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The Power of Storytelling in Higher Education Marketing

Once upon a time…A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…Call me Ishmael. Whether in movies or books, a great story starts with an intriguing opening line. But in order to have that one great line that captivates, you must have a compelling story to back it up. Without the story, you’re just another person trying to sell something.

It worked for Moby Dick’s Herman Melville, and it can work for you too. Stories are an essential part of higher education marketing because you’re not just selling students and their parents on an education. You’re selling them on an experience. There are more than 4,300 colleges and universities in the United States. Fresh-faced college hopefuls have their choice of virtually anywhere in the country, so how will you stand apart?

Will it be your award-winning academic programs? Will it be your D1 sports affiliations? Will it be your sprawling campus with the tastiest food selection within a 100-mile radius? Will it be your diverse student body?

Well, sure, it can be all those things. But what people will ultimately choose you for lies in your story – or more importantly, the stories of the students who have walked your halls, witnessed the experience first hand, and have seen the beauty of what you promise to the world. That’s where you will shine. And you can get there with storytelling in higher education marketing.

The Irresistible Power of a Story

Captivation is key when crafting a story. You’re not going to get very far by just talking at people. Anyone can hit up your website and scroll through your academic programs or read through the awards you’ve gotten. What they can’t get from a drop-down menu or brochure is the essence of why you’re the one they should choose. A story — or better yet, a curation of stories — on your website will draw people in on a human level.

Did you know storytelling marketing is a thing? People base their whole professional lives on telling stories that stick. In fact, that’s the name of one such professional’s book: “Stories That Stick” by Kindra Hall [1], nationally-known storyteller and speaker. Do yourself a favor and read her book. But if you don’t have the time because, well, you’re busy running a university, let us give you the gist.

An image of the book, "Stories That Stick", which is cited in this article

Hall explains the irresistible power of a story in this way:

“A perfectly-placed, impeccably delivered story can transport a person to a place beyond interested, straight past paying attention, and into a state of complete captivation. The “can’t look away” kind. The “oh shoot I just missed my exit” kind. In these moments of story, we are…seized in a way that feels almost beyond our control.”

John Azoni is another such professional. This video producer and storytelling coach drills down specifically into the higher ed space with his top-rated podcast Higher Ed Storytelling University [2]. He tells us that “marketing is all about building an emotional bridge between prospective students and your school, and stories are the fast track to emotions. But you can’t do good storytelling without vulnerability.”

A graphic for the podcast "Higher Education Storytelling University". This podcast is cited in the article

This vulnerability is required when forming deep connections with others. Trying to get your message to resonate with prospective students requires those students to connect with the values of your school and the potential success they can have. This has traditionally been a challenge for higher ed institutions who strive to create an emotional bridge between the school and the students so they choose you over others. That’s why there’s been a big shift in recent years for colleges and universities to humanize their brand.

At the crux of all this is the ability to communicate shared human experiences that students and their parents can relate to. Showing videos of your campus or urging people to “apply now” takes a salesy approach that, while an important part of the decision-making process, won’t build that emotional bridge you’re going for. That’s just information; it’s not a story.

Narrative Transportation

So how can you go about crafting a story that people want to hear and that will spur them to have an emotional reaction? It’s all about refocusing your message from the accolades of your university to the human aspect of the experience. Make them lose themselves in the journey, become one with your story, imagine themselves in those shoes.

The experience of losing oneself in a story is called “narrative transportation.” When a message is lost on an audience or the attempt fails, Hall calls this a “messaging tragedy,” and it’s something she sees on a daily basis. A good story, one that’s well woven and intriguing, is nothing short of “wizardry.”

An oil painting depicting the killing of the great white whale in Herman Melville's "Moby Dick". In the paining, a small boat of hunters are harpooning the while, while a larger ship sales in the distance

People need to be informed, true, but they also need to be inspired in order to bridge that emotional gap. Azoni points out that a story is about people, it’s about a journey through conflict or obstacles. Good stories often require a level of vulnerability, showing people as they really are and not as they wish to be seen. “Good stories show us that we are not alone in being imperfect.”

Facts to Feelings

Sadly, many businesses – universities included – struggle with bridging the gap we spoke of above. Hall goes on to say that a good story is the “perfect bridge to get your customers and stakeholders from facts to feelings.” In order to achieve that perfect bridge, you have to have a character that people care about.

“The greatest mistake of marketing is to put what you offer at the center of everything instead of the person you offer it to,” says Hall.

That said, the power of immersive storytelling in higher education doesn’t always come easily. Sometimes the stories are there but no one’s sure how to extract them. Other times people spend too much time looking for the perfectly crafted story that they miss what’s right in front of them. There can be many origins to your story, whether it’s a founder story or a student story, a long journey of strife and conflict, or one of profound personal epiphany.

Virtually any moment can be a value story. It just has to spark some kind of emotion or resonate in some way with the reader or viewer. When you can connect on an emotional level, you’ll have a much greater chance of starting a meaningful journey with prospective students.

Whether you harness the power of the written word or drive your message home with video, storytelling marketing can go a lot further toward converting students than stats and figures.

Let ERI Tell Your Story

Not sure where to start with your story or how to convey it in a meaningful way? We can help. Contact us today and let’s discuss strategies and approaches.

[1] Hall, K. (2019). Stories that stick: How storytelling can captivate customers, influence audiences, and Transform Your Business. HarperCollins Leadership.

[2] Azoni, John. (2022,07,20) Storytelling And The Power of Vulnerability in Higher Ed Marketing (No. 40) [Audio podcast episode]. In Higher Ed Storytelling University. https://sites.libsyn.com/411893/4-storytelling-and-the-power-of-vulnerability-in-higher-ed-marketing


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