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Case Studies

Marketing the Global Classroom

1 Jul, 2008 By: Jacqueline Renfrow Response

As a dyslexic child, Bertil Hult had to leave his homeland of Sweden and go to London for an education. In 1965, Hult opened Education First (EF) with the belief that everyone should have an opportunity to learn. Today, EF's mission has broadened to include the breaking down of language, cultural and geographical barriers through education.



Headquartered in Lucerne, Switzerland, EF has 26,000 employees in 53 countries that provide services including educational travel, foreign exchange programs, language schools, Smithsonian tours, volunteer travel groups and more.

But EF is not just selling travel or language lessons; the company strives to bring about international understanding through economic and cultural education. EF sits on the P21 (Partnership for 21st Century Skills) board with companies like Apple, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft and Discovery Education, which believe in preparing students for a global economy. As a reminder of its mission to break down barriers and unite communities, outside the 850-person North American headquarters in Cambridge, Mass., sits a multi-ton piece of the Berlin Wall.

So how does the largest private, educational travel company in the world market itself? EF relies heavily on basic DR: word of mouth.

EF owes 15 to 20 percent of its College Break Web site traffic to Facebook. Also, since the partnership began, the number of people that enter the site and then stay to view more pages after they land is up 15 to 20 percent.
EF owes 15 to 20 percent of its College Break Web site traffic to Facebook. Also, since the partnership began, the number of people that enter the site and then stay to view more pages after they land is up 15 to 20 percent.


"We like to think of ourselves as solar panels collecting and recollecting the energy," says Erik Qualman, Cambridge, Mass.-based global vice president of online marketing for EF Educational Tours. Qualman joined EF after working in E-business for companies such as Travelzoo and Yahoo!, and recently spoke at Response Expo 2008 in San Diego.

Because of the company's enormous consumer base, EF looks to former participants, students, teachers and lovers of travel to spread the news. Internally, the marketing team works with public relations to get write-ups in local newspapers about teachers participating in programs. The EF staff also reaches out to these teachers as much as possible to continue an ongoing grass roots campaign.

"If a teacher has a meeting with parents of kids going on these trips, we'll have a staff member there to help walk them through it," Qualman says. This includes answering travel questions and administering fundraising programs. But the teachers and students do most of the marketing. "Teachers want to fill their bus or plane. Most of them know what a great experience traveling is for kids," Qualman adds.

EF does use some traditional DR marketing, such as buying lists and creating brochures — but its newest focus is in DR-style marketing online, Qualman's expertise. "We're leveraging the power of the Web now that everything is digital," he says.

The best example of a successful digital DR campaign is EF's College Break program (EFCB). The EFCB program began three years ago with the idea that a company entrenched in educational travel should offer assistance for college-aged backpackers.

"If I'm a college student and I want to backpack through Europe, why should I go through the process of trying to figure it out by myself when I can get more affordable prices, find better lodging and get an all-around better experience through someone with connections?" says Qualman.

EF offers support to travelers just about anywhere in the world, from finding the best prices on plane tickets to lodging and restaurants. Designated ambassadors on college campuses do the bulk of the marketing for EFCB. Students can apply for this position on the EFBC Web site,, and once an ambassador, they help pitch the program and in exchange they can earn free travel.

For an audience of college-aged consumers, the company knew it needed to leverage some online social media because of the demographic and because — just like viral — it's essentially free marketing. So, foreseeing the shift in DR marketing to digital, the group had to identify which social media made sense for EF at the time.

So the company decided to align itself with a social networking site founded by college students: Facebook.

EF immediately teamed up with the former head of product marketing at Apple, Dave Morin (who helped launch the iPod), who is now working at Facebook. The first step was to create an EF presence on game application pages such as trivia and Scrabulous.

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