January 15, 2021
This is the first blog in a series on the 12 most important things I now know about marketing that I wish I knew when I started my career. This series will draw on what I have learned from working with hundreds of colleges during my 30 years as a marketing consultant.
I want to begin this series with the idea of strategy.
The literature often defines strategy as a plan of action or policy designed to achieve an overall aim.
This definition of strategy falls short for two big reasons.
First, it is additive. It is often translated as “we need to do more things.” As a result, many schools are operating well beyond their resource base. They have too many programs, too many services, and are trying to meet the needs of too many different kinds of students.
Second, this definition does not reflect either competitors or target audiences. It is much too self-, or institutional-, centric and is largely oblivious to the machinations of the marketplace.
With these two basic flaws in mind, let’s look at a better definition of strategy.
For our purposes, strategy is differentiating yourself from your competitors in ways that your most important target audiences value. In other words, it’s about compelling differentiation. Or as brand strategists like to say, your unique selling proposition.1
Let’s break that down into two big components.
First, is the notion of differentiating yourself from your competitors. Rather than looking and sounding more like your competitors, you must make yourself as different from your competitors as possible.
Of course, this requires that you have an absolutely rock-solid understanding of the institutions with which you truly compete.
But it’s not just about being different. It’s about being different in ways that your target audience’s value.
This can be tricky for colleges and universities. Many have long focused inwardly and great strategy demands that you shift your focus. Going forward, it’s less about you and much, much more about them.
One of the easiest ways to determine how much your audiences value you is to measure the degree to which they are willing to pay for your services. If your discount rate is 70 percent, then there is a sense that they don’t value you that much.
In order to develop a point of compelling differentiation you must first undertake competitor research to better understand their offerings and messaging.
Then you must undertake audience research to know the goals, fears, and motivations of the students and donors you wish to attract.
With these data in hand, and within the constraints of your mission, you must develop offerings and messages that your audiences perceive to be of greater value than those of your competitors.
If you’d like to discuss this definition of strategy, or need help with the foundational research, please drop me a line.
Read Part 2: The Critical Importance of Integration