Individual Public Relations and Community Relations Projects: University of Washington, Tacoma - Gold Medal

Category 5: Individual Public Relations and Community Relations Projects
University of Washington, Tacoma, “First Freshmen”

Contact: Brian Anderson, creative services coordinator, Advancement, 1900 Commerce St., Tacoma, WA 98402, Phone: (253) 692-5755, e-mail:

Overview: How many professionals have an opportunity to help recruit a university's first-ever freshmen class? We knew our work on this project would affect the reputation of the university years down the road. UW Tacoma had tremendous strengths to sell and some major challenges to overcome. And we had very little time. Beginning in April 2005, when the governor signed legislation making UW Tacoma and two other upper-division campuses into four-year schools, we had only 18 months until the first day of class, and about five months to prime application season. Until this academic year, UW Tacoma, a small urban campus of 2,100 students, offered only upper-division baccalaureate and graduate degree programs. Our baccalaureate program accepted only transfer students as juniors. So when we started our marketing planning, high school students didn’t know they could enter as a freshman at UW Tacoma. Other colleges and universities, our competition, had been communicating with our potential first freshmen for a year or longer.

Our objective was to create a marketing program to fill 140 seats with qualified freshmen for fall, 2006, while establishing a brand that emphasized our strengths and minimized our weaknesses.

We had to:

  • make recruiting materials with no freshmen to photograph because no freshmen existed.
  • sell a curriculum that wasn't fully written or approved by faculty.
  • figure out who our students would be, why they would want to come here, and what their general characteristics might be.
  • raise substantial funds for freshman scholarships.
  • create admissions processes and coordinate with two other UW campuses.
  • beg, cajole and persuade to get information, money and support from key players. If we did meet our goal of recruiting 140 freshmen, the legislature would easily support our future growth. Failure could affect the growth of all our programs. We enrolled 189 freshmen, vastly exceeding our goal. This is a tremendous success story.

All cylinders of advancement fired in unison to produce plans and materials and provide leadership to make things happen. We collaborated with the student affairs recruiting team – staff who meet students at fairs, events and one-on-one. Advancement staff served on the steering committee and several sub-committees throughout the planning effort. Through our participation, we made sure decisions were made in time to allow us to perform our jobs.

A $1 million anonymous gift for freshmen scholarships and another $800,000 in community support would not have been possible without a top-notch advisory board and campaign committee. The availability of scholarships became a priority message in student outreach and garnered some media coverage.

While faculty debated over priorities of our future freshmen such as what kind of schedule they would like, whether they would be full or part-time, etc., advancement helped settle some key disputes affecting the curricular structure by coordinating focus groups that were primarily designed to learn why freshmen were interested in UW Tacoma. As we developed our viewbook concept, which guided our messaging effort, we also tested our concepts with high school students. Our creative and messaging was also based on generally known data about our target demographic. We didn’t have time to go through the process of hiring a consulting firm. We wrote our own creative brief and walked key campus constituents through the detail to get them on board with our assumptions and strategy. Our five-person public relations shop developed the creative, shared it on campus, tested it with our student demographic, and implemented. We monitored the effectiveness of our work while producing the next phase of materials. We built the raft while running the rapids.

Identifying our target audience: Demographic data indicate Washington has too few four-year baccalaureate institutions for the growing college-age population. UW Tacoma is set in the state’s second largest metropolitan area, a densely populated region with no existing public four-year university. Through our partnership with seven community colleges in the region, we had been serving the adult returning student population for 15 years. The UW is the state’s flagship university and demand always far exceeds space for freshman applicants. These factors led us to believe our primary audience would be traditional students. We were right: the average age of our first freshman class is 18.3. UW Tacoma does not have residence halls, and our transfer student population is composed of commuter students, so we expected to draw students from a 40-mile radius in our densely populated metropolitan area. We did.

We expected college costs would be a major factor. Some students realize they can’t afford their first choice late in the application process, so we expected some top achievers to apply late, which meant we should not advertise hard application deadlines. Some students don’t want to live in residence halls but want a high-quality education close to home. Students would be attracted by the opportunity to earn a UW degree, including some who would be denied admission in Seattle due to lack of space. This was the broad view of our target audience.

Implementation Highlights: We built our creative on the following understanding of our strengths and weaknesses and developed messages that were widely used in everything from chancellor's speeches to admissions Web sites:

  • Strengths: The UW is the state’s flagship university and one of the world’s premier research universities. Its brand is powerful in our state and connotes quality, prestige and accomplishment. UW Tacoma can boast small class sizes, which is attractive given the UW is also known for 400-student survey courses. We offer an innovative interdisciplinary curriculum with lots of access to UW faculty. Serious students will respond to this. Some students prefer a small-campus environment, although we had to be careful not to make negative comparisons to the 35,000-student UW Seattle campus.

    Location is always critical. We hoped a UW option close to home would be attractive, particularly to minority and first-generation college students in one of the state’s most densely populated regions. (Result: our freshmen comprise the most diverse class within the UW.) We did not have a richly built-out student life program, but we could feature our award-winning campus set in historic buildings integrated with the museum district in recently revitalized downtown Tacoma. Strong support from our community allowed us to offer roughly 50 percent of incoming students a generous scholarship, which solidified the low-cost, high-quality feature ¬ a major factor considering our expectation that cost would be a major factor for our students. And a scholarship could help overcome concern about an unproven academic program.
  • Challenges: Because the campus was largely composed of working students, many with families and jobs, campus life was not as developed as freshmen would prefer. We let students know if an activity didn’t exist, we’d help them build it, mostly through adviser/recruiter interactions. Instead, we played up the small-campus environment and cool, urban, “hip,” historic campus with lots of great coffee houses and restaurants. We did not have campus housing. We have only 30 majors, so some students may not see the major they desire. For the first few months of the recruiting season, we did not have a fully developed and faculty approved lower-division curriculum – we wrote around this and focused on the UW brand combined with small classes with extensive faculty-student interaction. Also, Tacoma had been known for its crime-ridden downtown. Although that had been replaced with a vibrant urban neighborhood with a university at its core, outdated perceptions linger. Photographs of the campus helped counter this perception, along with information sessions tied to an evening “art walk” event.
  • Strategy and tactics: Launch: We did some fast work before developing a strong theme. In September we mailed a double-fold postcard to 10,000 high school students from our region who had taken the SAT test. Content was straightforward and general, particularly since few details were available about the freshman curriculum.

    Advertisements featured a student testimonial. Materials drove students to our Web site where basic information, including the application, was provided.
  • Coordination: A UW Tacoma advancement staffer led a council of student affairs and marketing professionals from the three UW campuses, charged by the president, to coordinate messaging and recruiting tactics. Previously, the admissions and marketing was highly independent among the three campuses. With freshmen, our messaging needed to be coordinated. We quickly determined UW Tacoma’s best target audience was students who applied to UW Seattle who lived within a 40-mile radius of UW Tacoma. These students were likely unaware of UW Tacoma’s freshmen offering. They were sold on the UW brand and were well-qualified students. UW turns away thousands of students each year, so we informed students who had applied to UW Seattle from our service region about their UW options, presented as equal choices before they were accepted or denied admission to Seattle. We didn't want the UW Tacoma and Bothell campuses to be perceived as second tier. But we also wanted qualified, space-denied UW applicants to consider us. Enrollment data show this was a highly effective strategy. (However, it may become irrelevant in future years as UW Tacoma develops a unique reputation.) UW Tacoma added a scholarship application date to promote our scholarships and to align our admission priority dates with UW Seattle's, providing an urgency to apply beyond our March 1 priority application date.
  • Sharp creative themes: We developed the “Start here” theme, which drew on a sense of place (an attractive urban campus environment), and the fact that freshmen could start their four-year degree at UW Tacoma, something not previously possible. We wanted to have a family look with UW Seattle and UW Bothell admissions, while being distinct. Our freshman theme morphed easily to the “Reach High, Start Here” theme used for general audiences. We employed high-quality photography that emphasized student faces and the character of the campus’s readapted historic buildings. Our key messages focused on student-faculty interaction, the UW diploma, and the attractive urban environment. Once our innovative core program was developed, it became a major selling point. We avoided identifying our first freshmen as “pioneers” or the “first freshmen” because our focus groups told us students identify with the permanence of the UW brand ¬ thinking of themselves as pioneers made them uncomfortable.
  • Implementation: After producing a freshman application form and some basic Web pages about our freshman offering, we quickly printed a very general search piece sent to 10,000 high school seniors who took the SAT test that resulted in an initial pool of inquiries. A simple ad featuring a student testimonial was used to advertise freshman information sessions.

    This initial activity, along with e-mail communication with prospects who applied to UW Seattle, took place during the peak fall recruitment season. During the fall, we dove into development of a freshman viewbook to establish our baseline messaging and graphic approach. We were guided by our creative brief. The entire process of developing the book took about six weeks. We tested the book with high school seniors and incorporated their feedback. The viewbook was printed in December and sent to our inquiry/application pool then to new prospects as identified by enrollment services.

    Web sites and a search piece for juniors (also used at college fairs and high school visits) and advertisements were developed based on the viewbook’s messaging, images and design. This was a primary driver of our Web page update, a major project that required extensive collaboration to add a freshman component. The new Web pages went up in February, and the look and feel of this freshman Web path was used as a template for subsequent Web design. We used streamed video to capture the stories of admitted freshmen in hopes of attracting late applicants and encouraging those in our pipeline to commit. The future freshman interviewed touched on our key messages and their excitement about UW Tacoma was infectious. The interview locations also showcased the campus. The streamed video was posted in July. Throughout the year, we sent news releases when news hooks were identified. In addition, we updated the PowerPoint presentation used by recruiters for information sessions and open houses to incorporate our themes and imagery. Throughout the process of developing marketing materials we collaborated and sought feedback that was used to improve our publications and Web pages. Internal approval was gained, when necessary, through an enrollment management committee and the campus management team. We also worked with the committee developing the curriculum to ensure our description of the academic component was accurate and acceptable ¬ they loved to see their work described in marketing copy.

    UW Tacoma had recently established an institutional ad budget of $100,000 a year to support student recruitment. Our goal in placing print ads to run throughout the year was to develop a creative approach that would work for our transfer and graduate student audience while connecting in a subtle way with our new ‘Start Here’ concept for freshmen. It needed to be simple and compelling for use on billboards, bus banners and Web ads, and translate well into a newspaper ad format. We did all the creative work internally.

    Focus group research showed the “Reach High, Start Here” campaign conveyed a sense of academic achievement, and that a UW Tacoma education would get them where they wanted to go.

Use of resources: Internal staff developed the marketing strategy, creative brief and did the majority of the work with a few exceptions. The staff include the director who writes, edits, and leads strategy development, a public relations and marketing coordinator, a writer, a designer with editing and Web expertise, and a graphic designer. We hired a photographer for high-end images to augment our staff photography. For the Web, we hired a programmer along with a writer who reviewed our site and made recommendations for an updated structure then wrote first-drafts for several pages. Staff implemented the structure, edited the site and wrote several of the pages. Our campus videographer agreed to tape our interviews with freshmen without charge and our staff conducted interviews. On the development side, we have an associate vice chancellor of advancement who is our major gifts officer, along with a grants coordinator. This side of the house secured the $1 million anonymous donation and $800,000 in additional gifts to make freshman scholarships an important marketing tool. The chancellor provided $20,000 for marketing materials from a $100,000 start-up fund provided by the state when the new freshman program was approved. The remaining costs were absorbed primarily though the existing $79,000 annual publications budget and a $100,000 annual advertising budget.

Publications Budget:


Initial search piece, seniors




Freshman application


Web upgrade


Search piece, juniors


Preview Day mailing


Preview Day advertising




Admitted student event postcard




Advertising Budget: UW Tacoma had recently established an annual $100,000 advertising budget. Freshman themes were integrated into the overall advertising messaging.

Results: Our original target was 140 students based on state funding. We attracted more than 500 applications and enrolled 189 students. Surveys, focus groups, and interactions with freshmen clearly indicate our key messages were heard and influential in their decisions. From now on, word-of-mouth coming from these students will become a critical component of our developing reputation. We had a small window when our marketing messages were the primary purveyor of our freshman experience. We continue to analyze the surveys and test our messages and creative for more insights into our students, while researching student choice to understand our competition.

Clearly, the “First Freshmen” integrated marketing program played a critical role in exceeding our enrollment goals and getting our freshmen, four-year program off to a great start.