What Higher Ed Marketers Can Learn from a Box of Bullshit.

On Black Friday, 2014, the popular company Cards Against Humanity sent out an email with information that was spread even more quickly on social networks.

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The message was clear. You had the chance to buy some new bullshit from Cards Against Humanity, as better described by clicking the “Consume” button in the email. Cards Against Humanity teased us with an image of the classic black box called “Bullshit,” with a price tag of $6. Many people speculated that this would be another great expansion to the classic card game, as Cards Against Humanity has done nothing but supply us with endless laughter from their expansion packs; including a trip back to the 90’s and some cards that are so wrong, they’re almost right.

The more popular opinion, of course, was that Cards Against Humanity was going to send all consumers a box of bull shit, cow poop, or whatever you want to call it. Despite these speculations, Cards Against Humanity sold out on Black Friday — moving 30,000 units at $6 each.

Weeks later, consumers still had not received their promised box of Bullshit, whether it be an empty black box, an amazingly inexpensive expansion pack, or a box, literally, of bull shit. Rumors started flying about what could possibly be headed out in the mail, and some even said, “I may have just donated $6 to Cards Against Humanity, but I don’t even care.” All of a sudden, it happened, and someone received their box of Bullshit and was kind enough to capture the moment for us who had not yet checked their mailbox, or didn’t order one fast enough.

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Are we surprised? Not even a little. Cards Against Humanity told us it was going to be a box of bull shit, and it was. Shockingly, consumers were the complete opposite of angry; something that many would be if they had just purchased bull shit for $6, and had it mailed to their home.

Consumers may have learned a valuable life lesson, but what can we learn as higher education marketers from a box of bull shit?

Understand your audience

Those who play Cards Against Humanity have a sense of humor, and those who love Cards Against Humanity will laugh along with a joke like this one. What’s important to remember here is that our students, parents and supporters of the institution are our audience. And while they may not appreciate receiving a box of bull shit from their institution of choice, they want their core values and personalities reflected in your brand. Is your institution mischievous? Scholarly? Then that’s who you’ll appeal to, while potentially rejecting those on the opposite end of the spectrum. Neither are bad qualities to have, but appealing to the whole audience through understanding who they are is key.

Timing is everything — take advantage of the situation

Cards Against Humanity sent an email to anyone they could on the morning of Black Friday, a day where everyone is scouring the internet and the stores for good deals. They’re in the mental state of shopping, finding gifts and getting it over with. By giving out another “deal” while also highlighting the craziness of the Black Friday tradition, Cards Against Humanity also mentioned to consumers that their original game was unavailable for the day. Positioning a box of Bullshit, now for the low Black Friday cost of $6 left the consumer with hardly any other option, and 30,000 units were sold in a snap. Would this campaign had worked in the middle of August for no particular reason? Maybe, but Cards Against Humanity timed sending out 30,000 boxes of bull shit the best they could. It’s important to consider what’s happening around the target audience when trying to talk to them, as well as what’s happening with the institution at the time, too. Sending recruitment materials, for example, takes some thought, including considering when everyone else is sending those same materials to future students. It goes back to knowing our audience, and having a good understanding of what they want, but when they want it.

Brand trust is key

I need not remind you that Cards Against Humanity mailed 30,000 boxes of bull shit to their loyal (or maybe new) customers. Consider that for a moment: 30,000 people received a box of something useless, smelly and certainly not worth $6. Those 30,000 people were either going to band together in uproar against Cards Against Humanity, or they were going to laugh along with them. More than likely, this risk that Cards Against Humanity took was calculated but happened all the same. Consumers trusted Cards Against Humanity, despite the warnings from Mr. Temkin, and even after receiving their package, continued to be pleased with Cards Against Humanity as a brand, and as a company, applauding their cleverness and wit, while explicitly trusting the company to deliver on their promise, always.

Trust is not immediate but built slowly over time, which is what Cards Against Humanity has done for its consumers — releasing expansion packs, creating witty themed expansions and tapping in to the “holiday” cheer. If Cards Against Humanity had tried to send boxes of bull shit to its customers just as it launched, the joke would be perceived much differently than it is now. This trust is a slow process for institutions, too, starting with our students who consider the institution, building through their two, three, four, five or 10 years being a student, and even after they move on and graduate.

Being awesome makes people talk about how awesome you are

Be awesome, do awesome and people will talk about your awesome. Thinking outside of the box (not a bull shit box but a metaphorical box), taking calculated risks and building trust in your brand will allow you to become more awesome. When you’re awesome, people will start to talk about you, and you’ll do more awesome things, making you — you guessed it — more awesome. Then, maybe, you’ll be able to send boxes of bull shit to students and have them laugh it off, too.