07 Jun 2017

Choosing the right images for international marketing collateral

For many higher education institutions, it seems that getting photos just right is one of the hardest parts of creating marketing collateral. However, they are one of the most critical components of your international recruitment strategy. After all, the reason you created marketing collateral in the first place is to persuade prospects to take action such as register for a webinar, attend a local recruitment event, or apply to your program.
 
 
Think about the images on your website, across all your digital channels, and in your brochures. Are they working to generate new leads and move prospects further along in the admissions funnel?
 
Studies have shown that the brain processes images 60,000 times faster than it does text. In an overstimulated world where 269 billion emails are sent every day, it’s never been more important to capture–and retain–the attention of your target audience.
 
We spend a lot of time in higher education developing new and updated content for print materials, blogs, social media and websites. Shouldn’t choosing the most compelling images be just as important?
 
There’s a reason that Instagram has doubled its user base, to 700 million monthly actives, in two years. People respond to photos, and we can assume this is particularly true when they are reading in a language that is not their native tongue about a country to which they are considering moving!

Photos are content also

It definitely helps to think of photos as content rather than decoration. This seems like an obvious statement, but we all know how much consideration various stakeholders take with the words that describe your program or institution. The images that will be used are arguably even more important.
 
Here’s another way of looking at it: you can read the word ‘donut’ or see a picture of a donut. Which one makes you want the donut more?
 
In a higher education context, you could write about experiential learning or you could show an image of international students immersed in a team project at Google’s headquarters in Silicon Valley. Which is more enticing?
 
Images are a powerful tool to persuade prospects to embark on ‘yet-to-be-experienced’ experiences. Keep in mind that images are one of the first things prospects see when they scroll through a higher education website or skim a brochure. As such, they are one of the first and most important opportunities to make an emotional connection and convey that ‘wow’ factor.

What’s the message?

It is critical to be clear about what feeling an image is meant to elicit–and what message someone is meant to take away. Highlighting the classic ‘three under a tree’ with carefully selected students or models from diverse backgrounds may show diversity and a relaxed campus atmosphere. That’s great if those are critical messages for your prospects. But maybe your institution is trying to differentiate itself in the global market with its informal relationships with faculty or close ties to regional industry. An equally diverse photo of students working with a professor or doing an internship as part of their program would be a better choice.
 
Adding captions to emphasize the message and show the authenticity of the photo (ex: ‘Undergraduate student X co-authored a paper with Professor Y after their field work in Costa Rica.’) can be incredibly helpful as well.

Be distinct

How many times have you seen photos of students in a classroom that look like they could have been taken anywhere? They’re ubiquitous on websites, social media channels, digital ads–you name it. Be sure to select photos that fully capture the unique character of your institution.
 
So many images can be, well, boring and basic. What can you do to capture attention and make the reader/prospect want to learn more? How can you convey your campus in a new and unexpected way that makes you stand out from the competition?
Also remember that while photos of students or alumni may be meaningful to you and your program, they might come across as generic to prospects who don’t know these individuals. This is where captions can help to emphasise why the person in the image should be someone of interest to the prospect as well.

Finding or taking great photos

There’s often a tension between having photos that look great and having photos that look authentic, but the best do both. Because we are talking about international recruitment, it’s particularly important to think about what international students (and potentially parents) might want to see.
 
Without being able to visit the campus, these images have to make it come to life–as well as make the case why your program stands out. Tying in fantastic images of your location with the academic experience is the ne plus ultra of higher ed marketing photography–and your students are likely doing off-campus research, academic excursions, internships and lots of other marketing-worthy activities.
 
International student photo competitions can be the best way to get images that really reflect how your institution and location are perceived by real students, and international students often really notice things that seem quite ‘normal’ to domestic students or even photographers. Having winners in categories like ‘academics’, ‘student life’ and ‘around the campus’ can help make sure you’ve covered all the bases. You can invite staff to participate as well.  Check out the student photo competition from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business to see a campus with pictures and names that represent a diverse student body in a natural and authentic way.
 
Stock photography can be used to fill in the gaps, and there are free sources like Wikimedia Commons and relatively low-priced options like iStockPhoto or DepositPhotos. Make sure you’ve bought the rights to use them for your intended purpose. You can also search on Google Images and sort by usage rights.

Speaking of rights…

Every university should have policies around how to use and attribute images, as well as how to store that information. This differs from country to country, and may differ from medium to medium. It’s critical to be clear if you need a signed photo release from every student visible in an image–or if your institution might be willing to take on some risk to avoid images of empty campuses.

One last thought

If you don’t have a great way to store photographs, it’s probably time to get one. Even individual academic programs should have clear processes on how photos are stored, catalogued and used. Free software like Flickr, Google Photos and Dropbox can be a place to start, but you’ll need clear naming policies for files and folders as well as a separate spreadsheet or document to record information about the photographer, rights, date, caption, etc.
 
Fancier ‘digital asset management’ software is much more useful, but also more expensive, which is why many universities seem to have custom-developed solutions. Search online to see which options might work for you, but the best versions have cloud-based storage, approvals and permissions, easy uploading, etc.
 
Tagging photos with as many words as you think you (or anyone else!) might use is another helpful practice that is easiest with software but can also be done in a spreadsheet. This allows you to quickly see which images you have of ‘diverse’, ‘women’, ‘scientists’, in ‘undergraduate’ classes, for example. You can compare your photo library with analytics from your digital marketing initiatives to identify gaps to achieve your strategic recruitment goals. Let’s say you are looking to increase the number of students from India. You can browse through images you already have of Indian students, and plan additional photos as needed.
 
Marketing collateral is essential for international students to visualise themselves in your programme. Be sure to bring your campus into sharper focus by selecting the right images.
 
Megan is Director and Founder of The Brenn-White Group, an agency based in New York City that provides marketing, strategy and editorial services that help universities reach international audiences.