Reconciling “the Numbers” and Market Positioning Progress

For most institutions, May represents early returns, to say nothing of frantic or disciplined refreshing of reports to reveal the evidence of the size and shape of the class that may be on campus in the fall. “How are the numbers?” memes abound, making light of the fact that “the numbers” to most only mean how many new students will join the campus community. We won’t join that peanut gallery; many of us at RHB know what it’s like to sit in your (hot) seat and know that “the numbers” are a nuanced and somehow controversial topic.

One of the many blessings of deep engagements with clients is an intimate view of “the numbers” in order to build marketing strategies that can be measured with more precision than “headcount. We aim to help clients move a myriad of variables—academic quality, geographic markets, engagement rates, demographic profile, PAGI and the like—that are washed to sea when the overall count isn’t “up”.

If you really mean to change position, shape trumps size.

We are fortunate to be capable and have diverse, successful clients but there is a common refrain: if you really mean to change position, shape trumps size, knowing that the two are not mutually exclusive goals. While perhaps not a salve for some, we hope it’s a reminder that positioning progress and increased headcount are not always related. Smaller headcounts often drown out the evidence of positioning progress. It takes a specific skillset and perspective to understand how the intricacies of class composition is reflected in “the numbers”.

True positioning means that you understand with precision how a class should be composed, where those audiences are and what appeals to them. And perhaps most importantly, you know that growth in certain segments happens in the margins or more incrementally than those outside of EM and marketing are natively able to tolerate.

If an institution successfully changes competitor sets (particularly upstream), new competitive pressures emerge. We liken that to an institution standing as a host in the threshold of two rooms of a house during a party. To embrace your new market position, you must leave one room to address the new guests. At the same time, you will be sacrificing the attention and appeal to those standing in the previous room. Your new guests have needs in line with your new position, not necessarily the old one. Often old tactics don’t work any longer, counselor assignments are no longer a fit for new audiences, events need new locations, your price is too low (or too high). Committing to the new room means adjusting to all that it will take to succeed in that new room, it’s a change of position, not an expansion of other qualities. Those who move out of the threshold with confidence will likely continue to attract guests in previous rooms as their appeal increases, even without your continued efforts targeted to them.

Next, positioning progress also means that you are likely known for something more specific. And, because you are likely positioning within a subcategory (higher education, non-profit, private/public/liberal arts, etc.) you are aiming at increasing a portion of a finite set of the audience. What no one wants to hear is that positioning within these highly-specific subcategories requires enormous additional institutional marketing effort in the form of innovation and investment, but mostly patience.

One of the most significant product positioning moves recently is the development of SUMMIT at Agnes Scott College. SUMMIT is a wholesale reimagining of student experience within the context of a longstanding mission. RHB was embedded in the analysis, development and marketing of the new “product” as a means of changing market position to gain marginally more, but certainly a different student composition. The invention of SUMMIT moved at what should be described as lightspeed in higher ed, which was still the better part of two years. The announcement to prospective student showed steady gains in the desired metrics and the measurable positioning success was also evident. However, success in changing position (switching rooms of the house) has meant not fewer challenges in enrollment, rather different ones. The cross-applicant set contains new competitors upstream, the inquiry pool has higher academic quality, a shift in AGI profile and the regional dispersion is greater. You can likely discern that this has broad implication for all manners of marketing. Still, the investment in innovation has yielded historically strong classes and substantial national recognition as a leader.

You might be asking, “why reposition if it doesn’t mean more?”

It’s a fine question. The answer is that “more” means more “mindshare” not always more people. More mindshare may mean more people, but success means “owning a space in the mind.” Positioning is being known for something, rather than simply known.

So yes, let’s look at “the numbers,” with nuance, context and a little grace.

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Sam Waterson

Sam is the Executive Vice President and Creative Director at RHB.