Competition increases every day among higher education institutions seeking the best and brightest students. Consumers are now better informed than ever to research and decide upon the school that offers the best fit academically, socially, financially. Even more challenging, it’s a long consideration cycle that often lasts 18-24 months. That’s a significant window to absorb, process and act (or not act) upon information.

I’m an Inbound Marketing proponent. Meeting customers at the right spots in their journey, being part of the conversation, and providing relevant and useful content is the way to go – over intrusive approaches. Before developing content, however, a higher education institution needs a strong organizing idea behind its content strategy. That’s where brand positioning comes in, providing a springboard, and the sustained focus, for all future marketing activities and content.

So where do you start?

Begin with research, including identifying key competitors and auditing competitors to determine their brand positioning, market differentiators and messaging across channels. This may include owned media (i.e. website, social media), earned media, or paid media (paid search, online display, paid social, etc.).

Also assess your institution’s reputation, sentiment and brand perception. This will provide an in-depth – and sometimes sobering – analysis of your institution’s strengths and weaknesses among its target audience. This type of research is an excellent way to identify opportunities to seize a position in the market (caveat; only if authentic) and make it your own.

On a parallel path, interview, discuss and determine the DNA of your institution with leadership and others. Questions such as, ‘What makes your institution unique?’ ‘What are core attributes that separate your offering from the others?’ Be thoughtful and open to hearing everything – good and bad. Involve as many different internal groups as possible.

In the right hands, this exploration will yield strong positioning directions that are authentic and can be delivered upon by your people, whether admissions representatives, marketing specialists, or staff. These directions can then be refined, married to creative and tested with prospective students and other key audiences. During this entire process, it’s important to continue to engage and build consensus among internal audiences so they’re sincerely prepared to be brand ambassadors.

Once your new or reinvigorated brand position is settled upon, it will inform the right tactical approach to support your message and lead you to your content strategy. This is the time to develop your comprehensive marketing plan with thoughtful strategies, tactics and content fueled by this early work.

With institutional leadership on the same page and a clearly defined brand positioning, creating great content and executing on your plan just got a lot easier.