Campus Lost. And Found?

We believe higher education marketing is broken.

The breakdown hasn’t been sudden. A long series of stumbles and missed turns have led us to this confused and uneasy spot.

The heart and soul of the institution are nowhere to be found. The student has been forgotten. Every school appears the same. Personality is…well, most of the time, it just isn’t.

Declining enrollment fears, accreditation pressures, increasingly complex regulation and a multitude of market conditions commoditizing higher education have created a climate that has given rise to this — one big-ass undifferentiated sea of sameness.

No wonder students are increasingly confused by the decision if and where to go to college. We expect our co-eds — sometimes kids as young as 17 — to know who they are, and what they want to do with their lives. Yet many centuries-old institutions of higher learning can’t manage to do the same. That calls for a big WTF.

We’ve misplaced the “this is what we stand for” message. The conviction. The idea that we’re different, and that’s a good thing. Today, it all seems the same. And it’s such a snooze.

“In a crowded marketplace, fitting in is a failure. In a busy marketplace, not standing out is the same as being invisible.”

– SETH GODIN

There are some 5,300 colleges and universities in the U.S. that make up our higher education system. I’d say that qualifies as a pretty busy marketplace.

Plus, overall postsecondary education enrollment has been declining roughly two percent a year over the past few years. Competition is fierce for fewer students. That all points to why a stronger, solidly differentiated marketing strategy is more necessary than ever before.

So, if the smart strategist inside every college marketer knows they need to stand out to survive—why is it that so few seem able to call on this wisdom when it’s needed most?

The seduction of sameness.

Some argue that students-to-be and their parents are looking for stability, and the assurance that sameness offers in their marketing is a good thing. Show them a predictable experience and it makes them feel safe. Familiarity will lead to more opportunity to entice the student to apply, which helps the school meet aggressive enrollment goals or boost appearances of selectivity.

Sounds like a pretty weak excuse for not doing real marketing.

It’s true that we are born to imitate others. That’s how we naturally learn. It’s also true that we leave our urge to conform behind when we’re ready to shape our point of view. Emerge with our unique vision and voice.

That’s what college is all about. Isn’t it?

We think learners young and not-so-young are way smarter than the current college marketing climate gives them credit for.

They want to be challenged to explore and see the world through different lenses.

They crave a school that stands for something. Because that leads to a community where I know that I belong. And that’s the special sauce that makes a relationship for life with that student.

Here’s the deal. The me-too marketing rationale, no matter how you spin it, is just a crafty cover-up for good old-fashioned fear.

Scaredy cats, unite.

Fear can be a powerful force at the marketing table. It has a tendency to show up in some tricky disguises that can lead even the smartest strategist into the trance of believing that generic is a viable positioning option.

Throw in the demanding enrollment goals, decreasing budgets and incredible pressures on the marketing team — and a watered-down world of say-nothingness can happen almost without noticing it.

And if there is nothing else to talk about that’s particularly special or distinct, the default is to focus on cost. Spoiler alert. When we make the price tag our central marketing message—everyone loses. Because all of a sudden we have a school perpetuating the same cheapening of higher ed they claim to be a victim of. Sad. True. Solvable.

The challenges in this volatile climate are very real. No doubt about that. So the idea of carving out a campaign or marketing strategy that is actually different, can feel like too much risk. Playing it safe and pretending we can serve everyone provides a temporary, very misleading sense of comfort.

Of course, there is risk. And not every test is a success. It’s far riskier, however, to take a generic path.

Courage is the cure, and tenacity is the elixir of marketing success.

After all, if my college can’t take a stand, they certainly can’t teach me how to create one for myself.

Play to your strengths. Yes, you have them.

We’ve worked with schools over the years that have had so many truly interesting and meaningful qualities. Programs and characteristics they could own that would set them apart in their category.

And yet, sometimes there is strong resistance to leveraging these strengths as a cornerstone of their positioning.

They opt instead to try to create a story that compensates for a weakness. Or answer something their competition is doing they think is more compelling to the student.

They may be listening toa misguided, nagging voice that whispers they shouldn’t be so bold. We can’t possibly focus on a precise quality of our brand, because what if that doesn’t appeal to someone?

Or, the “everyone knows us for that already” syndrome sets in. This usually means that we’ve lost sight of the value of our strengths, or we are way unrealistic about our market perception and penetration.

Regardless of why it is. Just stop it. Cut it out. We have to sing from our sweet spots. You can’t beat your competition by being your competition.

Explore the crevices of your brand to find the special sauce. It’s there. You may be too close to it that you can’t see it. Or you may not want to believe it to be worthwhile. It is. So be who you are. Truthfully. Consistently. Unapologetically.

Bringing the student back into the equation.

This sounds too simple, even silly.

But you might be surprised that with the pressures of recruitment, funding, program development and more—the profile of the actual student isn’t at the center of the conversation about marketing strategy.

The student is what it’s all about though, right? Isn’t that what we’re all doing here?

Sure, absolutely. But we can take that truth for granted. And then it starts to slip from the top item on the agenda to the bottom of the meeting notes….to let’s talk about it later.

It’s not that anyone thinks the student isn’t a priority.

But when we assume it’s too obvious to miss. Beware. When we spend all our time putting out fires in marketing planning meetings. Watch out. When we believe that the students’ needs are so embedded in our process that we don’t need to discuss it much. That’s when things can get dicey.

There can also be pushback to creating a persona for prospective students when you hear the rationale that we serve so many different types of people we can’t possibly commit to a single target. We’ve got transfer students, grad students, business students and art students. It’s just not possible to find one description!

Think about it — major consumer brands reach a far wider and more diverse population than college enrollment marketing. And yet, they use buyer personas to guide their big decisions about creative, media, messaging and so much more. So yes, you can do it, too.

Remember that talking about “the student” isn’t the same as addressing “every student.”

It’s a very powerful tool to develop an avatar that we are writing to, speaking with and shaping our strategy for. Make him your friend and he won’t get left behind.

Higher education remains a dynamic and exciting field. Despite the changes and challenges we’ve touched on here, its essence — the drive to learn and expand our life experience — remains true. Choosing a college is one of the most important, and potentially expensive, decisions of our lives. It’s a privilege (and pretty huge responsibility) to be part of that process. If we can bring more empathy to our approach to college marketing — call it human education instead — we’ll make huge strides toward finding our way while we help students find theirs.

SHARE:

Campus Lost. And Found?

We believe higher education marketing is broken.

The breakdown hasn’t been sudden. A long series of stumbles and missed turns have led us to this confused and uneasy spot.

The heart and soul of the institution are nowhere to be found. The student has been forgotten. Every school appears the same. Personality is…well, most of the time, it just isn’t.

Declining enrollment fears, accreditation pressures, increasingly complex regulation and a multitude of market conditions commoditizing higher education have created a climate that has given rise to this — one big-ass undifferentiated sea of sameness.

No wonder students are increasingly confused by the decision if and where to go to college. We expect our co-eds — sometimes kids as young as 17 — to know who they are, and what they want to do with their lives. Yet many centuries-old institutions of higher learning can’t manage to do the same. That calls for a big WTF.

We’ve misplaced the “this is what we stand for” message. The conviction. The idea that we’re different, and that’s a good thing. Today, it all seems the same. And it’s such a snooze.

“In a crowded marketplace, fitting in is a failure. In a busy marketplace, not standing out is the same as being invisible.”
– SETH GODIN

There are some 5,300 colleges and universities in the U.S. that make up our higher education system. I’d say that qualifies as a pretty busy marketplace.

Plus, overall postsecondary education enrollment has been declining roughly two percent a year over the past few years. Competition is fierce for fewer students. That all points to why a stronger, solidly differentiated marketing strategy is more necessary than ever before.

So, if the smart strategist inside every college marketer knows they need to stand out to survive—why is it that so few seem able to call on this wisdom when it’s needed most?

The seduction of sameness.

Some argue that students-to-be and their parents are looking for stability, and the assurance that sameness offers in their marketing is a good thing. Show them a predictable experience and it makes them feel safe. Familiarity will lead to more opportunity to entice the student to apply, which helps the school meet aggressive enrollment goals or boost appearances of selectivity.

Sounds like a pretty weak excuse for not doing real marketing.

It’s true that we are born to imitate others. That’s how we naturally learn. It’s also true that we leave our urge to conform behind when we’re ready to shape our point of view. Emerge with our unique vision and voice.

That’s what college is all about. Isn’t it?

We think learners young and not-so-young are way smarter than the current college marketing climate gives them credit for.

They want to be challenged to explore and see the world through different lenses.

They crave a school that stands for something. Because that leads to a community where I know that I belong. And that’s the special sauce that makes a relationship for life with that student.

Here’s the deal. The me-too marketing rationale, no matter how you spin it, is just a crafty cover-up for good old-fashioned fear.

Scaredy cats, unite.

Fear can be a powerful force at the marketing table. It has a tendency to show up in some tricky disguises that can lead even the smartest strategist into the trance of believing that generic is a viable positioning option.

Throw in the demanding enrollment goals, decreasing budgets and incredible pressures on the marketing team — and a watered-down world of say-nothingness can happen almost without noticing it.

And if there is nothing else to talk about that’s particularly special or distinct, the default is to focus on cost. Spoiler alert. When we make the price tag our central marketing message—everyone loses. Because all of a sudden we have a school perpetuating the same cheapening of higher ed they claim to be a victim of. Sad. True. Solvable.

The challenges in this volatile climate are very real. No doubt about that. So the idea of carving out a campaign or marketing strategy that is actually different, can feel like too much risk. Playing it safe and pretending we can serve everyone provides a temporary, very misleading sense of comfort.

Of course, there is risk. And not every test is a success. It’s far riskier, however, to take a generic path.

Courage is the cure, and tenacity is the elixir of marketing success.

After all, if my college can’t take a stand, they certainly can’t teach me how to create one for myself.

Play to your strengths. Yes, you have them.

We’ve worked with schools over the years that have had so many truly interesting and meaningful qualities. Programs and characteristics they could own that would set them apart in their category.

And yet, sometimes there is strong resistance to leveraging these strengths as a cornerstone of their positioning.

They opt instead to try to create a story that compensates for a weakness. Or answer something their competition is doing they think is more compelling to the student.

They may be listening toa misguided, nagging voice that whispers they shouldn’t be so bold. We can’t possibly focus on a precise quality of our brand, because what if that doesn’t appeal to someone?

Or, the “everyone knows us for that already” syndrome sets in. This usually means that we’ve lost sight of the value of our strengths, or we are way unrealistic about our market perception and penetration.

Regardless of why it is. Just stop it. Cut it out. We have to sing from our sweet spots. You can’t beat your competition by being your competition.

Explore the crevices of your brand to find the special sauce. It’s there. You may be too close to it that you can’t see it. Or you may not want to believe it to be worthwhile. It is. So be who you are. Truthfully. Consistently. Unapologetically.

Bringing the student back into the equation.

This sounds too simple, even silly.

But you might be surprised that with the pressures of recruitment, funding, program development and more—the profile of the actual student isn’t at the center of the conversation about marketing strategy.

The student is what it’s all about though, right? Isn’t that what we’re all doing here?

Sure, absolutely. But we can take that truth for granted. And then it starts to slip from the top item on the agenda to the bottom of the meeting notes….to let’s talk about it later.

It’s not that anyone thinks the student isn’t a priority.

But when we assume it’s too obvious to miss. Beware. When we spend all our time putting out fires in marketing planning meetings. Watch out. When we believe that the students’ needs are so embedded in our process that we don’t need to discuss it much. That’s when things can get dicey.

There can also be pushback to creating a persona for prospective students when you hear the rationale that we serve so many different types of people we can’t possibly commit to a single target. We’ve got transfer students, grad students, business students and art students. It’s just not possible to find one description!

Think about it — major consumer brands reach a far wider and more diverse population than college enrollment marketing. And yet, they use buyer personas to guide their big decisions about creative, media, messaging and so much more. So yes, you can do it, too.

Remember that talking about “the student” isn’t the same as addressing “every student.”
It’s a very powerful tool to develop an avatar that we are writing to, speaking with and shaping our strategy for. Make him your friend and he won’t get left behind.

Higher education remains a dynamic and exciting field. Despite the changes and challenges we’ve touched on here, its essence — the drive to learn and expand our life experience — remains true. Choosing a college is one of the most important, and potentially expensive, decisions of our lives. It’s a privilege (and pretty huge responsibility) to be part of that process. If we can bring more empathy to our approach to college marketing — call it human education instead — we’ll make huge strides toward finding our way while we help students find theirs.

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Hi, this may be interesting you: Campus Lost. And Found?! This is the link: http://synergycreative.net/campus-lost-and-found/