'The Goldilocks Fallacy" and College Recruiting

Why being something for everyone is working less and less with prospects today

Marketing guru Seth Godin inadvertently zeroes-in on a problem I’ve seen for decades now in the college market (if you want to call higher education a ‘market’…which you should, because people have to purchase it to gain access to it).

My comments along the way are in bold. Tell me if you agree or not:

“One way to tell if the audience is happy is to ask a simple question: “Do you want it spicier?” (or the equivalent).

If half the people want it to go in one direction and the other half want the other, then you know you’re at ‘just right’. You’ve minimized the number of unhappy customers.

And that seems to be the goal of most colleges: Offer something or everyone, appeal to as many as possible, and carve out their place in a very crowded middle of the market. The aim, to Godin’s point, is to end up at ‘just right’ (hence, the Goldilocks reference

Here’s the problem: This assumes that there’s a normal distribution of preferences. In nature, many things are in fact distributed like this. Height, for example, or sensitivity to loud sounds. Most people are in the middle, fewer people are at either end. The goal when making something for everyone, if everyone is distributed normally, is to seek out the middle.

But!

Personal preferences aren’t normally distributed. Most people don’t care at all, some people care a lot.

That’s key, Coach! Your recruiting message isn’t going out to a normally distributed segment of the population. The same is true, in general, for colleges and their admissions departments.

The point being made that ‘most people don’t care at all’ isn’t true when it comes to getting an education, playing a sport, or building towards a successful life. However, it is very, very true when it comes to their view of your college or athletic program. Or, even you as a coach. Most of your prospects don’t care about you, especially at the start of the recruiting process. They want the opportunity, but you’re just one of hundreds of potential options. And, since most coaches don’t have a strong brand story that goes out in front of them without coaches having to define it for a prospect (think Alabama football, or a Harvard education), the market - your prospects, your ‘buyers’ - aren’t going to intentionally seek you out.

And!

In any market with choices, you’re no longer going to be able to serve everyone, because given a choice, people will make a choice.

So, seeking the Goldilocks equilibrium is a trap. While it might diminish criticism, it maximizes apathy. While it might increase your appeal to a hypothetical middle-of-the-road consumer, it might be that there aren’t many of these.

For many products and services, the middle is hollowed out. What you’re left with are the people who want a lot more or want a lot less of whatever it is you’re able to adjust.

A few takeaways I believe are worth thinking about as you move forward, no matter what segment of the college recruiting world you find yourself:

  • Your prospects will make a choice. What makes them choose you? Our research proves that a consistent message/story told by you works. Without your story, there’s no definition. Without definition, your prospects freeze…no action, no decision, nothing. When they finally do get around to choosing, they’ll choose something predefined in their mind, or something that’s been defined by another coach, college or admissions department.

  • More than ever before, this generation is becoming highly segmented. Culturally, we have fewer and fewer ties that bind us, which means we all want something different. And honestly, that may just be a different story from campus to campus, coach to coach. Ever noticed the boredom on the faces of prospects during official tours of campus? A big part of that is because nearly every campus visit around the country looks, sounds and feels the same. That doesn’t fit the mindset of most recruits, and it’s beginning to hurt colleges and coaches.

  • Most of you are starting to realize that, as Godin states, you’re left with the people who want a lot more or want a lot less of whatever it is you’re able to adjust. What are you doing to define what you have more of, and what you have less of, on your campus or in your program? That’s going to be a defining question for everyone working in the college marketplace in the coming years.