Higher ed marketing is increasingly characterized by a “sea of sameness.” Consider ads for nursing schools. If you saw an ad for a nursing program, but the college’s name was removed, would you still recognize the school? We tried this with ads from several nursing schools. All used nearly identical imagery. All the ads looked the same.

The “sea of sameness” pattern plays out in advertising from all types of colleges, from liberal arts schools and faith-based schools to larger institutions and state universities. Not only are the images similar, but so are the words, phrases, and overall messaging.

Is this simply a reflection of the image and copy choices made by the college’s advertising team? Or does it go deeper? These questions are worth consideration, as competition for students is higher now than it’s ever been — and that requires fresh thinking.

For instance, rather than depend on advertising alone, it may be worth looking at your college’s program offerings from a bird’s-eye view to see how they line up with met and unmet needs among prospective students. Where can you add value? Where can you address pain points or improve upon standard offerings?

Start with data
Survivors of saturated markets like higher education recommend identifying a niche market and working to appeal to that market’s unique wants and needs. People often associate niche markets with being small, but niche markets can be quite large and stretch across several demographic groups. Another common assumption made about niche markets is they are found through merely creating bold new packaging. In contrast, savvy marketers use data and analytics to find patterns that indicate areas of opportunity.

Organizations that succeed in identifying and forging relationships with niche markets are able to drive connections with consumers who are more loyal and willing to pay more offerings uniquely suited to their needs.

According to the Economic Times, advantages of niche markets include:

  • Little or no competition under that segment
  • A stronger relationship with (students)
  • A higher margin
  • An increase in perceived value. In fact, because the organization’s perceived value is higher, it is not uncommon for the buyer (student) to feel comfortable with paying a little more in exchange for the unique offering.

Facebook’s approach
To see if it could identify niche markets among its users who are interested in higher education, Facebook studied the correlations between its users and posts about higher education in 2016. The data they studied was from users who were engaged in Facebook content that was tied to completing school, choosing a school, or pursuing a new career. As they looked at user data, patterns began to emerge.

One of the most startling patterns was that 73 percent of Facebook users with an interest in higher ed are more than 24 years old.

According to Facebook, “Posts about graduation or making a career change saw the most engagement, and ‘nursing school,’ ‘master’s degree’ and ‘career change’ were the most talked about topics.”

Facebook noted at least seven prominent patterns among the data. They decided to learn more about the users within each pattern and came up with personas to represent each group’s characteristics. The groups Facebook identified include “politically engaged millennials,” “modern fashionistas” and “Latin culture lovers.” Learn more about Facebook’s higher ed niche audiences here.

Three key variables

Not sure of how to get started? We recommend looking into three key variables as you examine your college’s portfolio of program offerings.

  1. Competition

How many other schools provide similar programs, especially among schools near you?

  1. Employer demand

Students are clamoring for degrees that will help them find good paying jobs. Be sure to examine more than job listings. Consider also how many people are employed in program-related roles within your geographic area and projected job growth.

  1. Prospective student interest

Google search statistics can be illuminating, but also look at your own college’s web analytics to see what programs are drawing interest.

Another idea is to talk to your admissions team to see if they’ve been getting inquiries into services that could be expanded. You could uncover a special need for on-campus daycare or weekend scheduling.

From there, look to find the sweet spot where your current strengths and resources overlap with your audience’s unmet needs.

By taking a data-driven look at your college’s strengths and considering what makes a difference to today’s prospective students, you will be better equipped to create an effective portfolio of programs. Once you have that, you’ll be able to reflect that unique approach in your marketing messaging and break free of the sea of sameness.