7 Important Strategies That Will Boost Your Higher Ed Marketing

7 Important Strategies That Will Boost Your Higher Ed Marketing

Higher-ed marketers are facing an uphill battle.

Competition is getting stiffer by the year: there are over 4,000 colleges and higher education institutions in the United States, and the increasing popularity of MOOCs (massive open online courses) presents even more options to prospective students.

The marketplace is becoming more fragmented, and it takes constant research and learning to keep up with all the new platforms that you heard you “should” be on, in order to reach teenagers, young adults and continuing ed students

There are some unique challenges college marketers face, such as:

  • Limited marketing budgets
  • Media saturation
  • Preconceptions based on outdated information

Furthermore, college applications have a relatively definitive lifecycle. That means you’ve to go out and look for a new set of the audience every year for your “funnel.

Not to mention most college marketing team has to service many different academic departments within a university. Acting as an internal agency, it’s often quite a feat to manage the timelines and demands of the various projects from different clients.

It’s important to leverage the latest digital marketing trends while re-examining the basics to make sure you’re putting the right message in front of the right people:

1. Define a Standout Brand Image and Communicate a Strong Message

There are only a handful of schools that are household names. If you aren’t one of those, what can you do to stand out and get the attention of your prospective students?

To make sure you’re appealing to the right market segment, craft a message and a brand image that match your potential applicants and speak to what’s important to them (you can do so by constructing a buyer persona.)

E.g. Your school may not be a household name, but it’s a specialty brand well-known in the niche and attracts students who want to specialize in that subject; your school may be a regional brand that draws student from a certain geographic location; you’re a local institution that allows students to stay close to home while pursuing their higher education affordably.

When you get clear on your specific selling points, then you can craft a unique message and target your resources to a focused segment in the market.

It’s not enough to pay lip service to branding by putting out a few graphics and upgrading your logo.

Your entire staff and faculty need to live the brand. Whatever your school wants to be known for, it needs to permeate every aspect of your presence online and offline. To ensure continual success, support your effort with internal training and communications to get everyone on board.

2. Build Trust

With every higher education institute jumping onto the rebranding bandwagon, many promotional materials start to look alike.

College ads look similar
These two campaigns, one from University of Buffalo (right) and the other from the University of Sydney in Australia (left), look strikingly similar even though they’re designed by different firms. Image source

When you embark on an effort to strengthen your brand image and marketing message, make sure it’s more than a visual makeover.

College is one of the most significant investments in many people’s lives. The decision-making process goes beyond statistics and features to involve trust and emotions.

There’re many ways to build trust through your marketing communications, such as:

  • Being transparent
  • Using testimonials, case studies or endorsements
  • Mention specific numbers and statistics
  • Show credibility indicators (e.g. accreditations)
  • Have a cohesive and up-to-date and professionally designed online presence
  • Showcase media mentions
  • Stay visible and top-of-mind
  • Communicate you’re a long-established institution
  • Use photos when listing staff and faculty members on your website

3. Present Consistent Marketing Materials Across the Board

Consistency across all touchpoints is critical to building a long-term trusting relationship with an audience.

Being an internal agency, many college marketers have to coordinate a myriad of marketing efforts from various departments while maintaining a unified brand image.

Having a brand style guide is one thing, making sure it’s implemented across 151 academic departments consistently is a whole different animal. The complexity, fueled by the increasing number of marketing and communication channels, can be mind-boggling.

Once-a-week meetings, emails cc’d to 15 other people and a dozen Excel spreadsheets are not the solutions to efficient and effective communication for a college marketing team.

You need a centralized system to coordinate real-time communications, content direction and design output so your team can have complete visibility to and control over brand cohesion.

By presenting a unified brand image in front of your prospective students and donors, you’ll be able to stand out from the crowd and build trust with your audience.

4. Embrace Inbound and Content Marketing

Inbound marketing is a great way to build trust and credibility by providing content and building relationships.

Inbound Marketing Process
Inbound marketing turns strangers into advocates. Image source

There are 4 steps to increase college admission with inbound methodology:

  1. Create an inbound marketing strategy
  2. Identify your audience
  3. Build your digital presence with engaging content
  4. Implement consistent analysis and reporting

Content marketing is an integral part of any inbound marketing strategy to build trust, stay top-of-mind and establish an authority positioning.

Here are a few content marketing trends you don’t want to ignore:

  • Purpose-driven marketing – tell your audience the mission and values that drive your institution, to get them emotionally invested in your brand.
  • Video and visual content – use a variety of mediums to capture attention, increase engagement and encourage social sharing.
  • A comprehensive content strategy – leverages technology to deliver an optimal user experience.
  • Real-time marketing – tie your content to current events to increase your relevance and discoverability.
  • Mobile-friendliness – the majority of the college-age segment consumes content either cross-platform or on mobile only. Your content needs to be designed for mobile to ensure its effectiveness.
Cross-platform and mobile usage
The majority of the population until between the age of 18 – 34 are consuming content either cross-platform or on mobile only. Image source

5. Implement Lifecycle Marketing Optimization

If you were at a college fair, you’d be talking to students at different stages of their decision-making process differently. So why would you send everyone the same digital content?

With the advance of lifecycle marketing optimization software, you can now deliver customized content and messages to students at different points of their decision-making journey.

Lifecycle marketing is an “always-on” approach that suits higher-ed marketing very well. It addresses the needs of the prospective students no matter where they are in their decision-making process, by providing relevant and timely content and calls-to-action across all devices and channels.

Lifecycle marketing also makes the oldie-but-goodie – email marketing – relevant again.

In fact, email marketing is far from “dead.” A well-executed campaign can yield an astonishing 4,300% ROI. It’s still the tool of choice especially for small marketing teams with a limited budget.

Even though the younger generation may be moving away from emails, their parents are still using emails. You can’t afford to ignore this demographic that most likely have a say in the decision-making process.

Email marketing is also essential in lead nurturing. Your followers may or may not see your posts on Facebook, but they will see your email in their inbox. It gives you the opportunity to deliver a sequence of content designed to build trust and relationship more effectively.

Email and relationship marketing can continue past the admission process and extend to current students and alumni. You can use the opportunity to build advocacy and ask for referrals and testimonials.

6. Use Storytelling To Establish Emotional Connections

The Hero's Journey
The Hero’s journey is a classic story pattern. Image source

People don’t connect with or buy from a logo or a faceless corporation. They connect with real people and their perceptions of these individuals drive their purchasing decisions.

It’s, therefore, important to build emotional connections with your prospective students through the power of storytelling to connect them with your faculty, staff and student body.

Compelling stories help humanize your institution, and the use of multi-media in your storytelling – e.g. photos, videos, and audio – can further help increase interaction and engagement.

You can’t just throw a bunch of bios on a web page and call it a day. It’s important to make sure that your stories are carefully orchestrated to communicate a cohesive message and fit within a larger narrative of your brand.

7. Design a Cross-Platform Multi-Media Communication Plan

Most 18 – 34-year-old consume content across multiple platforms, including mobile, tablets, and desktops. 21% of Millennials never use desktop computers, accessing the Internet exclusively from mobile devices.

This increasingly widespread use of mobile devices presents the opportunity of crafting interactive experiences unique to mobile devices, leveraging features such as GPS, Gyrometers, and other sensors.

Functionalities such as tap-to-call and geo-targeting offer the opportunities for experiential marketing to deliver an in-person brand experience that moves fluidly between online and offline, encouraging two-way interactions and conversations, to differentiate your school from your competition.

Conversations most influence students' decision.
Conversations with students, staff and faculty have the most influence on student’s enrollment decisions. Image source

Of course, you’ve got to show up where your target audience is, and therefore cannot negate establishing a social media presence.

In 2016 and going into 2017, Snapchat leads the pack, closely followed by Facebook and Instagram as the most popular social media platform among teens and young adults. This already feels out of date, especially as Instagram has added even more features over the past few months.

These platforms are well suited to leverage the strategies we discussed earlier in this article. Snapchat is a great storytelling tool, Facebook favors videos and Instagram is all about visual content.

Snapchat is the most popular social media used by teenagers and young adults
Most popular social media used by teenagers and young adults. Image source

To successfully market your university, it’s imperative that you take a personalized and interactive approach, and show up on platforms frequented by your prospective students while communicating a consistent brand message across the board.

The digital marketing landscape is getting more fragmented, therefore it’s important to have a clear strategy and effective coordination so you can focus your time and resources on tactics that matter.