Launching its School of Technological Entrepreneurship (STE), Northeastern University, assisted by PR agency Peppercom, faced a true test.
"There are close to 2,000 universities implementing similar programs, so just to break through all of that clutter was challenging," says Dawn Lauer, management supervisor at Peppercom.
Northeastern needed to link the launch campaign to a topic or trend that would help differentiate it.
"We needed to get the brand into the public eye and initiate dialogue," says Brian Kenny, VP of marketing and communications at Northeastern. "We also knew it was critical to identify the right channels to push the message into the mainstream."
Where do entrepreneurs come from? "According to our research, the question of born vs. bred has long been debated through studies in academia and within the media, but no one had ever gone directly to the source: the entrepreneurs," Lauer says.
This simple question, drawn from original Peppercom research, was accessible, not too scholarly, and engaging.
"It's a topic that made sense for our institution, one we could claim legitimately, and had the popular appeal to get picked up in the mainstream," Kenny says.
The challenge was to ignite enough commentary and debate in the media and blogosphere to indirectly draw attention to the launch of STE.
Enlisting Entrepreneur magazine to distribute a five-question survey to 5,000 subscribers, Northeastern and Peppercom began building momentum.
The run-up to the release of the results included a series of podcasts - moderated by Peppercom cofounder Steve Cody, a Northeastern alumnus - posted on the STE Web site. Each included two representatives of STE's target audiences: students, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and faculty.
Peppercom fanned out over a wide range of media, including pre-pitching select survey results and providing advanced embargoed copies to top-tier reporters. Peppercom also canvassed relevant bloggers.
The actual release of the results coincided with the launch of the school at an event on campus.
In total, 79 outlets reported on the survey results, including The Boston Globe, Washington Post, Inc., Mass High Tech, Tech Web, and Entrepreneur.
The debate spread throughout online communities, starting with the USA Today Small Business Connection blog, and 44 other blogs wrote about the survey results and linked to the STE Web site and podcasts.
Web visitors to STE's site during October - when the majority of the outreach was conducted - increased an average of 100 unique visitors per day. On the day the school launched, Web site visitors increased 271%.
According to Peppercom, the awareness the effort has built has brought increased interest from current and prospective students, academia, and donors.
The original strategy was to partner and co-brand the research, with Entrepreneur providing access to its subscriber list.
"Well, they backed off, and we had to pay," Kenny says. "But once they saw the success we had, they came back and suggested we do a follow-up survey."
Northeastern is tinkering with developing some type of regularly scheduled research as a brand-building program.
PR team: Northeastern University's School of Technological Entrepreneurship (Boston) and Peppercom (New York)
Campaign: School of Technological Entrepreneurship launch
Duration: May to November 2006
Taking a cue from a handful of other universities, Northeastern wisely implemented a strategy involving branded research.
Not only was it a way to bring attention to the launch of the school, but also STE now has the ability to build on the momentum of the survey and develop a nationally recognized research program for the entrepreneurship space. The program would be an exceptional asset to help further differentiate STE from the 1,992 other entrepreneurship programs in the US.