How to Make Your Higher Ed Marketing Stand out from the Crowd

Andy Shaw

Raise your hand if these are true statements for your school:

  • “We offer a personal approach.”
  • “Our college has small class sizes.”
  • “We have caring faculty.”
  • “There’s always something to do at our college.”
  • “We offer hands-on experiences.”
  • “We have a beautiful campus.”

Can I assume you said yes to most, if not all?

I would genuinely hope your college isn’t regularly ignoring students, being taught by professors who do not care, offering nothing to do on a campus that looks drab and lifeless and holding classes that are nothing but textbooks and lectures.

Maybe some part of that is true if you’re being honest, and if so, no amount of marketing will fix that. But what if you believe all those bullet points to be true? You’re also likely putting that into your marketing.

Except, um, so am I.

So is that college down the road.

Yep, that one. The state school. The private school. The 40,000-student university. The community college. Pick one.

So are you saying… anything, or are you filling inboxes and mailboxes with hot air and indifference?

You can probably already tell if you’re doing this if you’re not a big-name school that can rest on its laurels. You’re scrapping for every student, and when the click rates aren’t there, and the brochure mailings don’t directly cause an uptick in visits and applications, you know you’re going through one ear and out the other (if you’re even going through their ear in the first place).

What Makes Your Institution Unique?

Let me give you a personal example of the difference between what everyone says versus what makes something unique.

Most people (I would hope!) would describe their spouses as kind, fun, and easy to talk to. It’s kind of hard to get married if you don’t think that.

But if I was to describe my wife to somebody else, I’d likely skip past the basics.

Why? Because that doesn’t tell the real story. My wife is beautiful and fun and kind. That doesn’t say much, though, because you likely already know people like that! As Shania Twain would say, “That don’t impress me much.” (Apologies for getting that song in your head.)

How would I make sure you could see what sets my wife apart and why I chose to spend the rest of my life with her?

Instead of saying she’s caring and kind, I’d talk about how I’ve watched her drop everything at 10 o’clock at night to help a friend who needed a shoulder to cry on — she’s not just another friend. When you are friends with my wife, you have the world’s best confidant and cheerleader who will stand up for you.

What makes my wife special is that she has so many unique qualities that elevate her to someone I can’t help but adore. If someone was setting me up on a blind date with her years ago, which set of descriptions do you think would have done a better job giving me the real picture of who she is?

“Andy, this woman is nice.”

“Andy, this woman once saw a mother at an airport trying in vain to clean up after her toddler threw up in the middle of the terminal, and she dropped everything to wipe up the mess and help the mom get herself together.”

I’ll take the latter. Is your campus nice? I bet. So’s mine. How are you setting yourself apart?

If anyone can take your marketing content and swap in any institution, you don’t have marketing content — you have placeholder Latin text so that the pretty campus pictures don’t look so lonely on the page.

And yes, we’re all guilty of doing this.

But the more you can get specific about what your value proposition is, the easier it is for your ideal student to say yes.

What is it about your college that elevates what should be a standard feature into an “I have to check this school out” category?

Details help. Mentioning you have a beautiful campus is good, but for your school, maybe it’s the winding path through maple trees that are the study spots of generations of future CEOs and entrepreneurs. Perhaps it’s the nearby lake that offers students a quick getaway on a gorgeous spring afternoon.

Go beyond what everyone else says. Because if everyone else is saying it, you’re not saying much of anything.

Andy Shaw is the director of enrollment communications and operations at York College of Pennslyvania, a private four-year residential school. He also is a speaker, columnist, comedian, and father of three toddlers.