Setting yourself apart from the competition is not an easy task, but it’s worth it.  Differentiating your school from peers increases recruitment success both quantitatively and qualitatively.  Ultimately, you want to make it easy for students to understand what makes you unique – and why they should choose your school. What makes you unique? It could be anything from academics, social life, school spirit, reputation or a combination.  

Don’t think your school will stand out without effort.  With some students applying to as many as seventy colleges, and the Common Application allowing students to submit as many as 20 applications each, there’s a plethora of choices out there for every prospective attendee.  And there are lots of other schools courting prospective students.  How are these students supposed to choose between all of the options?  Make it easier for them by doing the work up front and differentiating yourself.

Here are five proven tips to get you started on differentiating your school’s brand from the competition.

Tip #1 Find What Makes You Truly Unique

One of the most crucial ways to differentiate your school from the competition is to show that you have what others lack.

In their book, The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, legendary branding strategists Al and Laura Ries put it this way:  “Branding in the marketplace is very similar to branding on the ranch. A branding program should be designed to differentiate your product from all the other ‘cattle on the range.’ Even if all the other cattle on the range look pretty much alike.”

The goal here isn’t to copy other schools, but to understand how you want to mark yourself to stand out from other schools.. First, think about the things that your school does really well or does differently from other schools. Do you have more diversity than your geographic peers? Is your biomedical engineering program top five in the country? Is 70 percent of your student base involved in Greek life?

Second, select your competitor universities. Figure out what it is that makes those schools similar and different. Perhaps one of your competitors has a record-setting football team, while your faculty boasts multiple Pulitzer Prize winners.  Maybe you both have well-renowned physics departments.

Whatever the similarities and differences, document them, and then take a look at your competitors’ branding strategies.  Get a feel for how they position themselves – how is your school unique?  Where does it stand in contrast to their approach?  

Going back to the cattle branding metaphor, a brand that looks exactly like another ranch’s brand achieves none of its goals.  To make your school unique, you’re going to have to make it stand out.  

This exercise is a good opportunity to expand your boundaries, as well. Is yours a technology-focused school? Check out how liberal arts schools are marketing themselves.  You just might be able to mix and spin something new by adapting ideas from other brands that aren’t your direct competition.

Tip #2 Support Your Claims with Data  

Once you’ve figured out what makes you unique, marketing isn’t just a question of boldly declaring those features to students in the hopes that they will care.  You’ve got to do more than just make claims; you’ve got to prove it.  Identify what makes your school unique and then support it in any marketing and outreach with data.

For example, if your claim is that you have the most diverse student body in your region, prove it with numbers.  Conduct surveys within your student body to show that students appreciate and have benefitted from the diverse opportunities at your school.  Highlight diverse alumni in your communications.  Encourage the formation of diverse clubs on your campus.  Participate in diversity conferences, not just on a department level, but on a university-wide level.

If what makes your school unique is the fact that you have the strongest academic programs, be sure to point these out in your marketing assets.  Highlight lectures and presentations in your events calendar.  Feature star professors in advertisements or spotlighted lectures.  It’s the age-old adage: practice what you preach.  If you’re going to make a claim in your marketing, be sure you can back it up with examples and statistics that will set you apart from the crowd.

Tip #3 Use Testimonials From Current Students or Alumni

A heartfelt story is hard to ignore. In fact, 89 percent of B2B marketers say customer testimonials are their most effective content marketing tactic. This is an opportunity to try different strategies. Consider interviewing an alum with a great personal testimony in which your school played an important role, or you might even tap a famous or highly successful alumni to share their story with prospective students.

In these instances, videos are great promoters. Don’t forget to include flattering images of your campus and facilities while your champion tells their tale. Even if your famous alum doesn’t agree to speak, you might consider creating a video biography as a sort of testimonial.

Current students can provide great testimonies as well. According to Entrepreneur, testimonials have power because they build trust, aren’t salesy and overcome skepticism. As Chegg puts it, “make your students the story, not the brand.” You don’t want a testimony that simply gushes over your brand. Instead, showcase a life-transforming narration that transcends your brand but also includes it as part of the cast.

Other factors that make a good testimonial are:

  • Highlights personal benefits
  • Backs up your brand promise
  • Delivered by a person that the audience identifies with
  • Conveys authenticity

Whatever you choose to do with your testimonials, be honest and welcoming.  Prospective students will respond to authenticity, and will appreciate hearing about the experiences of those who came before them.  

Tip #4 Tell Your Story on Social

Are you leveraging social media to its fullest potential?  If not, this channel should be given serious attention – 72 percent of incoming high school seniors reportedly researched prospective colleges on social media.  

Another reason social media is important is because it’s inherently mobile-friendly. Current overall Internet traffic is at least 56 percent mobile.  You want to reach today’s hyper-connected youth where they are, and for many, that’s on mobile and social.

What story should you tell?  The answer to this questions depend on the goal of your outreach and the audience you’re trying to engage.  As mentioned, student testimonials from existing and graduated students do wonders for your brand, and can be edited to fit on micro-blogging networks like Twitter or Facebook.  

Consider sharing the things prospective students can’t access from their hometowns, the things that make your school unique and bring the campus experience to them.  Course offerings, alumni achievements, campus news, athletic experiences, even information about the closest city or town…all of these things bring the student experience to life and show prospective students what they’re missing out on by not being a part of campus.   

Also consider the platforms you’re using.  Facebook and Twitter are tried and true, but may not be the only place your prospective students are spending time.  Again, the mantra is to meet them where they are.  Consider whether Instagram and Snapchat make sense for your school, and don’t forget to fine-tune your YouTube channel, as well.

Tip #5 Make Your Events Sparkle

Events just might be the most effective method for brand differentiation. Why? Because each event is a prime opportunity to generate online content with a live event as the centerpiece. Even the event itself becomes content with live feeds, summaries, event apps, contests and videos. While planning for your event, be sure to keep your brand position and promise front and center. The more your message is repeated in different contexts, the better it sticks in the minds of potential students.

Events are more than just efficient; they’re effective. The top two strategies and tactics for recruitment for both four-year private and four-year public institutions, as identified by the Noel-Levitz consulting firm, were both events-based, with campus open house events coming in first and campus visit days for high school students taking second place.   

Make sure you team up with a partner or sponsor when rolling out your events. This helps increase credibility and visibility while also potentially taking some work off your hands. Remember, brands love to connect with the younger crowd. Think freebies and exclusive VIP zones. You can also offer sponsored talks, contests, booths or live entertainment.

A 2014 survey by Uversity and Zinch found that events were rated as some of the most valuable information shared on social for prospective students. The Facebook Events tool is a great place to start to get buzz-generating ideas. Finally, the event experience can also enhance your online efforts and rankings, bringing things full circle to further consolidate and position your brand.

The Bottom Line

Setting yourself apart from the competition is not an easy task.  The reward can be huge, though – with thousands of other schools across the U.S. competing for prospective student attention, the value of differentiating your school cannot be understated.  We hope the five tips shared above help you get well on your way to attracting even more prospective students.