Making the Short List – Lessons Learned from the College Buying Process


Not too long ago  I took my teenage daughter on several college tours. We drove a thousand miles and visited several colleges and universities. Seeing it through the eyes of a sixteen year old really hit home the importance of marketing, messaging and branding.

If it is done well, you make the short list, if it isn’t done well, and as any teen parent can attest, you are quickly dismissed.

Looking for a college is a very sophisticated buying process. At every step of the way, I was amazed how the decision-making process parallels that of a B2B technology purchase. I thought I would compare the decision processes, and provide you with some “take aways” that can be used for business. I was stunned to see how quickly a school made the short list and how quickly a school was excluded from the list.

The first phase of the buy cycle was the research phase. To help narrow our search, we used two third-party search tools to gather basic statistics about the universities. One provided basics statistic about school and the other provided rankings based on academics, social life, and quality of life. From this initial search, my daughter decided that she wanted to look at large Division 1 schools that had strong academics but also a social life that centered on sport activities.

Takeaway: Make sure that your products and services are listed in directories and articles that are widely read by your target audience.

Once we narrowed down the scope, we then proceeded to take a look at their web sites and schedule visits. This was really the first encounter with a prospective school and I was surprised at how a teen can quickly filter what they are interested in pursuing. Three things were considered – information, personality, and ease-of-use.

Here is what we found.

University 1 – This large university is known for its academic excellence. The first three graphics on the school’s home page flash were a non-descript building (the library), a lecture hall, and a few kids gathered around a computer. You had to wait through 10 graphics until the very last graphic to see anything about campus life. In fact, there was no information about campus life on their web site, it focused strictly on the academics. My daughter’s reaction – “this place looks boring”. And guess what? When we visited the campus, it was boring. The information session was a pre-recorded, generic video. No one from admissions was on-hand to answer questions. The pre-reserved tour had about thirty people, was very ordinary and there was no attempt to “brand” or personalize the university with any type of unique character. The academics may be outstanding however it is unclear how it balances with campus life and the bigger picture.

Takeaway: If your website is generic and too focused on one aspect of your offering then your prospective customers will not understand how it fits into the bigger picture.

University 2 – The second school’s web site was loaded with information (almost too much information for a first visit) and was very easy to navigate. When we visited this huge university, it was like entering Disney World. The signage was good and accurate, there were people on every corner helping you to find your way to information sessions and the speakers were on top of their game. Any one of the speakers could have been an executive in any F500 company. The student-led tour limited the number to about 12 people and the guides talked about the balance between rigorous academics and a robust social life. That point was driven home by a discussion of how the school’s academic programs contribute to university life. They talked about the school’s famous ice cream (thanks to the success of the agricultural program) and the refrigerators that were designed by their engineering students where the freezers could hold exactly two gallons of the famous ice cream. They talked about how the allied health science majors work at the local hospital to give them real-life experience. This huge university took the time and effort to personalize the experience, make the school “small” in the eyes of a prospective student, and relate the academics to real life experiences.

Takeaway: Easily found information, personalized experiences, and real-life examples draw prospective customers in.

University 3 – The third school’s web site had flash graphics that portrayed students in a various academic endeavors in a very interesting and illustrative manner. Each graphic was centered on a student and their interest at the university. The web site was easy to navigate and offered all the information a prospective student would need for a first visit however not enough for more in-depth research after a visit. The visit to this university was perfect. Someone from the admissions office gave the information session and was available before and after tours for questions. The student-led tour was informational and focused on the balance between academics and the overall college experience. However, when we returned home, there just isn’t enough in-depth information readily available on the academic programs. So now, we will have to work to get more information on specific academic programs and will have to proactively reach out to the various academic departments to learn more.

Takeaway: Make sure you have enough information on your site so that prospective customers don’t have to “work” to learn more about your offerings.

Just like the college search process, in a B2B technology buy cycle, prospective customers receive their initial information from various internal and external sources. They find it in directories, third-party articles from your web site and from their initial encounter with your company. At each step of the way, prospective customers are forming their opinions based on the information they receive and how you package your company and offerings. Easily found information, personalized experiences, and real-life examples draw prospective customers in. But nothing trumps the opinions formed during the first human interaction with a prospective customer. First impressions are lasting impressions.

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Tags: Messaging & Positioning, Inbound Marketing