3 Reasons Now Is The Time for Higher Education to Invest in Inbound Marketing

Stephen App

It’s fall, which means admissions professionals across the country are packing their bags and preparing for the beginning of another recruitment season.

And at kitchen tables and in office break rooms, prospective undergraduate and graduate students are searching for help with admissions essays, the FAFSA, and everything in between.

Enrollment management may be a cyclical game, but it’s anything but the same year in and year out. Today’s prospective college students are more digitally savvy than any who have come before them, proficient at filtering out unwanted messaging, but craving communications that are tailored to their interests.

For admissions administrators and college marketers, that means traditional marketing tactics, like requests for information forms, view books, and list buying are no longer enough to adequately fill their campuses with high-performing students.

To succeed in today’s digital age, schools and colleges need to offer students the information they’re craving, and on their terms. And the key to doing so may just be inbound marketing.

At its core, inbound marketing is built upon three components:

  • Educational content that attracts members of an organization’s target audience to its website.
  • Premium content resources that turn anonymous web traffic into tangible leads.
  • Marketing automation capabilities that target users with personalized information based on previous brand and website engagement.

Inbound marketing has been a popular marketing strategy among B2B organizations for several years now, but it’s still gaining traction in higher education, which is traditionally slower to react to emerging technology and marketing capabilities.

Here are three reasons why now is the time for higher education marketers to invest in inbound marketing.

Reason 1: Students are conducting a large amount of their college research online.

While schools and colleges across the country focus their efforts on outbound communications to test takers who match their preferred demographic and academic targets, prospective college students are doing their own research, often without contacting a school’s respective admissions department until their application is submitted.

In an episode of the Hashtag Higher Ed Podcast, Adam Castro, the Vice President of Enrollment Management at Bloomfield College, also identified a rise in stealth applicants. “What’s happening at Bloomfield,” said Castro, “is that students are using our online application or our common application as an inquiry tool. So we’re seeing an increase in students that are first-source application interest.”

Additionally, Castro notes that these students are not completing their applications, but rather, are filling out partial applications and then waiting for schools to come to them.

Libbey, a new freshman at Wellesley College, says she conducted much of her college research by browsing college websites as well. “When I visited my top five school websites, I liked looking at the design of the website, because it shows how thoughtful they were going into it,” said Libbey, who also took advantage of the virtual tours offered on college websites.

At the top of the enrollment funnel, schools are leaving valuable web traffic on the table by ignoring these early online searches. Instead, sites like Nerdwallet.com are capitalizing on seasonal search queries with articles about filling out the FAFSA, while The New York Times captures pageviews on articles about conquering the admissions essay. These topics, and many more like them, are of interest to prospective students and their families, and represent a valuable opportunity to attract the right students to colleges and universities websites.

Reason 2: List buying is becoming less effective

What happens when big data marketing tactics rely on less data and less accurate data? Higher ed is finding out.

Wayne Camara, senior vice president for research at ACT, recently admitted to The Atlantic that fewer students are providing data when taking standardized tests. What’s more, students who are providing data are providing incorrect data on important questions, such as family income, which means schools might be marketing to students who aren’t actually in their target audience.

That data is also becoming more expensive. The cost of purchasing names has increased to 42 cents a name in 2016, up from 32 cents in 2010. Another issue: as the demographics of college-bound students change — students of color, who are more likely to be low income or the first in their family to attend college, are making up a larger percentage of standardized test takers today — traditional big data marketing tactics are becoming less useful. Timothy E. Brunold, the dean of admission at the University of Southern California, recently declared that finding a diverse class of students “requires more work and meaningful contact with students,” rather than simple list buying.

Rather than focusing on outbound communications to students with no discernable connection to your school, inbound marketing focuses on crafting better communications to the students who have connected with your college or university. This can be accomplished through automated workflows, triggered by explicit signals, such as information submitted on an information form, or implicit signals, such as tracked website activity.

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Reason 3: Today’s students are adept at ignoring unwanted communications

When Ivan Alexis Mosqueda earned a near-perfect score on the PSAT, he was “flooded with mail and email from colleges,” he said. Mosqueda said the barrage was overwhelming. “It wasn’t useful at all in sorting out the options I had or in making decisions on where to go.”

Libbey, the Peddie School graduate who ultimately chose Wellesley College, similarly ignored unwanted communications. “I really appreciated the emails that I signed up for specifically, but I would also receive emails from random schools that got my email address from taking the SAT and PSAT,” said Libbey. “I don’t really think those made me more interested in schools I hadn’t heard of.”

Libbey and Ivan aren’t alone. Research has shown that young consumers are adept at filtering out or ignoring advertising. “Millennials are looking for information before they make purchases, but they’re looking for it from their trusted sources, and their trusted sources are not the manufacturers or providers of products,” says Nora Ganim Barnes, Chancellor Professor of Marketing and Director of the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

That means glossy viewbooks and introductory emails aren’t going to resonate with prospective students, if they notice it at all. Instead, schools will need to rely on relatable and authoritative individuals within their community to communicate with students. These might be current students, financial aid professionals or career counselors, or professors. Even here, however, there’s a catch. Libbey said that while she enjoyed reading student testimonials and articles, she was hesitant to trust posts that sounded like they came directly from the school’s marketing department, rather than individuals. “If there was a mix of lukewarm ideas or [posts about] people wanting to make the campus better, I’d be more inclined to believe the positive reviews too,” she said.


Higher education is in the midst of a massive transition. Fewer students are applying to colleges nationwide, and the students who are are more empowered and in control than ever before. For schools, that means a shift in their marketing tactics isn’t recommended, it’s required. And while a full inbound marketing strategy may not be the right fit for every school, a focus on publishing relevant, educational content, followed by personalized communications that match a student’s explicit and implicit interests should be the goal for every institution.

Stephen App is a Senior Inbound Marketing Manager at eCity Interactive and a recovering admissions professional. You can follow him on Twitter at @stephenapp. Follow eCity Interactive on Twitter at @ecityinteract, or view their work and blog at www.ecityinteractive.com.