Safe Creative Work Won't Work

This article was ghostwritten as part of a corporate content marketing strategy and originally appeared on Inside Higher Education’s Call-to-Action on January 18, 2017.

Design and creative work are often valued simply for their aesthetics, but their functionality runs much deeper than art. Many now value persuasion as the primary function of communication, and any expression of imagery or language impresses upon its audience a particular message. Yet in higher ed, unfortunately, many err on the side of caution with their art direction and end up getting ignored (at best) or articulating the wrong things (at worst). Thus, these institutions end up underserving their prospective students because they’re unable to advance the unique advantages of their institutions.

We are now fully immersed in an attention economy, and to survive in a marketplace where attention is currency, messages simply HAVE to draw attention. Unfortunately, recent research about human behavior has revealed that the amount of time you have to actually capture someone’s attention is extremely narrow—only about 200 milliseconds or so. So how on earth can you cut through the noise and draw attention in such a short amount of time? Step out of your comfort zone with visually arresting design.

As author Robert Cialdini argued extensively in his book Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade, the messages that we present first have a dramatic impact on the influence of the messages that follow, in two notable ways. The first job of those opening messages is to simply initiate the communication flow, and the second job is to remove barriers to receptivity. While the notion that messages must garner attention is largely intuitive to many, the attention-grabbing aspect of design is often underweighted in terms of importance. As Cialdini points out, there is a “human tendency to assign undue levels of importance to an idea as soon as one’s attention is turned to it.” Therefore, the simple act of catching attention not only initiates the conversation, it exponentially increases the chances that your message will be metabolized and accepted.

These first messages often take the form of design in marketing messages, and designs must, first and foremost, stand out. It is often the case that the imagery used by most higher ed institutions is interchangeable. One university’s ad for their online MBA program could easily belong to the university across town, and vice versa. What ends up happening in these higher ed ads is that they sell the experience itself—an MBA or online education—rather than portraying the unique experience of the individual institution. By playing it safe, you simply sell the industry, not your institution. And more importantly, you’re highly unlikely to initiate the interaction at all.

When thinking of work that is bold enough to break through, a couple of examples come to mind. Neumont University’s Helio Training, a project-based software development program, doesn’t shy away from bold statements in their What the Helio? campaign. Outside of education, there are few better creative campaigns than the Apple iPod campaign. Neither of these campaigns shy away from the striking or the unexpected, thus capturing attention and breeding a sense of wonder and intrigue in their audiences.

Logistically speaking, as institutions develop campaigns, most of the work is reviewed by multiple people, multiple times. In the time it takes to move a campaign from concept to market there are multiple iterations, revisions, feedback loops, etc. And when we review creative at such a granular level, we often lose sight of the fact that most people will only see the design a few times, with only one chance at a first impression. Yet we make tradeoffs, debating nuances that only our own community will catch rather than prioritizing the power of first impressions. So as we review creative, we have to champion that first touch, defend the rights of the busy consumer, and ensure our work is bold enough to break through.

Safe art direction provides virtually no benefit to higher ed institutions. Imagery shouldn’t just make you feel good or avoid making waves, it must drive results. It must invoke a number of things for the audience specific to your institution—emotion, recall, action, identity, values. It should set expectations for your audience and compel them to action. And while there isn’t an exact science to the creative side of marketing, you need attention-getting creative that stands out and gets results. So be bold with your photography, your art, your language, and your positioning, and secure your real estate in the attention economy.