Until about 25 years ago, higher education marketing strategies were shaped by developments in other industries. Universities, colleges, and other educational organizations provide a service, so service marketing principles are relevant. As the target of an enrollment marketing campaign, a student is a potential customer, so the successful use of tactics like B2C lead generation can be informative.
But beginning in the 1990s, researchers and marketers began to develop concepts and strategies specific to higher education marketing. This development has led to a wealth of resources dedicated to enrollment marketing. There’s even a Journal of Marketing for Higher Education.
This article will cover five tactics to help you improve your enrollment marketing efforts. Along the way, we’ll share findings from relevant studies specific to higher ed marketing. Some of the specific tactics we’ll explain include:
- Relationship marketing
- Audience segmentation
- Inbound marketing
- Social media marketing
General marketing best practices should inform a good strategy for marketing any product or service, and there’s a lot to learn from tactics used in the consumer industry. But higher ed marketers can now supplement the knowledge from those areas with marketing insights drawn from studies in their industry.
“An Enrollment Marketing Plan for Institutions of Higher Learning” (“An Enrollment Marketing Plan”) offers a marketing roadmap for higher education institutions. The article notes that educational institutions are beginning to adopt various marketing approaches to increase enrollment. These techniques provide a path to increasing enrollment in the face of increased competition and other challenges.
As with all marketing, higher ed marketing must research to determine the needs and attitudes of current students and develop a plan to meet those needs. Then, the institution must execute campaigns that:
- Attract the right leads or, in an enrollment marketing context, students who might be a good fit for the school.
- Qualify those leads to determine whether the student is a fit and open to enrollment.
- Nurture qualified leads to persuade them to enroll.
The rest of this article will explain how to do that, along with marketing insights drawn from the consumer industry and the latest research on marketing in higher education.
Marketers in every industry have begun to realize the importance of building long-term relationships instead of transactional relationships. For industries like retail, these relationships lead to customer loyalty and repeat purchases. But relationship marketing is particularly critical in higher education because the connection should last for years.
Relationship marketing aims to create a two-way line of communication between the institution and prospective students that provides value in the form of knowledge (e.g., information about the institution and its programs or financial aid opportunities). Relationship marketing works at institutions of any size, but it’s an invaluable tactic for smaller colleges.
Typically, the unique selling proposition of these schools is that they can provide a higher level of focused attention to each student. But, while this may be the case once a student enrolls, Marketing professor Brian A. Vander Schee, MBA, PhD, points out that, too often, it doesn’t extend to the university’s marketing efforts.
In “The small college enrollment officer: relationship marketing at work,” Vander Schee writes that relationship marketing can provide universities with a competitive advantage. That’s because it enables admission counselors to “provide accurate information and meaningful counsel to initiate an enrollment relationship with prospective students and their families.” Research shows that these relationships improve admissions yield.
To implement this approach in higher ed marketing, focus on:
- Relationship benefits. The relationship should benefit the prospective student with information, reduced response time, and access to financial aid.
- Seller expertise. Find ways to connect prospective students with the people who are most knowledgeable about their questions. For example, recent graduates of your institution will make good admissions counselors because they know a lot about the institution from a student’s perspective. If a student is interested in your history program, connect them with someone in the department or an alumnus of the program who can share their expertise.
- Communication. Offer multiple channels of communication so that students can ask questions through their preferred medium. Then, train admissions counselors and other people who will communicate with prospective students to focus on active listening during personal interactions. They should use conversations with students as opportunities to learn more about their needs.
- Interaction frequency. Create multiple opportunities for prospective students to engage with the contacts you introduce them to.
In higher education marketing, your target audience is likely quite diverse, including segments like:
- High school students, especially seniors
- Adult students interested in earning a higher education degree or certification
- Undergraduate students considering graduate school
Your enrollment marketing campaigns should focus on the questions and needs of each group. And within those groups, there will be demographic, behavioral, psychographic, and geographic differences that may also require a targeted approach of their own.
“An Enrollment Marketing Plan” suggests market segmentation based on the following factors:
For example, if you’re targeting nontraditional students for a continuing education program, the needs of the stay-at-home parents will differ from those with part-time jobs. And each of those segments will have different needs than people with full-time jobs.
The cost of attending your institution should also factor into who you target. Allocate your resources to focus on students who are likely to enroll to avoid spending your budget on audiences who won’t deliver an ROI to offset the costs of your campaigns.
You can do that by developing student personas for each major group. These personas should include general descriptions of each groups’:
- Level of education
- Reasons for applying
- Questions and concerns
- Research methods and decision-making process—i.e., how will they evaluate and make a final decision on a school?
If your data suggests that there are other significant groups within these major groups, you should create personas for these groups as well. For example, if you have a popular pre-med program, you probably have many undergraduate students considering your institution because they want to go to med school.
Based on these segments, adapt your messaging to address each group’s questions and concerns through the decision-making process. This information can also benefit admissions counselors and others in developing relationships with prospective students.
The 2021 study “Unique challenges of segmentation and differentiation for higher education” found that different groups of parents, students, and others have unique priorities and that marketers should consider each a separate segment. For enrollment marketing, the primary goal is to win over the student and, in many cases, their parents.
Fortunately, the study found that parents and students value many of the same things. They have different priorities, but these differences aren’t in conflict. Students rank majors offered, faculty quality, and academic standards as the first, second, and third most important attributes. Those are the top three for parents as well but in reverse order.
But that study focused on a single geographic location. Another limitation of the study is that while it found significant subsegments within each segment, it didn’t determine what those subsegments were.
As mentioned above, educational institutions should conduct their own research to decide what segments and subsegments to focus on. Whatever decisions you make, you can accommodate differences in priorities with audience segmentation.
Audience segmentation is the process of dividing and subdividing your target market into different groups so you can target them with relevant campaigns. That way, instead of sending mass emails and generic ad campaigns, you can adapt your messaging for each persona.
That requires using the segmentation tools in your ad platforms, email marketing platform, and other marketing tools to carve your email list and ad audiences into groups based on the criteria of your personas.
One prospect can be in multiple segments. For example, if you use demographic segmentation in addition to persona-based segmentation, a prospect could be in an 18-34-year-old segment and a high school senior segment.
There are other types of audience segmentation as well. Along with demographic segmentation, the primary modes are geographic, psychographic, and behavioral attributes.
One of the easiest ways to collect geographic and demographic data is to use website visitor identification, which is a technology that allows you to match your website visitors’ data to records from different databases. It’s a legal and compliant way to capture an anonymous visitor’s email address, mailing address, and other information—even if they don’t convert on your website.
With visitor identification, you can collect a wide range of details to segment your audience. You can also use it to enrich the data you already have in your CRM.
Data includes your visitors’:
- Education level
- Geographic location and mailing address
- Email address and phone number
- Age range and gender
- Household income range and net worth range
- Marital status and presence of children
You can supplement that data with behavioral data acquired with software like Microsoft Clarity and psychographic data collected with surveys.
Admissions officers, department contacts, alumni contacts, and others involved in increasing recruitment and yield can use this data to inform their approach to each prospect.
For example, suppose a prospect often visits content related to your engineering program. Based on that behavioral data, you could:
- Arrange for a member of the department to speak with the prospect
- Deliver remarketing ads that tout the success of your engineering grads
- Share financial aid opportunities related to the program
In “An Enrollment Marketing Plan,” the author suggests that “[a]dmissions officers may be more successful if they tailor their recruitment approach to the various stages of a prospect’s interest, from first inquiry to the day when the prospect enrolls at the institution.” Otherwise known as inbound marketing, this technique has grown in popularity because marketing and communication technology have advanced over the last 20 years, making it easy to execute.
The decision-making process can be lengthy, making an inbound marketing strategy a useful approach in enrollment marketing. But inbound marketing works best when used in tandem with outbound tactics and with the right tools.
“Effects of inbound marketing communications on HEIs’ brand equity” (“Effects of inbound marketing”), an exploratory study, found that interactive inbound marketing can help universities of all sizes and budgets “increase their brand awareness and brand image.”
Traditional inbound marketing divides the buyer’s journey into the Awareness, Consideration, and Decision stages.
- The Awareness stage is the period during which the buyer becomes aware of the problem.
- The Consideration stage is the time the buyer spends researching different types of solutions.
- The Decision stage is the part of the process in which the buyer chooses a product or service within a specific solution category.
You can apply that framework to the college choice process, but education marketing research offers a more specific breakdown. It divides the process into the Predisposition stage, the Search stage, and the Evaluation stage.
- The Predisposition stage is defined by the influence of the student’s background and environment. It includes factors like where their parents went to school, extracurricular activities, academic achievements, where their peers want to go to school.
- The Search stage is defined by the marketing efforts of your school and others and the way the student researches different options.
- The Evaluation stage is the time spent evaluating each school based on geographic, academic, financial, and other factors.
Your main inbound marketing assets will be:
- Your website and blog
- Social media accounts
- Email content
- Gated marketing materials (e.g., presentations or other documents that the student can access after submitting their contact information via an online form)
Outbound marketing uses digital advertising, phone calls, cold emails, and other channels to identify new prospects who haven’t engaged with your institution yet.
Outbound is more expensive than inbound, but it can supplement your inbound campaigns without becoming a drain on your marketing resources with proper focus. Digital ad campaigns targeting each of your target personas are a cost-effective way to scale your inbound marketing with outbound tactics. These ads will raise brand awareness, drive traffic to your website, and generate more leads.
Regardless of the traffic source, however, most of your website visitors will bounce, which means you’re missing out on a large volume of qualified prospects. As mentioned earlier, you can remedy this by capturing your visitors’ data with website visitor identification software.
Then you can adjust your strategy based on the demographic information you collect and nurture your leads through multiple channels.
A solid social media presence is beneficial no matter who you’re targeting. According to Pew Research Center’s report on social media use in 2021, over 70 percent of Americans use social media. That number rises to 84 percent for adults ages 18-29 and 81 percent for adults ages 30 to 49.
The platforms to prioritize will depend on who you’re trying to reach. Here are some relevant stats from Pew’s report.
- Most adults (ages 18 and older) use Facebook and YouTube
- YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat are the most popular platforms for teens
- YouTube and Reddit are the only platforms currently growing in popularity
- Most YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram users are daily users
- Over half of adults with bachelor’s or advanced degrees use LinkedIn
- Forty-six percent of adult women use Pinterest
- Forty-six percent of Hispanic Americans use WhatsApp
- Fifty-two percent of Hispanic Americans and forty-nine percent of Black Americans use Instagram
After segmenting your audience into relevant groups and subgroups, you can use this data to shape your social media marketing strategy and determine where to focus your digital advertising efforts.
“Effects of inbound marketing” found that social media optimization and organic social media marketing also positively impact brand recognition and recall.
Social media optimization means adding features to your marketing assets that facilitate social sharing (e.g., social sharing buttons on blog posts). Organic social media marketing uses social media profiles to share content and interact with social media users. While you can enhance organic social media marketing with social media advertising, it doesn’t rely on ads to be effective.
Another study, “Social media and the university decision. Do prospective students really care?” (“Social media and the university decision”), found that a substantial majority of students use social media platforms to learn more about the schools they’re considering.
These students may not connect with your school to avoid scrutiny of their own profiles by admissions officials. Still, research indicates that they do look at institutions’ social media profiles as they consider different schools.
These findings support the importance of building brand equity and awareness with active social media profiles as a part of most higher education marketing strategies.
There are many different types of content and topics to include in your social media campaigns. But often, there’s a disconnect between what universities share and what students want to see.
“Social media and the university decision” found that most students want to see content about:
- Student organizations
- Campus events
- Entertainment activities on or near the campus
- Academic programming
The relatively new emphasis on strategic marketing in higher education has motivated academics to study the application of existing marketing concepts in an enrollment marketing context. This research has contributed many insights that universities can use to increase enrollment. We’ve covered many of those insights here.
Tactics like relationship marketing, audience segmentation, inbound marketing, and social media marketing are valuable tools. The key is to define your audience. Then, you can use these tools to reach them with the proper messaging.