MSU StratCom results: Applying the psychology of persuasion

By Julia Janssen, #MSUStratCom student

Think back to your first college acceptance. You can probably recall the emotional high that came with it: anxiety, relief, excitement, fear and pride, to name a few. It’s so emotionally charged that many students cry or start jumping for joy. It’s a life-changing moment that opens a doorway into the next chapter of their life.

Most marketers would kill to have such a transformative brand moment with a potential customer. Some brands, like Target, have even tried to leverage this moment with campaigns showing students opening their college acceptance letters.

I’m in the lucky position to capitalize on this moment -- except we were completely blowing a great opportunity. As the marketing and communications manager for the Office of Admissions at Michigan State University, we were still sending the same admit packet from 10 years ago: transactional letter in a sterile white envelope. Not very exciting and certainly not very welcoming.

Since taking this position two years earlier, I knew I wanted to redo this communication but I couldn’t justify the investment just to do something that was “cool.” That’s where the StratCom program filled the gap.

The StratCom curriculum has been a terrific match for what I consider the many “hats” professional communicators wear, from managing crisis to interpreting website analytics and digital marketing strategy. Assignments can be applied directly to our current job, making lessons mini think tanks on how to best apply this knowledge. The best part is that I have a safe space to think out ideas and test concepts with classmates and professors.

As an example, throughout Strategic Message Development class we learned Robert Cialdini’s psychological principles of persuasion and rewrote ads tailored to leveraging these principles. By having me apply and rework these concepts to my current job, I started thinking more broadly about how I could be combining these principles together for one of our most impactful conversion points, the acceptance packet.

Three of Cialdini’s principles better explained the reasons I wanted to change our admit experience: reciprocation, commitment and consistency, and social proof. Most students know their admissions decision online before the actual letter arrives, which makes the physical mailer more of a tradition. I wanted to celebrate with these students and give them a gift to recognize their accomplishment. This would also make students more receptive to our request to come visit campus or submit their deposit.

We also wanted students to share their acceptance on social media with their family and friends. This could influence other students to apply and leverage the commitment and consistency principle that they’d be more likely to enroll at MSU since they shared our brand on their social channel.

We stumbled across a great vendor who was producing flags and folding them to be used as the envelope, and our new concept was born. We threw together a pitch presentation and secured funding within a week to try and get these ready for the fall 2019 class.


Now just over a month past our first flags mailing, the response from both students and across campus has been wonderful. We’ll continue to measure and listen this year, and we’ll likely be building this out next year.

Thanks for all the inspiration, StratCom family!


Learn more about the courses taught in the #MSUStratCom program.

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