Avoid These 10 Claims When Describing Your Institution

Since 1991, we’ve had the opportunity to visit and conduct work on many college campuses. In doing so, we’ve been exposed to a lot of talking points used by various institutions in their communication strategy. In other words, we’ve likely heard it all.

As part of our marketing positioning studies to help our clients achieve Coherence, we complete an intensive comparison of current primary key messaging alongside the primary messaging of the top group of cross-app/competitor schools. In these studies, all too often we discover very little difference in the key messaging among competitive sets, with some being so similar in wording and language that they are literally interchangeable. This means that the way schools are communicating to prospects is not significantly different among direct competitors. With all of these schools espousing the same values, how can a prospective student and her parents choose? If the message is the same from all of them, how will a family distinguish to determine a best fit?

The answer to those questions, of course, will be derived from a student’s (and his family’s) experiences with you. Customer experience and meaningful touchpoints are essential to your ability to achieve your goals for enrollment, engagement, retention, fund-raising or awareness-building. Still, how you describe and distinguish your college or university from competitors through your language will likely determine whether you are given opportunity for further touchpoints.

This post isn’t the first time we’ve discussed the importance of meaningful, distinctive language and communication in higher ed (see our previous writing on lifeless taglines and avoiding jargon for examples). But this bears repeating: these are the ten most common and banal things we hear on every college campus (and some of them are not so positive). Not coincidentally, these are the same ten messages we’ve heard for years and have written about before. It’s time for change!

You’re not just a number here.

We’ve heard—and so has your audience—this expression used so often, it’s meaningless. Technology allows us to engage individuals and your market expects that of you. They’d like not to be a datapoint or an enrollment or campaign statistic, and they expect that your sophistication will create a relationship beyond a metric. Using the “not just a number” statement may do the opposite of what you intend: for this generation, your comment may raise an eyebrow of concern.

Our graduates are doing amazing things.

If you’re referring to those same five or six exceptional alumni profiles that you’ve been dining out on for the past 10 years, it’s time to gather fresh examples. If you tell amazing stories, you will not need to rely on generic statements.

Our students learn how to become leaders.

A recent article by Susan Cain in The New York Times suggested that while a few signature institutions can lay claim to leadership preparation for corporate careers, we need schools who consider leadership in much broader terms beyond those espoused by Harvard, Yale and Princeton. If you prepare leaders, be certain to explain how you achieve that in ways that the Ivy League cannot in order to make your statement believable and compelling.

We’re number [insert ranking] on the U.S. News & World Report’s “Best [insert region and type]” list!

Unless you are in the top ten of any list, we’d recommend bypassing the endorsement. There’s not much compelling about being 14th.

Our professors are so dedicated. They even post their office hours outside their doors and give us their home phone numbers.

While we understand that this gem may distinguish some smaller institutions from their larger competitors, the practice of posting office hours is often a requirement that occurs on most campuses regardless of size. Mythbuster: everyone says this; it’s not special. It’s like my dentist bragging about her willingness to provide thorough dental exams.

Ninety percent of our faculty members have terminal degrees.

Given the dependence on adjuncts on the faculty, this factoid may have some merit, but be certain to explain what a terminal degree means. Describing anything terminal, suggests an ending—and perhaps a deadly one—that may, in fact, suitably describe the teaching at your school.

Everyone here is so friendly. No, really! It’s different here. People really are friendly.

We’ve been on cold, isolated campuses, so not everyone can claim this, but we’ve heard this promise on campuses of 500 and 50,000. It’s important to be part of a welcoming culture, but try not to lead with this message. Who wants to pay $50,000 a year for “friendly?”

The food is so-so.

We’ve heard some form of this comment too many times on campus tours especially; most frequently from the mouth of the student tour guide. And, while it’s endearing to hear that level of transparency, it’s probably not exactly what your guests want to hear. Granted, if your food service stinks, you must improve it. But our experience is that most campus commons offer variety and, more often than not, healthy options. Don’t be afraid to let someone from food services pitch what you have to offer to your visitors.

Parking is inadequate and/or too expensive.

Hopefully this isn’t a lead message, but if it’s out there, find a solution. Fix anything that is fixable!

The experience here is what you make of it.

While this common expression is generally true, you would do better to talk about your expert and distinctive processes (core curriculum, advising systems, student success formulas and the like) that ensure students are given the opportunities to achieve their goals. What you put in has a lot to do with what you take out, but try not to put the onus entirely at the start. Don’t create an opportunity for a student to think “Great, so this is all on me? I thought you were providing the experiences and opportunities.”

Now, knowing these ten statements and how common they are, let’s imagine they were completely off-limits. How would you describe your campus then? By eliminating some of these messages from your list of go-to talking points, you’ll be pressed to think outside the box and come up with new ways to communicate about your institution. At first you’ll feel like a fawn on ice, longing for the sure footing of the tried-and-true basic messaging that all institutions can feel safe with. But once your imagination gets warmed up, you’ll realize there are other intriguing or more important aspects about the education you offer, and to communicate about them probably isn’t as radical as you fear.

In your next team meeting of enrollment, marketing or department personnel, try an exercise of asking each person to write an introductory statement summarizing—and distinguishing!—your institution that does not include any one of the above statements.

If that’s too scary, try taking one of those ten common statements and illustrating it through a specific (and ideally, true) story. Doing this exercise will move the claim from the realm of the generic to the particular, so that you can be certain no one else will be saying exactly what you are. Remember: your brand is built on specifics. Students connect more with stories than with generalized statements or ideologies.

As an example, simply saying that “everyone here is so friendly” sounds warm and fuzzy, but that’s a generic implication. The idea of an endless sea of friendly, smiling faces doesn’t hold water, or mean much, unless you intend for it to mean you’re some kind of eerie, persistently-happy-for-no-reason cult (don’t be that—it weirds people out).

The truer sentiment, and one that would hit home for a prospect and their family, is the notion that everyone on campus stays connected and demonstrates a willingness to help one another—student, faculty and staff alike. Perhaps there is a story of an actual student’s journey (a fresh one, not the same story that’s been in every viewbook and postcard you’ve sent out since 2005) that includes their first interaction with a peer mentor as a freshman, a faculty member who offered extra study sessions before a test, all the way to a coffee meeting the student had with an influential alumna during their senior year. These aren’t just examples of “friendliness.” These interactions are much more meaningful, and they support the idea that people on your campus are interested in seeing that student succeed (which may be worth that hefty tuition cost).

Conduct these exercises, and see what happens. By breaking the mold and stepping off the well-worn path of traditional higher ed messaging, you’ll find new ways to say what’s special and distinctive about your institution (and what a prospect is giving up by looking at schools elsewhere). While the increasingly saturated and competitive higher ed market seems to imply that more and more institutions are similar and can be shopped for using basic consumer metrics (price, convenience, value, social status, etc.,) the fact remains, every institution is one-of-a-kind. Yet, using messaging that is either clichéd or common leaves you in a sea of sameness, and particularly indistinguishable from institutions of similar size and stature. You can try saying the message louder, or more often, but you won’t truly cut through the noise until you say something different.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.