Marketing Your Academic Programs

Amid increased calls for public accountability, public debates that measure the academic quality of an institution according to specific outcomes (such as completion rates), and increased competition for students between peer institutions, there is a need for rethinking the way you market your institution's academic strengths -- and specific academic programs. Increasingly, prospective students and parents want to hear evidence that your institution will help further their educational, career, and life goals, and want to know how the academic experience your institution offers will help them achieve success differently than the academic experience offered at other institutions.

This week we asked Bob Sevier, senior vice president of strategy at STAMATS, to discuss with us his approach to promoting the academic strengths of an institution.

What Doesn't Work

First, Sevier warns that many institutions still discuss their academic quality in terms that members of the institution may assign value to, but that prospective students and parents do not. It's important not to rely on historic indicators of quality, such as the size of your library collections or the endowment dollars per student. "In order to measure quality meaningfully from the prospective student's perspective," Sevier suggests, "you need to look at the outcomes of that quality."

Sevier focuses on what he calls the three "wrap-up" numbers:

  • Students' satisfaction with their academic program
  • Graduation rate
  • Job placement in the student's chosen career (or graduate school placement) within 6 months

"These numbers," Sevier adds, "answer the three key questions an entering student or parent will be asking about."

There's a caveat, though. Sevier cautions that simply advertising the number of students accepted into graduate school, or the fact that your alumni pool includes an astronaut or the CEO of a Fortune Top 50 company, will not be enough. The problem is that many institutions can quote similar numbers and examples (and are doing so). Simply making the point that you have high-quality programs does not differentiate your institution from others who also have high-quality programs.

"If you talk about your programs in the same way competitors talk about their programs, students will differentiate based on other factors -- such as price or location -- and maybe not in your favor."

A better strategy, Sevier suggests, is to convey how your programs differ from your competitors' by crafting narratives about how the academic experience you offer presents unique opportunities for students.

Focus on FBO

Sevier recommends offering a three-pronged message that outlines and connects the features, benefits, and outcomes (FBO) of your highest-quality academic programs. Sevier warns that most institutions focus on describing a program's features (such as available majors, study abroad opportunities, or big-name faculty), but fail to then describe how those features translate into specific benefits for students, and how those benefits translate into the outcomes applicants and their families care about.

Here is an example of FBO:

  • Feature: We have a program that involves study in a major wildlife preserve.
  • Benefit: Here's how one student used that opportunity to develop a paper on how certain species can survive.
  • Outcome: As a result of the paper, the student was accepted into Harvard.

"By charting out the FBO," Sevier remarks, "you are creating a narrative. We're a storytelling culture; stories help us see the import of choices we need to make."

"A differentiated curriculum is the most powerful and lasting of all marketing advantages. Rather than just quote a faculty/student ratio, talk about how your faculty are engaging with your students in ways that faculty at other institutions aren't. How are your faculty helping students move beyond basic knowledge to applying the material they learn? In what ways are your undergraduates involved in research? Or, what are specific, unique things you do to prepare students for a global marketplace?"
Bob Sevier, STAMATS