Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF

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Can you tell a good story?

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it,” says Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. Sinek’s book is a close examination of how people make decisions. More specifically, it aims to explain why we are inspired by some people, leaders, messages, and organisations but not by others.

His widely viewed TEDTalk explains further:

Higher education marketer Mike McCready has a wonderful post commenting on Sinek’s ideas, the core of which is essentially, “To successfully communicate your message you need to focus less on the what and the how, and more on the why.”

This strikes us as a very powerful idea to help drive brand strategy and marketing communications. And it picks up on some themes we explored in an earlier post, (see “Is your marketing answering the right questions?”) where we began to look at some of the logical and emotional drivers of students’ and families’ decision making for study abroad.

For his part, McCready begins to imagine how Sinek’s ideas could be applied to higher education marketing in his post:

“What does this all mean for higher education? Well, while stunning campus photos, low tuition and small class sizes may convince some, focusing on the real why will attract many more.

If your school is renowned for their medical programmes, instead of focusing on the recognition (which speaks to the logical part of the brain), put their why first.

One messaging idea: ‘Helping you save lives through our world renowned faculty.’

This puts the why first and the how/what second.”

Finding the core

There are at least two really exciting ideas at work here.

The first is the need to find the core of the marketing message (in our context, to find the central idea that shapes an educational institution and differentiates it in the marketplace), and the second is to express this idea in a simple, meaningful way.

Finding the core in this sense can be a challenging proposition, especially in an organisation as complex and varied as education institution. As authors Dan and Chip Heath say in their book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die:

“To strip an idea down to its core, we must be masters of exclusion. We must relentlessly prioritise. We must create ideas that are both simple and profound… A successful defense lawyer says, ‘If you argue ten points, even if each is a good point, when they get back to the jury room they won’t remember any.’”

The Heath brothers’ core has much in common with Sinek’s why. Both are chasing a central, compelling idea that can serve as an important guide for larger questions of strategy and management planning.

The right why (or core, if you prefer) says something powerful about why an institution does what it does – why it offers the programmes and services it does in the way that it does – and it taps into powerful ideas or values or aspirations that are shared between the institution and its students.

In this sense, the right why can also help keep the big picture and priorities at the forefront of decision-making and encourage discipline and focus in an institution’s marketing and communications.

The power of storytelling

The second exciting idea Sinek’s theories trigger for us is the power of storytelling. Even in McCready’s quick example – “Helping you save lives through our world renowned faculty.” – we get a strong hint of story. Stories are powerful. We all understand them and we respond to a good story on a deep, emotional level.

“Analysis might excite the mind,” says Stephen Denning, author of The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling: Mastering the Art and Discipline of Business Narrative. “But it hardly offers a route to the heart.

“And that’s where you must go if you are to motivate people not only to take action but to do so with energy and enthusiasm.”

It wasn’t hard for us to find a great example of storytelling in our industry; language learning software company Rosetta Stone has been doing it for years, starting in 2009 with their “farm boy” advert:


Not only did they tell a memorable story, they even created a contest asking people to finish it. And years later, they’re still telling stories, lots of them:

Getting back to Denning, he learned the power of storytelling as a way to break through in communications firsthand when he worked as a director at the World Bank. Cynthia Phoel recounted one of his early experiences in her article for the Harvard Business School, “Leading Words: How to Use Stories to Change Minds and Ignite Action.”

“Stephen Denning was at a loss for how to convince his colleagues of the value of knowledge management. Presentations built on solid research and carefully constructed PowerPoint slides got him nowhere. Then he started telling this simple story:

In June of last year, a health worker in a tiny town in Zambia went to the website of the Centers for Disease Control and got an answer to a question about the treatment of malaria. Remember that this was in Zambia, one of the poorest countries in the world, and it was in a tiny place six hundred kilometres from the capitol city.

But the most striking thing about this picture, at least for us, is that the World Bank isn’t in it. Despite our know-how on all kinds of poverty-related issues, that knowledge isn’t available to the millions of people who could use it.

Imagine if it were. Think what an organisation we could become.

This narrative succeeded in persuading Denning’s listeners… It succeeded where analysis and argument had failed.”

In other words, Denning located a compelling (and aspirational) why that could in turn provide the basis for a simple but profound story.

The example we’ve given here is a story designed to drive change: to encourage an organisation to launch itself in a particular direction. But you can easily imagine the same approach being applied to an educational institution – for example, to set out an ambitious goal or opportunity for expanded international programmes – or to more effectively position an institution in the marketplace: “We help you save lives.”

What about your institution or organisation? What is your story? And, once you have that answer, does that simple, compelling why come through in every aspect of your marketing?

Just imagine if it did.

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