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Third-Party Validation: Distinguishing Your School

Tyson Schritter / COO, Abound and Colleges of Distinction

This is the fifth of seven articles in the “Are You Making This Fatal Mistake with Your Higher Ed Marketing?” series, detailing how to elevate your school’s brand in the minds of your audience using a proven and easy-to-follow framework that puts them at the center of your brand’s story.

An important and very convincing way to demonstrate authority is to display third-party validation for your higher ed marketing efforts in the form of awards or distinguished recognition. It’s terrific that your school is recognized as a great teaching institution or one of the local community’s most sustainable organizations—but what makes an award so impactful is that someone else is saying this or that about your school. In other words, a respected third party, through third-party validation, is saying it on your behalf, which makes for a much more convincing “reason to believe” that your school can deliver on the promise embedded in your marketing story. A prospective student or parent, faculty recruit, or donor is much more likely to believe you can solve their problem or help them reach a goal if a respected “other” is already vouching for you.

We see this all of the time outside of higher education. The automotive company Kia does a great job of highlighting third-party validation on their website, featuring awards they have won for various car models. Another example is Best Buy, whose website homepage includes that they have been named “Barron’s 2019 Most Sustainable Company” and are listed among the “World’s Most Ethical Companies.” By featuring awards like these front and center, they are demonstrating that unbiased third-party organizations have vouched for the quality of the company and its products. Cuisinart, too, highlights their awards with a “Cuisinart Master Awards List,” which rather convincingly gets across to customers that they have an impressive repository of third-party validations.

College Rankings as Validators

When it comes to higher education, one of the most popular ways to emphasize third-party validation for your higher ed marketing efforts is by highlighting traditional university and college ranking systems. The problem is, however, that these ranking systems are limited and end up squaring certain schools against others, and the most prestigious and wealthiest of which end up benefiting the most. Additionally, these ranking systems have major flaws and can be manipulated both intentionally and unintentionally to benefit certain schools at the expense of others.

The problems inherent in the traditional ranking systems have been covered by major publications. At Colleges of Distinction and Abound, we’ve been calling attention to this for almost two decades. In fact, well-known journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this in The New Yorker a few years ago. Gladwell explains that ranking a university or college in a one-size-fits-all approach is no different than trying to rank the best automobiles in a comprehensive list; such an endeavor would pit SUVs against sedans against convertibles, all of which have certain strengths and weaknesses depending on what a given customer values.

A college or university is similar in this respect. Each one varies greatly in size, location, offered disciplines, types of extracurriculars, values, mission, and so on. That’s why a typical rankings system ultimately fails to serve less “prestigious” or wealthy schools whose programs and services are just as high in quality as many of the brand-name schools. The truth is that not all students are looking for the same kind of school, but rather one that fits their own unique and personal needs and expectations. While rankings can demonstrate quality in certain categories, they don’t ultimately convey the whole story of what a school has to offer. The good news is that there are still ways to distinguish yourself with awards and third-party recognition without relying solely on the limited traditional ranking systems.

People and Ideas Over Prestige and Statistics

At Colleges of Distinction and Abound, we have designed an evaluation system that incorporates both quantitative and qualitative methods. We focus on all of a school’s qualities as opposed to a set of limiting statistics that tell only part of the story. We go beyond numbers to look at the ideas, people, and mission behind each institution. Colleges and universities don’t offer a one-dimensional service; they constitute a complex investment of time, resources, effort, and money. They offer several years of an immersive experience that not only prepares students for meaningful work, but also helps them forge and confirm personal identities and values; build lasting relationships with peers, mentors, and professors; and widen their understanding of the world and their place within it.

Our evaluation system isn’t hierarchical, either. We don’t actively pit certain schools against others. Instead, we evaluate schools in a holistic light, considering how they demonstrate characteristics that serve students best. For traditional undergraduate programs, we evaluate schools based on the following four distinctions: Engaged Students, Great Teaching, Vibrant Community, and Successful Outcomes. And, for graduate and adult degree programs: Accessibility, Affordability, Acceleration, and Advancement.

Using Third Party Endorsements in Your Marketing

In the traditional undergraduate space, the College of Mount Saint Vincent has taken advantage of our evaluation process and award insignia by highlighting how the school has been recognized as a private Catholic school in New York as well as how their nursing, education, and business programs are distinguished. Similarly, Elizabethtown College has highlighted their distinguished engineering program on their website to signal to prospective students a high quality of STEM-related education that they can expect should they choose to attend. Schools like the University of Indianapolis, High Point University, Seton Hill University, and many others have also been evaluated and recognized as quality institutions and highlight as such in effective ways in their digital marketing material. Adelphi University stresses our “Career Development” recognition throughout their social media channels.

Within the graduate and adult degree completion space, Fort Hays State University features Abound insignia on their website to provide third-party validation for their MBA program without needing to rely exclusively on traditional ranking systems (this is a great example of marketing to MBA students). Schools like the University of New Orleans, Mount Saint Mary’s University, Morningside College, and many others are doing the same: their use of Abound’s holistic award insignia conveys authority to prospective adult students in the same way.

Using Endorsements Across Multiple Audiences

There are many other ways to convey authority to your audience by highlighting third-party awards. Perhaps your school has been recognized for its involvement in the local community? Alumni and donors are always happy to see proof that your institution is making a difference in the surrounding area and being recognized for it. Or perhaps your faculty have been awarded for their commitment to teaching, or your communications department for their creative marketing efforts? And in the case of forging organizational partnerships to increase adult student enrollment, third-party awards can be incredibly valuable in convincing organizations to collaborate with your institution.

Of course, the major reason third-party validation plays such a vital role in your higher ed marketing efforts is that you can’t fake them: you are either offering a service that is award-worthy or not. This is why at the heart of every great marketing and brand story is a brand that offers a great product or service. There is no shortcut for this, but if your university is serving its students, helping the community, and living up to its mission, then we encourage you contact us to learn more about how you can gain the distinction your school deserves.

Steps to Consider:

Audit your content to get a sense of where you are highlighting your awards and third-party validations for your higher ed marketing efforts. Are you finding gaps? Are you only highlighting them to certain audiences and not others?

Are the awards you’re highlighting from quality and respected organizations? It’s important that your third-party validators are also organizations with which you want to be associated.

Are you only focused on highlighting traditional ranking systems in your marketing? Consider Colleges of Distinction and/or Abound, which can provide you with a less limiting way to speak about the quality of your school and programs. Remember that marketing to adult students will look different than marketing to traditional ones.

Try reaching out to other departments and offices on campus to see if they have received awards from other organizations. You may find that other areas of your school have already been recognized but haven’t thought to share it with you.

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