Disruptive marketing in higher education

Norman Kraft, a writing and editing consultant who specializes in higher education and who writes a pretty decent blog called Zen and the Art of Higher Education Marketing (which I found by way of Sam Jackson), discusses the idea of disruptive marketing in a recent post. (As I re-read the crammed, convoluted sentence I just blogged, I’m thinking perhaps I should retain Mr. Kraft as a writing/editing coach.) Kraft thinks that in higher education, “the disruptive marketing perspective has not yet gained as much attention as it should,” and perhaps he’s correct. (Some of us are still trying to figure out “integrated” marketing, and now we’re supposed to start thinking about “disruptive” marketing? Cut us a little slack, please.)

Kraft describes disruptive marketing as “breaking through all of the clutter that we face every day by using graphics, color, or packaging different from what has been previously prepared.” But he also cites a 2003 book that has pretty much become the bible for disruptive marketing, and it emphasizes a more philosophical approach. That book — The Innovator’s Solution: A Game Plan for Disruptive Marketing, by Clayton M. Christensen and Michael E. Raynor (review, excerpt) — talks less about packaging and more about targeting specific consumer groups (or, actually, nonconsumer groups). Excerpting from the portion Kraft quotes on his site, I see that disruptive marketing is really about two approaches:

    Offering products or services to “nonconsumers” of your current products or services. “Try to compete against nonconsumption: customers who are currently unable to use currently available products at all, either because they can’t afford them or are too inexperienced to use them. These markets have the most potential because these customers will compare your product to having nothing at all, and so will be thrilled to buy it even if it’s inferior to current available products.”
    Offering a low-end version of your product or service. If there are no nonconsumers available, explore feasibility of a low-end disruption instead: customers who can’t use all the functionality they currently have to pay for and who won’t pay premium prices for upgraded products.

In other words, either 1.) create a more affordable product or service for those who currently can’t afford what you offer, or 2.) create a “no-frills” product or service for those who don’t want the frills (or prestige) of your current offerings. I suppose the model for No. 1 would be Wal-Mart, and the model for No. 2 would be Southwest Airlines. In both cases, the idea is to target the low end.

Kraft suggests that higher education hasn’t really taken disruptive marketing seriously. But I can think of a few examples in which disruptive marketing has succeeded.

    Community colleges. It seems that community colleges fit the role of the disruptive marketer quite well. Many community colleges target the nonconsumers of traditional, four-year colleges and universities. They are a cheaper alternative to a traditional four-year degree, the product is perceived as inferior, but they fit the niche described by Christensen and Raynor in The Innovator’s Solution.
    The University of Phoenix, perhaps the most disruptive force in higher education in recent years. U of Phoenix offered online degrees for less than the premium prices charged by traditional universities.
    MIT’s Open Courseware initiative. The idea of one of the nation’s top universities offering courses for free online seems pretty disruptive to me. It opens the product to a broad audience at a very affordable price. And the idea has caught on, for now there’s also the OpenCourseWare Consortium through which several universities offer course materials online.
    Certificate programs. Several universities offer graduate certificates for those who don’t want to pursue master’s degrees but want some sort of specialization beyond a bachelor’s degree.

On the whole, though, I agree with Kraft. Most of us in higher education aren’t incorporating the ideas of disruptive marketing. Probably because colleges and universities are fairly traditional, conservative organizations, and disruptive marketing is too, well, disruptive.

What do you think? Are there other areas in which colleges and universities are employing disruptive marketing techniques? What are the opportunities?


Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

3 thoughts on “Disruptive marketing in higher education”

  1. Just an additional thought pertaining to the community college example. I would consider the whole premise of the A+ program to target those who wouldn’t normally be consumers of higher aid because it makes a college degree appear affordable.

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