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Higher ed marketers share the tactics they still love after years in the game
Higher ed marketing tactics

Higher ed marketers share the tactics they still love after years in the game

By Andy Shaw

In 2015 and 2016, Yik Yak was the new Twitter. Or the new Instagram. Or the new Snapchat, maybe. It’s hard to remember what’s the new and what’s the old. I still have a MySpace account somewhere.

Around that time, ad agencies and higher ed publications teemed with articles such as “Yik Yak holds potential for the right marketers.”

In my then-role as web and social media manager at York College of Pennsylvania, I had many conversations with flummoxed coworkers trying to get a grasp on what we should do about Yik Yak, whether we should try to leverage it as a marketing strategy (phrases like this are why high schoolers hate us, by the way), and whether it needed to be blocked all together.

As months went by, other colleges had death threats and bomb threats going out via the anonymous messaging app.

By December, USA Today ran a story called “College students explain why Yik Yak dropped off on campus.” After all the hype, Yik Yak was done. Through. It had gotten the proverbial third X on America’s Got Talent.

As higher education marketers, you’ve seen more than your share of Yik Yak’s come through. How many times has your boss sent an urgent email with some random trend piece attached asking if your college needs to jump on the ______ trend? (I know you just nodded.)

In admissions marketing, we’re all terrified of missing the wave, especially if that wave is going to get us in a better position to reach high schoolers or grad students cheaper or more effectively than our usual bag of CRM funnels and phone calling tricks.

Just as easily, though, we could spend hours in meetings strategizing for what amounts to be the next Yik Yak. You pour months of energy and budget you don’t have to spare to come up with a campaign that is passe within a calendar year.

Valentine’s Day reminds us to show some love to people who have stuck with us after all of these years (especially those who stuck with us when we spend most Saturdays at Open Houses. Sorry, babe.).

I reached out to enrollment marketing professionals to see what they love as years go by in their endless pursuit of reaching prospective students. Let’s see what deserves a Valentine. And let’s be honest, if it’s an admissions Valentine, it reads “Roses are red/Violets are blue/It’s time to deposit/What are you going to do?”

Content Marketing

No matter where you are posting, you still need worthwhile things to say. As I tell my interns ad nauseum, “If you wouldn’t want to read it or like it, why would anyone else?” Content marketing matters to Michael Sapienza Director of College Partnerships with College Raptor, who said a “calendar list that aggregates ACT/SAT, FAFSA, and state aid dates, deadlines, links, etc. is useful to families” with students who are seeking college aid. I’ve seen it myself – deadline lists work! We forget people outside our office haven’t memorized the admissions calendar. Silly people.


What might have seemed like a gimmick at first — “Let’s put the student’s first name in everything we send!” — has turned into a valuable approach that can separate the bulk mail trash from the spot-on-top-of-the-pile resource. As director of enrollment communications at York College, I’ve partnered with The Parish Group to help us create custom content that speaks to sophomore and juniors. Eric Bryan, Vice President of Enrollment Strategies at Parish Group, said they have seen “tremendous success” with partner schools who don’t just blast out messages carte blanche. The trick is not doing personalized content half-way. You really need to invest the time so it doesn’t come off as Mad Libs personalization. I like to think of it as giving students a personalized wardrobe. Sure, everyone needs pants and a shirt, but some want jeans and some want shorts. And if you listen, they’ll tell you what they want. Deliver that, and you’ve given them the perfect fit.

Campaigns that rely on strong messaging, not paid boosts

Alicia Brumbach, Director of Communications and Social Media at Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education, pointed out that if you’re over-relying on boosting your content to get it in front of people, that’s likely an indicator that it wasn’t that great to begin with. I couldn’t agree more. More marketers are rushing to pour those precious few advertising dollars into boosting a bland post in front of a few hundred more people rather than figuring out what would get people to share a post on their own. A campaign that resonates with a prospective family’s concerns, dreams, or desire for information never goes out of style. And you accomplish that by, and stick with me here, directly asking prospective families about their concerns, dreams, and need for information. We collect evaluations from hundreds of families who visit Open House, and then I’ll see what they wish they had learned more about. Next time around, I try to get them that content ahead of time.

Keeping the user experience as the priority

SEO is a “No duh” for a college’s online presence. Don’t let that breathless pursuit of a top spot in Google overtake your need to get useable, readable content to families. “I’m hopeful that as digital marketers grow their skillset, they will continue to educate those higher up on what is actually important in terms of metrics and strategies for driving the best ROI,” said Holly Landis, Elizabethtown College’s web content and social media manager. Bluntly, it means telling higher ups that ranking on Google can’t outweigh content that actually helps people. The goal is a marriage of the two. Too often it seems more like an arranged marriage.

Test, measure, analyze

As trends come and go, it will never go out of style to be well aware of what’s working, said Kristin Hundley of marketing firm Graphcom. “As soon as you realize the outreach isn’t working, you should immediately change direction. This may also save your budget,” she said. It’ll also save your sanity. If you’re not already tracking what’s working, especially with print materials, you’re just guessing. And guesswork doesn’t get priority come budget time.

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

collaboration practices andy shaw

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