studying after full days of work and tending to family matters, and wondering at times if they could actually do this. They spoke of where they had been and where they hoped to go, how they believed their degree would help them get there, and how they defined success.
It wasn’t just the students; it also was their families and friends who traveled with them to events and welcomed SNHU into their homes. There were adjunct faculty, too, telling what their students meant to them. Faculty sat with students at events, answering questions, addressing concerns and offering advice.
Carrie Weikel-Delaplane, director of SNHU Career, who traveled from Colorado to Chicago, said that seeing students on their own turf was such a gift. “Watching our online students connect face-to-face with their support team and allowing them to know how much they mean to SNHU was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she says.
Advisors, adjunct faculty and other staff members joined the bus at various points throughout the country to present diplomas or visit one-on-one with one of the 40 students and alums met individually along the way. Others joined the trip to participate in regional celebrations with hundreds of students and their families.
“Over and over again, I heard of how our commitment to helping them succeed, especially students who had not found success at other institutions, had changed the trajectory of their future and futures of their children,” says Dr. Gregory Fowler, chief academic officer and vice president of Academic Administration. “That’s the power of making a quality education accessible and affordable.”
Graduate academic advisor Whitney Flanders traveled to New York City, where she had the honor of delivering three diplomas and meeting one of her former students, alumnus Nnamdi Ebere.
“He gave me a big hug and thanked me for everything I had done to help him,” Flanders says. “We work with students every day, doing anything we can to support them, and it’s a heartwarming experience to celebrate the end result with them.”
Throughout the summer, as various staff members returned to the Millyard, co-workers they had never spoken with asked about the journey. A new sense of connectedness had been forged and continues to grow.
As students read of others’ experiences, in social media and on the blog, they cheered for diploma recipients, congratulated students on overcoming challenges, and realized they were a part of something far bigger yet more personal than they once imagined their online educations to be.
Some, like undergraduate creative writing/English student Joan Raymond, eagerly awaited the bus’s arrival in Santa Monica, later sharing her experience in her blog. She wrote of the surprise in meeting her advisor, Torrey Walker, and her appreciation for advice from Patrick Hayes Jr., assistant dean of Writing, Communication and Fine Arts. “He took the time to really listen and then share different ideas with me,” she says.
More than 55 students and alumni were filmed throughout the six-week journey, which resulted in approximately 675 hours of video footage for TV commercial spots.
Elyse Ruback, video editor for Millyard Creative, says, “I feel very fortunate to be able to work with such beautiful and authentic footage to tell the story of who Southern New Hampshire University really is, and to celebrate the success of our incredible students.”
The raw footage and hundreds of photos taken nationwide are being used by our in-house art directors on the SNHU website and in marketing collateral. Still shots from the journey have been used throughout the Millyard, bringing inspiration daily.
“I think See Yourself Succeed was the catalyst our organization needed to bring us together to recognize the magnitude of our impact and the challenge that lies before us,” says Odell. “We are the lucky few who get to change the world each day by providing access to affordable education that can help transform lives.”