The Offer vs. The Product

By Matt McFadden | Jun 06, 2017

I stumbled across The Offer from Bowdoin College the other day. It was written by William DeWitt Hyde in 1906 when he was President of Bowdoin, and it spun me into about an hour of self doubt.

Was I thinking about things all wrong? Again? It’s not easy to create uniqueness in higher ed marketing. It’s nearly impossible to make a university stand apart from its competition when 99% of the time the marketing is focused on the product (diplomas, “engaged learning” experiences) or byproducts (jobs, entry in grad school).

That’s why the focus should be on the offer. Let’s go outside of higher ed for a minute. There’s a reason AirBnB broke through in a marketplace crowded with companies peddling beds and 400 thread count sheets. The product is a cool place to sleep at a pretty reasonable cost, but what they’ve always offered is experience. And now they’ve made experiences a category of its own.

Experience has multiple meanings in higher education. First, how will a student’s experience provide value to an employer when they graduate? Second, how will their experience at your school change them for the better? The question becomes “what can you offer that your competition can not?” And how can that resonate with this generation?

Experience is important to Generation Z. It’s not quite as important to them as to millennials, but it’s still important. Generation Z is more pragmatic, frugal, and altruistic. Many believe this is because they watched their parents struggle through the Great Recession in 2008–2009. They value experiences that help them do good, but don’t bury them in debt. Gen Z is the first generation to only know what it’s like to pay for only what they’ll use (see Netflix vs Cable) or to not pay at all (see Spotify). They are also the first generation in a long time where a college degree isn’t the only option to a high-paying job.

So what the hell do we do with all of this? It’s unlikely that you’re going to convince the provost tomorrow to change up the academic experience, but a couple of questions come to mind.

What’s the offer at your school, and could you define it today?

Speaking of the provost, can you start having conversations about what the academic experience really offers? Can you as a collective begin to change that narrative? Can you think through ways to deliver the product that don’t take 4 years or smother your graduates in debt? These are not easy conversations, but as a marketer, you need to be in them.

What stories will best showcase the offer, and who should tell them? I’ll give you a tint on that second one- it’s the students. But it shouldn’t be all students. Faculty should play a key role here as well. Colby College is a great example. Check out their academics page and especially the “Jan Plan”. I want to go to Colby just for the opportunity to focus on one thing for a month. It’s a sabbatical from your college career. Amazing.

As a higher ed marketer, you need to be at the table discussing the product. While major changes will unfortunately take a long time to come about, now is the time to discuss and define the offer. William DeWitt Hyde figured out 110 years ago that it’s the best opportunity to stand apart.

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