Jun 15, 2023

Why People Buy Things (and How it Translates to Education)

When I was in graduate school, I met with the dean of admissions at my university to learn more about his chosen career path. I was interested in a career into enrollment management, which I did later, once I finished graduate school. After a lengthy discussion of the various aspects of his job, he paused to ask me one simple question:

Do you want to spend the rest of your career trying to figure out why prospective students and parents make their decisions on where to enroll? Seems like lunacy to me.

He wasn’t wrong. It was lunacy. I managed enrollment for 15 years in university, colleges, boarding and day schools and nearly pulled my hair out trying to better understand the choices of prospective students and their families. But, along the way, and with a lot of research, I learned some universal truths about why people buy things and how it translates to education.

People buy goods and services — including educational experiences — for two primary benefits.

  1. Functional benefits: This is what a product actually does for you, the tangible benefits or functions that it performs. An example: If you purchase an electric vehicle, key functional benefits is that it offers no emissions, provides tax incentives, and can be more affordable to operate than a gas operated vehicle.

  2. Emotional Benefits: This is the feeling that the use of the product actually delivers, how it makes the user feel, and the emotional connection that it may provide as a result of the purchase. Again, for example, if you purchase an electric vehicle, a key emotional benefit is that it makes the purchaser feel like a better steward of the environment, or that they are taking a step toward a greener and more environmentally sustainable world.

Most successful organizations market their products with messages that share a balance of functional and emotional benefits. And, a marketing campaign for a college or school might include messages that outline two or three functional benefits, often delivered in a way that highlights specific emotions.

But, here are some challenges.

  • Parents drive the decision process for their kids where they are young and they rely mostly on how products make them feel. So, marketing messages may focus more on emotional attributes for students of preschool and elementary schools.

  • Parents focus more on real world outcomes, such as retention rates, job placement, or acceptance into highly selective colleges, when their children are older. So, marketing messages may focus more on functional attributes for middle and high schools.

  • And, here’s the real kicker, students really don’t play a real influence in the decision process until middle and high school – and certainly college – and emotional attributes inform their decision process. They focus much more on how an environment or culture feels and how they will fit into it.

So, to summarize:

  • Students need to see themselves in the picture with emotional attributes,

  • Parents of young children also rely on emotional attributes (safety, nurture, warm, inclusive), and

  • Parents of older children rely on functional attributes (hard outcomes such graduation, life after school and college).

For a marketing team, this can be both a tall and confusing order. It means that the team must identify at least three or four functional and emotional attributes and utilize them effectively and consistently with the right audiences — and with the right medium — when creating marketing messages. And, those attributes need to be both defendable (they are truthful) and desirable (people want them).

As you can see, there is both art and science to creating key messages that are both appealing and effective for educational consumers. And, deploying those messages at the right time with the right audience can be a challenge.

One final thought. Some organizations identify one attribute for a product or service that is both functional and emotional and use it relentlessly in their campaigns. Consider Volvo, for example, that has used the brand attribute of “safety” for decades. They know that people want to be safe and feel safe in their cars. That one simple word appeals on every front. Clever, right? Sometimes the most effective marketing is simple.

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