I’ve spent several weekends this summer experiencing the excitement and trepidation of visiting colleges with my eldest offspring.

The Campanile at Iowa State UniversityThe adventures have been eye-opening (college life has changed a lot since the 90s) and, sitting late last week in another university presentation, it occurred to me that there are lessons to be learned for social media marketers from the way colleges handle this process: (at least) nine of them.

One advantage that university marketers have over their most of their b2b counterparts in optimizing their programs is scale; colleges can learn from and fine-tune their messages and marketing processes based on thousands of interactions each year. Only the largest b2b enterprises approach that level of sales activity. So, here are several lessons b2b marketers can take from that high-volume learning.

1. Provide prospects with a “guided tour.” On college tours, representatives of the university show you around different buildings and classrooms, explaining key features along the way, and always end the walk by telling you where/how you can find more information.

B2b buyers probably won’t come to your office in droves, but you can provide them with a similar experience online. Design your website to guide prospects through your different product and service offerings. Content should focus on compelling high-level messages, but always provide the opportunity to “learn more” by drilling into detailed functional specifications for those who really want that level of detail.

2. Focus on your differentiators. Every university offers certain services (flexible meal plans, for example) so these features tend to be touched on lightly. The focus is always on what sets the campus apart, for example the innovative use of technology in the classroom at Purdue or the one-of-a-kind tornado simulator at Iowa State University.

For b2b marketers, it’s crucial to communicate those messages about your products and/or services that include words like “only,” “first,” “largest,” “fastest,” “most,” etc.. Just be sure to back up these statements with facts, examples and demonstrations.

3. Anticipate questions. Fielding questions from thousands of prospective students each year enables college marketers to integrate answers to most common questions into their web content, brochures and presentations.

This can be more challenging for smaller b2b companies, and particularly for startups. Marketers need to take advantage of every customer and prospect interaction as well as tapping the experiences of sales and customer service personnel to develop content and materials that address the most common questions in their markets.

4. Make it easy for prospects to ask additional questions. College presenters and tour guides encourage questions at almost any time.

B2b vendors should do the same on their websites through features like site search, FAQs, prominent and easy-to-find phone numbers and email addresses, social media links, and interactive capabilities beyond online chat. Like a college tour guide, a b2b website should encourage dialog and make it easy to engage.

5. Address price straightforwardly—but find ways to avoid “sticker shock.” College is expensive, very expensive, yet most universities do provide easy-to-find cost data broken out by the main categories of tuition, books, and room & board. But they often preface this information with a page covering topics like financial aid, scholarships and student employment.

B2b marketers can’t entice buyers with promises of government financial aid, of course, but there several other tactics that can be employed to minimize price objections, such as:

  • • Offer your product in a modular fashion, so it can be purchased and implemented one affordable piece at a time.
  • • Lead with proof of compelling ROI, or an ROI calculator to enable prospects to do their own calculations
  • • Provide products and services in a mix-and-match, a la carte fashion, enabling buyers to purchase only what they really need.
  • • Offer different levels of product/service bundles, e.g., Basic, Premium and Enterprise.
  • • Offer discounts based on organization type (e.g., for educational institutions and non-profits), based on volume, or based on pre-payment.
  • • If your pricing model is necessarily complex, simplify presentation for the web by providing a wide range with a narrower “most cost” range, similar to the way Mack Collier explains the cost of social media.
  • • Provide terms such as buy vs. rent offerings, a monthly fee or payment plan, or financing offers (car companies do a great job with this, advertising their vehicles as costing $x per month rather than showing the sticker price).

6. Address cultural as well as functional issues. Recognizing that university life is about the experience as well the education, college tour guides spend as much time talking about campus life as they do about academics, covering topics like housing, food, amenities (green spaces, gym access), local shops and restaurants, clubs and activities, and sports (intramural and spectator).

Similarly, many b2b purchases aren’t one-off transactions but rather the start of a (hopefully long-term) relationship. So tell prospective not just about product features but also about what it’s like to be your customer. For example, do you offer an online support and discussion community just for customers? How do you keep your customers informed of product updates, patches and new features? What kind of environmental and sustainability initiatives do you have in place? In other words, communicate not only about what you sell but also about what kind of company you are, and why prospective buyers should want to do business with you.

7. Use multimedia. College tour guides excel at mixing demonstrations, graphics, photos and video into their presentations.

Though rich media is nothing new, many b2b websites are still predominantly text. Make your site stand out and communicate more effectively by incorporating diagrams, infographics, animation, photos, video and other media types.

8. Appeal to both the “buyer” and the “check writer.” College representatives make sure to address the concerns of both their “functional buyers” (students) and the “economic buyers” (usually parents) by pointing out topics like financial aid (see above), placement rates and on-campus job fairs.

B2b marketers similarly need to address multiple audiences, often including management (cost reductions, improvements in operations, new capabilities), users (ease of use, built-in help, simplified workflow), the IT department (ease of integration, minimal implementation requirements) and finance / executive management (increased efficiency, lower costs, higher revenue).

9. Let your customers speak for you. Most of the tour guides and many of the presenters are students; who better to “sell” the university to potential incoming freshmen than next year’s upperclassmen? Students naturally understand the concerns and interests of their peers, and are seen as highly credible and knowledgeable sources of information.

Developing case studies and collecting testimonials can sometimes be challenging in the b2b world due to corporate policies about endorsing vendors, but even in situations where your customers can’t sing your praises directly, there are ways to let them “speak” to prospective buyers on your behalf.

If you find yourself stuck in rut with your b2b marketing, recycling the same-old same-old tactics, take a look outside your industry inspiration. After all, as many of us remember from our college experiences: some of the most important learning happens outside the classroom.