Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Higher Education Marketing with a Difference... Differentiation

Where shall I go to university?
How do you differentiate one university over another? Ask any senior marketing professional in the Higher Education sector and they’ll recognise the importance of differentiating what their university has to offer over that of another. Yet the truth of the matter is that, as soon as you look past a university’s location, upon first glance many universities can appear to be very homogenous and indifferent from their rivals. Of course, universities are defined by the types of courses they deliver, but a prospective student will often know what course they want to study, so it then becomes a question of how to differentiate your university over those with a similar set of programmes.

As the HE landscape continues to evolve and students become a far more discerning set of consumers, HEI marketing professionals recognise the need to demonstrate the benefits of what makes their institution stand-out from the competition. And to do this, key performance indicators, such as satisfaction or employability levels, are often used as a means to highlight a good return on a student’s investment. Of course, this is very important to do and something the government has advocated, which is only too evident through the introduction of Key Information Sets. But, if all universities are making similar claims, can they really be used as a means to differentiate? And besides, surely with so much data now available for prospects to sift through, this only leads to more confusion?


Engagement is a word that I often use when meeting with colleagues across the University who are keen to ensure their course recruits to target. It’s a principle that I frequently blog about and an essential ingredient for allowing a prospect to begin to understand what the University can offer them. And it is only when a prospect is fully engaged with a university that they will they begin to appreciate the values and culture of that institution, the augmented benefits on offer and the nature of the student experience. And it’s these very factors that will contribute to differentiating a university. It’s the University’s brand.

Setting the Scene

However, we cannot expect engagement to happen right away. At the start of the buying decision making process, our prospects will simply be weighing up their options. Numerous universities and their courses will be considered before they are reduced to a shortlist of five.

Setting the scene
At this stage, to a prospective student many universities will appear to be much alike to others in their category. With the most evident differences being a university’s location and its courses, prospects will often assess the suitability of an institution based on these two factors alongside the entry criteria and occasionally the size of a university.

It’s our job, at this early phase of the recruitment cycle, to raise awareness of our university and paint an accurate picture of our institution; one that communicates our distinctive brand culture. As such, we set the scene to be played out throughout the rest of the recruitment cycle. Essentially, this makes it far easier for us to differentiate the University further into the admissions funnel; by which point, by virtue of their application, a prospect is likely to be a far more involved and engaged with the University. You can see evidence of this approach at the launch stage of our University of You campaign, where we introduce prospects to the core values of our brand and describe what life at the University of Chester is really like.

Emotional Persuasion and Tangibility

Will I fit in here?
Of course, you can scream and shout all you want about how great your university is, but we mustn’t forget that prospective students aren’t solely making their decision based on hard facts and stats.

Deciding on where to go to university can often be an emotive decision. Ultimately, students don’t just choose a university based on quality-assurance factors that promise a good return on investment. They want to know about the real student experience and be able to identify with your brand in such a way that they can envisage themselves fitting into the culture of the institution.

This shows the importance of recruitment events, such as Open Days and Applicant Days, for enabling our prospects to experience what the University is really like. It assists them in attaining the answers to all kinds of lifestyle questions and gives them a taste of what it would be like live, work and play at the University. All in all, the question is: “Will I fit in here?”

And by engaging in tactics that focus heavily on getting your students to describe their experience, a prospect can begin to understand the nature of that institution and how it differs from the competition. With your brand defined by the student experience, by highlighting these experiences you will be telling the real story of the brand.

In effect, it’s this approach you can see demonstrated in our latest student experience video. Not only have we given the viewer a feel for what it is really like through the narrative of our students, but we have also encouraged them to take to social media and share their experience. Find out for yourself what Chester means to our students: #mychesterstory

Rational Persuasion and Added Value

Is it right for me?
However, we must remember that choosing a university is a big decision; a commitment not just for the next three years but a decision that will brand a student for life.

So, moving away from an emotionally persuasive approach to a more rational one, what else can we highlight at Chester as being different? Where does Chester demonstrate value for money and added value? How can we persuade a prospect that Chester is a sound investment?

Well, our research tells us that when it comes to choosing a university, students will often look closer at the course. So, first and foremost, ensure your courses are providing modules that your students want to study. Consider how these modules can make your students more employable and whether they are distinctive. If professional accreditation is something that makes your course(s) stand out, ensure prospective students are aware of the value this endorsement provides them. If any investment has been made into course facilities and equipment, let your prospects know what this is. And also mention any outstanding field trips your course offers alongside study abroad opportunities and the University’s unique Work Based Learning module.

Finally, looking past the course, we mustn't forget the exceptional student support and careers services that Chester offers – in fact, they are world-class. With the anxieties of the prospect (and often their parents) at stake, this can go a long way to reassuring them that Chester is the right place for helping them succeed at their studies.

One final point…

If you were to describe the University of Chester to a student, I would imagine you might use words that depict an institution with multiple campuses primarily spread across a small, historic and picturesque city. Of course, based on the student experience on your particular set of courses, I’m sure we could all expand on this description or even alter it slightly. Nonetheless, whatever your description, it’s likely that you’ll eliminate just as many prospects from considering Chester as you’ll appeal to. But, as such, that is the point. Brand differentiation should define and position your courses in the sector so that those looking for this type of student experience are drawn in and engaged to find out more as they proceed into the admissions cycle.

Until the next communication…


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