Published on 2013/06/14

How Smaller Institutions Can Succeed in a Commoditized Marketplace

How Smaller Institutions Can Succeed in a Commoditized Marketplace
Technology can provide smaller institutions with the opportunity to aggressively compete in the new higher education marketplace, but they must also develop a brand and value proposition that will carry them through the next few decades.

There is no better time in the history of higher education than now. It is a time where smaller higher education institutions can develop their own unique brand within this competitively transforming environment where higher education is treated as a commodity to be sold to the higher bidder.

The unknowns and the increasing demand for learning make this possible, but this is also partly due to the openness of the world and invasiveness of technology in learning and life and even the many known and untapped areas of learning still to embrace. Still, what’s new and exciting cannot be done without tapping the full human capacity to build what is to come next. That will require many higher education institutions to better understand the new, undulating market environment they are operating in and to leverage this knowledge, not only to improve their existing brand, but to know what kinds of services have helped to formulate and shape that brand.

The smaller institution’s advantage

Despite the many opportunities globalization presents to higher education institutions, many smaller institutions may experience some level of strain as they attempt to take advantage of these new changes. However, technology can soften some of these impediments if these organizations learn how to leverage new tools in every aspect of their service delivery.

The key for smaller institutions is to remain small but leverage technology in very pronounced ways to reach further, do more with less and to strive for a place at every table in shaping the new higher education brand.

Though smaller institutions may appear to be at a disadvantage, they can populate their brand aggressively with the many social media tools and other outlets that cost very little (if anything). Institutions need to know what they have at their disposal and use these resources. These are choices to be made, but they must be built on solid strategies. It is more so the strategy than the size or money that will determine which institutions are successful in branding and re-branding in this new era of change.

Bridging the gap to the other side

Smaller means more intimate and personal, and those are branding messages that need to form the bridge to entry. The world is changing and so are the people in it, so if smaller institutions really want to take advantage of the commodity of higher education — a class, a certificate, a diploma or a degree — they must understand the experiences people look for in taking a class or pursuing a credential, whether in a face-to-face, online or blended environment. People have developed preferences for certain kinds of learning experiences, but technology, life demands and changes are going to augment those preferences.

It is incumbent upon higher education leaders to learn more about the dissonance among learners’ preferences. Further, these institutions must find out why one learner left or didn’t attend and what made another attend and stay at the institution. This is important because, without this kind of feedback, the new systems for moving forward may distort the entity’s brand among customers.

What’s in the brand?      

One of the things about a commodity is that a demand must be developed for it, and that calls for branding and rebranding. Defining the entity’s brand through the eyes of the customers is not a new concept, but it’s an imperative in this era of renewal and change, even for publically-funded institutions. This must be a continuous process for the proper footing into new markets and to develop the kind of flexibility this globalized environment demands since most, if not all, of what it presents is nebulous, pervasive and leaves institutions feeling the effects of an economic tsunami.

Increasing market share requires establishing the institutional brand and, in some circumstances, rebranding. Higher education institutions must adopt measures to discern the new preferences people have developed for their commodities, forecast possible changes and seek out information to know the right point for suitable interventions where there are disconnects. To do differently compromises institutions’ market positioning and competitiveness.

Concluding remarks

Technology has opened up many new markets for institutions. The question is who will truly leverage these opportunities and rise to the top.

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Readers Comments

Ryan Loche 2013/06/14 at 11:53 am

I agree completely. Without a clearly outlined mission and a clear sense of who you serve and why, an institution cannot succeed.

James Branden 2013/06/17 at 4:37 pm

Perhaps I’ve misunderstood the article, but Harewood seems to be describing a scenario where small institutions are able to use technology to market themselves in a way that resembles how larger institutions do their marketing. If that is indeed what he is saying, I would say I’m not convinced small institutions need to do this. While they should embrace new opportunities to promote their brand, it doesn’t necessarily have to be done on the same scale as much larger institutions. After all, it’s not like they would have the resources to sustain a student population as big as that of large institutions. Instead, small institutions should focus on what they do well and how to promote that.

    Earl Harewood 2013/06/24 at 11:33 pm

    James, thank you for sharing your perspective on this topic. Clearly, there are many ways to examine how smaller institutions can really survive where they are today and at the same time seek out new markets. But do we really know for sure what will work and what might not in helping them remain viable and true to their brand? I think this is one big experiment for which we will not know for sure what will work and would not until we try something – anything. To stand still, is a sure way for these smaller institutions to become extinct and I don’t think this is what we are betting on.

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