5 Inspiring Higher Education Digital Marketing Campaigns

What makes a great digital marketing campaign for a college or university? There’s a shortlist of bases a good campaign should address. First and foremost, a good campaign helps prospective students visualize the successes they’ll achieve by attending that university. They may also cover supporting points like a diverse student body, a broad offering of courses, opportunity for accelerated learning, a nurturing and secure campus life, and an expert faculty.

But beyond the obvious selling points, the truly great higher education marketing campaigns are the ones that are “inspiring,” “motivating,” or “enabling.” The campaign should tell the student that their future is safe in your hands, that they are assured success with your programs. The ideal candidate for your next student is someone hard-working and talented, with a proven academic track record and a prosperous future ahead of them. Now you have to convince that person that your institution is the next step in their life plan.

Today’s students might have some doubts about their prospects in continuing education. They might doubt that they’ll be able to afford it, that they won’t fit in, or they might be concerned that they won’t have what it takes to graduate. Your campaign needs to wipe those doubts away, and replace them with confidence. One nice additional touch is to assure the student that your institution is not out of touch with their needs. They should feel like you understand them.

We’re going to point out some of the best digital marketing campaigns from higher education institutions, and try to identify what makes them great. We’re going to include as wide an array of campaigns and schools as possible, with the aim of presenting a well-rounded overview that should give you some ideas for your own schools’ marketing campaigns.


Skyline College: “…and Yes, it’s Free!”

“Free college” may be a familiar refrain heard from presidential candidates once every four years—that so far remains a pipe dream. But one community college is going as far as it can in that direction on its own. Skyline College is a community college nestled in the California Bay area in San Bruno. Their video for their Promise Scholars Program says it all. Their offer is pretty tough to beat: free first-year tuition, free textbooks, free access to facilities, free tutor, and even a free shuttle that hooks up with the BART bus station system. All of this is wrapped up in a video ad that presents this offer as an accessible option for minority students, with no barriers to entry. This is an offer that sells itself since even students who are unsure of their academic footing feel confident that they can dive in and explore.

A lot can happen in a year. That’s hypothetically just enough time to squeeze in a complete unit requirement for some of the certificate programs they offer for skilled trades, at the least.

However, there are caveats to this situation: You have to be a full-time student, and the bay area isn’t exactly known for its affordable living. Chances are most of its students are working a full-time job at night. EdSource has a more in-depth article on the program, which points out that Promise Scholars also hosts academic advisers that turn this into more of a state-funded Head Start program.

Still, as an advertising campaign, this is unbeatable. For students who want a risk-free way to at least dip a toe into academic waters without incurring lasting debt, their Promise Scholars program presents itself in a clean minute-thirty video advertisement that inspires the viewer to ask “What am I waiting for?”


Vancouver Island University: #ILearnHere

Every marketer dreams of a zero-budget campaign. Is it too good to be true? Through harnessing the power of social media, users’ natural drive to connect with the world, and students acting as brand ambassadors, Vancouver Island University in Canada makes this dream a reality:

It’s simple. VIU’s Instagram channel invites students to use the #ilearnhere hashtag when they post content on Instagram, and the channel manager selects the best of this crop to feature on their home Instagram account. This grants them access to gems like this quirky student-produced video for their “Discovery Night for Parents” event.

VIU also participates in other hip Instagram hashtag games, like “#whereinthewest” where faculty and staff take their picture near a landmark and others try to guess where they are. All this playfulness has a serious purpose: good PR for the university!

VIU’s channel is a mix of graduate achievement, scenic campus views, and student hijinks like this girl celebrating her technical diploma in Fisheries and Aquaculture. VIU teaches us that we can direct school spirit to a productive means with no expense and little effort.


University of Chicago: A Nose for News

Content marketing is an often-misunderstood and misused marketing tactic. To market your college through your blog, you shouldn’t make every post a hard sales pitch. When your product is education, it’s as simple as offering high-quality information just as any news outlet would, and let the content do the marketing for you. That’s the approach taken by University of Chicago, Illinois, with its home news blog:

One of Chicago’s claims to fame is its contributions to journalism. UChicago News runs with that reputation, with a business-like sense of reporting that digs into deep stories which also, sometimes, coincidentally show off the school’s academic chops. UChicago News takes a blue-collar attitude to a white-collar profession, fitting with former Mayor Daley’s motto: “the city that works.” This is a brilliant way to not just develop brand recognition, but infuse an institution’s online reputation with its local identity.

To extrapolate on the principle of content marketing just a bit more: content marketing is most adequately applied when you offer the upfront value that is useful all by itself, as a “free gift,” that just so happens to bring your brand in close proximity with your natural market. This is why Michelin Tires publishes a travel guide rating hotels and restaurants, and why Guinness beer publishes a book of world records that comes in handy to settle the kinds of trivial discussions that happen in a tavern.


Harvard University: In Touch with Their Human Side

Harvard is an Ivy League school, which some might find intimidating for its reputation. “Ivy League” conjures a certain image in the mind of today’s student, one of social elitism, snobbery, and “old money.” To counteract that, Harvard has developed the “Humans of Harvardsocial media campaign on Instagram:

With its inclusive slogan “Everyone has a story” and its display of a balanced cast of diversity, Harvard is just begging us to reconsider it as a university for everyone. Stories like these are integrated into its main Instagram, which demonstrates many other efforts to adjust its formerly stuffy image. Here’s a student-produced new media work, “Spooky Story” produced for Halloween.

Not so stuffy now, are they? Harvard might be most famous for its law and business school, but you’d hardly know it from here. Here we find out Harvard has had a partnership with the PBS TV series Sesame Street, paying off with a Muppet likeness of their professor.

Obviously, Harvard is one university that doesn’t have to advertise to recruit students. Young people fight tooth and nail to get in, first hurdling over the 4.18 GPA just to get on the shortlist. Harvard’s acceptance rate of just 4.7% goes to show that if they removed all digital content from the web, they’d still have no trouble filling seats.

But how many people could have gotten into Harvard, but got discouraged before they even tried? Harvard reaches out to those people, showing them that there are actual human beings behind the cold statistics. Harvard’s online message is “keep trying; it’s worth it!” This is a lesson in reputation management.


Allegheny College: Liberal Arts – Keyword “Liberal”

Nobody would disagree with the conventional wisdom that college-age young people tend to skew to the liberal end of political ideology. When you visit the website of Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, the first thing you’ll notice is its snappy web design and rich media content.

Making good use of its sports teams’ blue and gold colors, the site is a treat to explore. Next, you find its news blog, where we learn that they’re one of the first schools to achieve carbon neutrality. In fact, there’s a whole sustainability news tag on that blog, well put to use with an archive of environmental headlines going back years.

This is an example of reputation management the same way Harvard applies it, and a selling point with the same amount of drive as Skyline College. For the kinds of students who were protesting the Keystone Pipeline before their first prom, Allegheny heads straight for this niche of the environmentally conscious.

But what about their academics? Well, maybe their math department isn’t winning any Fields Medals lately, but their applied earth sciences are an obvious emphasis. They have a computer science tag, but instead of frontier AI research, they’re winning grants from the Mozilla Foundation for the Responsible Computer Science Challenge to study the ethical application of AI. The Mozilla Foundation is the wing of the free/open-source software movement, which is the godfather of the Firefox web browser, so even Allegheny’s computer science achievements are on the liberal side.

Meanwhile, their Student Experimental Theater gets its own Instagram, which is an eruption of rainbow colors and art-house production values.

The key takeaway in studying Alleghany’s digital marketing strategy is “strong brand identity.” You’d almost never know from its web presence that Allegheny is within the rust-belt geographically, or that it counts a US president among its alumni (William McKinley, #25). One would more likely expect Zonker Harris. Allegheny’s brand identity is perhaps too niche, like a parody straight out of a P.J. O’Rourke column, but it is a great example of attracting a straight-ticket voter who identifies strongly with a particular philosophy and accepts no compromises. Know upon which side your bread is buttered.


Saint Louis University: Salesforce Integration

We’ve been focusing a lot on brand reputation and content, but here is an example of a university standing out for its use of technology. Saint Louis University uses sophisticated personalization technology to deliver unique experiences to visitors of their admissions page.

After answering a few simple questions, visitors are able to embark on a personalized virtual tour that addresses all of their questions. If you don’t have time for that, you can visit as a guest to the site proper, where you find out the top 6 ways to tour SLU virtually. There’s also this slick video intro.

Virtual tour options include an appointment for a live feed presentation, a recorded virtual tour, links to their social media channels, and more. Their “About Us” page is yet another place to find quick, basic information and navigation to key points of the site. Some university websites leave you to fend for yourself hunting through drop-down menus; SLU acts like a virtual butler to escort you on your interactive Internet experience. They don’t have a chatbot, but they have a live streaming chat built into the sidebar, available during office hours.

As media philosopher Marshall McLuhan is oft-quoted, “the medium is the message.” Saint Louis University’s website and media channels tell you more through their content delivery than they do in the content itself, using a rich media experience to guide you to your customized information.


University of Colorado Boulder: Geek U

This time we’ll just focus on the importance of eye-catching graphic design in successful marketing campaigns.

The pun text “may the course be with you always” cues us for a double-take at the Roman centurion helmet, which, come to think of it, also looks like a Stormtrooper from the Star Wars franchise. If you’re a Trekkie instead of a Jedi, they have you covered too:

This is part of a series of distinctive ads created for the University of Colorado, Boulder’s “take another look” campaign. The same ad agency, Vermillion, also created a series of bus ads, still worth noting even if they’re not digital:

So, the bus campaign appeals to “the kid in us,” and also the “take another look” ads mix mature academics with geeky interests, advocating a balance of both worlds. If you visit UC’s continuing education page, you find out this is part of their philosophy of offering flexible extended courses for students of all ages whose needs or interests might not fit the traditional academic template. On the main continuing education portal, the copy tells us “own your journey,” “we get it,” and “make the most of every moment.”

Clearly, they’re expecting some unique people to show up. So why the cryptic sci-fi references? It makes sense in Coloradan. Colorado, as a gateway to the west with a diverse mixture of the Rocky Mountains and arid deserts, attracts a diverse lot. It also has a reputation for being offbeat with a mildly paranormal air. Case in point: Denver airport, which gave up on debunking the stories about aliens and demonic horse statues and now just runs with it.

UC Boulder is appealing to its local culture here. The school has given the world 12 Nobel laureates, 9 MacArthur Fellows, and 20 astronauts while being home to the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. They can afford to let their hair down and be quirky.

We’ll give them this much: you don’t forget a UC Boulder ad anytime soon.


Concluding Our Tour…

There’s so much more to innovative digital marketing in the academic industry, it’s hard picking what to cover and what to leave out. We have seen many different digital marketing campaigns, focusing on aspects such as creativity, use of the medium, impact, social media outreach, and demographic focus. We’ve seen education marketing from the smallest community campus to the most sprawling institution, on every budget from shoestring to coordinated multimedia productions.

Universities and colleges have cultures all their own. When students are selecting a university, they’re shopping for culture as well as price points and academic schedules. Marketing for higher education must take a deep approach, using a variety of media channels to deliver a finely tuned message to the prospective student.

Hopefully, this tour has provided some inspiration for shaping your own outreach message. The campaigns you launch today might help shape the workforce of tomorrow.


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