10 Things Prospects Hate About You

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10 Things Prospects Hate About You
Several years ago, I wrote a piece called “Ten Things Prospects Hate About You”. Next to “Why Email Doesn’t Work” it was the second most popular column I’ve ever done.

Recently, someone asked me for a copy of both parts of that piece and, wouldn’t you know it, I looked it over and realized that prospects now hate you in ways that are subtly, but importantly, different from the ways they hated you several years ago. The original piece was aimed at colleges and universities. I have updated it to reflect the wider audience for our work here at abeedle.com. In places where I’ve left higher ed specific references, it shouldn’t be too hard to extrapolate to traditional commercial ventures as well.

And I always love your comments. So, please please please — let me know what you think !

Why Prospects Hate You

Okay, truth told, I don’t really think that prospects actually hate you (or your company/institution for that matter). But I do think that there are things that make prospects less than excited and engaged about their experiences with you — and even worse, there are things that make your prospects not care about you one way or the other. The phenomena I discuss here are in no particular order of ‘hateliness’. You ought to think seriously about each of them…

You think information is the most important part of your website.

In all likelihood, you can’t be blamed for thinking that this is true because you did some user study or asked a bunch of folks who were already stakeholders in your company or institution, “How can we improve our website?” The answers sounded a lot like, “Make it easy to apply online.” “Give clear directions to campus.” “Tell us about your products or majors or whatever.” From this you made a list of things that needed to appear on your web pages and, voila! You’ve got a site chock-full of fascinating tidbits about you and what you do.

Sadly, information doesn’t really matter all that much to those folks who aren’t interested in finding out something very specific about you — and that “aren’t interested in something specific” group makes up almost all of the traffic to your site. Facts have no power to engage interest — and the review sites present them in an easier-to-digest form than you do anyway. Engage interest and emotion. Save the facts for later.

You are boring.

I was a professor for many years—and worse yet, I was a philosophy professor. So, I know all about boring. In addition, this means that I thoroughly believe that “being exciting or interesting” is not a virtue in and of itself.  That said, the methods you use to showcase yourself to prospects are just dull, dull, dull. And worse yet, you’ve got stiff competition in the excitingness department. The world of movies, music, television, video games, extreme sports, and teenage social lives is alive with buzz, hype, humor, action, and energy. In this world, your visitors’ engagement with the admissions process or the product purchase decision cycle is simply a necessary evil, not a welcome challenge.

Do you need to engage prospects with buzz, hype, humor, action, and energy? Certainly not. Action, humor, and energy: Pick any two.

You are lame.

If your stuff isn’t boring, then it’s usually lame. What do I mean by this? I mean that you attempt to be engaging in a professional sort of way, but have unintentionally horrible production values. Or, you try to be cute and funny, but take that effort so seriously that you come off as stuffy and uptight. Or, you try to be ‘out there’, but spend all of your time making sure everyone in the institution approves the script for your movie. Trust me… you can’t be truly captivating by committee.

You talk too much.

Vast stores of information marketed boringly make for pretty monotonous (and monologish) communications programs. Figure out ways to listen to your prospects or engage them in activities rather than simply expecting them to take in all of your information and then be “motivated” to apply, buy, or enroll.

You think your campus visit is better than it is.

(Spoiler alert to regular old businesses: Most colleges believe that the holy grail of the admissions cycle is getting potential students to visit campus. Kind of a “get them in the showroom” mentality.)
Many people sing the praises of the campus visit. Give me a nickel for every time I’ve heard, “If we can just get them to campus, then they enroll” and I can write the next newsletter from the beach — my own private beach. As Bob Sevier of Stamats fame has humorously pointed out, there aren’t enough incoming first-years in the U.S. for this to be true given that most kids visit three or more schools. And c’mon gang, do you really believe that this generation is especially susceptible to the wiles of student workers walking backwards, views of empty classrooms, and rhapsodies about the salad bar in the dining hall?

These students are just not that gullible. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that they come to your school because they can actually picture themselves on campus, but in spite of the campus visit experience.

You have forgotten the truth of “Show, don’t tell.”

Do your big achievements get lackluster treatment? Or how about this, do your small, but vital, achievements get no treatment at all? Your website should be dynamic and alive — just like the culture it reflects — and your “inner marketing brain” should be working overtime to find ways to bring the experience of working with you alive to those who will only visit it via the web. Want to get prospects engaged and interested? Don’t tell them what’s going on at your campus or company, show them. When I wrote the first version of this piece, of the three Nobel Prize winners in economics that year, two of their home institutions have managed to get their pictures on their home pages. The third (Princeton no less) has an enticing image of the earth on its home page and a tiny sidebar note about yet another Nobel winner on the faculty. Maybe they think most visitors will be unfamiliar with what the planet looks like?

Your online app is horrible.

I have seen online applications so poorly designed that they make filling in a 1040 complete with schedules A thru D look easy. Prospects hate it when, for example, they can’t check out your app online without making an account. Prospects also hate it when they have to do the entire app in one sitting – or they have to complete certain long, difficult portions in one sitting. The list goes on. Just make sure that prospects can see clearly what they will need to do in order to apply to your school.

You lie.

Many schools lead their marketing efforts with a pitch about affordability. When we engage with clients, I often ask what, in their mind, are some of the unique characteristics of their institution. You would be stunned to hear how many times someone tells me, “The price tag may seem high at first, but we’re really actually very affordable.” GLARG!!! No you aren’t. Or rather, you can’t really believe that people actually come to your school because of the price tag and nothing else. Let’s face it, short of a free ride, the only institution in the nation that is truly affordable is the local Community College. Your school is not affordable. You might have hidden discounts (er, I mean scholarships) that you use to make a sale sometimes, but you are not affordable. Quit selling discounts and start selling value. It’s a lot more honest. Your prospects will thank you.

You use jargon.

We all know that there are two principal reasons that people use technical language. One is a legitimate desire to streamline conversations between professionals. Hence, you and I might sit down and talk about “Search” mailings or “ROI” or other businessly type things. The other is a desire (conscious or not) to gain status by using words other people are unfamiliar with. Many companies and colleges are guilty of the latter in their marketing. For example, do you really know any 18-year olds who have ever used the word “Outcomes” in their everyday speech? Or even thought the word to themselves while they considered where to go to college? You must relentlessly purge your marketing speak of jargon that makes you feel cool, but look like a doofus.

You think your tag line matters.

I don’t really know who invented the idea of a tag line, but I’m sure it was a marketing shill looking for a new line of business. Listen up folks, in an ideal world, your tag line would work to reinforce a consistent and powerful brand message for your institution or company (I humbly submit ours as decent example). And it would get enough exposure that you prospects, current students, and alumni would remember it and treasure it as part of the experience associated with their time at your school. Think “Semper Fi” and you’re on the right track. Now, changing your tag line every three years and having a tag line that really says nothing about your school or could be said equally of hundreds of other companies or schools isn’t really the way to go. A few years ago, we created an in-office display of all of the schools who have used/are using the line “Get Real” as part of their marketing program. It was a depressingly long list.

Are you doomed? Must prospects hate you? Not if you’ll step outside your daily routine for a few minutes and ask hard, common-sense questions about the people you’re trying to recruit as buyers. By and large, they are good people and they simply want the chance to make an emotional connection to the institutions, products, and services that are right for them.

Help ‘em out will ya?