Lord of the Flyers: Flyers, Foolscap, and the Future of Tuition Advertisements

By: (From Raffles Press) Jeanne Tan (17A01B), Angus Yip (18A01A) and Abigail Ang (18S06B); (From HCI Publications Society) Wong Yang (16A14), Zachary Loh (16A12) and Owen Cho (16A11)

This article is a collaboration between Raffles Press and Hwa Chong Institution’s Publications Society.

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A small sample of various promotional materials given out by tuition centres.

There are some quintessential experiences in JC life, be it orientation, Open House, or last-minute Project Work (PW) escapades. However, there is another experience that almost all students share: the sight of strangers distributing promotional materials for tuition centres at the school gate in the mornings.

As if the pressure to perform well in academics isn’t enough, many students start the school day with visually engaging reminders of the perils of not attending extra lessons. Ever the harbingers of doom, the tuition industry has indeed thrived on our society’s obsessive focus on academics. (A report by The Straits Times last year indicated that the industry is worth over $1 billion.) With such lucrative profits at stake, the competition for students is fierce; it is no wonder that tuition centres invest time and money in advertising campaigns to entice students into enrolling for their classes.

Many tuition centres thus engage in self-promotion by distributing promotional materials outside school gates. While some tutors distribute materials themselves, most centres outsource the work to other people. Two distributors we spoke to shared that they distribute about 200 copies each morning. One of them, who only wanted to be known as Wendy, said she earns $20 per hour for her work. These individuals, armed with stacks of flyers, may be outside school gates as early as 6.30am, and usually leave just as the last few students stream into school before flag-raising.

The most common materials that are distributed are flyers – a simple and convenient means of promotion. However, whether flyers serve their purpose of persuading students to enroll in a centre’s classes lies in question. As one student rather savagely testified, “Flyers usually go straight into the bin after being received.” Another was even more curt in his response: “I can’t even remember the names of the centres. I usually dao (ignore) those giving out flyers.” Clearly, this ubiquitous form of promotion has done little to impress today’s students.

To counter such staunch disinterest in flyers, many centres have diversified their promotional methods to target students more effectively. In the first part of our investigation, we take a look at some of these methods.

Upping the Ante

An astute strategy adopted by an increasing number of centres has been to print wads of foolscap pads and distribute them for free outside school gates. Often featuring vibrant covers with humorous or eye-catching taglines, so many centres have embarked on this method that foolscap paper seems to be in endless supply.

Recognising the hectic school lives that students endure, some centres have printed flashcards and condensed ‘cheat sheets’ that students can use to revise on the go. Apart from the common Periodic Table, cards with common errors in Mathematics have been distributed as well.

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The periodic table flash card from Chemistry Guru is one of the most recognised promotional materials among students.

Other centres have expanded the scale of their advertising by taking out large panel advertisements at MRT stations or bus stops located in the vicinity of schools. Admittedly, these displays are hard to miss, though it is can’t be cheap for centres to pay for such large ad space. One student also commented that he actually finds tuition centres who do this “quite aggressive”.

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Indigo panel advertisements at Tan Kah Kee MRT station. Half of Indigo’s students come from RI and HCI.

Going Digital

You’d be hard pressed to find a teenager today who isn’t a user of one of the many online platforms, including Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. Keenly aware of students’ addiction extensive use of these social sites, several centres have gone beyond just paying for physical ad space.

There has been a trend of tuition centres starting their own Instagram pages and even Snapchat accounts, with each one eager to attract the tech-savvy millennials. Furthermore, Chemistry Guru has a YouTube channel that offers 9–12 minute video tutorials, giving students a “try before you buy” experience.

Splashing the Cash

A more costly but elaborate approach has emerged recently – Timothy Lim, Eugene Toh, and Xavier Tong from the Academy of SuperHeroes (AoSH) group of tuition centres rented lightsabers, Star Wars costumes and themselves went down to HCI and NJC to give out free breakfast on 4 May (“May the Fourth”, designated Star Wars Day) dressed as characters from the film series.

When we spoke to Mr Toh, from Economics at TuitionGenius, he said, “Some centres spend a lot of money on print advertising; we wanted to stay away from that direction and show students that we really care about them. We wanted to show that we’re not just people in newspapers, we’re not just tutors, that [our promotions] are an extension of our fun personalities.”

This personable and hands-on promotional style has also seen the trio conduct free bubble tea and portable charger giveaways outside school gates, which have proven to be a hit with students.

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The Academy of Superheroes outside Hwa Chong Institution on May the Fourth (Image credits: tuitiongenius’s Instagram)

Besides publicity stunts that boost the centre’s popularity, some established centres even boast an offering of seminars on topics such as scholarships and studying abroad. Competitive as the tuition industry is, there are centres which organise Open Houses, inviting students to visit their premises while enjoying a carnival-like programme.

The heavy investment in promotional materials and marketing stunts then begs the question: just how effective are such methods in encouraging students to enroll in their classes?

Running the Rule

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While freebies like bubble tea make for memorable mornings, our investigation reveals that students are more attracted to practicality than material value. In fact, two centres that the most number of students could recall receiving promotional materials from were Captain Mathematica and REAL Education Centre, which both print free foolscap pads bearing animated covers with their names on the front.

According to Ethan from the Marketing team at REAL Education Centre, “Some students even come out from their schools to take foolscap… If I give out foolscap, I can bring six or seven hundred and they will take it all. If I give out flyers, I can bring four hundred and still be left with half.” As one of our survey respondents declared, “Yes to free foolscap!” Clearly, centres have exploited the insatiable need for foolscap amongst students to good effect.

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The mere prospect of failure has driven the feline on the cover catatonic.

Flashcards and formula tables (mentioned earlier) also seem to be rather well-received. The most prominent distributor of the periodic table, Chemistry Guru, turned out to be another centre that many students could recall well.

One would expect the apparent receptiveness of students towards the more novel promotional materials, like free bubble tea and portable chargers, to reflect greater effectiveness, but bubble tea ranked as the second least effective method of promotion, with only 18% of respondents believing that it is the best way to promote tuition services.

At the end of the day, though, it seems no matter how memorable or persuasive certain promotional methods may be, only 39% of students said they would enroll in classes based on a centre’s promotional materials and advertisements. More discerning and cautious than some might think, several students reflected a certain wariness toward tuition centres that base their appeal on vague statistics and testimonials. In the words of one student, marketing a centre’s defining characteristics “[would] be much better than generic responses.”

One point of interest that we came across in our inquiry is the role reversal in the traditional relationships between students and tuition centres. Students may long have been viewed as the ones seeking out knowledge, and one would have the impression that it would be students pursuing these centres. However, this investigation has revealed a sense that tuition centres are the ones seeking out the students, to the extent that they must position themselves outside schools to reach to them.

Centres are driven to ‘throw themselves’ at students, and, in an unending game of one-upmanship, centres will pursue increasingly novel and extreme ways of promoting themselves.

While it’s not clear who has triumphed in this relentless race for publicity and enrolments, one thing is certain from the distribution of free materials, foolscap and bubble tea – the real winners here are the students.

Edit (22 July 2017): A portion of this article has been removed as per the request of a tuition centre. 

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