As I was driving down interstate-whatever the other day, I came across a billboard for a local university. It had a girl on it. She looked very smart. She seemed to float somewhere between several ethnicities and was very confident about smiling. Somewhere on said billboard was a collegiate looking logo and a headline that read something like “you belong here,” or “you can be more, and we can help!” Oh, and there was a hash tag on it. I forget what it was. But you get my point. This billboard – which most likely cost thousands of dollars not only to place, but thousands more to produce – could have supported any school on the planet. This, my friends, is why higher education marketing is in a conundrum. Without a purpose, without a position, and without a unique point of view, every university becomes “Any University.”
Now, trust me when I say that I recognize and acknowledge the challenge. Creating a compelling and unique position in the higher education space is about as easy as getting spandex pants on my cat (don’t ask if I have tried that, by the way). There are similar majors, programs, campuses, curriculum, learning environments and even missions. So how can we truly own a position in the minds of a potential student or those influencing their decisions? If I had a magic pill, I wouldn’t be driving a 2004 minivan. But what I can tell you is where we have seen incredible success adhering to some simple principles.
- Know your “why.” Most institutions spend the majority of their time talking about what they do, rather than identifying why they do it. Define and truly understand why you exist and the impact you can have on real human beings.
- Understand fully your competition AND their position. One of the easiest ways to ensure you will be seen as “Any University” is by trying to own a space already coveted by your competitors. Be sure to know what your competition stands for – and stands against. You can play in the same sandbox, just make sure you have your own bucket.
- Know your audience, intimately. Having a clear understanding of the types of students your university attracts – and retains – helps you understand where you can make an impact. Spend time researching and knowing whom you attract. Build a thoughtful persona and align your outreach efforts around who they are, where they are and why they should choose you.
- Talk to your audience (um, they are your current students). As an educational institution, you have audience research and focus groups at your fingertips. Ask them why they chose you. Find out what made you stand out in their eyes. Ask them critical touch point information. Trust me when I say that folks in other industries would kill for such immediate access to the people they are looking to influence.
- Embrace what makes you unique. Do you have programs or curriculum that is different from others? A unique atmosphere? How is it different from the Liberal Arts University five miles down the road? Think about it. Talk about it. Own it.
- Be disciplined. Once you establish your position and what truly makes you stand out, don’t deviate. Don’t be tempted to be something you are not. Heidi Klum might be able to rock a pair of soccer cleats on a runway – doesn’t mean she can be the next Messi.
Of course, these points only scratch the surface. Once you have a strong position, back it up by developing a strategic plan for bringing it to your audiences in a way that is connective. Don’t just tell your audiences who you are, explain why you are a proven and better choice for them. Let others tell your story too, through testimonials and real experiences. Make your position human. Make it real. Say it. Live it. Share it.
Beth Crivello-Wagner is the Vice President of Brand Services at Core Creative.