InterviewFail: How Colleges are Making a Market Out of Recent University GraduatesKaren Thomson | Vice President Marketing and Strategic Enrolment Management, George Brown College
One of the most significant critiques of higher education in the modern era is that graduates are unprepared to enter the workforce, lacking in the basic skills employers are looking for. Universities, however, say their role is not to act as a job-training hub for employers. Enter colleges, whose mission is to support the employability of students. George Brown College recently launched a marketing campaign called InterviewFail, shining a spotlight on the unpreparedness of recent graduates while highlighting their differentiator in one stroke.
Evo: How did you and your team come up with the InterviewFail idea?
KT: We start all of our advertising with market research. Many years ago we determined the most important benefit we offer our prospective students and graduates is employability. We engaged in market research with employers across the Greater Toronto Area (our service region) and asked them what skills they most value in candidates they’re hiring straight out of postsecondary education. Those were ranked in terms of importance.
Ultimately the creative strategy behind the advertising is a much broader piece of work that really drives the whole organization to define how we can prepare students to be those candidates of choice. People skills are what our employers identified as being one of the most important skill sets that graduates have. The campaign is centered on balancing technical skills with people skills.
The creative idea was developed with our advertising agency after we developed a creative strategy. We pre-tested it among 150 prospective students both qualitatively and quantitatively. We tweaked it from the learning that we have in that pre-test research.
Evo: What are you and your team doing to make sure InterviewFail stands out to that specific marketplace of recent graduates from four-year universities?
KT: One of the best ways to make sure you have impact in a really crowded market is to have a creative concept that is most relevant to those prospective students. If you combine the quality of emotional relevance and situational relevance with proper exposure, you get the standout factor that you’re looking for. In this case we use humor in the campaigns, which carries with it some risk but it also makes a particular campaign stand out from other campaigns.
We chose a medium that allow our prospective students to engage with the material. In this case we created a microsite that allows prospective students to share their “InterviewFail” stories. Employers have a great many stories as well that they’ve shared about candidates they’ve interviewed who don’t have the soft skills that they seek.
Evo: How important is the market of recent university graduates to colleges?
KT: For George Brown, probably a quarter of our population are students that have some form of postsecondary education, whether they are university graduates, college graduates or students that have started university and decided to make a switch.
We do tend to have a slightly more mature student body. While we don’t target university graduates specifically, we do get a lot of them because their motivation is employment. We also get those that have been either misdirected in their first career choices and want to correct that or are in the workplace and want to advance or change their careers.
Evo: How does the campaign play into the college’s vision of higher education?
KT: Our long-term strategy is about a new paradigm for postsecondary education. In the old days, postsecondary education used to be a loaded decision where teenagers made one career decision, chose the education suited to that career choice and carried on.
Today is a very different environment. People in the workplace have to be lifelong learners and it’s not surprising for people to go back and add to their educational backgrounds at every stage of their life. Nowadays, people have an average of five and six different careers and job categories in their lifetime. George Brown wants to be there for people at all stages of their career. We have the modular learning that’s going to suit their needs at every stage of their career.
Evo: What are some of the most significant challenges of getting recent degree-holders to apply to college?
KT: We find the challenge is less about the current prospective students and more about the perceptions of the older generation. Sometimes parents have not updated their knowledge about what either specific colleges or the college category can offer relative to the university category. The biggest challenge is really having those parents update their perception and understand that college graduates are so much more highly valued by employers today than they were 30 or 40 years ago.
Evo: Do you find that the non-traditional student segment has the same challenges in terms of perception of colleges?
KT: It goes in both ways. The younger the people are, the more influenced they are by older people. By the same token, the older the person is the less likely they will have relevant direct experience with the postsecondary system as it currently stands.
We find that those individuals in their 20s who have had exposure and experience are both confident and most up to date in terms of their knowledge of postsecondary education because they are accessing that information from their peers.
Evo: How is the InterviewFail campaign helping to overcome those perception issues?
KT: When we surveyed our prospective student population, they learned that they still don’t have a strong understanding of how important soft skills are to employers. This campaign was really meant to address that by putting those prospective students in a situation that they all can relate to. By illustrating how the lack of soft skills can directly impact their career progress in the form of an interview, something most of them would have experienced at that point, they can nod their heads and say “Oh, I get it now.”
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the different approach you are taking with the InterviewFail campaign and what you are hoping it will accomplish for the institution over time?
KT: I am really surprised and happy that folks within the college and postsecondary education system seem to be embracing this. You always take a bit of a risk when you step outside of the box. Postsecondary education is ready for a change in approach and I’m really happy to see that because we as a category aren’t known for our tenancy to take risks or be bold when it comes to communicating to a young audience. I’m happy to see it as someone who is deeply engaged in seeing a system really progress and be able to move forward and be able to meet the needs of our changing demographic population.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Administrator