What I Learned on Summer Vacation

by Jeff Ebbing
Southeastern Community College
West Burlington, IA

I don’t know about you, but I packed a LOT into my summer. We put 8,492 miles on my wife’s tiny Ford Fiesta (and I likely rounded down) as we traversed no less than eight states over a two-month period.

For my son’s wedding in June, we traveled from sunny Burlington, Iowa, Earth to Sierra Vista, Arizona, Surface of the Sun. Given the distant location that my namesake spawn has chosen to settle, my wanderlust prompted me to make the journey part of the fun while the community college employee in me wanted to save money and burn down vacation days dangerously close to expiring. So Marketing Wife and I wedged our moody teenage Marketing Daughter between suitcases and gift bags in the back seat of the aforementioned party car and headed west.

Channeling my inner Clark Griswold, I decided to break the monotony of our 23-hour trip by relying on one of the oldest forms of mass marketing – the roadside billboard. Even in our always-connected world, these silent salesmen are surprisingly effective at alerting weary motorists of upcoming rest stops and points of interest.

About an hour outside of Kansas City, there, sprawled on the side of a barn, one message spoke to me. I read the magic words as I drove by at 75 mph (legally, btw) and instantly knew our next stop.

100 miles later, I put the car in park in front of a true feat of human will: the world’s largest hand-dug well. Located in very flat, very dry Greensburg, Kansas, at a cavernous 109 feet deep, this burrowing achievement is testament to what a man with a sturdy shovel and a lot of time on his hands can do.

It’s not hard to find Big Well as they call it these days. A massive tornado leveled most of the town in 2007, so if you drive a few blocks off the highway and you come across a circular structure with BIG WELL recessed into its massive concrete walls, that’d be the place.

I consider myself a tourism connoisseur in that I once worked at a motor inn. As we entered, I wondered, what would be inside? Guided tours? Interactive exhibits? A bathroom?

Suffice to say, we weren’t disappointed. The displays were top-notch. The big screen movie would do Ken Burns proud, and there was a real velvet rope marking the entrance to the Big Well. Marketing Wife and moody teenage Marketing Daughter were lured into a gift shop of floor-to-ceiling kitschy Americana.

The place was staffed by two sweethearts of Greensburg. These gals were just what was needed to break the monotony of hours of driving on what may very well be the longest stretch of highway in the US. Like the life-giving water supplied by the well they maintained, these ladies quenched my thirst for colorful diversion and human interaction. And while I balked at spending $8 to see the Big Well with my own eyes (they weren’t kidding around with that velvet rope), the ladies had no trouble getting us to leave with $40 of Big Well merch.

Less than an hour after I pulled off the highway in Greensburg, I was back to driving 75 mph (again, legally), refreshed for the next leg of our journey.

What does this have to do with community college marketing?

Embrace what you are and make the most of it.

I’d wager that even in its heyday, Greensburg, Kansas, didn’t have a lot going for it. But it did have access to water. Which in central Kansas, probably meant something. And when the highway came to town and locals needed a gimmick to lure motorists, they had an ace in the hole – a 109-foot deep hole, to be exact.

Ever been in a conversation like this? “Hey Jeff, I was just watching Shark Week with my 5-year-old. Now he wants to be a marine biologist. So I got this idea: We should start a marine biology program! Imagine all the students who would come from all over Iowa to attend.”


All you have to do is take a long look at your college. What do you see? I mean really. What is it that makes you, you?  What is your super power? I know what mine is. And I bet it’s the same as yours.

Don’t be fooled into thinking you should kick tons of students to the curb as you pigeonhole yourself to a few uber-specialized programs. No. You are the exact same thing to every student yet individually tailored to each one – you’re what’s next.

What does that mean? For students, it means you’re a connector. You’re a steppingstone. You’re a slingshot. An open door. A hand up. A cheerleader. Every college can be that – in fact, we should. It’s in our mission.

I know what you’re thinking, “But Jeff, you’re just saying to market my school as being all things to all people? That’s not anything new.” I’m not saying that at all.

In this world of ones and zeros, we marketers can have one-on-one conversations with as many different groups as we can shake a digital stick at. And these opportunities are there for the taking – if we just spend time figuring it all out.

Not that long ago, building and maintaining effective marketing plans with robust web advertising, social media, SEO, email, and the like took serious departmental expertise, deep pockets to spend with agencies, or both. Today, not so much. Even though there are more digital marketing opportunities than ever, the tools are more refined, dashboards simplified, costs more affordable, and more agencies hungry for business.

You can now confidently and affordably talk directly to that prospective ag student about that successful grad who went to her high school a few years ago. You can tell those parents how they can save $30K and rest assured that their kid will be prepared for the big U, or show that guy who can’t afford to quit his dead-end job there’s a path for him to get more out of life. To the student, those parents, that guy, you are the exact same thing: what’s next.

Those ladies at Big Well knew exactly what they had and were pros at what they do. They gave us just what we needed to be refreshed and prepared for what was next. And I didn’t even have to see the well.

Jeff Ebbing is the director of marketing and communications at Southeastern Community College in West Burlington, Iowa, and NCMPR’s District 5 director.

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