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Finding Meaningful Points of Difference

5 steps to stand out in a crowded marketplace

There is so much clutter, noise and frankly sameness in the higher education marketplace. In addition, the value of education is under scrutiny with skyrocketing costs, after-graduation debt and a difficult job market. So, at a time when the idea of college itself is being questioned, it’s critical to define your institution with precision and communicate clearly to your various publics.

It’s not enough to just tout the usual list of offerings associated with your institution. These need to be translated into meaningful benefits that leverage uniqueness, focus and differentiation. While there are a number of ways to find meaningful points of difference, here are 5 steps that we employ that have worked for our higher education clients:

1. Know your target

It all starts with your depth of knowledge around your target and how you present your institution to them. Beyond basic demographics, it is really important to understand their attitudes to best identify why your institution uniquely meets their needs. The better you craft your uniqueness around their values, the better you will emotionally connect with them. So, it comes down to not only what you say, but also how you say it that creates affinity toward your institution.

2. Conduct an audit on your institution

First, create a SWOT to determine your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Look for implications to determine the truly unique ways you can express your strengths and frame your opportunities. Then, review your messaging to assess if what you are saying is consistent with the findings from the SWOT exercise. You may find that your own messaging is off target and that you are not positioning your institution in the best light. This audit provides a gut check and determines if a course correction is necessary.

3. Assess your competitors

Group the other institutions that usually make your student prospect’s short list when applying to colleges. These tend to be other schools in the state, region or conference. Review their outbound messaging via their websites, brochures, advertising, etc. Get familiar with their offerings, programs and benefits to understand how competitors are positioning themselves. Make notes of who is offering similar and different benefits than what you are promising.

4. Know your aspirations

This is a list of competitors that your institution strives to be like. These competitors will help your institution sharpen your benefits and offerings. Their traits and values fit with where your institution wants to be, and over time will help elevate you into a higher tier; be it rankings, expertise, star faculty, breakthrough research, etc. Importantly, this assessment provides you with a vision to keep you focused on your journey ahead.

5. Up the ante

With a thorough review of the competitors, you can identify the benefits and offerings common to all. These are important table stakes to have, but you will need to up the ante by selecting benefits that can only be uniquely expressed by your institution. This needs to be a short, focused list of unique benefits that are actually achievable. Over-promises are not wanted here.

We learned that these are important steps to driving distinction for institutions. Don’t give up – meaningful differentiation is critical to success during one of the most difficult times in higher education.

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