Higher education has become a fiercely competitive space. With enrollments declining, birth rates on a downward trend and shifting attitudes among Gen Z teens, higher education institutions (HEIs) have never been faced with so much adversity when it comes to attracting and enrolling students. Many are left wondering how to bridge the gap between these hurdles and their institutional goals.
According to Anna Paladini, Marketing Consultant with a professional history in higher education, the answer is more intentional marketing.
In this article, Anna will walk us through some of the reasons marketing should top every HEI’s to-do list in 2023 and the benefits of aligning strategic efforts with institutional goals. She’ll even give some advice on how to tailor your marketing tactics to your target audience.
Why Does Higher Education Need Marketing?
Trade schools, community colleges and universities alike used to differentiate themselves through prestige, programs and proximity. Every HEI had regional reach and a suite of specialty degrees that attracted specific students. Today, however, the field is much more competitive. Online programs are encroaching in local college territories and students are exposed to competing degree programs from across the country.
Academics no longer set you apart. Now it’s about what your target students value most — community engagement, student support, career opportunities, etc. Effective marketing broadens your reach and communicates those ideals and opportunities to potential students.
“Higher education success is tied to enrollment,” Anna explains, “which is tied to recruitment, which is tied to marketing. If you don’t have a strong marketing strategy, you aren't going to recruit and thus enroll students. Plain and simple.”
Anna also notes that this need for better, more effective marketing is happening across the board. Universities and colleges are spending millions of dollars a year on marketing strategies to attract new students and create brand awareness for their school, all in an effort to break through a crowded market and deliver a clear message about how they help students.
Aside from creating visibility, HEIs are also facing a smaller and smaller pool of potential students. College enrollment is on the decline, especially at two-year institutions, and predicted to continue worsening.
Part of this is due to a decline in the birth rate, which took a downward turn in 2008 and never changed course. This means fewer children each year, which means fewer high schoolers looking for post-secondary education options.
Anna argues another factor in the declining student enrollment rates is that Gen Z teens no longer see the value in or need for a college degree.
“Where millennials grew up with society telling them they needed a college degree to be successful, Gen Z kids have had almost the opposite experience,” Anna says. “These teens have seen other people become extremely successful on social media or by building their own businesses without a college education. Degrees don’t hold the same intrinsic value for them as they did for the previous generation of college students.”
So not only do HEIs have to compete with a wider market for fewer students, they also have to convince potential students that earning a degree is worth the investment.
Perhaps not quite as daunting as million-dollar marketing budgets and a dwindling pool of potential students, pandemic restrictions on student recruiting efforts also have a big impact on whether or not HEIs can meet their enrollment goals.
“Travel restrictions can significantly hurt your in-person recruiting efforts,” Anna notes. “If your recruiters can’t travel far from campus or are limited to how many students they can speak to at a time, it can make it hard for them to reach their benchmarks. These challenges are what make digital marketing an essential part of the modern marketing strategy for colleges.”
Digital marketing is a powerful tool to get the word out about your institution without having to meet students face-to-face (although Anna says that’s still an important tactic). Even as restrictions are eased in many parts of the country, your digital marketing efforts can help recruiters connect with students on their terms.
Benefits of Marketing
The biggest benefits of marketing for HEIs include crafting a brand identity, attracting ideal students and targeting your whole audience. Each of these can support your enrollment goals in its own way, creating a comprehensive and strategic approach to gaining new students.
1.) Establish a Brand Identity
We’ve already discussed the quickly increasing competition in the higher education industry. It’s precisely that crowded market that requires post-secondary institutions to clearly define their identity for their target audience.
Your brand identity is how you anchor your image in your mission. It’s the perceptions people have about your college or university that shape their feelings about attending your school. So managing these perceptions is critical to presenting an image that potential students can identify with.
“A marketing strategy helps you create and maintain a brand identity that moves you toward your specific goals,” Anna says.
It guides how you market yourself, what your messages are and how people will think about your HEI. It’s the foundation of building a positive reputation among your audience.
2.) Attract Your Ideal Student
Not every student is a good fit for your campus. For example, a student who wants to pursue a career in a STEM field would not have the opportunities they need at a liberal arts college. Even further, you might consider academic achievement, extracurricular activities and personal passions when evaluating applications.
Instead of sifting through thousands of unfit applications (which can sink your admissions rates), wouldn’t it be nice to have a large pool of qualified students to choose from? You can accomplish this in a similar way to how businesses find qualified leads.
“In your marketing strategy, you can highlight aspects of your campus, programs and degree paths that appeal to your ideal student,” Anna explains. “This is a simple way to target students who are a match for your school.”
You might do it through ads, content marketing or even in recruiter presentations. The more you focus on what makes your current students unique, instead of what makes you unique, the more likely you are to attract applicants who match your ideal student profile.
3.) Target Your Whole Audience
Anna notes that many HEIs struggle to find ways to reach their entire audience.
“While establishing a brand identity is super important for attracting students, you also have to find a happy balance between marketing to 16-year-old applicants and 60-year-old donors.”
Although most institutions consider students and parents their primary audience, there are still a handful of other groups they need to stay connected with — donors, community partners and alumni, to name a few. Letting these satellite audiences fall by the wayside can mean leaving a lot of money on the table.
The beauty of a well-run marketing strategy is that you can segment these audiences to specifically target their needs and interests. After creating a brand identity that reflects the core of your campus, you can break up your messages based on audience demographics.
- Prospective students and parents receive updates on application and admissions timelines and
- Recent graduates receive updates about campus events and special offers to attend.
- Alumni well into their careers can be tapped for small donations to their programs or the college.
- Donors receive updates about big projects, committee actions, future plans, and opportunities to contribute.
This is just one way you can connect with your audiences. Now, let’s turn our attention to some of the most popular — and most effective — marketing tactics for higher education.
Higher Ed Marketing Tactics
Anna notes that many HEIs have great communications efforts. They’re writing press releases, emailing potential students and promoting their brand locally. Although these are valuable efforts, their results often fall short of what you can get from a strategic marketing campaign.
The following are Anna’s suggestions on how to leverage certain tactics in your higher ed digital marketing strategy.
This is often the best way to reach your student audience. The 18-29-year-old demographic spend the most time scrolling social media platforms, so your message needs to pop up on their feed if you want to get noticed.
But social media marketing is a dense space. Every business and HEI is vying for space and time on people’s feeds, which makes it difficult to break through the noise. Your social media strategy should be geared toward accomplishing your goals and establishing your presence on a platform.
To achieve this, Anna recommends using a mix of organic and paid content.
“You want to focus mainly on organic posts and storytelling,” she says. “Paid will often gain you more reach and more traction. But you have to have the foundational content to support it.”
Encouraging engagement with your social posts is often the next phase of the strategy. Anna notes many institutions see results by simply adding a link to their targeted landing pages on posts, but adds you could also include a lead generator in your content.
“It’s also important to remember that social media engagement isn’t truly reflective of how successful you are on that platform,” Anna explains. “You can still have a broad reach without tons of engagement. Think about the 17-year-old scrolling past your TikTok, but he or she doesn’t ‘like’ your post. Different forms of engagement have different values for your campaign, so be sure you establish your goals before starting so you’re accurately measuring success.”
Lead generators are one of the most universal digital marketing tools out there. It works for businesses of all sizes and types, and it can work for your HEI too. The key is to use these to support your contact list and start building a backlog of prospective students.
“Most institutions don't really implement these correctly, if at all,” Anna says. “You have to think beyond just triggering an email nurture campaign.”
She explains that students are looking for immediate value and rarely open their email, so your nurture series is likely to go to waste. Instead, she recommends putting program brochures, curriculum downloads, course descriptions and other helpful information behind a gated wall. These are things students will trade their email for because it directly applies to their decision-making process.
An added bonus is that you don’t have to create any extra assets with this method. Use the collateral you’ve already built — that you know students want — to secure more leads from your website, social posts and other efforts.
Most HEIs do a good job of keeping up a news or blog section on their website. They might even go the extra mile and optimize it for search engine optimization (SEO). Although written content can be a great way to get your website higher in search results and target the older portion of your audience, let’s be honest…
High school students are not reading your content.
They’re watching videos on YouTube, listening to podcasts on Spotify, following influencers on TikTok and doing pretty much anything but reading 1,500-word articles on your website.
So when you think about content creation, you have to find ways to meet your audience where they are.
“You have to adjust your type of content to your target audience,” Anna says. “You also need to have someone who understands and is tracking the marketing trends on those platforms. If you’re not current, you’ll get left behind or drowned out by other brands who are catering to the latest trend.”
In short, Anna says higher education marketing strategies have to adjust to the new market to attract potential students. She suggests featuring students in your content as much as possible, whether it’s a short-form video or weekly podcast. Keep the content focused on success stories and offer at least one learning tip or resource at the end of every piece of content.
“Ultimately, the only reason students are going to college is to find the success they’re looking for,” Anna says. “So you want to make sure to highlight that you can deliver that success.”
Focus on Value
That brings us to value. Choosing a college or university is a big decision and a big investment. And as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, it’s a decision many modern teens are passing on.
To assert your institution's value, you must find a way to connect students’ worldviews with what you offer. “You have to meet the students where they’re at,” Anna says. “They want you to be an advocate for them and their future. As long as you can do that, then you’ll assert value.”
How you do this is highly dependent on your institution, its goals and current initiatives. Overall, focusing on community partnerships, development programs and career services is a good way to show you’re invested in helping students succeed. It also helps take their degree from a hypothetical value to something more tangible.
What Are Your Marketing Plans?
With a shrinking student population and a fiercely competitive marketplace, it’s never been more important to implement marketing solutions for your HEI.
“Higher ed success is based on a very specific strategy built specifically for your institution,” Anna says. “You need a targeted approach to address your specific (and unique) goals.”
Do you have a marketing plan for your HEI?
We know you have a lot on your plate, which is why we’d love to offer a hand. For more tips on how to improve your higher education marketing, check out our YouTube series where we break down big ideas and key concepts.