How The New School markets itself
It’s happened to many New School students under similarly dubious circumstances: They were surfing Reddit, browsing for songs on The Pirate Bay, or livestreaming the Super Bowl when they saw a familiar burnt orange rectangle hovering at the edge of their screen. If the students felt as though they were being followed, it may well have been because they were. In an online campaign to recruit applicants, The New School has employed a marketing tactic known as “retargeting” through Google.
Opponents criticize the practice as aggressive, low-brow and potentially damaging to the university’s identity. Others counter that the tactic is misunderstood and is a vital part of keeping up the university’s web presence in the fast-changing landscape of digital media. Retargeting is only one method of online advertising that The New School uses to market itself — its purpose is to draw in return visitors, those who have looked at The New School’s website but clicked away without further inquiring about the school.
“Banner ads in general are associated with spam and scams,” said Daniel Todercan, a recent graduate of The New School, who initiated a discussion thread about banner ads on a listserv run by the Graduate Program of International Affairs in December. “Most banner ads that I have seen online usually belong to unaccredited or disreputable institutions.”
The New School has been using the retargeting tactic for more than two years, but it was only recently that the practice started to come under fire within the community. In December, the GPIA listserv thread started by Todercan devolved into a raw student critique of the practice, with complaints alleging that the banner ads were showing up in a variety of unsuitable websites and that the campaign demeaned the school’s reputation.
“There is a fine line between selling your program to a new audience and becoming the grad school equivalent of Axe deodorant,” wrote Todercan in the thread.
In addition to the disreputable kinds of sites where students claim to have seen New School ads, some also took issue with the medium of the banner ads themselves.
“[Banner ads] are noise on the web, the same way commercials on TV and ads in print are noise,” said Brian Stern, a graduate of GPIA. “But top schools don’t need to do that, so what does it mean when a school does it? In my mind, it erodes the quality of their offerings.”
Supporters of such marketing tactics say that they are a necessary way of ensuring the university remains visible and viable as an academic institution.
“We’d be shooting ourselves in the foot if we didn’t use them,” said Milano student Melissa Holmes, a University Student Senate co-chair.
The New School is not the first, nor the only university to use banner ads. But according to Robert DiNardi, The New School’s director of marketing, the university prides itself on being at the forefront of online marketing, which now includes methods like retargeting.
One benefit of the approach is that it is cheap. The New School does not pay for the web real estate that the banner ads occupy — it only pays for the click-throughs they receive, at a cost of $0.98 per click. If a visitor makes an inquiry about the school or submits an application, the banner ads will simply disappear — at least, in theory. In marketing lingo this is called a “conversion”, and DiNardi said that the campaign had resulted in 13 such conversions as of December.
According to DiNardi, the university spends roughly one-third of its entire advertising budget on online advertising, and only a small portion on retargeting. The school also markets itself through a host of other diverse campaigns, from radio and print advertising to profiles in college reference guides.
“We have different ways of targeting different prospective students,” DiNardi said. “The 15-year-old is very different from the 25-year-old who’s looking at graduate schools, who may be different than the 45-year-old who may be looking at taking a class in fiction writing. So there are different places online where we advertise for those particular audiences.”
The rebranding campaign began in 1997, when the university’s name was officially changed from The New School for Social Research to New School University. Just eight years later, during Bob Kerrey’s tenure as president, the name was changed again — this time to The New School, with a modified name for each academic division.
“I want people, when they hear the name Parsons, to understand that it’s part of The New School,” Kerrey told The New York Times in 2005.
DiNardi credited Kerrey’s efforts for unifying and revitalizing the university. “He put ‘The New School’ on everything we do,” he said.
“Ten years ago, The New School was really recognized as a leader in adult education,” DiNardi added. “And I don’t think that that’s the case anymore. I think The New School is a leading university in New York City, and people know that all across the country and across the world.”
But many alumni seem unconvinced that The New School is receiving its fair share of attention, or that it is recognized beyond New York.
“Sometimes we’re not that visible,” said Maria Plaza, a recent graduate of GPIA. Plaza said that she acknowledged that part of gaining publicity and attracting interest means advertising in public spaces, but she maintained that the university should be more selective in going about such efforts.
“We need a strong approach on traditional PR, and as other universities do it — putting our research out there before making a strong marketing approach,” Plaza added.
Carol Gill, a private college consultant and former senior associate director of admissions at Barnard College, believes that The New School should market itself through its urban setting, proximity to competitive internships, and excellent professors.
“The perspective out there is that if you’re in a remote, small campus school then fraternities and sororities might play a bigger role,” said Gill. “The urban factor — if I were promoting The New School, I would promote that.”
New School alumni and faculty also expressed their own ideas for how the university could better promote itself. Like Plaza, GPIA graduate Stern echoed the value of getting professors and alums published in order to publicize the school’s academic achievements.
“Alums need to publish more to get placed in articles. Professors need to publish more for the same reason,” said Stern. “This is how word of mouth spreads.”
GPIA director Michael Cohen stressed the importance of drawing attention to the university’s varied on-campus activities and events.
“If you look at our public events, like The National Book Awards… they are very noteworthy,” said Cohen. “These kinds of things demonstrate that we’re the kind of place with debate and discussion. They’re much more diverse than other institutional and education centers in the city. Those need a lot more publicity and need to be understood that way.”
While DiNardi agreed that The New School’s public events were an important part of current marketing strategies, he also described the university as a self-selective institution and said it was therefore important to cast a wide net for applicants.
“We know The New School and its divisions are not for everyone, and we don’t want just anyone,” he said. “So we like to reach out broadly in order to get the message out.”
Chris Crews, a Ph.D candidate in politics and USS senator, said that while the advertising campaign may not directly impact The New School’s national rankings, it could potentially say more about what kinds of students the school hopes to attract.
“Where the ads maybe do matter is in terms of the larger branding of The New School as a university,” said Crews. “In that sense, your diploma is only as good as The New School is.”
Additional reporting by: Katie Bamberger, Andrea Vocos