With its AlcoholEdu web-based course for college and high-school students, Outside the Classroom looks to give coverage of underage drinking an emphasis on solving the problem.
The stories are tragically familiar - a night of binge drinking results in the death of an underage fraternity pledge. A teenager is killed in a drunken driving accident.
Outside the Classroom is looking to put an end to such stories with its flagship product, AlcoholEdu, a web-based interactive course that educates high-school and college students about the dangers of high-risk drinking. But the 5-year-old, venture capital-backed company knows that it must tell its own story before it can move the message in the media from tragedy to solution.
In 2003, Outside the Classroom's marketing and sales approach was "very disjointed," recalls founder and CEO Brandon Busteed. Sales figures lagged behind investor expectations, and the company had one critical year to prove it could be financially viable.
With only a limited budget, Busteed recruited two PR and marketing specialists from Porter Novelli - David Copithorne, the agency's former CEO, and Erika Tower, then an AE.
"Before we were able to get Dave and Erika on board, our PR campaigns weren't related to marketing," Busteed says. But "all of a sudden, I had a world-class team at a small start-up."
That team was put to the test last September, when a University of Colorado freshman, who had taken the AlcoholEdu course and done well, died from alcohol poisoning after a fraternity rush event. When a reporter from Denver's CBS affiliate started asking why the course didn't work, the PR team worked with both Busteed and the university to talk about the long-term initiatives the school was taking to address the college drinking culture.
Busteed spent an hour on the phone with the reporter and took him through the peer-pressure section of the course, Copithorne recalls. "We had a very strong, fast response," he says. "The media is getting kind of tired of telling that story [of alcohol-related tragedies]. Brandon gave them a different story."
An integrated approach
In a Catch-22 for the PR team, it is often tragedies that allow Outside the Classroom to get its message across. A much harder pitch has been the results of the course.
"We never have a problem getting people to write about high-risk drinking," Busteed says. But "we know from history that the press doesn't want to write about solutions."
"It's not a big headline when someone doesn't overdose," Copithorne adds. "Those are harder stories to tell."
The organization has focused on an integrated approach. Sales, marketing, and PR now feed off each other, and marketing and PR in particular are closely intertwined at the Newton, MA-based company. "They're one and the same, and they're totally harnessed," Busteed says. With a $95,000 PR budget, "we had to take a rifle-shot approach."
"Unlike a blanket approach - which is great if you have the resources - we've come up with a very strategic, targeted approach," Tower adds.
Administrators in higher education are strongly influenced by references, which means that customer testimonials are vital to selling the AlcoholEdu course to new campuses, Busteed notes.
At the same time, customers are often skittish about sharing their experiences with AlcoholEdu, fearing that the media will portray their campuses as having a problem with high-risk drinking.
"A lot of customers are a little afraid of doing PR," Tower says. "Once they see the results at the end of the program, they're more willing to open up."
"We're more sophisticated in how we talk about prevention," Copithorne notes. "You can start to speak with a common voice about some of the issues, and not run away from the media."
The AlcoholEdu course has allowed the marketing team to become highly knowledgeable about students' drinking behavior. The program surveys all students who complete it, allowing the company to gather and analyze data about attitudes toward drinking and how to change them. "What we're sitting on is the world's largest college database of alcohol and drinking," Copithorne says. "And that's very valuable."
AlcoholEdu is also changing the way schools educate students about high-risk behavior.
"I always thought, as a high-school administrator, that you should bring someone in to talk to the students," says Paul Folkemer, assistant superintendent at Scarsdale High School in New York. "They feel that if you individualize the message and give it to everyone at the same time ... it changes behavior."
Folkemer, who serves on the national board of directors of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), helped Outside the Classroom launch its high-school program in Suffern, NY. The suburban community was still reeling from the death of a popular student in a drunken-driving accident that occurred during school hours.
"The school went out pretty aggressively," Folkemer says. "Unfortunately, after these tragedies occur, there are very short memories. And the principal was afraid people were forgetting."
Outside the Classroom also found an advocate in the victim's mother, who told CNN that AlcoholEdu might have saved her daughter's life. Tower notes that the high-school launch is an example of how a local story in a community paper - in this case, The Journal News - can be leveraged into coverage in national outlets like The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Tower has taken the same approach at the university level, pitching stories to campus newspapers and university news departments.
"That had a viral effect, and that's how the Today show got it," Copithorne says. "We really learned to be smart about leveraging limited resources."
Partnerships have also played an important role in getting the message across. Outside the Classroom found willing allies with the Coalition of National Fraternities and Sororities, for example.
"They're among the leaders trying to make changes, probably because they have to," Copithorne says. When the coalition mandated that all new pledges would be required to take the course, the announcement garnered coverage in The Indianapolis Star and the Newsweek/Kaplan College Guide.
Events with MADD, meanwhile, have allowed the company to raise $300,000 in private donations and sponsorships to implement the program in high schools across the country.
"I view them right now as a MADD member, as an educational partner," Folkemer says. "By going to MADD's grassroots approach, I think they've gotten their message out pretty quickly."
Partnerships also extend the resources of the PR team. Tower shares PR responsibilities with Briana Pontremoli, Outside the Classroom's marketing and PR specialist. Although the company worked with Weber Shandwick earlier in its history, budget constraints forced that relationship to end.
Technology - including viral e-mail, online user groups, listservs, and Salesforce.com databases - often fills in where traditional PR tools cannot. "If you look at these tools as a PR opportunity, you can do an incredible amount of things," Copithorne says.
Outside the Classroom now stands on a much stronger footing. In October, it was on track to meet its $2.1 million revenue goal, far surpassing the $750,000 the company earned in 2003.
Moreover, the outreach efforts have increased sales productivity, generating more leads for the sales team, and enabling it to close sales two or three times faster than the previous year.
Going forward, Busteed says, the marketing effort will move from a "rifle approach" to a "shotgun-approach."
"There's an awful lot of value to customer-centric marketing, customer-centric communications," he says, referring to a strategy that involves talking about customer success rather than corporate success.
For college campuses, that strategy might mean using the success of one Big 10 university to market AlcoholEdu to other Big 10 campuses. Outside the Classroom is also developing new products, like a version of AlcoholEdu tailored to address drinking problems in the military, Copithorne notes.
"The exciting thing is we really feel like we do a lot of good," Copithorne says. "You can do good by doing well in this company."
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