After the catastrophe of 9/11, as we wondered if and when international students would start coming back to study English in our schools and programs, a teacher kept reminding me that there would be ‘pent-up demand’ – that people who had missed the chance to study English abroad would be extra-keen to travel when the opportunity came back, and they would come back in great numbers. The thing to do now, he advised me, was to make sure our school was visible and ready when students were ready to return. So I used that quiet time to work intensively on the school’s website, translating content into French, Spanish, and Japanese, and ensuring inquirers could get the information they wanted – or submit an application – with a minimum of obstacles and clicks.
Knowing that the market would soon be hyper-competitive, I was also careful to ensure that the school’s unique value proposition (an executive-level facility with classes of three or four students) was stated front and center and included in all messaging, so that inquirers would be able to differentiate the school from others – and quickly decide whether this was the school for them or not.
While English language programs have been able to retain students and even recruit new students in these online times, we find ourselves in something like the same situation as we did in the early 2000s. There are hundreds of accredited English language programs in the U.S., most of which will be actively recruiting students for in-person learning. How will prospective students be able to tell one from the other?
In a 2009 blog that remains relevant today (https://hbr.org/2009/09/value-propositions-that-work.html), Anthony Tjan proposed that there are only four types of benefits that matter to consumers. Language program leaders should consider which of these benefits their program offers and build this value proposition into their promotional materials and messaging.
- Best quality. You don’t have to be the best English language program in the world – but define the category you are in and be the best at what you do in your category, whether it is offering academic preparation on an inner-city campus or short-term programs in a laid-back beachfront environment. And one hint: it is not enough to scatter ‘high quality’ in your mission statement and promotional materials. Describe what you do and do it consistently well. Your students will decide if it is high quality or not.
- Best bang for the buck. This doesn’t mean you are the cheapest school, but it does mean that inquirers must be able to relate your price to your offer. I once worked at a school that was priced more highly than others in the city, but students frequently complained that they didn’t know why it was so expensive. The school owner may have wanted to position the school as superior, but did not have – or did not communicate – any special features to justify that price. The school never filled up and went out of business a few months after I moved on. A high price is justified if you can clearly describe the school’s benefits over lower-priced schools. On the other hand, a low price does not necessarily equal good value, especially if quality is compromised. As a teacher I worked with used to quote her mother, “You pay or you pay, but either way you pay.”
- Luxury and aspiration. Brands such as Rolex and Porsche fill this consumer need, but it is rarely addressed in the language school industry. OISE probably comes closest, and like other aspirational brands, it is targeted at a relatively small number of high-paying clients rather than a mass market. University-governed programs are unlikely to adopt this strategy as their tuition rates are subject to institutional approval, but in theory there is no reason why more proprietary programs shouldn’t pursue this approach, which requires a relatively small facility and allows for a high level of customer service and teacher-student contact.
- Must-have. There are certain products and services we can’t do without, and others that we need to attain certain goals in life. There is real value if students need your program in order to reach a certain goal. For example, conditional admission programs or pathway programs at some universities make completion of the English language program or component necessary for full admission to the institution. Making English language courses credit-bearing and part of degree requirements for non-native English speaking students is another (but rare) example. Achieving this status for a university-governed program requires advocating for it with the institution’s upper administration.
Do any of Tjan’s value propositions describe your program’s offer to students? If so, now is the time to double down and emphasize that value proposition to inquirers. If not, it will be a useful exercise to sit down with your team and ask, “Why should students choose this school over another one?” You’ll want to have an answer to this question as students the world over begin looking for an in-person English language program in the coming months.