Words like “unraveling,” “declining,” and “evolving” pepper news headlines of how institutions are grappling with decreasing enrollments, rising costs, and changing perceptions about the value of higher education. For years now, a cacophony of voices has called for change in higher education. While a few forward-thinking institutions have taken the reins of this revolution, the industry itself has remained resistant to meaningful change.
It wasn’t until the pandemic that many schools embraced the unequivocal reality that transformation is fundamental to future success. Adaptability and nimbleness are essential to the progress of higher education, and now is the time for institutions to get on board.
To help higher education professionals—specifically marketing teams—get on the right path, we interviewed higher education marketing leaders and surveyed recently enrolled college freshmen. By stress testing the professionals’ marketing ideas and tactics against the student’s perspective on what works and doesn’t work, we were able to identify strategies that endear to students and make marketing a university-wide force.
Know Your Reality
As most are aware, the current higher education landscape is the subject of plenty of scrutiny and criticism. Aside from the obvious takeaways on higher education (declining enrollments, the demand for hybrid learning, skepticism on higher ed’s value, talent poaching, etc.), our deep dive into the state of higher education revealed that no matter what, change is coming.
Institutions that haven’t begun to adapt to this new paradigm are woefully behind, but there is still time to catch up. There is a clear opportunity for institutions to nimbly redefine themselves, but it must begin with identifying out-of-date notions, questioning long-held norms, and being open to change.
It Starts with Marketing
There is no one single solution to the challenges facing higher education, but they do start and end with re-evaluating the institution’s identity and then communicating it through the university’s brand. To chart a path forward, higher ed institutions must know where they’re going and why, and that requires having a clear idea of the institution’s core offering and its values.
This kind of insight must go further than reciting the mission statement from the university website. Real introspection into the value of your university, what students expect of their institution, and what can be done better are just a few of the inquiries that will get you eye-level with your concrete impact.
It’s marketing’s job to communicate this brand narrative, and students can sniff out lack of authenticity faster than a bloodhound. Our research found that for many new students, there is a gap between the message marketed to them and their actual lived experience. Most strikingly, 15% of respondents indicated that as enrolled students, they felt the marketing messages they had received during recruitment inaccurately portrayed the reality of offerings, while another 35% felt it was only “somewhat” accurate.
A marketing team can’t carry all the weight on their backs. Buy-in from everyone, but especially from institution leadership, is critical. One higher education professional we interviewed, Eric Greenberg of The Wharton School, said, “Executive leadership, ideally, can put their weight behind endeavors like aligning along common tool sets, technology stacks, and data requirements. Ultimately, the marketing team can’t do that.”
Once everyone is on board, a cohesive and unified plan can be built and should focus on the following:
Creating a cohesive brand that embodies the fundamental curiosity of educationIncreasing enrollment without compromising on culture fitOvercoming operational and informational silos
The How-To of Your Plan
Now that you know what you need, it’s time to break down how to achieve it. We should mention here that a reasonable timeline for most institutions to execute these changes and expect them to operate in a way that results in real change is at least 4-5 years.
The common denominator of successful marketing tactics is keeping the approach student-centric. It sounds simple, but as our research uncovered, blanket strategies and shot-in-the-dark tactics to a general audience will do little to help new student enrollment. Recruiting goals can no longer be about attracting the attention of the most students, but about attracting the attention of the right students.
Download our whitepaper for the full how-to guide. Here are the pared-down tips:
Identify subsets of the student population you want to targetUse persona construction to identify the types of students you’re attractingDevelop robust feedback loops that benchmark those who move through the admissions process seamlessly and later excel
Higher education is known, perhaps infamously, for disjointed operations created by the various silos on campus. When different departments rely on their own platforms, practices, or data taxonomies, chasms of missed opportunities and miscommunication open.
This is another area where marketing needs the collective effort to drive the message. Our survey revealed that students ranked admissions counselors far more influential than a college’s social media. To put it succinctly, universities and colleges can break down silos by focusing on the following:
Centralize your marketing department to encourage coordination with other peopleCreate a cohesive informational playing field for all stakeholders to access and utilizeLeverage insights to feed success elsewhere within the institution
Lead the way with this creative, data-driven approach, and you can create a powerful enrollment cycle that enriches the entire institution.
Data. Data. Data.
One of the misconceptions about marketing is that it isn’t measurable because it can be challenging to pinpoint origin stories and perceptions. But data has come a long way, even in measuring student sentiment, and it’s where the gap lies in higher education.
In order to determine the return on your marketing investment and to continuously improve your efforts, you need data. Robust data will enable you to measure, track and refine your marketing approach to ensure you’re effectively targeting your right audience, and making real progress with them. Our interviews, survey data, and third-party research point to three things that support institutions in their marketing execution:
Develop a user experience roadmap rooted in real-time dataInvest in the right martech stack and human resourcesCreate iterative processes for continued optimization
Get the comprehensive blueprint by downloading our whitepaper.
We mentioned user personas earlier, and here’s where we teach you how. To isolate your ideal students, we suggest two exercises: develop audience personas and user journeys.
This step is one of the more labor-intensive processes, requiring that institutions use data-based insights through surveys, focus groups, and intensive research to successfully accomplish both tasks.
Finding the ideal union of people, processes, and platforms helps marketing teams perform this lofty effort. Institutions need a mix of the right tech and the right people to gather and activate the insights that matter. For an easy breakdown of the type of technology to consider, read more here.
Finally, once a successful process is determined, ensure that it can be replicated and tweaked institution-wide. For every data point received, work to interpret it and input those learnings right back into the system so that the next student who journeys through has an even better, more seamless experience. There’s no doubt that this renewal of higher education is a huge undertaking. But to get there, you have to begin. With our thorough whitepaper, “A Student-Centric Approach to Higher Ed Marketing”, change doesn’t have to feel nausea-inducing. It won’t happen overnight, but it will be rewarding and imperative.
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