Four simple ways to stand out in a crowded higher education market

Four simple ways to stand out in a crowded higher education market

Many institutions and programmes worry about how they can show how different they are from their competitors, which makes certain logical sense. If prospects are considering a number of options (as they do!), it feels right that you’d have to show them exactly why your programme stands out. Here’s the problem with that approach: higher education institutions and individual programmes often offer very similar benefits to students, particularly once you find the ‘right-fit’ students.

As you start to narrow down the categories – students that are happy you’re a big research institution or a smaller one focused on practical learning, for example – you’re simply in competition with institutions and programmes that offer something sort of similar. This is a big part of why the copy in most higher education brochures and on most higher education websites seems very, very similar. Commitment to high-quality teaching? Check! Faculty who bring both research and professional experience to the classroom? Check! Diverse student body? Check! It seems that the goal shouldn’t necessarily be to stand out from the crowd, but simply being as clear and consistent with your messaging as possible so that the right students will find you and understand why you’re the right fit.

Solution 1: Help some students decide they should not come to you

It seems that the basis for this problem is that institutions often want to make sure not to alienate any prospects, while the actual goal should be to alienate all of the ones that wouldn’t be a good fit! Wasting time convincing a big city student that your rural location offers ‘incredible cultural opportunities’ is going to be about as effective as convincing the student who wants small classes that your faculty, ‘manage to make even large lectures seem personable’. Be clear and honest about your institution and location, and don’t worry about the students who wouldn’t be happy with you anyways!

Solution 2: Show, don’t tell

Simply mentioning your ‘high-quality teaching’ is what all of your competitors are doing. If you can express how you get that level of teaching – commitment to hiring faculty who are good in the classroom, regular training, etc – and highlight any special awards or commendations you’ve received because of that attribute, and any interesting stories about how that works in real life – a bio of a faculty member talking about why they love working at this institution because it’s not all about research –  you’ll be in great shape.
If you’re talking about the incredible way your programme will impact prospects’ careers, this is doubly true. More and more institutions are showing statistics about salaries after graduation, how long it took students to find jobs, etc, but even mentioning specific companies that have hired your grads is much, much better than saying that ‘graduates get amazing jobs with well-known international companies’.

Solution 3: Lead management is key

If you’ve got an amazingly convincing website and your recruiters and agents are spread around the world just killing it with the one-on-one conversations, you will get prospects excited to learn more. It is important to understand that the image of your institution is shaped by all of these conversations, but also what comes next. If/how/when a prospect receives a response to an email or phone call absolutely impacts their decision-making process – and this is one of the easiest areas to stand out.
Many institutions don’t give quite as much thought to these emails and either overload students with long lists of links, reply in an impersonal way, don’t really answer the questions, and/or never follow up. By creating templates and email plans that sound natural and continue to emphasise important messages about your institution or programme, you will help to reinforce everything else they’ve heard.

Solution 4: Let your students (and faculty) talk for you

In the same way that it’s better to have a statistic proving career success for your graduates, it’s better to have students telling prospects how great the programme is. This has the additional benefit of students in specific markets being more likely to naturally hit upon the issues that are important to prospects from their home than you will. Testimonials are tricky because they are often read as thinly veiled marketing copy (which is often true), so it’s important to make them feel authentic. A rough video can actually be more authentic feeling than a highly polished one.
It can also be extremely beneficial to give prospects the opportunity to talk to students from their own country; they’ll be able to speak in their own language and feel more confident knowing that peers have made the same choice. More and more institutions have ‘Speak to a student’ buttons or student ambassadors that be contacted via email. Again, the students will naturally talk about aspects of your institution and location that are truly of interest to the person asking.

Ignore the competition – sort of

It’s a healthy practice to see what similar programs are doing and how they’re talking about themselves on their websites or in brochures, and it’s something that should be done on a pretty regular basis, at least once a year. At the same time, taking the time for the introspection needed (including student and/or prospect interviews) to hone your own marketing messages is equally important. Understanding the benefits to your prospects – and how those benefits may differ across markets – will help you express them more clearly and connect better with the right students.
Megan is Director and Founder of The Brenn-White Group, an agency based in New York City that provides marketing, strategy and editorial services that help universities reach international audiences.