Getting Schooled on First Impressions

By Hinda Mitchell
April 5, 2016

Your mom said it to you at least one thousand times: "You only get one chance to make a first impression." This timeless phrase was on my mind this week as my son and I toured four distinctly different colleges in the quest for the perfect music program in just the right vibrant location. Not an easy task when you're the mom of a 16-year-old-musician.

In the public relations world, it's fair to say that how people perceive your brand, your work, your leadership or your value proposition may likely be determined within the first encounters. So, what will yours say?

Our four college visits provide a point of illustration. For purposes of this column, I've renamed them. It would be easy to focus on the levels of swag – but I want to focus on the things that they did that shaped our impression – regardless of promotional budget.

It should also be noted that each started on a level playing field – they knew his name, age and background, as well as his desired major. We had filled out detailed visit applications online.

1. Small urban liberal arts college. On a very rainy morning, it was lovely and welcoming to arrive at the admissions office only to find a designated parking space, complete with my son's name and projected college graduation date. We went through the standard presentation and student-led tour, and then attended a pre-arranged (by the college) visit with the chair of the school's music department. He not only visited with my son, but he took time to introduce him to other professors that teach in his area and to provide a brief tour of the building. He even showed us how he connects with current students. The school engaged with us on social media following the visit.

LESSONS: The little things can make a big difference. Planning ahead positions you for success. Showing personal interest matters.

2. Larger, urban out-of-state, state school. This school was very engaged on social media, even had a dedicated college visit hashtag, and had a lot of electronic communication prior to our visit. We arrived to the tour and presentation meeting spot, and the building was not very clean. The person providing our presentation said she had been with the university for more than a decade, however, a line she used frequently during her presentation was, "Gosh, after 10 years, I should probably know that shouldn't I?" (but she didn't). Much of her presentation was spent on the benefits for students of discounted athletic tickets and the ability to sell them for a large profit to non-students. My son, a non-athlete, heard nothing about the programs he was interested in, and when we asked about meeting with the music program, that option was unavailable. At my son's direction, we skipped the tour and took the school off the list.

LESSONS: Know your audience. Work the room. Making the wrong first impression can be costly.

3. Mid-sized, private school with a specialty focus. We arrived to a large room, full of visitors, which was a little overwhelming. That said, once the presentation began, there was a lot of discussion of the school's musical offerings. The room was beautiful, the presenter was professional, and the presentation went off flawlessly. They divided us into small groups for the tour, which made the process manageable. While we were touring, we were able to see the music in action – and there was even a trumpet player (my son's instrument) outside providing live music from a gazebo. We had a detailed follow up presentation with the music school officer, which provided so much relevant information that my son even took notes and asked questions (the only time during all four schools).

LESSONS: Be focused. Be engaged. Play up your assets. Give your audience what they need to make good decisions about your brand.

4. Top tier, Ivy-League-esque, conservatory-style institution. By far the most expensive of the four schools we visited, it was surprisingly the least impressive. We arrived early, and asked for suggestions of where to walk. She suggested we go up and see the new football stadium and baseball fields (see #2 above). The presentation was held in the lobby of the music school, at a table adjacent to a busy hallway where students were yelling, playing instruments and moving between classes. It was difficult to hear and uncomfortable for questions and engagement. On the tour, our guide told us he'd grabbed his car keys instead of the building keys, so we couldn't see the practice and performance rooms he would normally show us. We also learned that day that they would only accept three trumpet students into the school, dashing the hopes of a 16-year-old musician at the start.

LESSONS: Be prepared. Monitor your environment. Manage expectations.

Whether you're competing for a potential college freshman or for the next consumer, putting your best foot forward can be instrumental (get it?) in helping your target audience understand who you are and what value you deliver.