Helping Americans Fulfill Their College Dreams
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report
CEO

Helping Americans Fulfill Their College Dreams

When consumers buy goods and services from UPromise’s merchant partners, they receive rebates that go into 529 plans, which are state-sponsored education savings accounts.

Paul Holmes

  One of the most pressing issues for American families today is the high cost of a college education.  As tuition rates have escalated, outpacing the rate of inflation, families are increasingly pressed to give their children the admission ticket to the New Economy.  Relying on loans and financial aid, families are finding that borrowing funds robs savings from future needs like retirement.  In short, American families need a debt-free way to pay for college.
 
While families struggle with the college-financing crisis, businesses also face a seemingly insurmountable challenge: attracting and retaining customers.  As the Internet grows in popularity and goods and services are just a click away, consumer loyalty is at an all-time low. UPromise was thus funded to make college more affordable and accessible, while helping companies form long-lasting relationships with customers. 
 
When consumers buy goods and services from UPromise’s merchant partners, they receive rebates that go into 529 plans, which are state-sponsored education savings accounts. The more consumers buy from the partners, the more they save for college.
 
UPromise executives believed public relations was a better vehicle than advertising for educating prospective merchant partners and consumers about its mission. Accordingly, UPromise hired Hill and Knowlton as agency of record to develop a long-term communications strategy, execute the company’s PR launch and communicate all subsequent announcements to the media.
 
OPPORTUNITIES
 
There’s nothing like a competitive threat from a company working with a baseball star to throw off the most calculated plans! UPromise had spent most of the spring and early summer discussing the most advantageous time to launch. The week of June 19, company executives were leaning toward a September launch (the summer, they thought, would enable them to complete negotiations with prospective merchant partners) when they learned that baseball star Ken Griffey Jr. was behind EdExpress.com, a company with a similar mission. Rumors indicated that EdExpress.com would launch a consumer Web site in mid-July, so Hill & Knowlton decided to be first to market with a July 10 exclusive in the Wall Street Journal, followed by an announcement over the wire and additional coverage. With only three weeks notice, Hill & Knowlton team members in three US cities executed the launch campaign. Three weeks to plan and execute the PR launch initially seemed like the biggest hurdle. However, larger problems became apparent. After the July 4 holiday, the WSJ reporter informed UPromise that his story would run on July 12, not July 10 as originally planned. Therefore, agency staff had to go back to their contacts and politely urge them to hold their stories for two more days. In some cases, they had to reschedule interviews. Some reporters grew testy and many guessed that an exclusive was in the works. The team was told not to discuss the exclusive, apologize for the inconvenience and stress their willingness to provide them with all the information they needed. (Interviews were successfully rescheduled). The WSJ article did run, and it featured many of our message points. For example, the reporter noted that UPromise members can buy everyday goods and save for college; he also noted the company’s strong financial backing and impressive roster of advisors.
 
RESEARCH
 
The agency and UPromise relied on extensive research to conduct meaningful PR campaigns:
 
“Funding A College Education: A National Survey of Americans’ Perceptions, Expectations, and Self-Reported Behaviors Concerning Plans to Pay for college,” a study conducted in May for UPromise by Peter D. Hart Research Associates. The study showed that 82% of families think the cost of college is getting out of reach. We cited the study in our first press release in July and provided it to reporters. Several news organizations, including USA Today, Upside and Associated Press--whose story ran in more than 100 newspapers—referenced the study.
 
A study on the importance of college, published in May by New York-based Public Agenda. Of the parents surveyed, 87% believe a college degree is as crucial to their children’s success as a high school diploma once was, the study found. We cited this figure in the July 12 release; AP and more than 100 papers referenced it.
 
UPromise focus groups with consumers to assess their concerns about paying for college. WSJ referenced a statistic citing that 84 percent of participants would take a tuition-investment card over a frequent-flyer card.
 
Statistics on the rising cost of college from the College Board and U.S. Census Bureau. We compiled these figures for a fact sheet; statistics were used by AP and ran in more than 100 papers.
 
PLANNING AND OBJECTIVES
 
The objectives were to: increase awareness about the college-financing crisis; promote UPromise as the company with the vision, partners and funding to solve the crisis; position UPromise as the creator of a new business model, blending Internet philanthropy and social entrepreneurship with old-fashioned capitalism; create an environment of enthusiasm that persuades companies and consumers to get involved. The key audiences include marketing professionals and corporate decision-makers, as UPromise’s primary business objective is to attain merchant partners. Without them, the rebate program cannot work.
 
STRATEGIC APPROACH
 
Because of the accelerated timeline, UPromise had to launch without merchant partners, a means to give rebates or a functional consumer Web site. The agency decided to capitalize on what the company did have: a CEO and president who are well-respected in marketing and technology circles; extensive research explaining the severity of the crisis; an advisory board with well-known figures, including David Rockefeller Jr.; solid backing from venture capitalists; financial partners lined up to manage the education savings accounts of UPromise customers; and the resources to create a Web site for a corporate audience within three weeks. The agency’s strategy was to capitalize on these strengths when forming business, tech and marketing story angles. Additionally, the team consistently emphasized how the UPromise savings program works, and how the company will benefit both consumers and participating companies.
 
CAMPAIGN EXECUTION
 
Between the months of July and November 2000, the agency targeted the media with four announcements: the unveiling of the company’s plans, a partnership with Coca-Cola, Bill Bradley’s advisory role in the company and the second round of funding. 
 
Preparations for the July launch began in late June. This is when adrenaline levels really surged! While the Washington office of Hill and Knowlton was helping to complete press kit materials, eight people in the New York and Boston offices as well as subsidiary Blanc & Otus developed media lists and pitches and conducted outreach. The staff provided enough information to generate interest among reporters, but not enough for them to scoop the July 10 WSJ exclusive. They then began to schedule interviews with reporters interested in running July 11 stories. On July 12, releases announcing the company’s plans and its creation of an education foundation went on the wire. The team continued to pitch reporters around the country through the end of July, providing daily and then weekly pitching reports.
 
The team coordinated similar pitching and reporting activities for the August announcement that Coca-Cola had signed a letter of intent with UPromise, the September announcement that Bill Bradley had joined the company, and the November 6 announcement of the company’s $50 million second round of funding. Since July, we have placed major emphasis on getting coverage in the Wall Street Journal, AP, The New York Times, Advertising Age, and other publications covering business, technology, marketing and finance.
 
MEASUREMENT OF SUCCESS
 
As of December, print circulation figures totaled at least 28 million; broadcast and radio hits totaled 37; and UPromise was featured on 103 Web sites. UPromise received coverage in targeted outlets, including WSJ, NYT, AP, USA Today, BrandWeek, iMarketing News, Upside, BusinessWeek, Fox with Neil Cavuto, and CNNfn. On July 12, pageviews on the corporate Web site increased from zero to about 23,000. By late December, the total was more than 418,630 pageviews. Furthermore, daily Web site hits increased significantly following news announcements, indicating the direct impact public relations efforts have had on the consumer. As of December, UPromise secured Coca-Cola, Citibank, over 80 online merchants and thousands of local companies as merchant partners.  About 3,800 consumers have given their e-mail addresses and asked to be informed when the service goes live. UPromise President and COO Jeff Bussgang provided the best testimonial following the launch:  “Very few senior executives in consumer companies have not read about us or heard of us from the vast coverage…No amount of advertising spend could have provided this breadth and credibility."
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