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One of the time-tested, research-proven, never-fail mantras our team lives by is powerfully simple: “People don’t buy different; they buy special.”

By way of clarification, let me add a few words to drive home this Marketing 101 principle that — in my experience, anyway — still can’t seem to get the foothold in higher ed it deserves.

Consumers seldom purchase products, or align themselves with brands, simply because those products or brands are just different than the others. With all due respect to Seth Godin, being a remarkably purple cow just isn’t enough to compel cow shoppers to lay down their hard-earned cash unless they’re looking for something in a cow that only Seth’s purple cow can offer.

We humans buy stuff — and align ourselves with brands — that we perceive to be special, important, particularly satisfying and especially pleasing to us. Those special things and brands meet the needs that all of us define for ourselves.

Tooting your promotional horn about a new academic program, a snazzy classroom or parking lot, a renovated bookstore or dining hall, a lauded professor or student, or a unique-to-your-school learning experience simply because none of your competitors offer the same is not much more than noise to a prospective student who doesn’t care about your toots.

Please, don’t get me wrong. There is some value in highlighting competitive differences. Doing so may help some prospective students and their families remember your school in the blur of look-alike institutions they’re likely considering.

But remembering a school is a long way from choosing to enroll at that school.

Hanging overly high hopes on a single programmatic, positioning, pricing, or place difference to make the difference in reaching enrollment goals is where differentiation by itself treads on thin ice. Again, if the difference doesn’t matter to your target audience, the noise of talking about it may just be boring the audience and giving you false confidence.

So how do you determine what is special to your target audiences? You ask them.

Market research fees have dropped to remarkably approachable levels in recent years, due to technological advances among other developments. I’ve spent my entire professional career encouraging higher ed clients to invest at least 10% of their annual marketing budget in conducting sound market research to identify what’s special to their target audiences. If your institution isn’t there, start a campaign. If you don’t know where to start, any higher ed marketing consultant you trust can help.

Here’s a tip: your CFO might be your best campaign partner. Those finance people live in digits, metrics and analytics every day. And they don’t make decisions if the numbers don’t add up. They know the power of data.

If you make a relatively nominal investment in market research to inform and inspire your strategic thinking about everything you do on your campus, you’ll make better decisions. You’ll avoid disasters. You’ll increase efficiencies. And you’ll be able to embrace another one of our favorite time-tested, research-proven, never-fail mantras: “Without data, it’s only an opinion.”

Eric Sickler has helped the nation's college and universities conduct market research and elevate their brands for more than three decades. You can reach him at The Thorburn Group, a Stamats company.​

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