Higher education has been impacted by many macro events that affect enrollment, which has brought challenges for higher ed marketing teams. The pool of students looking for a degree has changed and decreased because there are fewer Gen Zers, concerns about the ROI and value of college, and continued stress on families from the pandemic and inflation. Many colleges are also facing budget cuts and lean marketing teams, so it's essential to focus on what will make the biggest impact on marketing efforts. So let's run through five steps to help you create the most impactful higher education marketing strategies.
5 Steps for Creating Higher Education Marketing Strategies
Step 1: Identify your target audience
The first step is focusing on a target audience. Saying "all high school juniors and seniors" or "working professionals" isn't enough. It will be difficult for your marketing messages to be relevant when you are targeting broad audiences, and your marketing spend is not going to be large enough to reach those expansive groups.
Evaluate who your best students are - the students who complete their degree and are strong advocates for your institution. What do they have in common? Look at demographics, geographics, and psychographics.
You can have multiple target audiences across marketing campaigns, but try to narrow in on specific groups. Here are some example target audiences:
High school juniors and seniors in New York with a household income of $100K+
Working professionals in allied health fields
Identifying and focusing on your target audience will give you direction as you move through the next steps in your higher education marketing strategies.
Step 2: Create your messaging points
Developing messaging points for your marketing communications is often overlooked because it takes time and can be hard to decide what to say, but it's critical. With so much competition in people's inboxes and social media and the fact that prospective students research many schools, you need to stand out. The foundation of that is messaging, which informs everything a consumer reads and sees. Within higher ed, there are three key areas to develop messaging for.
The first messaging area is about the brand. How do you want your college to be perceived by others? What do you want to be known for? Why does your institution exist? The answers to these questions will help inform your brand messaging. Write one sentence that explains how people will benefit from coming to your college and communicate it across your brand marketing - from PR to TV commercials to social media accounts to the website.
The next messaging area is specific to your programs. In addition to evaluating if your college is the right fit, prospective students will also review the degrees and programs you offer. Most colleges offer similar programs, so it will benefit you to identify why yours differs from others. It may be related to how you teach the program, elements of the program that are unique or relevant, or the reputation of the program or your faculty. To identify your differentiators, meet with faculty, review student testimonials or success stories, and look at what competitor programs say. Come up with statements that will help prospective students understand why you are different and how your program will benefit them. Finally, prepare a document that outlines your differentiators across each program to reference when developing your online ads, webpages, emails, etc.
The last messaging area addresses prospective students' pain points or barriers. This messaging is especially important for your website because students research schools on their own. You want to answer questions for them upfront and address anything you know might stop them from requesting information. You can also use these messaging points in nurture campaigns after someone requests information to help them move to apply.
Identify pain points and barriers by creating buyer personas and buying insights. Interview students and conduct market research to understand why they want to go to college, what might hold them back, and how they decide between colleges. For example, students might have concerns about the cost of college. Make it easy for them to find the tuition or financial aid options you have.
Step 3: Evaluate your enrollment funnel
Deciding where to go to college is a significant and lengthy decision for prospective students. The search could last years, and students compare colleges. As an enrollment marketer, you must stay in touch with prospective students throughout the enrollment funnel.
Start by breaking the funnel into sections. Review what you're already doing in each area, what results you're getting, and what you can improve that will make an impact. This exercise can get very overwhelming since there are many things your marketing team is working on, so start by looking broadly at the college as a whole.
Look at your volume and conversion rates at each step of the funnel and identify any gaps or decreases. Start from the bottom of the funnel. If you're getting inquiries, but they aren't applying, dive deeper into why that is happening. If the flow of inquiries through enrollment is steady or improving year over year, but you're finding that the number of inquiries has decreased, then look at what you can do to bring more people in.
After you've evaluated and addressed the institution's enrollment funnel, you can get more detailed by going through the same exercise by school or program.
Step 4: Develop your marketing strategies and tactics
Once you have identified what's working and not working in your enrollment funnel, you can prioritize your marketing strategies. For example, if you identified you need to work on improving the number of people coming to your website, your marketing strategies need to revolve around that. Reflect back on your target audience and buyer personas and see where they spend their time and how you might be able to reach them there. Also, look at your competitors and how they drive people to their websites. Involve the admissions team in this process too. They talk to prospective students daily, so they will probably have good marketing ideas too.
When you have established the marketing strategies and the list of corresponding tactics, next, create a plan for executing them. Find items that can be implemented quickly and will also make an impact to help you get started. As you work through those, you can find time for some of the larger projects that will take longer to execute but will have a more significant impact on your marketing.
Step 5: Establish a measurement plan
You will want to set your team up for success by establishing a measurement plan to see how your improvements make a difference. Identify KPIs to help you know if your marketing is making a difference. A college's marketing KPIs typically entail looking at the number of website visitors, inquiries, applicants, and enrolled students and the conversion rates for each step.
It will take months to see progress and changes with high-level KPIs, so you can also identify metrics specific to your marketing strategies to see changes in the short-term. For example, if your marketing strategy involves bringing people to your website by developing content, you can look at blog traffic and engagement or content downloads week to week.
Marketing a college takes work. There are many headwinds against colleges, making it harder to stand out from all of the options. Taking a bigger picture view to developing higher education marketing strategies, as outlined in these five steps, will help you focus on what will make the most significant impact on improving your marketing efforts.