4 Back-to-School Tips for Higher Education Marketers

Andy Shaw

Do you remember the thrill of back-to-school shopping?

Getting that perfect first-day outfit.

Finding a backpack that can fit your Trapper Keeper #datingmyself.

Figuring out which Starter jacket would make you stand out; my mom would smartly get me a second-hand one because why would a growing kid with evolving tastes need a new one?

Some years, I’d rummage through Goodwill to try to get as many outfits as possible for a limited amount of cash.

All of it was to give off the best possible impression when the school year started. New classmates. New teachers. Endless possibilities.

In higher education marketing, we don’t get a true summer off. It’s nonstop. But we do get a “quiet period”, in a sense, because students and most faculty are gone, and we’re left to finalize the incoming class and jump start the next one.

With all of that, we still have a Back to School Moment.

That first impression.

That first day outfit.

That chance to start off the school year with a bang.

Some students do spend a portion of their summer visiting campuses, especially rising seniors, but for the most part students are going on vacation, tuning out parents who insist they look at all of those pretty brochures you are sending them, and generally just taking time off to reset. When the school buses start pulling up, their attention snaps back.

And that’s your window of opportunity.

As the air gets a little crisper, so too should your communication, which, hopefully, is stronger than that analogy. Here’s what a higher education marketing team should do to make their best possible back to school impression:

Be Bold

Now is not the time to sit back. Everyone is vying for the attention of students, from teachers to department stores to other colleges. This doesn’t mean be needy – Gen Z can smell your desperation. But if you have a bold marketing idea, what a great time to go for it! Not unlike that slick outfit you hung up the night before school began, this can be a great time to show off your best case scenario marketing.

Do you have a new video you can roll out that shows off student stories? Can you have your social media team (or, uh, person), put together a series of Snaps or Instagram stories that give your school some personality and a you-need-to-keep-us-in-mind vibe? What about an off-the-wall print push, like a calendar they can use all year to keep track of their own activities but also slyly includes visit dates at your school?

This is where having a content calendar or a workflow system can really pay off.

Take a Walk In Their (New) Shoes

It is so very easy for marketers to forget what’s really happening to the students and families we are reaching. They are not just data points in a funnel. They are people with emotions, and the start of school brings a wave of them. Trust me, I just dropped my son off for kindergarten and I’m not crying, you’re crying.

What if your admissions director wrote a short note to parents of seniors, empathizing with the emotional rollercoaster of sending your son or daughter off for their last first day as a high schooler? Or a postcard to seniors wishing them luck on their last year – without any CTAs. You may have spent weeks working on that viewbook. Just remember that when it arrives, the people reading it have been dealing with more than a college search.

Give Your Counselors the Best Chance to Succeed 

Admissions counselors or advisors have their own back-to-school experience as they hit the fall travel season. While they don’t get to have the fun of picking out a new backpack or lunchbox (Wow, remember when those were your biggest problems?), they do have the excitement of bringing along new travel materials.

Every summer at the four-year private college where I work, it’s a race to get all of the updated materials ready in time, as there’s no way to hurry along updated data and make proofing go faster without causing mistakes. But it’s so satisfying to see it all arrive and distribute it to counselors.

Have you really listened to what worked and what didn’t work last year? Or did you just hit the reset button and churn out the same stuff without much thought of messaging, images, or medium?

I discovered my team could really use a pocket-size quick facts handout that had all the majors listed on it. That wasn’t hard to develop – we already had the random facts throughout all the materials, so we just consolidated. Other counselors wanted an aerial view of campus rather than a close-up of a few of our buildings because students so frequently asked what the area around campus looks like, so we swapped one of our main images in a brochure.

Counselors go up against other colleges every single day, and the last thing they need is for your lackluster, indifferent marketing materials to make them have to work that much harder for your school to stand out. It’s not about spending money (sure, to a certain point, you do need to spend some). It’s about making the most of the money you are spending.

Get Prepared

Just like in school, that first day quickly gives way to a first month and then it’s Halloween and then all of a sudden it’s finals time and a holiday break. Take a breath after that initial wave of activity.

Open houses are coming. Application season is coming.

You can do this. Get started with the best impression you can, and your school will be a (Trapper!) keeper.

Andy Shaw is the director of enrollment communications and operations at York College of Pennslyvania, a private four-year residential school. He also is a speaker, columnist, comedian, and father of three toddlers.