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How to Find and Write a Unique Selling Proposition for Your School

What Is a USP and Why Does Your School Need One?

What does your school offer that no other school does? Take a second and really think about your answer. Is it relevant to your target audience? Sure, you might be the only school offering classes on surviving a zombie apocalypse or tree climbing, but chances are your course offerings, schedules and amenities look a lot like your closest competitors.

And these days, that competitive set is growing each enrollment season. From career training and trade programs, to public or private universities and fully online degrees, students have more choices than ever when it comes to education.

“Access to information plays a huge role,” shares Parker Antoine, senior administrator of marketing at Orange Technical College. “People have a lot more resources to learn what it’s like to go to a school now than they did 10 years ago. The biggest difference for students nowadays, they really don’t have to choose either or. They don’t always have to choose between a four-year degree and technical college,” Antoine continues.

“I can tell you from the Orange County Public Schools’ perspective, we’ve been putting these career and technical skills programs into the high schools over the last couple of years, so we can make sure every student has access to these programs, even if they are planning on going to a four-year college.”

“Maybe they leave high school with a pharmacy technician certification and work at Walgreens instead of Starbucks while they’re in college. They can take hours that they accumulate with them to college with coordinating degrees. At the end of the day, providing all those opportunities and allowing students to experience them is really the name of the game.”

So, how can your institution stand out in a sea of options? Defining your school’s unique selling proposition is a good start.

In fact, Entrepreneur’s Encyclopedia defines a unique selling proposition as:

“The factor or consideration presented by a seller as the reason that one product or service is different from and better than that of the competition.”

Effective USPs are focused, clear and brief, which means many brands use them as a tagline, slogan or part of a marketing message. In short, they communicate what your school does better, or more of, when compared to others.

If you’re at the helm of an institution without a clearly defined USP, here are three steps to guide the process of identifying and writing one.

How to Write Your School’s Unique Selling Proposition

Step 1: Think About Your Ideal Student

Step one in almost any marketing strategy is figuring out who you’re marketing to. Whose information do you want to see on an application form?

Create a persona for your ideal student that covers their demographics, but also their pain points, needs and goals. What is their deciding factor for choosing a school? What sticks in their minds when touring campuses or browsing school websites?

“It really differs depending on the type of person,” shares Antoine about what students look for in schools. “For people who know what they want to do for a living, what matters the most is the relevancy of the program and the school that they’re getting into. They know they want to be a welder, a mechanic or a doctor, so that defines the path that they’re going to take. For people who are a little bit on the fence about college, they’re picking a school for the experience. It’s a lifestyle choice.”

When creating your student persona, remember to be specific—we’ll revisit this later in this post—the more detailed your persona, the easier it will be to identify and write your school’s USP. This part gets a little trickier if you’re marketing to multiple generations of students, so you may need to create more than one ideal student persona.

Step 2: Reintroduce Yourself to Yourself

Knowing what your audience wants and needs is only step one. Next, you’ll need to dig into how your institution can help your ideal student address their pain points, meet their needs and reach their goals. This may call for a bit of introspection—why is your school the right choice for that student? How can you help them in a way that others can’t?

For some, that answer may be simple. For others, particularly institutions in a saturated market, it may feel as if everything has been done before. That just means you’ll have to search a little deeper. There are details that make each school stand out, from professors who give up their weekends to host study groups to on-site childcare both in the daytime and evenings. Don’t be afraid to go into the trenches and get to the core of what makes your school—and those that keep it going—unique.

“For us, it’s compassion, it’s people,” explains Antoine about Orange County Public Schools and Orange Technical College in particular. “If you don’t feel good about the teachers you’re working with, you don’t trust the administration, you don’t feel comfortable with your guidance counselor, it’s not going to be an enjoyable experience. Students can feel if they are being sold to or if they’re being helped. You want to know that someone there understands what you’re going through.”

Step 3: Be Specific

When it comes time to communicating your USP, you want to be clear, concise and compelling. Your USP should spark an immediate reaction from your ideal students, prompting them to think, “This is the right place for me.”

At this stage, it’s not enough to simply say, “We care about your success.” You must share the how and why you’ve uncovered in a way that instills confidence and empowers students to act.

When our agency partnered with Orange County Public Schools Career and Technical Education, we created an entire campaign surrounding the school’s USP—“1/4 the cost, 1/4 the time.”

And telling your story is only one piece of the puzzle. You also have to show students what makes you different, both in your marketing and your actions. For Marion Technical College, we translated their USP into emotion-stirring videos focusing on specific career paths and what it means to be a part of that field.

Integrating Your USP into Your Strategy

In the words of Abe Lincoln, “Whatever you are, be a good one.” A clearly defined USP weaves into every aspect of your school’s marketing and beyond. It embodies the spirit of your school and should be the starting point for your institutions next steps. Do your objectives, plans, curriculum and programs align with your USP?

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