The Language of Value

Becky Morehouse

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Part 6 of 12: What I Wish I Knew as a New Marketer

This week I’m turning my attention to an important idea: The Language of Value.

Understanding the language of value is one of the best ways to enhance your student recruiting and fundraising strategies.

I’ll examine the language of value through two lenses.1

Determining Value

First, I’ll look at how you determine value. And second, I’ll discuss how to convey value.

By definition, value is the relationship between perceived costs and perceived benefits. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this kind of cost-benefit analysis is with a balance (or a scale).

On one side of the scale, you stack perceived benefits like quality and availability of faculty and graduate school acceptance rates. On the other side, you stack costs like location or tuition and fees or the fact that your residence halls are aging.

When the perceived benefits clearly outweigh the perceived costs, then you have high value. The language you build around this concept is called your value proposition and is central to your branding, recruiting, and fundraising communication.

Note that I used the word “perceived” several times in the above paragraph. Not surprisingly, perceived costs and benefits are often very different than actual costs and benefits. Perceptual errors may occur because of poor or outdated communication, misperceptions, and even old experiences. One marketing challenge, therefore, is to continually identify and address misperceptions. In this way, the gap between what audiences think and what actually exists is continually narrowed.

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As you consider perceived benefits and costs, make sure you are looking from the perspective of your customers. Students, parents, donors, and others often have a completely different perspective than you do. You may describe your large campus as expansive/open, beautiful, and spacious. Students might describe the substantial distances between their residence hall, dining facilities, and classrooms as inconvenient. Vulnerable students might view your large campus as unsafe.

Identify Costs

One great way to identify potential costs is to look at the exit interviews or data from withdrawing students as well as students who applied and chose not to enroll. Another option is to use primary research to identity both perceptions and misperceptions.

As you might suspect, issues of value, while more subjective than simply listing costs, are also much more compelling.

Let me explain it this way. I can tell you that tuition is $36,000 a year. That’s a number. Easy to compare one institution with another. No explanation necessary.

But if a student says, “Yes, tuition is $36,000 a year, but here is why it’s worth it” then the conversation is immediately elevated. Not only does this engage the prospect, but it makes it very difficult to compare your institution with others based solely on cost.

Value Message

The second issue related to value is who actually conveys the value message.2 Your target audiences are much more likely to believe people who are like them than they are to believe you. Current students and parents have great currency with prospective students and parents. I am no longer surprised by the number of prospective students who would rather attend a panel discussion of current students or alumni than a panel of admissions and financial aid staff.

Let me offer one final thought: If you do not clarify your value proposition and build your brand around that proposition, then prospective students will simply compare costs. If you are the least expensive choice that might be an option. But if this is the case, you likely have a different kind of value challenge.

For more expensive colleges and universities, the only way forward is with a clear value proposition.

To summarize, clarifying and communicating value raises the conversation far above mere dollars and cents and makes it difficult to compare your cost with that of your competitors.

If you need help identifying both your costs and benefits and defining and communicating the resulting value proposition, please give me a call. I’d be glad to walk you through what we have done for other clients. You can reach me at becky.morehouse@stamats.com.

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1I use the term “language” recognizing that language is oral, written, and visual.

2As you think about conveying the value message, don’t forget to consider channel preferences, timing, and the importance of both verbal and visual communication.

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