It was so obvious.
Michael Kaltenmark remembers the exact moment the plan was hatched to begin delivering Butler University admission decisions with a 65-pound, heavy-breathing, slobbery bulldog.
“I immediately thought ‘Yes. Duh. Of course we should be doing that!’” says Kaltenmark.
It was 2014 and Kaltenmark, Director of Community and Government Relations and caretaker to official live mascots Butler Blue II and III (better known as Trip) had been traveling with bulldog in tow to different cities alongside the men’s basketball team. The duo would make stops at some of the city’s main attractions and called their treks the Big Dawgs Tour.
“We had already set this precedent of taking Trip on the road,” Kaltenmark says. “Matt Mindrum, our Vice President of Marketing at the time, suggested we should bolster those efforts and go see prospective students in each market who were waiting for their admission decision.”
Light bulb moment. The #ButlerBound program was born.
“I knew it was a great idea, and that was validated after the first few visits we made,” Kaltenmark says. “We saw each family’s reactions, and watched the ripple effect made in social media and in each community we traveled to.
“I knew we were on to something good.”
Every year since, Trip and his team have been surprising high school seniors at their homes, schools, and places of work to let them know that they’ve been admitted to Butler–in person and live on social media, with thousands of followers sharing in the moment. Now entering its fifth year, the initiative has grown rapidly and delivered surprises to hundreds of high schoolers across 17 states.
These carefully crafted visits require days of preparation, cooperation from co-conspiring admission counselors, parents, teachers, and a full gas tank to keep the Butler Blue Mobile trekking. But the efforts are worth it, as students who receive a visit from Trip are more likely to enroll at Butler than those who don’t. And the reach extends beyond just those who receive a personal surprise. The goal, Kaltenmark says, is to capture student and family reaction and then feature it on social media so prospective students miles away might be inclined to apply.
The decades-old tradition of checking the mailbox for the large envelope is slowly changing. In fact, 92 percent of high school seniors now say they prefer to receive most communications from colleges–including the “you’ve been admitted’ announcement–online. And in an ever-competitive market, where the number of college-bound high school students is declining, university admissions and marketing departments must get creative to stand out.
Six years in, the #ButlerBound program has completely changed the “I got in!” daydream for hopeful Butler applicants. That daydream now includes a knock on the door and a little bit of dog drool.
Students who receive a personal visit from Trip are 25-30 percent likely to end up enrolling—much higher than the University’s standard 10-15 percent yield rate.
“We know a visit from the dog probably won’t take a ‘no’ to a ‘yes’,” Kaltenmark says. “But it causes families to take a closer look at Butler. We’ve had parents tell us that we went from fifth on their son’s list to first, just because of our visit.”
The visits create a reason for some lighthearted celebration–much needed during what can otherwise be an extremely stressful time, says Director of Admission DJ Menifee.
“We know how serious the college decision-making process is for families,” Menifee says. “This campaign lets them put their guard down and just enjoy the experience.”
The program is also a morale booster for the admission staff. Whitney Ramsay, Assistant Director of Admission, has helped coordinate many student visits.
“I feel like I’m a Publisher’s Clearinghouse employee,” she laughs. “I’m able to truly witness a student’s admission to Butler University, in a way that only a Butler admission counselor can. It’s so rewarding to see students who I’ve come to know through the application process receive that big surprise.”
The broader Butler community of students, alumni, and faculty and staff support the campaign each year, helping to welcome each student on social media. Kaltenmark doesn’t think the original idea caught any of them by surprise, though.
“I think Butler folks almost expected this sort of thing from us,” he says. “It’s just indicative of who we are as an institution.”
But outside of Butler?
“People were immediately captivated,” he says. “It’s a really simple concept, but the idea was fresh and innovative in higher education. We started turning heads and got the attention of a lot of people.”
The heads that turned included those at local and national media outlets. In 2017, the campaign was featured on NBC Nightly News and the front pages of the Wall Street Journal and the Indianapolis Star. The initiative has also won two Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) awards for its innovative use of social media, a prestigious honor in the world of higher education marketing.
And remember that “ripple effect?”
Since 2014, applications to Butler have increased by nearly 70 percent, with particularly significant out-of-state growth. In the last three years alone, the University has welcomed its two largest incoming first-year classes ever.
“We leave these families in awe. They go tell five other families about their experience. Each student shares it on his or her own social media platforms and their classmates all see it,” Kaltenmark says. “Each visit is about much more than just the student we’re seeing.”
The number one question about the program is a tough one to answer.
“People want to know how we select students for visits,” Kaltenmark says. “And there are a lot of factors at play. It’s very time-consuming.”
Geography plays a huge role in the planning process, he says. The team seeks to visit as many students as possible on any given day, to maximize resources. So. students who live near Indianapolis or in highly-populated areas with lots of other applicants have a natural advantage. Those who happen to live in a market that coincides with an away basketball game or a Big Dawgs Tour stop also have better-than-average odds.
In many ways, Kaltenmark says, some luck and a certain amount of randomness is involved.
But over the years, the level of sophistication behind-the-scenes has grown, too. Butler’s admission and marketing teams work side-by-side to make this seemingly grassroots campaign operate like a well-oiled machine. A massive amount of student data is collected and combed through, with flagging processes set up to identify prospective students who could be good candidates for a personal visit. Admission counselors know which cues to look for as they spend time reading each student’s application individually (yes, all 16,000+ of them), and inbound requests from alumni, current students, and faculty and staff are documented and shared at a rapid pace, so that the let’s-go-visit-this-student alarm can be sounded as quickly as possible.
And while the team gets to enjoy watching each visit unfold online alongside the rest of the world, their work doesn’t stop when the livestream ends. There are social media posts to draft and videos to edit and metrics to collect and report out.
And more students to visit.
“We enjoy the moment, for sure,” Kaltenmark says. “It’s personally very rewarding to play such an active role like this. But then we get back to work.”
Just like all well-orchestrated events, the #ButlerBound campaign presents its own unique challenges.
“Once, we went to the wrong home,” Kaltenmark says. “We were at the neighbor’s house knocking on the door until he came out and pointed us in the right direction. Of course, that was the year we had started using Facebook Live, so thousands of people were laughing at us.”
The team has learned to troubleshoot other issues over time.
“Five years in, Trip has this drill pretty much down pat,” he says. “But we still try to keep him away from balloon bouquets. And cats.”
In 2016, the program suffered its greatest challenge to date. Trip was sidelined with an ACL injury and couldn’t make the rounds. But rather than cancel visits, the team called in for backup from Trip’s great nieces and nephews, 10-week old English bulldog puppies who shared the same lineage. Some particularly lucky students opened their doors that year to find upwards of six puppies on their front porch, sporting oversized Butler gear, overexcited personalities, and more puppy rolls than one can imagine.
The one challenge that’s remained constant throughout the years? Operating on a shoestring budget.
“We’re really frugal in this campaign. We have to be,” Kaltenmark says. “We drive ourselves or try to hitch a ride on the team charter when we’re traveling with the team. We all share one hotel room, Trip included. We have to be really creative.”
A lot has changed since year one.
“After the first round of visits, President Jim Danko asked me if we could ‘just get 30 dogs’,” says Kaltenmark, laughing.
And while the number of mascots didn’t change, the number of student visits has. In 2015, the team delivered nearly 100 surprises in multiple states, more than three times the number visited in 2014. That pace has remained steady ever since.
In 2017, a Marketing Specialist was added to the team to help with the live mascot program’s growing needs. Butler graduate Evan Krauss now handles the bulk of the planning efforts and joins Kaltenmark and Trip on the road.
Later that year, Facebook Live became a part of the equation, allowing social media followers to join in on each and every surprise.
In September 2018, the team began visiting graduate students admitted to the Lacy School of Business’s new Master of Science in Risk and Insurance program.
But with all of these enhancements, the team has made sure the bread-and-butter of the concept remains unchanged.
“We’re two guys who graduated from Butler, rolling up with a dog in an official mascot sweater to deliver exciting news in person,” Kaltenmark says. “We’re like Butler missionaries spreading the Bulldog gospel.”
Looking ahead, Kaltenmark says people can expect the annual tradition to continue. The program has become an integral component of the University’s enrollment and brand awareness strategies.
“If anything, we’re now just looking for ways to continue to evolve things and one-up ourselves,” he says. “Who knows what’s next?”
Director of Strategic Communications