Differentiation Matters for Colleges

In doing my dissertation research on how marketing teams might help mitigate the enrollment cliff, a common theme that kept occurring is the importance of differentiation.

Differentiation involves crafting unique products and services to attract and retain customers. Companies that use marketing differentiation can differentiate between their offerings and the offerings of competitors in several ways, including price, quality, service, innovation, and accessibility.

Deskera CRM Company

There are many definitions out there related to differentiation, but I like this one because, to me, it highlights the intentional nature of differentiation. It is a choice that we, as marketers, choose to take in order to best position our institutions.

In the study I conducted with chief marketing officers related to the enrollment cliff, several participants shared they encouraged their universities to employ a strategy of differentiation in their marketing efforts.

Why Participants Advocated for Differentiation

When talking with the study participants, they felt strongly that differentiation was important to limit expectations on the marketing team. As one participant indicated, we can’t do it all and differentiation helped to focus the entire campus community.

Universities want to be all things to all people. The reality is that’s not possible anymore. We’re nearing a time where we’ll have to make decisions about who we are as an institution and really focus on those things with intentionality.

Study Participant

Another participant shared differentiation helped to stand out from the same thing everyone else was doing. This participant noted that differentiation got away from plugging in the same facts and really focused on the unique, something that was uncomfortable at first.

When we first started differentiating in programs, it was really uncomfortable. Everyone was talking about ratios and rankings. It took a real shift to make a decision to instead say we’re going to talk about something completely different.

Study Participant

Another participant spoke to the emotional connection that differentiation creates. Several companies do this well. Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Apple. This Branding Strategy Insider article highlights ways that brands use emotional connection to drive growth. The basic premise is that emotion drives many purchase decisions. By focusing on the emotional feelings when using the product, brands can create an emotional connection with their audiences. Once the audience feels a connection to the product, they are much more likely to purchase that product.

Higher education is late to this party. We have spent much of our time talking about rankings, statistics, and beautiful campuses. We haven’t spent as much time building that emotional connection.

Building an emotional connection is critical. I have to have prospective students who see themselves, can relate to what we’re talking about and feel an emotional tie to the experience as a student here.

Study Participant

How to Differentiate

Several participants in the research shared how they differentiated in their marketing efforts.

Programs – The first key way was talking about the academic programs. Some participants talked about unique programs that others didn’t have. Other participants highlighted different modalities for their academic programs. Finally, others talked about “baked in” opportunities such as high-impact learning practices that helped set students up for success.

Campus Experiences – Another way marketers differentiated was talking about the campus experiences students could expect. This ranged from amenities on campus to athletics to additional supports. The word of caution here is to talk about what is unique. Several participants shared it was easy to fall into the trap of “our campus is beautiful” and “professors care about their students”. For this one to work, they shared it really had to be unique.

Culture – A final differentiation strategy that participants used was highlighting the campus culture. The participants talked about their culture and how that was reflected in the classroom, in the campus activities, and in the ways students engaged with alumni. For example, one campus leader talked about the ways they created opportunities to explore curiosity. Having a strong campus culture was critical, but participants who used this strategy thought it was one of the strongest methods of differentiation.

How to Get Started

A full strategy of differentiation takes time and effort. And probably some buy in. However, there are lots of small things you can do now.

Start with looking at social copy and framing of news releases– this effort will help you starting honing the art of differentiation while you’re having bigger conversations with your team and with the university’s leadership.

Of course, if you want to chat more, please reach out. I’d love to talk more about differentiation, its importance, and what the research says.

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