PR Team: Trion Communications and ConnectEdu (Providence, RI) Campaign: ConnectEdu launch Time Frame: November 2002 - April 2003 Budget: About $10,000In recent years, the college-admissions process has become a daunting experience. While the number of colleges has stayed fairly static, the number of applicants has skyrocketed, leading to fierce competition and an increasingly selective admissions process. Enter the private college-admissions advisor: a trained officer who helps students improve their chances of getting into the most prestigious schools. Many families looking for a competitive edge initially embraced the concept, but were misled by ardent promises of success that failed to deliver results. ConnectEdu, a VC-funded start-up, entered the market with a new approach. Led by a pair of former Brown University educators, ConnectEdu combines the experience of current college students with expert advising, thus providing clients with the most accurate and helpful advice. "The real difference between ConnectEdu and other companies was that our message was more hopeful," says President and CEO Craig Powell. "Other companies want to frighten Mom and Dad with scary statistics so they'll open their checkbooks. Our process is about calming parents' fears, and helping their child develop good, adult decision-making skills. Our emphasis is on interaction, with the kids at the forefront and Mom and Dad in the backseat." Strategy Trion Communications was recruited to create brand recognition for the start-up, and send the message that the admissions process is about hope, not fear. The basic goal was to differentiate ConnectEdu from its competitors, and position the founders as experts in the field. "Our initial instinct was to talk about the founders' credentials, but ConnectEdu made it clear they wanted the campaign to be about differentiation," says Trion senior account supervisor Rhoades Alderson. "Another goal was to reach influencers, like college counselors and admissions officers who go around the country and talk to kids." Tactics Trion Communications created a three-tiered strategy that included sponsorship announcements on the local NPR station, a series of free information sessions on the college-admissions process, and op-ed and feature-article placements in the Providence Journal, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Orlando Sentinel, the Detroit Free Press, and The Miami Herald. Results During the four-month effort, ConnectEdu won at least 10 new, four-figure accounts, and about 30% of attendees at the information sessions signed up for initial consultations. While Trion's tactics did create awareness, the founders of ConnectEdu feel the campaign was not as effective as it could have been at differentiating the company from its competitors. "Trion shouldn't get full credit for the branding and messaging of ConnectEdu," says Powell. "The message of our company is the antithesis of our industry. The stories we wanted to land did not get landed, and our real message only came out in one piece in The Baltimore Sun. Trion worked hard and was 100% responsible for the awareness that was created, but they got worried about us being a little too radical, and they were unsure whether it would sell or not. It's tough to want to be radical, but the risk you run is that if you don't remain different, the message gets lost." While Trion is aware its efforts could have enhanced ConnectEdu's messaging and branding, it believes that some of the company's expectations may have been a little unrealistic. "It's not a surprise to hear that they were hoping to achieve things that weren't always realistic," says Alderson. "I think that ConnectEdu's job is to reach for the stars and build the concept that they believe in and that we also believe in. At the front end, I would have done more planning and a better job of client education - of setting a realistic plan. As is the case with start-ups, we were under the gun, and we felt we didn't have time to do the research and to educate the client in terms of expectations. Looking back, it would have been worth the ground time." Future The relationship between ConnectEdu and Trion is presently on hold, although both companies expressed an interest in working together in the future. "We're continuing to push forward with our message, but we're focusing more on direct sales verticals and less on spending on PR," says Powell. "I would like to see our company's radical message on a unique platform. What I would love to get out of this is for a PR agency to recognize who and what we are, and to really give us the kind of help we need."