All Brad Ward needed to build a successful business was an Internet connection, an international airport, and a deep understanding of why and how prospective college students use the social Web.
The 27-year-old Fishers resident is an internationally recognized expert on using the Internet – specifically social marketing – to recruit and retain college students. “I’ve done seminar presentations across the U.S. as well as Canada, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates,” marveled Ward. “It’s really remarkable how quickly this happened.”
Four years ago, Brad toiled away on behalf of Butler University, promoting Bulldog Nation by integrating Twitter, Facebook and email marketing campaigns into the traditional student recruitment process. The results were impressive, and Ward enjoyed a growing reputation as a digital guru whose social marketing techniques helped put Butler on the national radar well before its Final Four appearance. “It occurred to my business partner and me that a successful niche business could be built helping universities with the Web,” remembered Ward.
Raised by entrepreneurial parents in Rushville, Illinois (dad launched a business after a coal mine layoff; mom bought a pizza parlor), Ward soon left the job security of Butler to found BlueFuego, a Fishers-based higher ed consultancy. He was ambitious, but also cautious. “I spoke at 26 events, and we booked 14 clients in 2009 and we were off and running,” said Ward.
It’s said that timing is everything, and Ward acknowledges the Great Recession wasn’t the best environment for striking out on his own. But, the shrinking economy worked to his advantage as budget-stressed universities eschewed full-time marketers in favor of paid consultants.
Ward has since logged well in excess of 300,000 air miles globe-hopping to visit clients and speak at higher ed conferences. Practicing what he preaches, Brad also hosts online Webinars to share his social media gospel.
But he doesn’t take on all comers, having recently turned down a gubernatorial candidate from another state with a $3 million ad budget who wanted to “do what Barack Obama did” using social media. “It’s important for us to stay focused on higher education and own our niche. We don’t want to do healthcare, small business, politics, etc. We want to know our industry better than anyone else,” said Ward.
Ward’s gamble has paid off. BlueFuego’s revenue is projected to exceed $400,000 in 2011. “Higher ed is a competitive environment,” he said, citing a Down Under example. “International education is Australia’s fourth-largest industry – a place where 38 universities compete with 4,000 U.S. and Canadian schools for top-notch, tuition paying enrollees. They’re looking for any kind of competitive advantage, and they bring us in to show them how to maximize the social Web.”
Like many traditional businesses, Web marketing (Ward dislikes the term “social media”) is all about the data. BlueFuego co-founder Joe Gaylor, Hartford, Conn., conducts massive amounts of research including tracking 1,400 university Facebook pages and tallying the numbers of fans, posts, “likes” and comments that university pages generate. The duo also mine data from more than 4,000 websites to spot emerging trends in student recruitment and retention.
Ward is bullish on higher education and takes great satisfaction knowing that his strategies help high school students find the right college for them. While he could run his business anywhere, Ward intends to remain in Fishers, calling it a technology-savvy community.
“My wife and I have fallen in love with Fishers, where we intend to grow BlueFuego into a full service Web consultancy,” said Ward.
BlueFuego’s Five Tips for Successful Web Marketing
Ward believes that Facebook is by far the most powerful and useful of the social applications, having more than half a billion users – about 70 percent of whom live outside the U.S. Here are suggested ways to maximize the social Web:
- The Internet is the new telephone. Just as businesses should practice good telephone etiquette, so too should they do so when communicating via social applications. Don’t abuse the privilege. As an example, BlueFuego’s university clients who are most successful using social applications update their Facebook presence only 10-13 times a month.
- Develop as much research as you can about your audiences, not what you read online, but about your customers. An example is MySpace – thought to be dead, but research for one particular client showed it still popular among enrolling freshmen.
- Share, share, share. BlueFuego has built its business by sharing information, best practices, case studies and the like. Don’t be afraid to engage with the competition.
- Integrate social applications with traditional communication tools – experiment. BlueFuego has found that old media are the best way to promote new media tools.
- Chase your goals, not the tools. Never lose sight that social applications are a part of a larger communications strategy.