Of A Higher
Times are changing. Higher-education marketing is no longer the same. What can marketers do to arrest declining higher-ed enrollment rates?
A lot has changed in higher education. Fewer people now view a college education as a rite of passage. Combined with declining birth rates, the road ahead seems difficult. This presents unique challenges for higher ed marketers. Colleges and universities need to rethink ways to attract students. They may also have to consider growing other programs. They can't just do what every other college or university does. Yet, digital channels present a lot of opportunities for higher ed institutions.
Just take a look at the sheer reach of the top 10 platforms online:
• Google Display Network: 2.5 billion websites, which means almost everyone using the internet (minus China)
• Facebook: 2.38 billion MAUs (monthly active users)
• Messenger: 1.3 billion MAUs
• YouTube: Over 1 billion MAUs
• Instagram: 1 billion MAUs
• TikTok: 500 million MAUs
• Twitter: Over 300 million MAUs
• SnapChat: 190 million DAUs (daily active users)
• Twitch: Over 15 million DAUs
• Search: Over 1 billion searches/month
At Agency J, we start with Facebook because of its mass appeal and ease of access to three major platforms in one (Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger).
Facebook is a great demand generation platform. Instagram is wonderful when it comes to storytelling and engagement. Messenger is turning out to be a great 1-to-1 platform for institutions. It has enabled admissions staff to handle simple to complex enrollment inquiries online.
A lot of higher ed institutions have established a presence on Facebook. They are actively using various tactics to drive engagement. For example, Boston University uses Facebook for alumni engagement and promoting events across the country.
The point is this:
Prospective students are changing the way they discover and decide on further studies. There is a real gap for colleges and universities to catch up and stay at the forefront of the curve.
In the next section, we’ll share the most critical element that most higher ed marketers miss: the student enrollment journey.
Understanding The Student Enrollment Journey
Broadly, the average student’s enrollment journey comprises three phases:
• Discovery: This is where they discover your school, programs, and courses (even for postgraduate and continuing education programs)
• Deliberation: This is where they spend time deliberating which course or program to choose
• Decision: This is the point where they finally make a decision (or enroll)
It sounds easy, but if you think a student’s decision to join a degree program is a 100-meter sprint, think again.
In reality, the journey to pursue a degree or further education is more like running a marathon.
The thought of it alone is long, tiring, and often daunting. It also requires students to exercise a lot of patience, have a strong will and belief in the education system, and preparation.
So, your job is to step into their shoes and try running that distance.
Because this gives you insights into how they approach their decision-making process. And knowing how your prospective students think is key to bring them from discovery to the decision-making stage. For example, one of our clients recently discovered something surprising about their students. It turned out to be a key reason why some people remained on the sidelines for months, even years.
This scenario is very common among working adults. A hardworking professional is denied their promotion. But it wasn't because they performed poorly. Instead, they're denied because they lack a certain qualification. But all this while, they didn’t know. By the time they discover the truth, their career progression has already stalled for several years.
The sheer emotional pain of ruining their previous career opportunity is enough to drive them to pursue further studies.
So, the real question for you is this:
What are the emotional triggers driving your students to sign up for a program with your school?
Knowing what they are is the key to crafting compelling marketing campaigns that don't just get attention, but turn those inquiries into seats. With that, let’s turn to the 5 elements of an effective higher ed marketing strategy
Of A Higher Ed
1. Alignment Of Personal Goals With Institution’s Program
Talking about how great your program may seem like an instinctive thing to do. After all, it:
• Shows prospective students what makes you “you”.
• Differentiates you from your competitors.
• Makes your existing students feel proud that they have chosen a great school.
But if this is the first thing you do, then you’re in for a huge disappointment.
Because prospective students don’t care about how different your institution is until they know that you can get them what they want.
Harsh, but true.
Prospective students have to feel like the job or career they always wanted is now within reach. And it starts by enrolling with your school.
This is one of the key reasons our clients are able to see 50% to 200% improvements in measurable results such as a lower cost per enrollment inquiry or higher lead quality within 2 months.
Differentiating your institution is not the real key in getting people's attention. Goal alignment is.
2. Re-Marketing To Leads
In Facebook Marketing, the best practice is to stop showing ads to those who have already become a lead. But most people stop here and expect admissions to turn someone who just filled out a form into a student. That’s not how it works in reality.
Choosing a college is a life-transforming decision for students. It’s also a huge investment of both time and money (no kidding). Your prospective students aren’t going to make this decision in a heartbeat.
So, if you stop marketing to them right after they sign up for more information, you’ll be making a big mistake.
That’s why we take a different approach.
We recommend schools to continue re-marketing to these people for 9 months (or for as long as the average student takes from an inquiry on Facebook to complete enrollment).
Because they only just showed an interest in your program and interest is not the same as desire.
In other words, just because they inquired about your program or school doesn’t make them sales-qualified candidates. So, the job isn’t done and you can’t stop marketing to them yet.
Instead, your marketing goal and message will change.
Instead of trying to get them to make another enrollment inquiry, you’re now trying to show them how your institution is different.
This is your opportunity to tell them more about your school. Highlight your unique value proposition. Differentiate your institution and programs from others. Make them impressed. Wow them…Help them see why you’re their best option.
And there’s a variety of mediums and formats in which you can do this:
• Instant Experiences
• Instagram Stories
And so on….
Think of this approach as giving them subtle nudges. Over time, you are reminding them about your institution and keeping it at the top of their minds without being pushy.
3. One-To-One Engagement
Traditionally, college and university admission processes have always involved Open Days and representatives who would answer the questions from excited potential students.
This does not change even with more digital activities going on.
The role of admission representatives or the sales team still remains key in the enrollment process.
As they are only indicating an interest in the program, admissions staff have to make them feel more invested in the program.
They can’t approach the conversation like they do before with candidates who have reached out organically.
4. Maximizing Touchpoints
At the end of the day, a good enrollment marketing strategy requires more than just one campaign. After all, nearly no one makes a decision to enroll with your institution just because they saw an ad.
As we said earlier, the journey is a long one.
In a recent analysis of a private college’s enrollment cycle, we found that the typical online inquiry from Facebook takes between 3 and 9 months to enroll.
Yes, enrollment inquiries generated from Facebook take longer to convert than others.
There are better options, such as word-of-mouth marketing and search. But, none of them matches the volume and control over your pipeline that Facebook gives you.
Given the length of the enrollment journey, we encourage institutional marketers to think about engaging students at every point.
This achieves two strategic goals:
1. Staying at the top of the potential students’ minds and developing a preference for your institution (a well-established phenomenon called the “mere-exposure” effect).
2. Appearing “everywhere” in the eyes of prospective students, which will develop a good impression of your institution.
These reasons explain why companies spend large amounts of money on brand advertising. The goal is not to “build brand awareness”, but to influence people’s preferences. When your institution is visible to students throughout their enrollment journey, they are far more likely to pick your institution over the others.
And the best part is that it only takes a fraction of your advertising budget to achieve a great effect.
5. Mobile-First Marketing
Millennials and Gen Z spend a lot of time on their mobile phones. Naturally, your enrollment marketing strategy has to be mobile-first too!
For the new generation, smartphones outweigh desktops as the number one choice for doing any kind of research. When it comes to conversations and research about pursuing further education, it is no different.
For that, you need to build a highly responsive website that:
• Fits all screen sizes
• Has an eye-catching yet professional design, compelling content, and images
• Is easy to navigate
• Is optimized for SEO
The higher education space has dramatically changed. Internet marketing tactics have also matured. Marketers need to innovate to cope with changing trends.
In a nutshell, a strong marketing strategy for your higher education institution comprises:
• A thorough understanding of their prospective students’ road to enrollment.
• Tactics designed according to the level of your prospective buyer’s awareness.
• Offer outcomes aligned with the students’ goals and aspirations.
• A remarketing blueprint to further lead engagement.
• Interactive, one-to-one engagement channels.
• A responsive and well-built mobile website.
We have implemented this strategy for over a dozen higher education institutions and the impact they’ve experienced has been game-changing.
What can a similar strategy do for your institution?