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Why Third-Party Endorsements Are Critical for Your University’s Marketing Strategy

Chris Hazell / Abound and Colleges of Distinction

Let’s face it. Nearly every single college has a brochure or website that speaks about how they offer academically rigorous programs, access to state-of-the-art amenities, valuable resources for making school affordable, and mentoring professors who care deeply about the academic and professional success of their students. And while some of these schools might in fact offer such things, when your university is saying exactly what every other university is (unlike with third-party endorsements), no matter how engaging your imagery, persuasive your language, or true your claims, it all starts to sound the same to prospective students. For prospective students (and their parents) who are looking at your marketing material along with material from countless other schools, your message will come off as stale and unconvincing.

Plus, in addition to competing with all of that marketing “noise” from the thousands of colleges and universities in the U.S., the public is becoming less convinced that college is worth the investment. It’s probably not news to you that smaller private schools are receiving fewer students than they used to. And while there is debate as to why higher education seems to be having so many problems, the public agrees that it’s moving in the wrong direction. This means that the majority of universities and colleges, especially those without big name academics or football programs, need to adapt and improve their marketing strategies in order to prevent shutting their doors within the next few decades. That’s why the need to incorporate third-party endorsements in your university’s marketing strategy is a critical one.

Provide a Reason to Believe

A common bit of advice within the marketing world is to provide your customers with a “reason to believe.” In other words, while it’s important to detail the unique features of your university in your marketing materials—that you offer career services to students and alumni, opportunities for scholarships and affordable loans, a vibrant campus community with student clubs and events—these features should be accompanied with reasons to believe that what you’re saying is actually true. This is precisely why third-party endorsements are extremely valuable. Not only do they provide a reason to believe for your prospective students, donors, and other audience members, but they distinguish you from every other school that’s saying the same thing. It’s similar to the pizza joint that boasts of having the best crust in the city on a billboard. If such a claim is backed by thousands of 5-star Yelp reviews, then you have a reason to believe they do in fact have stellar crust because of their compelling online third-party endorsements. It’s exactly why word-of-mouth marketing is so effective—we trust what others have to say when we know they’re unbiased and have nothing to gain.

It’s something successful organizations outside of higher education do all the time, like Chevrolet with its Awards and Accolades webpage or Uberflip with its customer stories section on its website. Successful organizations understand the need to incorporate third-party endorsements as part of their overall marketing strategy. As marketing experts Al and Laura Ries write in their book The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR, “advertising cannot start a fire. It can only fan a fire after it has been started. To get something from nothing, you need the validity that only third-party endorsements can bring.”

Of course, the thing about acquiring and promoting third-party endorsements is that there are no shortcuts. If your school isn’t truly offering small class sizes, committed student mentors, and a rich learning environment, then no one outside of your school is going to vouch for you. This is why they are so important, since they provide true and meaningful differentiators that can set your university apart from other schools.

Examples of Third Party Endorsements

For instance, let’s say your university’s business school offers real-world professional experience at major local businesses as part of the curriculum. While you would certainly feature that in your marketing material, you can augment its effectiveness by a third party-endorsement—a reason to believe. Whether it’s an excerpt from a local CEO talking about working with student interns at your university, an article in the local newspaper featuring the collaborative work your business school is doing for the community, or an infographic highlighting the number of students who have gained real-world experience within various industries, your third-party endorsement will substantially strengthen what you’re communicating to your audience (this can be especially effective when marketing to MBA students). And in the case of forging organizational partnerships to increase adult student enrollment, third-party awards can also be incredibly valuable in convincing organizations to collaborate with your institution.  

Student and alumni quotes tend to be some of the more popular types of third-party endorsements, and for good reason. But a more effective way to incorporate third-party endorsements is to diversify them. A school that can provide student and alumni quotes along with positive PR excerpts, detailed narrative stories about how alumni have benefited from your university, and endorsements from local community leaders is at a much bigger advantage than a school that peppers a few student quotes sporadically throughout their marketing materials.

Another effective third-party endorsement can be from organizations that recognize your university for certain offerings that are important to prospective students and your other audiences, such as teaching quality, student support, and community involvement. Unlike a generic seal from major university ranking organizations that usually only benefit a small group of popular and prestigious schools, by featuring validation from an organization that takes a holistic view of your school you’re providing your audience with a valuable reason to believe you are what they’re looking for, even though you might not fill a 100,000-seat stadium on Saturdays or have multiple Nobel Prize winners on staff.

Lastly, third-party endorsements don’t only help with enrollment goals, but lend credence to your university overall. They can aid with fundraising, corporate partnerships, employer relationships, faculty recruitment, and more. That’s why obtaining and incorporating third-party endorsements is a valuable and increasingly necessary step in finding success with your university’s marketing strategy.   

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