Congratulations may be in order for Simpson College, a 1700-student liberal arts college in Indianola, Iowa.

Why? Well, the college recently won the title of “Battle of the Brands,” a two-week contest in Des Moines’ business community that pits well-known local brands against each other. The Battle of the Brands is a midsummer advertising, prospecting and publicity campaign conducted annually by Des Moines design agency Lessing-Flynn.

It’s easy to see why Simpson College, a small, liberal-arts college in a midsize metro community would eagerly compete for notoriety. Resources and budgets are tight, plus competition for secondary education hectic. Allegiance with other causes to promote the college’s brand is a must. Compared to traditional media ventures, they may well be desirable.

The title of “Battle of the Brands” champ seems like a public-relations win, indicating a passionate, mobile alumni and student base. A final, celebratory email from Simpson’s Alumni Office to its email database arrived at 2 p.m., August 8, and said, “…It’s an excellent launching pad as we continue to strengthen our brand and become more well known to people across Iowa and beyond.”

Let’s go to the tale of the tape, and we’ll see how Simpson College actually fared.

[Disclosure: I am a graduate of Simpson College.]

[UPDATE: Shortly after my post, Simpson College’s news center released final-round voting statistics from Lessing-Flynn. I updated my suggested measurements with these statistics.]

About the Agency. Lessing-Flynn (“LF”) is a mid-size, full-service design agency in Des Moines, Iowa. Services include comprehensive identity, branding, web design, and traditional media solutions. Simpson College is not a current client.

Annually, LF releases its Battle of the Brands – a bracket-style competition featuring 64 notable Des Moines-area institutions competing via popular vote for $5000 donated by the agency to a charity of the brand’s choice.

Objectives: Simpson College seeks to improve brand recognition, top-of-mind awareness, and community standing within the Des Moines area  and the business community at large. Simpson College also hopes to prove to its executives, board and trustees the marketing power and validity of social media.

LF obviously gains attention from each company within its 64 chosen “brands.” It earns a boost in clicks and unique visitors from market-driven traffic by institutions who choose to invest in Battle of the Brands.  Additionally, Lessing-Flynn is able to gauge soft appeal within certain institutions as prospects. For example, the agency may proceed with business development efforts toward non-client Simpson College, and can measure inbound analytics by institution to winnow their calling list. For LF, it’s a lead-gathering win: Inexpensive advertising, right to a prospect’s core customers, if they play.

Sample tweet from @SimpsonCollege.

Methodology. As an advertising and social media activation campaign, the venture required little capital investment by Simpson College. Instead, Simpson relied on social media presence driven by key accounts affiliated with the college (@SimpsonCollege, @SimpsonAlums, @StormSports, etc.) and funneled outward by retweets, quoted tweets and likes from students, alumni and staff, occasionally under “#LFBOTB” hashtag or “#SimpsonCollege” hashtags. LF communicated to its community through Facebook, Twitter and company blog.

Simpson College also mobilized its active email network and alumni database, and according to Lessing-Flynn, this is the added boost that earned Simpson the title.

So in many ways, digital media as whole, not just social media, contributed to this year’s winner, as well as the Iowa Clinic winning in 2010, and the Principal Financial Group in 2011. Many of the referring links we see through our web analytics prove this. A strong percentage of referring links to our blog are from emails [sic] links sent out by the participating brands and the individuals that support them.

AdMavericks, Lessing-Flynn company blog, August 6, 2012.

Throughout July, Simpson alumni received email messages encouraging online votes at LessingFlynn.com to further Simpson’s campaign, with varying rewards and calls to action. A screenshot of one message appears at right. Emails sent from Simpson College Office of Alumni Relations

  • Help Simpson Beat Central in the Battle of the Brands” – July 17
  • Simpson Moves to the Sweet 16 in Battle of the Brands” – July 19
  • Simpson College has made it to the Elite Eight in Lessing-Flynn’s Battle of the Brands” – July 24 (Note: This email includes an advertisement for Lessing-Flynn within the subject line.)
  • Your Vote Can Mean $5K for Simpson College” – July 26. (Note: This email misstates reward prize by Lessing-Flynn, as $5000 in ad services for the college. It’s unknown if that mistake is LF’s error or the Simpson alumni account’s error. )
  • Here We Go Simpson, Here We Go.” – July 30. (This email corrected the mistake in reward prize.)
  • “We Won!” – August 8. (Victory email, celebrating donation to charity.)

Email screenshot of message from Simpson College Office of Alumni Relations.

Simpson’s alumni email distribution list is no doubt culled from graduates,  updates sent via direct mail and email, magazines distributed via email, outbound calling efforts soliciting donations, etc.  I know neither the actual number nor the overall quality of this email list.

My cost-benefit analysis is largely restricted to cost of alumni email “list rental” as delivery tool for LF’s message, driving traffic to LF as destination. My costs are derived as comparisons to actual marketing campaigns conducted during my tenure as Marketing Manager of a regional bank in Kansas from 2004-2011.

I attempt to conservatively estimate Simpson’s alumni email distribution list at 6000, loosely operating with assumption of 200-person graduating class annually. We assume Simpson College successful at maintaining a contact list of 6000, including varying factors of attrition over the past 50 years, and including possible, ancillary list subscribers and add-ons. For purposes of cost calculations, we’ll proceed with this assumption.

Measurement

Estimated Costs, Simpson College Digital Distribution

  • Simpson College email network: 6000.
  • Emails to alumni promoting Battle of the Brands: 6
  • Total email contact points to SC alumni supporting Battle of the Brands: 36,000
  • Total email contact points to SC students and staff supporting BOTB: 2000 (approximate, assumption)
  • Nominal cost of email design and ship: $.05 per email (Experience, ConstantContact plus minimal design costs)
  • Nominal total cost of email (design & ship) to alumni: $1800
  • Nominal cost of email (design & ship) to students: $100
  • Comparison cost of private-list prospect rental, scaled for 6000: $1750 (InfoUSA)
  • Nominal advertising cost of “Lessing Flynn” inside private Simpson College subject line: $250
  • Tweets about LBOTB by Simpson-affiliated accounts (@SimpsonCollege, @SimpsonAlums, @StormSports): 50-plus, ($250)
  • Facebook Messages by Simpson-affiliated accounts: 5 ($250)
  • Tweets and FB messaging costs based on writer’s experience, previous advertising expenditures placed with much-larger K-State alumni network, as sports advertising partnership, 2011.Extremely conservative estimates.
  • Estimated total cost of Simpson email-contact property rental to Lessing-Flynn: $4400.

Estimated Return to Simpson College, possible measurements

  • Total Simpson College votes submitted on-site at Lessing Flynn: Undetermined.
  • Total Simpson College unique votes submitted on-site at Lessing Flynn: Undetermined.
  • Final Round votes at Lessing Flynn: 2174
  • Final Round unique voters at Lessing Flynn: Undetermined.
  • Final Round Simpson votes at Lessing Flynn: 1870
  • Final Round Unique Simpson votes at Lessing Flynn: Undetermined.
  • Conversion rate, Simpson email campaign, assuming 6000-quantity list, and assuming 1870 unique votes: 31%
  • [Note: That’s an outstanding conversion rate for Simpson’s email ask given those two assumptions. However, assuming 1870 unique votes is extreme. Additionally, it suggests Simpson’s email list may be longer, and property rental more expensive. Also consider, one of Simpson’s emails to alumni included instructions on circumventing cookies to apply repeated votes.]
  • Positive #LFBOTB Hashtag, August 2012: 30 tweets (July data unavailable)
  • Positive #SimpsonCollege Hashtag, August 2012: 5 tweets (previous data unavailable)
  • Positive LFBOTB acknowledgement by other brands’ social personas: Undetermined.
  • Appearances of “Battle of the Brands” in Des Moines media: 1 (Des Moines Register, online-only blog.)
  • Appearances of Battle of the Brands in Des Moines media, including Simpson College mentions: 0.
  • Survey, percentage of adults in Des Moines recalling Simpson College, May-June prior to LFBOTB: Not performed.
  • Survey, percentage of adults in Des Moines recalling Simpson College Sept-Oct after LFBOTB: Not performed.
  • SimpsonCollege unique website visits, April-July 2012, average per month: Unverified.
  • SimpsonCollege unique website visits, August 2012: Unverified.
  • Simpson College website conversions July-August 2012 (e.g. Application to schools, email to accounts for more information, etc.): Unverified.
  • Expressed as percent change over per-month average: Unverified.
  • SimpsonCollege Facebook “Likes,” July 2012: Unverified.
  • Expressed as percent change over per-month average: Unverified.
  • SimpsonCollege-affiliated Twitter “Follows,” July 2012: Unverified.
  • Simpson College alumni email unsubscribes, July-August 2012: Unverified.
  • Expressed as percent change over per-month average: Unverified.

Summary

As a small college in a competitive secondary education market, Simpson College rightfully seeks to mobilize free advertising and brand awareness at every opportunity, including low-cost social media and email targeting campaigns.

However, Simpson College’s brand strength is based on far more than simple awareness. As a college, the brand and its outward expressions should reflect some form of prestige and trust – particularly within discussions toward alumni. Alumni pride is a powerful tool, but it is not blind, and compromise or loss of this pride can be a powerful – albeit ethereal – blot against a small school’s brand.

Based on crude assumptions, Simpson College delivered a value to Lessing-Flynn of $3900 for its email “rental” undertaken during the BOTB campaign. This is not exorbitant, nor is it a hard-dollar loss for Simpson.  However, repeated attempts to leverage alumni as ambassadors could be construed as a misuse of the direct, 1:1 communication that Simpson prides itself for students current and former.

Misuse of “email trust” can result in a long-term negative cost far more pervasive to the college’s brand than sticker-price for an email campaign. By chasing publicity, Simpson risks the perception that its “best customers” (alumni, students) will perceive the college lowering itself. Repeated emails with the same call to action may result in more aggregate action taken. They may also lessen the impact of each successive email, provoking unsubscribes and worse, apathy.

Similar, emails themselves serve as tacit endorsement of the Lessing-Flynn brand. When entering into allegiances such as these, Simpson should be vigilant when endorsing any partner.  Hypothetically, had Chick-Fil-A developed a “Battle of the Brands” to boost web traffic, for example, would Simpson have encouraged alumni to vote on the college’s behalf at Chickfila.com?

In this case, unfettered access to Simpson’s digital alumni network may compromise the strength of the college’s brand to its best customers. In the future, Simpson College should carefully measure what they ask of their best brand ambassadors. They should take caution that repeated asks, for trivial pursuits, can potentially degrade alumni engagement over time.

Recommendation

I would have eschewed the “Battle of the Brands” as email subject or cause, recognizing little publicity opportunity even with low-cost access to customers. Alumni, students and staff are your strongest advocates, best customers, and lifeblood.

Five thousand dollars isn’t much; but cheapening the message and the manner of contact to your strongest database carries far more weight than the sum of ad rental – even for a paltry $4000 –  to an advertising agency.  What’s more, competitively and publicly, the contest itself earned little notoriety outside of Simpson’s own network. Unless a rise in conversion or engagement shows up in August, September, or October analytics, the contest is utterly meaningless.

For example, the college could have received far more public-relations impact by donating $5000 outright to its charity partner. Simpson would then control the distribution of its PR win, including possible photo op, web positioning, social media mentions, and alumni post-email. This would result in at least one media placement in the Des Moines area, the equivalent of the LF BOTB media penetration. It would even mention the college by name.

Sure, contests are fun and it’s great to see a portion of Simpson’s alumni proud and reactive. This is no less a soft benefit than the possibility of a disconnected alumni base, or less dialogue between the college and its best customers.  Simpson College should only risk these side effects on a venture with the possibility of high return. This contest wasn’t it.

  • Simpson Storms to Top in Battle of the Brands [Simpson News]
  • Winner of Battle of the Brands? Simpson College [Ad Mavericks]