If you work in higher education marketing, you know the challenges of attracting right-fit students and keeping up with your university’s enrollment targets. Between increasing anxiety about the cost of college (and the student debt associated with that cost), falling birth rates, and generational shifts in how prospective students get information and make decisions about going to college, the college marketing struggle is real.
The good news? With a little bit of creativity and some up-to-the-minute marketing savvy, you can turn these challenges into a competitive advantage. Here are 7 marketing strategies to set you up for success in 2023.
1. Create a Solid Digital Marketing Foundation to Attract Students
Let’s start with the basics. If you don’t have a strong foundation for digital marketing, you’ll have a hard time both generating and proving the return on investment of your marketing efforts. Here are the five fundamental elements of a successful digital marketing foundation:
1. A unique, authentic higher ed brand
Defining what makes your school different from (and better than) the competition is crucial to your marketing success. A compelling messaging framework and visual identity are must-haves in today’s higher ed enrollment market.
2. A scalable, flexible website
Because a typical university website has to fulfill multiple purposes for multiple audiences, its function as the foundation for digital marketing can sometimes get overlooked. Don’t worry; a digital marketing agency partner with strong website design chops can help you focus on your highest-impact marketing pages without the need for a total tear-down redesign.
Check out these 10 awesome university website designs for inspiration.
3. Relevant content assets
As a starter, you should have website page content, blogs, premium content, video, photos, etc. which can be used to attract, engage, and convert potential students at every stage of their decision making journey. Before you start your digital marketing content calendar planning, take stock of what you already have.
4. Established digital distribution channels
In the foundational stage, you and/or your digital marketing agency should audit, evaluate, and establish your digital channels. This means anywhere you currently publish content, including your website, social media pages, paid search campaigns, and search engine optimization (SEO) content, like blogs.
5. A digital marketing tech stack
These are the tools you need to both implement your strategies and measure their success. Don’t go overboard; when it comes to marketing tech for higher ed, less is often more. Focus on tools with a clear return on investment (ROI). Again, a higher ed digital marketing agency can help you evaluate, acquire, and implement tech tools.
As part of your foundational audit process, now is also the time to establish baselines for the key performance indicators (KPIs) you’ll use to measure success.
2. Define Your Ideal Prospective Students
Every college is different, and so are your ideal students. Creating audience personas for the students you’re hoping to attract will help make sure your marketing activities hit the mark. Your existing student body is a great place to start. Consider interviews and surveys to determine common characteristics such as:
- Academic and professional goals
- “Pain points” or challenges with regards to higher education
- Decision drivers and influencers
- Online behavior (such as where they spend time on social media)
- Common questions and concerns that come up during the college search process
As part of the process of defining student personas, you’ll develop a solid understanding of two key factors that will drive much of your digital marketing strategy:
The prospective student’s “buyer’s journey”
This is a common concept in both B2B and B2C marketing that also applies to higher ed marketing. The more you know about what steps students take when choosing a college, the better prepared you’ll be to provide the content they need to move along that journey to enrollment at your school.
Your audience’s “searcher intent”
In planning for both SEO and paid search (PPC) marketing, you need to identify keywords and phrases that you want your content to rank for. A fundamental element of this planning process is understanding “searcher intent,” or what a user is actually looking for when they type a given word or phrase into a search engine. The better you match your content to searcher intent, the better it will perform in terms of traffic, engagement, clicks, and conversions.
Protip: Don’t forget parents! If you’re marketing to high school students, parents often play a big role in the college search and decision-making process. Make personas for that audience as well, taking into account the different ways parents and teens use the internet to find information.
3. Use Your University Blog as an Engine for SEO
Every school knows they need to have a blog; not every school understands the best way to use it for digital marketing. When done right, your blog can drive a ton of traffic to your website and provide truly useful content to engage your prospective students and ultimately increase applications and enrollment numbers.
Protip: Balance your SEO strategy with new insights into how teens search online today. (Read on for more about that.)
Start with keyword research, keeping in mind the concept of “searcher intent.” Once you’ve identified a group of keywords you want to rank for, take a look at the competition. Use the top 3-5 results on the Search Engine Results Page (SERP) for your keywords and make a map of the content you need to include in your post in order to rank.
Stay focused and disciplined as you build out your blog content. Think in terms of “stackable content.” Rather than bouncing from topic to topic, build a mini-library of blog posts around a keyword group. You’ll get higher levels of engagement when you can draw your audience deeper into your content with links to related posts.
Want a deep dive into SEO strategy for higher ed? We got you.
4. Modernize Your School’s Content Marketing for Tomorrow’s Students
Okay, SEO-driven blogging is still important and relevant in 2023. In particular, your blog’s performance will give you valuable data about what your prospective students are interested in.
But times are changing, and higher ed marketers need to be nimble to keep up. For example: According to reporting by TechCrunch, younger internet users “don’t tend to type in keywords but rather look to discover content in new, more immersive ways.”
What does that mean? Nearly 40% of Gen Z uses TikTok and Instagram to search on the web, rather than Google.
This is great news for higher ed marketers who are willing to get comfortable and familiar with these social platforms — and fast. Take a close look at what kind of content your potential students are already engaging with, and use it to spark fresh ideas for connecting with them where they are.
Protip: For social media, hashtags and engagement, rather than traditional SEO keywords, rule the day.
Short-form video and reels can be used in all sorts of ways:
- Harness the power of trends to rank in TikTok’s “for you page” (FYP) algorithm
- FAQ videos
- Slice-of-life videos
- Campus tours
- Virtual events
Plus, as a university marketer, you are sitting on a gold mine of content creators: your existing students. Find your most engaging students on social media and partner with them to create content specifically designed to attract new potential students.
Authenticity is hugely important to your Gen Z audience, so give your student ambassadors as much creative control as possible to avoid coming across as too institutional or market-y.
5. Attract More Students with Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO)
Conversion rate optimization (CRO) is one of those nitty-gritty digital marketing tactics that can be boring to talk about, but it’s crucially important to keeping your enrollment funnel full and healthy.
We’ll keep it as simple as possible:
- Have a clear strategy for each piece of content you produce. In other words, know what you want your audience to do after they read your blog post, watch your video, or go on your virtual tour.
- Provide compelling paths to keep moving your audience further down their decision-making journey. That means exit overlays, live and/or automated chat, links to related content, forms to download premium content, and eventually the all-important link to “apply now.”
- Measure, optimize, repeat. Set goals for conversion rates and measure your offers against those goals regularly. (We recommend weekly check-ins with your conversion rates.) Experiment with different copy, content offers, etc. and measure their impact on conversion rates. Double down on what works.
6. Know your Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)
Digital marketing for higher ed is a beautiful thing, because measuring success is practically built in. Well, it can be — if you take the time to define and baseline KPIs ahead of time, and report on them at least monthly to gauge your progress. Here are some important KPIs for higher ed enrollment marketing:
- Unique visits to important marketing pages
- Session length on those pages
- Average number of pages visited during a session
- Click-through-rate for your marketing emails
- Engagement with social media content (likes, comments, and shares)
- Form submissions
7. Use Enrollment Marketing to Highlight the Value of Your School’s Degrees
The pressure to prove your school’s value in an increasingly competitive market can feel daunting, but seen through another lens, it’s a fantastic opportunity to engage your alumni community.
Today’s prospective students are heavily influenced by “social proof,” and they want content that’s both authentic and relatable. If you have famous or high-profile alumni, that’s cool, but it’s not necessary, and may even backfire with today’s audiences who want to see themselves reflected in the content they consume.
- Real-life success stories from grads
- User-generated content (UGC) about life after graduation
- Guest blog posts from successful grads
Invite your alumni to talk you up on social, and you’re in business!
Conclusion: Do What Works, and Prove It
In the rapidly changing field of higher education digital marketing, it can be easy to get distracted by the newest shiny objects promising to boost your enrollment numbers. Our take? Get the fundamentals right, don’t be afraid to experiment, and measure everything.
If you’d like to learn more about how we apply a killer combo of creativity and fanatical discipline to help schools like yours grow during challenging times, contact us.