Competitive Intelligence: Find Your Greatness

The average number of institutions a student applies to has been steadily increasing, and your prospective students evaluate your campus against many others. To help your institution stand out, one of the best uses of time and resources is building competitive intelligence—the process of gathering and analyzing information about peer institutions to inform your own positioning. 

Capturing competitive intelligence and incorporating it into your marketing and communications strategies doesn’t have to be complicated.

Rankings—My better is better than your better.

Ranking years are a big deal for a campus and rankings announcements create a lot of anxiety. Ranking methodologies vary by who’s performing the evaluation and what’s being evaluated—an entire university, a school or college within a university, or a department or program. Some are based on data and metrics, while others are reputational, based on surveys distributed to leaders within a given field.

An aside about rankings: At Campus Sonar, we take the integrity of our research seriously, and I’m skeptical that all of these methodologies would hold up under scrutiny. And I’m not alone; there are many who question the validity of rankings. But love or hate them, they’re a fact of life in higher education, both driving public perceptions and serving as a significant competitive data point. 

Let’s go back to my campus role. I wanted to understand how our ranking (fourth for our specific college within the university) correlated with our share of voice across social media and in the public sphere. I took a fairly unsophisticated approach, charting out the audience size for the top 10 programs across each social platform. I used a free tool to estimate web traffic, and pulled in the media share of voice for the same programs. What I found was that our college fell somewhere between third and fifth for each measure, in close alignment with our ranking. It’s worth noting that our particular ranking was reputation based, so these results weren’t entirely surprising.

Where this exercise had the most value was in illustrating our true competitors. Two programs will forever hold the top two spots in this particular ranking, and their combined share of voice dominated between 50–60 percent across every measure. Armed with these findings, and layering in knowledge of their extensive funding and resources, I felt confident setting those programs aside and looking more closely at programs truly comparable to ours. With this narrower focus, I examined in detail their messaging, program offerings, and features to determine how to differentiate our program and set realistic goals for our efforts.   

Focus Groups—Everything you need is already inside.

Toward the beginning of the fall term each year, I partnered with colleagues from the student life office to convene focus groups of first year students. With an offering of lunch and swag, we recruited volunteers from a demographic that was only separated from our most important audience by a few months. When we met, we asked them to:

  • Evaluate our recruiting materials, website, and social channels.
  • Offer their feedback on our admissions process.
  • Share what other schools they considered and applied to.
  • Explain how they evaluated us against competitors.
  • Describe why they ultimately made their choice.

Not only did these sessions provide invaluable competitive intelligence, they also shed light on issues in the student experience ranging from student life programming to curriculum changes. Perhaps most valuable was recognizing that we couldn’t fully understand the student perspective until we heard from students themselves. 

Online Conversation—Don't run away from challenges. Run over them.

There is a goldmine of competitive intelligence in online conversations where students ask for advice as they compare and evaluate schools and programs. Consider this your online focus group.

To share a final example from my own experience, when—taking advice from Steve App—I dug into Reddit conversations about my program, I learned that current students and alumni were advising prospective students to choose the least expensive option when comparing accredited programs because “the curriculum is exactly the same for all accredited programs.” 

Whoa. While not exactly true, this perception was our reality. But it wasn’t something our messaging specifically addressed. It was time to further clarify our differentiators and articulate the value of our program, including extra- and co-curricular experiences, access to faculty expertise, and a strong alumni network. 

Seek out the conversations where students ask “should I go here or there?” or “which schools should I apply to for X major?” And listen to the answers current students and alumni provide. Do they find value in the education they’ve received, and do they recommend you to others? These are eye opening conversations that really shine a light on your public perception, for better or worse. 

Just do it.

Since joining Campus Sonar, I’ve learned so much more. For our clients, I’ve had opportunities to dig into competitor’s owned conversation to uncover their tactics and topics, to examine competitor audiences to understand their interests and online habits, and to evaluate how campuses compare to their competitors on specific issues. Each of these findings equips a campus to find and compete for their best fit students. 

There are so many ways to both glean competitive intelligence and apply it. However you tackle it for your own campus, gathering competitive intelligence helps you:

  • Sharpen your focus on realistic competitors. 
  • Clarify your differentiators. 
  • Deepen understanding of student perspectives.
  • Uncover problematic narratives and threats.
  • Understand your strengths and opportunities.

And if you need help, reach out to us. We’re here cheering you on. 

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This post originally appeared on Campus Sonar's Brain Waves blog.