Schools face an increasingly competitive market. With enrollment and revenue declining, attracting and retaining more students is imperative. But, how do you find the right ways to brand and market the educational experience your school provides students. How do you make sure you are communicating in terms that resonate rather than fall flat? To find these answers we sat down with MBS Marketing Coordinator Abraham Dyer to discuss how schools can identify and use their differentiators to set themselves apart.
What is a differentiator?
In terms of marketing or business, a differentiator is the relevant and valuable ways your school significantly differs from competitors. For instance, with MBS Direct our scale and our service differentiate us from our competitors. We have the resources to simplify course material fulfillment and the people to provide exemplary service.
Would knowing your differentiators help you be more aggressive in your marketing?
Absolutely. Differentiators are essential to any marketing strategy.
With schools specifically, they have to choose what role they need course materials to fulfill. Are they a source of revenue or a way to improve student outcomes? If the school cuts revenue to provide students with greater savings, that needs to be communicated. If the revenue from course materials goes into student services, that also needs to be communicated. It’s incredibly important.
Can you think of an example of a really well-known differentiator?
Sure. Apple is a great example. Look at how they chose to brand their company in comparison with Microsoft. Their advertisements target the company’s image and culture to differentiate themselves. You can see it in those commercials with the “I’m a Mac” and “I’m a PC” guys. Apple is seen as a place that is creative and innovative. Microsoft is seen as a place that is incredibly adept at making business machines and research. That’s not to say Microsoft isn’t creative, but Apple has taken that image and made it something really visible and easy for people to grasp onto.
Why do schools need to know their differentiators?
The big reason why K–12 and Higher Ed both need to identify differentiators and communicate them clearly to potential students is that expectations for schools are miles beyond what they were before. On top of that, retention is dropping. That kind of situation leads to everyone being judged almost evenly. Your school has to find that one little thing, that niche, which is going to set you apart for students.
How can a small liberal arts school find what sets them apart?
Something that has been popular with schools for many years is identifying a program or area where they excel. You’re the school for X and you’re the school for Y. One that comes to mind is Southern New Hampshire University. For the most part, their students are online and all over the country. Before they established their online program, they weren’t as widely known. With SNHU, the thing that really sticks with me is its absolute undying dedication to student service. They cut profits everywhere they can. They offer more financial aid to make sure their students are getting access to the materials they need and the classes they want to attend. Their unwavering devotion to students is really inspiring.
What about a small school who might really struggle to highlight their differentiators?
Something that can give small schools a leg up is a focus on service. It is the small business mentality. If I go to a small shop with one-of-a-kind merchandise, the prices are almost certainly going to be higher. Make sure your school is fulfilling one of three things in its relationship with students: offer the lowest cost, the highest quality or the most convenience.
If you know you are going to lose on cost, that’s fine. Be the Maserati of what you do. Be the most amazing small college that you can be. Students will understand and appreciate what you offer. They will come to you for answers that are not available from other schools. Your knowledge is going to be the most important thing in that conversation.
Also, have pointed and specific conversations with students. If you can get into a collaborative environment where you are listening to what students want, it can help answer a lot of questions. You have to understand what students want so you can communicate it to them in a way they find meaningful.
Having a student committee is a good tactic for opening that dialogue with students. At the end of the day, you still have to answer to outside forces like faculty, alumni, and boards of regents, but the students make up the bulk of your audience. Go to them and find out what they want — not just what you think they need. At the very least, find out the language they use.
Let’s say you are a college who doesn’t know its differentiators. What would you suggest as a process for discovering that?
First things first, know your audience. Like I said, identify what is most important to that audience. Then, figure out how your school answers that need. If you are a college that has been around for 150 years or 10 years, even, you have a successful model. You just have to hone in on the details that will make the school a successful business. Your specific voice in that conversation with students is your differentiator. That’s what you are offering that no one else is.
Why is all the competition a good thing?
Competition breeds innovation.
What you would say to a school who has lost all hope of setting itself apart?
It’s very simple. If you have a good service, you are communicating it well and often, and you meet one of those three criteria I mentioned earlier — offer the lowest cost, the highest quality or the most convenience — you will thrive regardless of the competition.
Can an online bookstore be a differentiator?
In the course materials conversation, definitely. The convenience and one-stop-shopability of an online bookstore is amazing. It amplifies the service you provide students. If your campus is more cost-oriented, then inclusive access is a great choice. It is easier, cheaper and delivered immediately.