Whose Perception is Reality?

Perception-Reality_shutterstock_300316835.jpgMarketing makes assumptions or, if you prefer, draws conclusions. Data driven marketing builds a forward vision by looking backwards. But, what do past trends tell us about future behavior? Data can be used to pinpoint preference. It can identify and characterize - with some interpretation - behavior specific to different demographics, based on income, geographical location, etc. But, data lacks a voice, so we tend to give it one, and even the most rigorous analysis begins with a certain bias. In other words, there’s often a real tendency to collect data to support a preconceived notion rather than challenge it.

It’s not about us, it’s about them

Colleges and Universities have long built their marketing on reputation. The oldest and most prestigious institutions, those that have been around for hundreds of years, are name brands that we all know. Graduates of these institutions are perceived as successful simply because they attended regardless of their grade point average upon graduating. What about newer institutions, smaller schools? What about community colleges? Marketers at these institutions often base their campaigns on preconceived notions of advantages like affordability and convenience. While both of these attributes are generally true, and can readily be backed up by data, they are not what distinguish one community college from another.

A post for The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled Marketing to Survive written by Eric Hoover challenges marketers to reexamine their long-held perceptions. With increased competition for students and a marked shift toward results-oriented criteria, Hoover suggests that Admissions pause and reconsider preconceived, even data-driven marketing strategies when it comes to identifying what is distinctive about their institution. 

Hoover tells us the so called “D” word is not necessarily the key to identifying what differentiates one school from another.  He quotes Robert A. Sevier, Senior Vice President of consulting firm Stamats, Inc.,  “You can be really good at something, but if people don’t want it, it’s not a competitive advantage.” Hoover argues, “Distinctiveness that generates insufficient revenue is nothing to crow about. So it’s worth asking whom an institution’s strategies and messages are really serving.” It is this “institutional centricity” as Sevier calls it, that schools need to move beyond if they are going “to determine how to meet the needs of prospective students.” But taking a customer centric approach involves more listening than talking, a lesson that the biggest and best consumer brands learned long ago.

Capturing the Voice of the Customer

Hoover sights a number of instances where schools are challenging those existing perceptions that have long been the basis of their strategic marketing, by surveying current and prospective students. These survey results are not only changing the message, they are also changing the ways those messages are being delivered. By “learning how to define themselves, in part, by soliciting others’ opinions,” they are devising ‘balanced” strategies that combine high tech and traditional recruitment outreach.

Hoover touches on three schools in particular, Murray State University in Kentucky, George Fox University in Oregon and the University of Alabama, Huntsville. Each school learned something about the reality of their perceptions by listening and each made changes to their message and in some cases their target audiences. This new feedback also resulted in process changes like improving response times to inquiries or waving application fees for students who attend recruitment events to name just a few.

Each of the marketers interviewed seems to share a new found enthusiasm as a result of what they’re learning. Even if the feedback supported existing perceptions, each of these schools has found some early successes by adopting a new perspective. A perspective which questions just whose perception is reality.

Take a look at our free eBook which highlights some practices to help you redefine or laser focus your value proposition based on what has been done at other schools across the country.

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