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One of the most frustrating answers to the question “who is your audience?” is all too common in higher ed — “everyone.” But that answer doesn’t help anyone.

Colleges and universities do serve a wide spectrum of constituencies that spans cultures, generations and demographics. But our audience isn’t “everyone,” and not “everyone” is the same. Marketers trying to differentiate institutions in an industry full of already similar – in fact nearly identical — offerings need more clarity and specificity when defining market segments and choosing which to serve.

Identifying, understanding and reaching the right segments within the higher education market requires thinking through the most meaningful, useful ways to divide and organize various groups that comprise it. You must identify and define subsets of the market that have common characteristics, priorities, interests or needs that can be used to shape marketing strategies to target the particular segment.

Useful, Relevant and Actionable

Making segments useful and actionable means looking beyond basic, overly generic grouping approaches such as undergraduate vs graduate students, or online vs residential student. A few years ago, The Parthenon Group (now part of Ernst & Young LLP) offered an excellent way to think about segmenting the higher education student market.

Their approach, titled The Differentiated University, “separates students into six distinct and defined segments based on their motivations and mindsets rather than just demographics, allowing college and university leaders to develop more sophisticated strategies for reaching the next generation of students with offerings and operating models to most effectively and efficiently serve them.”

The six segments — aspiring academics; coming of age; career starters; career accelerators; industry switchers; and academic wanderers — transcend traditional groupings to identify much more useful and actionable shared characteristics that should inform marketing strategies. Although created with a specific focus on undergraduate students, the segments provide ample room and flexibility for all prospective students.

Regardless of demographics, all students are interested in the same fundamental product — education. Why they are interested and what they hope to get out of it is much more profound. Using motivations and mindsets to map marketing strategies opens up much more opportunity for creativity and intelligent differentiation in targeting and positioning. What matters most in this model is why the educational product fits the individual and how it will help him/her achieve what they want to achieve. Less relevant is a description and list of institutional features that may or may not have any value for an aspiring academic, industry switcher or career starter. This understanding also provides the framework for expanding the market segments an institution can and should target.

Segment Wisely

The Differentiated University approach is just one of many ways to consider market segmentation in higher ed. Applying and refining the concept of motivation and mindset for other broad segments — alumni, donors, peers, funding agencies, parents — will spark new ideas for sophisticated marketing strategies. Considering what audiences want and why they want it can also help galvanize brand identity and open up opportunities for differentiation. Segmentation provides perspective on what it is that makes an institution unique that the market cares about.

And that’s another important aspect of segmentation. Institutions need well-defined brands and well-defined product offerings to segment effectively. There is no value in choosing a market segment a brand can’t or won’t support. Everyone knows that. Or should. 

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