What Colleges Can Learn From the Insane Clown Posse

True confession: When I was in high school, and up through college, I was near borderline obsessed with the Insane Clown Posse. Yes, I own the t-shirts. Yes, I’ve painted my face. Yes, I’ve been to the concerts and have been covered in soda. And though my musical tastes have shifted in more recent years, anytime I hear ICP it always makes me laugh and smile. It takes a very specific brand of person to be into this particular band…and that’s exactly what colleges should learn from them. Please, bare with me.

I was listening to some of their music the other day and came across this recent interview they did with Wired: How Two Outcast Rappers Built an Insane Clown Empire. It details the rise of the band and how they did it by breaking every rule in the book. It’s a must read for any marketer about staying true to yourself and your audience.

1) Know Exactly Who You Are…And Don’t Apologize

It would be an understatement to say that Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope are unique individuals. And they’ve paid the price for that uniqueness. They’ve been kicked off of record labels, voted the worst band in the world by national magazines and were named by Time Magazine as having one of the top 10 viral videos of the year for less than flattering reasons. Through all of it, they stayed true to themselves and never deviated. They didn’t change to try to be everything to everyone to appeal to a broader audience. In fact, they did exactly the opposite. And they’ve made millions because of it.

Higher Ed Translation: There’s nothing wrong with being different. Some of the most fun schools I’ve worked with are religious schools like Houghton College, Calvin College and Taylor University. They are extremely up front about who they are and the type of students they want because there’s a very specific type of student that would be happy and successful there. They feel unique and they don’t try to be everything to everyone.

Even if your school doesn’t have a religious affiliation, there are still characteristics about it and the student experience there which make it unique. Don’t run from your differences! Embrace them and never ever apologize for them.

2) Create An Experience

With ICP fans, its not just about the music. It’s about the experience. They’ve managed to rally millions of people who feel like outcasts together to create their own exclusive club that feels larger than life to be a part of…and they did it all before MySpace was there to help them. And in the era of music downloads, both legal and illegal, ICP and their label Psychopathic Records still sells CDs. Yes, physical CDs! They did it by making an epic story line which drew their audience in over the course of years. The physical CDs are just one portion, and feature swag like decoding devices and 3D glasses, and you can’t be fully part of the club without them. The article compares the experience to Lost, but with evil jugglers.

Higher Ed Translation: Make your audience, from prospects through alumni, feel like they are part of something larger than themselves. Everyone wants to be part of a community and to find their people. For example, on your campus tours do you take students to things that every campus has, like a library? Does that introduce your students to your campus experience? No! Instead, what if you matched them up with a student who has similar interests to theirs that they could spend the night with to experience what happens when their parents go away. Now you’re starting to get somewhere. What about your website? Do you have features on it which really articulate what the campus experience is, or do you have boring facts and figures? Students are picking a college to spend the next several years of their life at and if they can picture themselves as a part of your community, rather than just their name on a degree with your college on it, than you’ll be more likely to snag them up.

3) Don’t Be Afraid to Take Risks

One of the most interesting parts of the Wired article dealt with ICP’s business model. It discussed how they took ideas that seemed…well…insane and which broke all industry norms but that also built them an underground following. Take the Gathering of Juggalos, an annual two-day event in the middle of nowhere with events, activities, music and general shenanigans for thousands of the most hardcore fans. Or how about when they started their own wrestling federation or producing movies, or completely snubbing the corporate music labels for the sake of doing things their way on their terms.

Higher Ed Translation: Doing the same thing as every other school only makes you look like every other school. Say what you will about Drake’s D+ campaign, but it garnered them nationwide attention and I’ve heard through the rumor mill that their numbers are up all around. I also love American University’s Wonk Campaign. It’s fun, it’s different and it certainly stands out from the rest of the pack. Taking that risk and breaking the mold is a scary thing, but even if it gets negative attention that doesn’t mean it will get a negative result. And people sometimes forget that every so often, taking a risk actually results in positive attention.

You may not understand them…and that’s ok.

I’m positive that some people are going to read this article and miss the point entirely because they don’t like the band or what it stands for. But you can’t deny their success. They make millions and are more successful each year than they were the last and are laughing in the faces of everyone who has every put them down.

And at the end of the day, it could be any band. Or business. Or college. The overarching principles are what’s important here. It’s ok to not like their music or their philosophy or to ban your kids from listening to them. It’s not ok to assert that they achieved their success purely by accident or to run away from the idea that you can learn something from them. But not everyone is going to “get” them or like them…and that’s exactly the point.

This post was written by:

Head of Marketing - who has written 44 posts on .eduGuru

Eight years ago, Head of Marketing fell into the world of college admissions. A web developer by trade, she quickly became interested in how the web could be utilized for student recruitment. Her years of experimentation in this areas such as email marketing, social media strategy, analytics, content strategy and return on investment analysis helped to pioneer many of the online recruitment strategies considered best practice today. 

Today, Head of Marketing consults with colleges around the world to execute integrated marketing campaigns for everything from recruitment through alumni relations and development. Head of Marketing also teaches courses on Internet marketing and strategy at Champlain College as adjunct faculty. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Communication from Boston University, a Master of Business Administration from Norwich University, and is pursuing a Ph.D. in Psychology from Capella University.

To quote a friend of hers: "Head of Marketing is a super rad ninja marketing genius who will make your target demographic submit to your every whim through sheer willpower. Oh, and she's smarter than you."  We're not sure about the smarter part, but "super rad ninja" is true enough.

Compulsory disclaimer: The views expressed in Head of Marketing 's posts are hers and hers alone, and do not represent those of any company she's affiliated with. Yes, it's true - the girl has a mind of her own. 

2 Responses to “What Colleges Can Learn From the Insane Clown Posse”

  1. Says:

    As someone who loves to draw inspiration from Broadway, (and knowing full well that people do not love showtunes as I love showtunes) I appreciate how you pulled key lessons for higher ed out of ICP’s success.

    To speak to #2 “Create an Experience”, I think providing a unique and customized experience for prospective student visitors based on their interests should be considered by Admissions. I realize the difficulty in this! I also realize this might be completely impossible for larger universities who have hundreds of visitors a day.

    For example, there are maybe 600 (slight exaggeration) “small, private, residential” colleges in New England that, besides location, are all quite similar to each other. How do you stand out with that kind of competition?
    College A gives a student the opportunity to choose where they go on their campus tour based on their interests (think an a la carte menu) and pairs them with a tour guide studying the intended major of the prospect. College B gives the student the scripted tour which completely skips going by the Student Gov’t office, even though the student has made it clear they are interested in that activity. Which college has a higher probability of enrolling that student?

    Creating an experience for prospective students should be a priority. It starts with the Admission staff, but needs to be taught to the student ambassadors too. And when you boil it down - it is about paying attention to the interests of the prospective student and showing them how they will fit into your community.

  2. Says:

    Terrific post. To point No. 1, knowing exactly who you are… - that’s where so many of our institutions miss it. To channel Harry Beckwith and Selling the Invisible: Discover your unique selling proposition and go with it.

    At the university where I work, the leadership made a bold and controversial decision to change the institution’s name to better embrace our intrinsic nature as an engineering school. Yet even with that name change, we still struggle with wanting to be “comprehensive,” whatever that means. The reason? Because it’s scary to be in a niche, especially when only 5 percent of college-bound high schoolers nationwide indicate any interest in engineering-related disciplines — and because the discipline is pretty rigorous, which means attrition can occur. The same fear could hinder those religious schools you cite, especially when you consider the weakening influence of religion in our society and the shrinking population (and aging) of those affiliated with particular faiths.

    But as you point out, ICP isn’t for everybody. Neither are niche universities. Still, niche universities, like niche performers, can thrive if they fully commit to their unique selling proposition.