3 Ways Colleges Can Enhance Their Marketing Strategy with User-Generated Content

[feat-text]Summary: How can your school show off its spirit, its culture, and the things that make it special? By letting the students do the talking! Learn more about the surprising power of user-generated content.[/feat-text]

Once upon a time, media was more of a hierarchical affair. Whether in book form, on the radio, or TV, there was a clear separation between the producer and the audience. “Those who created” handed down content to “those who consumed,” with rarely the twain meeting.

The Internet came along to democratize media. Suddenly, all barriers to access fell. It was so inexpensive and convenient to go online and share your voice with the world that everybody did it. Eventually, this trend evolved into social media, an amazing electronic Tower of Babel. Now we are both the producers and consumers most of the time, which makes media so much more engaging since we can participate.

An important cultural shift has happened as a result: the shift of public trust. We used to just sit down and watch the 11 o’clock news, accepting that whatever the newscaster said was what happened. We could watch a TV series and accept how it ended, instead of demanding the final season be rewritten.

Now, it seems that the experts and people of authority are less relevant, and the casual social media user is more relevant.

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Millennials and Gen-Z: Trusting Their Own Voice

Out of the general web audience survey, 79% of them say user-generated content (UGC) is deemed to have more of an impact on their purchasing decisions. Users were 2.4x more likely to say that UGC is authentic. A majority of consumers, 67%, say that it’s important for brands to provide them with a personalized experience.

Narrowing down to Millennials and Generation Z, the two generations most relevant to college’s interests, studies show that they trust social media first, friends and family second, and influences last to influence a purchase. Likewise, HootSuite’s survey of Generation Z finds that they, too, will turn to friends, family, or peer reviews on the web before they trust anybody else’s word about a product.

So what is going on here? Younger generations grew up in a hot media environment that saturated them with marketing. They learned to be skeptical and cynical of paid marketers. You have to remember that older generations just did not get as much screen time in their formative years, so advertising occupied a smaller corner of their world. By the time you get to Gen-Z, they’ve scrolled past so many ads that they’re a little marketing-deaf.

Traditional, hierarchical marketing lacks authenticity for Millennials and Generation Z. It’s paid for, forced, and plastic. But the word of their peer group rings true to their ears. Hence the power of student ambassadors.

This level of authenticity may be out of reach for many industries, but higher education is practically swimming in it. As any teacher can tell you, the school environment fosters a peer-to-peer communication network, always buzzing with activity. You can harness that power by encouraging students and alumni to participate.


Using UGC To Increase Social Engagement

Whatever the culture of your campus, you can communicate it through social media. You can emphasize stimulation, fun, diversity, or present the university as student-centric or career-centric. The important thing is that you let the students have most of the fun. You encourage their engagement, they produce UGC, you promote it.

Younger generations are not just passive consumers of social media, but active participants. There’s probably a student or two filming a video for TikTok from your campus right now, with dozens more thumbing through a hashtag chain on Twitter or attempting the latest Instagram challenge. Young people love the spotlight and applause, while also applauding each other. So don’t worry about getting them to participate; they already are.

You can direct some of that energy towards a beneficial cause. We have a section on fun social media engagement ideas for schools over here. It’s OK if the activities seem silly and pointless. “Silly and Pointless” brings down the house on the Internet and what a lot of people need these days. That’s why there are a million pictures of US Senator Bernie Sanders on a chair photoshopped into every conceivable situation.

Honestly, when it comes to social media fun, the best ideas are the least complicated. Take a page from Bernie and have a challenge for students to insert your sports team mascot into improbable photos. Anything gets the ball rolling.

Organic vs. Paid Social Media

Organic social media accounts, even for a major higher education institution, can have a weak signal. In fact, over the years Facebook and Instagram have modified their algorithms and reduced the reach of organic content. Paid social advertising helps you break out of your school’s bubble and connect to a new audience.

You can spice up your digital advertising campaigns with UGC. You let the student user-generated content be the body of the “ad,” and then promote it using your social media advertising platforms.

At first glance, your ad won’t look like a typical ad, and it may blend into the other media students consume. This can help improve your ad’s response and capture students’ attention. By amplifying the UGC, your student gets to enjoy the spotlight and you get to show off how happy and spirited students are at your school. Everybody wins!


Using UGC to Enhance Events

As we slowly move back from pandemic status to being comfortable having events again, social media is a natural tool to promote any happening. Who has ever browsed a hashtag stream from a convention, concert, or summit and not felt pulled to it? You use your students’ UGC to show others what they’re missing.

At your next open house, rally, or symposium, build up the anticipation and draw a crowd by urging your students to prepare ahead of time and share their fun on social media. Perhaps the school can spice up the atmosphere with a few props or backdrops or host themed activities to prepare for the main event. Suppose your theater group’s performance of the musical Chess is preceded by one of those giant people-sized chess sets in the courtyard? Things like that.

If it’s not quite time to call an end to pandemic precautions, your virtual event benefits from the same promotion. Or you can structure events around social distancing, sparse on the ground but spreading wide. This university lists 20 COVID-friendly activities, just for some inspiration. Your UGC promotion can be serious or silly. You can even harness students’ natural drive to improve the world, by theming your UGC campaign around environmentalism, activism, or a charity cause.


Using UGC to Add Authenticity to Your Website

This one could almost go without saying, because what university website doesn’t include photos of the students somewhere? The truth is, though, that you could include them a bit more. Give them their own blog or host the social media feed widget in the sidebar of pages. Use a whole page to host an Instagram gallery with the best of student UGC. By all means, make it easy and accessible so the students can share their handiwork with the folks back home.

Adding student UGC to your site bolsters the authenticity of your school’s branding, and sends the message to prospective students that your school puts the students first. It encourages friends and family of students to drop by and perhaps share a link. It promotes a healthy atmosphere of diversity and self-acceptance. It’s all about the warm, fuzzy, “belonging” feeling.

Of course, your school’s UGC stream can show off your facilities while you’re at it. Your art department is likely eager to share student artwork on Instagram. Your engineering department can show off its next robotics projects or chemistry lab demonstration. Your computer science course can stage a publicity stunt to raise awareness for digital rights. Your social studies department can theme a UGC event around a country with a humanitarian crisis.

Students are already quite eager to sound off about issues that impact them, or show the world what they can do. It’s an authentic way of content marketing that feels as natural as water flowing downhill.



Millennials and Generation X (and look for Generation Alpha comin’ round the corner) are media-savvy generations who are used to being inundated with electronic distractions. Marketing to them, especially marketing a university to them, using these unconventional means may feel strange. But it gets the results! You have to get their attention first and to do so, you have to be unconventional. You have to go where no school has gone before.


How to Capture Students’ Attention in a Crowded Digital World

[feat-text]Summary: We live in a media atmosphere like none ever seen before in history. In the “attention economy,” here are a few ways a university can stand out from the background noise and capture students’ attention.[/feat-text]

Warning: The below article will not be your regularly-scheduled marketing article. Our usual staff is tied up in the janitor’s closet; we’re letting the kids take over today. This time, we’re exercising our creative capacity to think differently, and hence, market differently. Lots of university marketing out there is a stale, sleepy drone. Let’s change the station to Channel Woke!

On January 4th, 2019, an Instagram account was created named “world_record_egg” and uploaded a photo of – wait for it – an egg. Appended was the message “Let’s set a world record together and get the most liked post on Instagram. Beating the current world record held by Kylie Jenner (18 million)! We got this.” The egg went on to 54.8 million likes, and thus was born the most successful Instagram post ever, and the legend of the Instagram Egg.

Stay with us, now. We’re talking about how to get young people’s attention.

The egg was nothing special, a stock photo from Shutterstock. What was unique was the call to action, marshaling the ire of a generation that was burned out on “celebrity culture.” The egg wasn’t the important part. Spiting the Kardashians was the important part.

In January of 2021, the financial world was turned upside down when a pool of stock day-traders on Reddit decided to goose the value of GameStop stock. They were, again, galvanized by one person, Keith Gill, a financial analyst who started the ball rolling with a $50K investment in GameStop, which he believed was undervalued. Then he told other Redditors about how brokerage firms kill companies by short-selling stocks, and how this would happen to GameStop unless its price suddenly took off. The chart tells the rest of the story.

There is nothing particularly special about GameStop; the retail mall outlet staple has been choking from digital game sales competition for years now. What was unique was the call to action. This time the call was “let’s stick it to the man!” The “man” of the day was power Wall Street brokerages.

Stories like this are instructive.

What motivates the social media audience? Often it is a matter of finding a common, popular urge with a lot of passion behind it, making a soapbox speech about it, and leading a miniature populist revolt to accomplish some silly symbolic raid. There’s a luck factor too. It has to be the right time and place.


Knowing the Social Media Environment

So, a university needs to market to student candidates, which right now is mainly comprised of Generation Z, the trailing edge of Millennials, and the earliest upcoming Generation Alpha. These people generally spend hours per day with their noses in a phone. The first step in marketing in this environment is clear. You wouldn’t advertise on TV without ever watching TV; you wouldn’t advertise in magazines if you never picked one up. To talk to your social media audience, you have to learn the territory, play where they play, and listen to what they care about.

There are no shortcuts to this. If you’re saying, “but I already go on Facebook every day,” that’s not enough if by “Facebook” you mean reading your best friends’ posts. That’s too insulated, you’re inside a bubble.

It pays to keep tabs on every platform in the top fifteen social media services, so you know what the majority is up to. This means heading for the “trending” section, not just your own social circle.

And for the hopelessly lost, Reddit has a magical little forum called “Out Of the Loop,” where people catch up. You don’t need to know the backstory to every trending tag. It is enough to know that something’s trending sufficiently to provoke somebody to ask what’s going on. Another hot spot to watch is KnowYourMeme, which explains the seemingly incomprehensible thicket of online image-based humor in a way even grandma can understand.

This helps you in several ways: It helps you identify which social media channels to spend your marketing dollars on, and it helps you shape a message when you get there.

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How Does This Help Me Convert Students To My University?

There is a method to this madness. People go on social media because they get something out of it. Like all popular media of the past, it is half-entertainment and half-information. What makes social media unique is that you get to participate, which makes you part of the action. So digital activism is a powerful motivator too.

Let’s start with the fun side.

What if your university did something daring and risky? Something nobody expects a university to do? How about the next time the bottle-flipping challenge is making the rounds, you hold a contest for a small bonus tuition grant based on who can win a bottle-flipping competition? Or take that time when sea shanties were popular out of nowhere, what if you had just posted a video of your whole football team tearing up “Wellerman”? What if you interrupted the current conversation on Dogecoin (a cryptocurrency) by announcing that your university had adopted it as an alternative currency in the campus cafeteria?

Zany publicity stunts? Hey, they work. El Arroyo is a Mexican restaurant in Austin Texas, but they’re Internet-famous because they make funny quotes on their sign and then post them on social media. Maybe your university can’t use exactly the same tactic, but the general lesson you can take away is to join in the fun. El Arroyo is actually using a time-tested marketing method that was first introduced on Burma Shave signs which once dotted the nation’s roadsides.

Check out some of Generation Z’s most loved brands. Obviously, most of the industries you see there are digital media, snack foods, technology, and entertainment. But just a few brands manage to poke their heads above the competition here, through lively marketing.


But Universities Are Serious Business…

Let’s not forget the other half of the motivations people have for going online: to be informed, and to support causes they care about. Each attention-getting tactic has its own tier of payoff. You can make a joke and everybody will pass it around, but then they forget it next week. Teach the public something interesting, and it will stick a bit longer. Stand and be a hero for five minutes, and they’ll be telling their grandkids about you.

Now, a university is on its home turf here. Universities are practically in the information business, are they not? Sharing videos and infographics on topics related to your course catalog should come naturally already. However, there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about this. Information can be dry and boring, or it can be engaging and exciting. What makes it exciting is how passionate the presenter is.

This is a gallery of Generation Z heroes. From left to right:

  • Bill Nye the Science Guy (long-running TV show)
  • Neil DeGrasse Tyson (just a pop scientist who’s good on stage)
  • Mr. Rogers (TV show)
  • Carl Sagan (author and TV host)
  • Bob Ross (from The Joy of Painting)

We can add one more:

Mythbusters from the Discovery Channel.

You don’t have to hire a charismatic celebrity to sell your university. But you can take a hint from each of these people’s personalities, collated together, in how to present your message:

  • Smart but not condescending
  • Sincere
  • Utterly without scandal
  • Activist
  • Not afraid to speak out on important issues
  • Inclusive
  • Genuinely enthusiastic about their lesson
  • Playful and creative
  • A childlike sense of wonder

Now let’s look at the closest analogues to these characters: your teaching staff. Research Gate has a poll asking “What are the qualities of a good professor?” with answers that are eerily like the qualities we just discussed:

  • passion for the subject
  • humility
  • respect for all persons without prejudice
  • open-mindedness
  • leadership qualities
  • “human-first”

We hope your professors live up to these standards to some degree. Meanwhile, how do you communicate this quality through your marketing? You do this by sharing the same attitude. Make your marketing be enthusiastic, respectful, open-minded, and human first. When students see that your marketing takes the right attitude, they assume that these same qualities trickle down to the staff and faculty. Your school will sound like a place that puts the students first. It will sound like a student can go to the staff with a problem and the staff will actually listen.

Be free to share any information, as long as it’s engaging. Tell the audience statistics about students, careers, the economy, but make it be about the students, not the school. Share a fascinating fact touched on in your class curriculum. Let your most enthusiastic professor throw together a video lecture for TikTok, with the top five craziest moments in legal history. Your ad can be a simple “did you know?” with a fact about a sea turtle and directions to enroll in your marine biology course. Be fascinating.

Don’t just broadcast what you want the public to know. Find out what they want to know, then feed them a taste while promising them more. Show them you share their values. This is actually a tried and true marketing technique – you put a friendly, human face on the company. It’s why you’re buying cookies from an elf that lives in a hollow tree instead of a factory in Michigan.


What About Internet Activism?

We leave activism for last of all because while we can’t throw a dart without hitting a university that at least pays lip service to popular social values already, it’s also a played-out marketing ploy. Every company “virtue-signals.” If you’re going to show support for a cause, do it from the front page headlines and not from a tired sound bite like “we stand together with blah blah for a better tomorrow.”

Attaching lip service for a social justice cause to your marketing will come off as transparent. Never underestimate the young adult crowd’s cynicism when it comes to interacting with businesses. However, if you put “your money where your mouth is,” and show genuine action on these issues, that gets their attention.

It’s not hard at all for a university to align itself with a humanitarian issue. Universities have traditionally fallen in line with liberal sympathies already. So whenever your science department contributes to reducing global warming, your campus policy takes a new step in ending discrimination, or your school’s students even adopt a highway to pick up trash one weekend, just make sure it’s publicized in local news. Work it into your advertising message as long as it doesn’t sound like it was done just for the advertising.


But This Isn’t How Universities Market!

Correct! This is not an article about “how to blend into the background and be just more static noise.”

We all know, already, that students are seriously thinking about where to go to school, about their future career, about the large investment of time and money, and the hope for a payoff. We know that it’s serious business. Your school brochures and campus tours can take care of all that. We have a whole archive of the regular university marketing topics. We can deliver that lecture in our sleep now.

This is about getting attention, stopping that thumb from scrolling past your ad on the phone.

You need that arresting visual, engaging video, or powerful quote to get their attention in the first place. Attention spans are short, so you have to punch in fast. Once they’re listening, then you can give your standard spiel.

There is something to notice here regarding “nature vs nurture.” As far as nature goes, modern young adults are actually not so different from their counterparts in other decades. The difference is in the flashing, beeping media they have lived in. This shapes their attitude, which impacts how they receive your message.

Want to improve your college or university’s digital marketing strategy? Contact us! At Atlantic Digital Marketing, we have a team of higher education marketing professionals here to improve your digital reputation, manage your social media platforms, and implement SEO and PPC strategies that will truly capture student’s attention online.


5 Web Design Best Practices for Universities

[feat-text]Summary: Modern digital audiences demand an updated website. Find out how search engine optimization, streamlining your web experience, and designing for mobile helps your university website stay on top.[/feat-text]

We hope this doesn’t come as shocking news, but websites are kind of important for just about any kind of business. Higher education is no exception. In terms of digital marketing, your school’s website is your “front door” to the rest of the world. In the mobile age, visitors don’t ask people directions or look you up in the phone book; they Google you and let your online presence lead them from there.


Unique School Website Design Challenges

Universities have to pay more attention to their online presence than most industries because they operate under a different set of expectations:

  • Their clients, students, are disproportionately young digital natives who use the web to research their career path.
  • Students look to universities as a progressive place to advance their career into the future, while a shabby website makes it seem like you’re stuck in the past.
  • The public looks to universities as natural thought leaders where talent congregates, so a school has “no excuse” when they have an impoverished web presence.
  • Universities have to keep up a thriving image, lest they get a reputation for sub-par standards.

At the same time, designing a university website has several unique challenges. For your average storefront business, a WordPress website that includes a few pages paired with a Google My Business listing goes pretty far. But a university’s online presence has to meet a higher standard:

  • University websites are typically huge, so there’s a lot of information to organize
  • Young adults may be adept at searching and finding sites on the web, but they are also faster to get impatient with slow websites and clumsy navigation
  • A university needs to present many voices in chorus in their media experience, combining messages from the dean and faculty, then professors and facilitators, right down to the student ambassadors and alumni
  • Yet the university must also present a united brand identity
  • There’s some stiff competition out there for students’ attention, especially among higher learning institutions

That competition is likely to be a steady factor that universities have to contend with. Enrollments are declining nationwide by a factor of about 3.3%. This is due partly to natural population fluctuation, the global pandemic, and the hesitancy students feel about making big decisions during times of economic uncertainty.

In the face of all this, a university must put as much effort into its online presence as conceivably practical. There is no “plan B” here; students are not going to look you up in a directory and just drop in. Here are five best practices for designing a superior higher education website:

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1. Prioritize Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

There are three faces of SEO: the on-site content, the off-site factors, and the on-site engineering. You must include enough content to snag Google’s attention and make it aware that there’s important information to index here. You must build your campus reputation to nurture inbound links and traffic referral factors so Google knows your site is well-trusted. And you must make sure that your site is responsive and capable of receiving visitors from a mostly-mobile audience.

You have to build SEO into the site from the ground up. The days are long gone when Google simply scraped text off your page and served it up in search results from there. Now, Google takes into account things such as:

  • Are there a lot of inbound links showing your site is useful?
  • Do users spend some time on the site as opposed to just leaving right away?
  • Is your site a source of authoritative, trustworthy content?
  • Does your site match the perceived intent of the users’ search?
  • Is your site mobile-friendly?
  • Is your site fast to load and responsive?

In short, Google has leaned much harder on user experience (UX) than it has in the past. It does this to stay competitive by giving users what they want.

The most important factor feeding into SEO and UX is information architecture—or how the site is structured so that users can navigate it and find what they want. There are some specialized aspects of website organization that apply to higher education websites. Before embarking on a major website redesign, it’s important to consult with SEO experts to ensure that you don’t experience major traffic losses.


2. Use an Intuitive University Website Navigation

How to direct all that incoming traffic, and create a smooth flow of the information it seeks? It is sometimes helpful to break traffic down into groups:

  • Content traffic: Students, parents, and new visitors want to find out all about you. “About us,” your mission statement, dean’s blog, admissions, academics, news and announcements, and so on. This type of traffic is recommended for the menu bar at the top of pages.
  • Grouped traffic: You have more audience than just students; you will be serving faculty, staff, alumni, and press. Give these visitors their own section, with an out-of-the-way link listing in the sidebar or page footer. That way they can find their specific information without the clutter of the site getting in the way.
  • Utility traffic: Your student body will also use the site, with all its features. There’s the course management system, academic calendar, policy updates, and guides to housing, parking, cafeteria menu, and other trivia. You will want easy navigation to your “hot spot” sections right in the main page front section.

People do expect a university to have a lot of content. Hey, “content” is half of what education is all about, right? So it’s OK to have a lot more information than your average site, as long as it says “we have a lot to offer” without being overwhelming. Instead of presenting huge navigation menus, consider splitting up your navigation based on the user’s intended purpose. The types of traffic we outlined can guide you towards what navigation systems you need.

It is best to have several concurrent, redundant systems of navigation. “Breadcrumbs” are often necessary for maneuvering large sites with many categories. Your front page should be the main navigation hub, so include a link from every page on the rest of the site back to the front. Have a tag system so browsing students can easily follow one topic through multiple departments. Have an on-site search feature to assist lost users and test it to make sure it works.


3. Think “Mobile First”

It’s challenging enough to build a high-bandwidth school web portal on a desktop web browser. But now you have to shrink it down to a hand-sized mobile interface too! There are two Google standards that together make a mobile-ready website: AMP and CWV. AMP is “accelerated mobile pages,” a special version of your website’s pages that are set up for mobile. CWV is “Core Web Vitals,” a new set of website stats that Google is rolling out to measure sites’ responsiveness and convenience to use on mobile.

The good news is, as long as your web design team is on the ball and you’re using modern content management systems that are up to standards, you should have less trouble meeting AMP and CWV. Sites that are set up for AMP tend to also score higher on CWV, which is a good thing.

Here’s a little check-list to keep in mind for mobile users:

  • Use lightweight graphics and videos to ensure fast load times
  • Kill superfluous Javascript and plug-ins, as unused code is bloat
  • Make sure your text is big enough to read on a small screen and easy to navigate links with a finger
  • Watch out for pop-ups that block the whole screen
  • Keep it simple, and collapse complex menus when not in use
  • Make sure interactive widgets respond promptly
  • Do not use flashy, busy designs just to show off
  • Serve it all from a fast website

Designing for mobile is a tedious challenge at times, but this is how the world works now. Generation Z—your emerging and future student base—spends an overwhelming amount of time on mobile Internet, with Millennials not far behind. You must make create an excellent mobile experience.


4. Invest in Good Content

Good content comes from a good university. A university website has to rise above being a mere web portal. It is a production. You should have as much content as possible that’s aimed at wowing visitors with your spectacular school and its amenities. Have virtual video campus tours, embed photo galleries of your highest achievements, and never miss an opportunity to brag about a milestone on your blog channels. Share the success story of every graduate, and collect at least one glowing testimonial from every alumni.

Let Your Students Contribute

Young adults, especially, are more moved by the sense that they’re hearing from their peers, which is why influencer marketing is such a hot property. A young student might be too jaded from media over-exposure to put much stock in your P.R. department. But show them a student just like them, and they’ll pay attention. This is the beautiful thing about university testimonials because every student has a story. Tell the compelling story of a student’s journey to graduation and career success, and you will captivate the audience. Narrative skills come in handy here. Everyone has a dream, a vision for their place in the world, a problem they knew that only they could solve. Diplomas change lives, so your student graduating signifies a date with destiny, a change in the fate of the world. Wring it for all the melodramas you can.

Beyond testimonials, let your students share their experiences on your website. Part of your content strategy should include user-generated content (UGC) that you incorporate throughout your website. UGC can be social media posts, student-directed video campus tours, behind-the-scenes photographs of the lab, event photographs, or student blog articles. Monitor your social media channels, hashtags, and student blogs for content that might enhance your website and brand image. Consider creating a designated section on your website that serves as a repository for your UGC. Some schools even showcase this content on their homepages.


5. Channel Your Creativity

Remember that you’re not just competing with other schools. You’re competing with the whole social media and entertainment world and all the distractions it brings. This is, again, just the world we live in now.

A simple, clean design defines NYU’s website. Not only is it enjoyable to view, but it’s also easy to use. Web pages load lightning-fast (even with video!) and it’s easy to get around using their intuitive navigation.


That means you must create a captivating website that sets your school apart. Students engage daily with entertainers and social media influencers that create stunning photography and engaging content. They expect the same from brands. Invest in high-quality photography that showcases your school’s best features. Between TikTok and YouTube, students spend a substantial amount of the day consuming videos and it’s often their preferred medium. Video content complements the written word and should be used liberally throughout your website. While high-quality productions have their place, students also desire authenticity and will accept lower-quality video, as long as it’s genuine, unique, and entertaining. If you don’t have a big budget for video content, don’t worry. The camera in your pocket is often good enough.

While visual design is important, it shouldn’t detract from the functionality of your website. Remember that beyond looking good, websites must adhere to SEO best practices,  load quickly, and allow users to navigate easily.


How to Develop and Protect a Positive Reputation for Your School

[feat-text]Summary: What image does your school present online and peer to peer? You can practice good “image grooming” with an appealing website, PR strategy, social media engagement, and student empowerment. Here’s how to ensure student applicants always see your most attractive angle.[/feat-text]

A higher education institution must be built on a solid reputation. That’s important, not only for enrollment but for retention and alumni relations. A school’s reputation, likewise, isn’t just important in the eyes of enrollment candidates, but in the view of parents, counselors, mentors, and peers of those potential students.

Here, we’ll explore the steps that schools can take to influence a positive brand reputation. This isn’t a “one-time” project, but an ongoing strategy that benefits from laying out a thorough plan, and training staff and faculty to keep to the initiative. The PR game has changed in recent years because the arenas where your school’s reputation is discussed have changed to the online world, so we have to focus on digital brand management in the same media channels that students and their associates use.

The steps we will cover here:

  • Brand Assessment: Survey your current standing and devise a plan to see what needs changing and how to change it
  • Website Management: Your website is your digital front door to the world, and today’s students judge a business based on their website more than any previous generation
  • PR Management: Make sure the good news is upfront, and have a plan to manage the bad news if it happens
  • Social Media Investment: The most important media channels to reach prospective students
  • Student Investment: Your students can promote good word of mouth, and act as ambassadors for your institution

Reputation management is more challenging for schools today. This is because their target audience, mostly Generation Z and Millennials, are far more media-savvy and averse to feeling “marketed to” than previous generations. A suspicious and cynical generation, you have to work hard to earn their trust and keep it. Do not underestimate this generation’s capacity for research; they were born with Google on tap and a phone in their hand!

“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” — Winston Churchill

The above quote made decades before “social media” was ever heard of, expresses the volatility of public perception in our increasingly noisy media environment. No school is immune to negative press, not even the Ivy League. It’s wise to heed this rule because the wrong impression of your institute can get out of hand just that quickly!

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Assessing Your School’s Brand Reputation

First off, you want to conduct thorough research into your school’s current public standing online. That breaks down into three components:

  • Image: The first impression, gleaned from short-term interactions and overheard opinions
  • Reputation: The long-term historical view of a school’s image over time
  • Brand: How a school wants to be perceived by various stakeholders

Image is determined by phrases such as “I heard School X is …” or “School X strikes me as …” Schools can have a stereotyped image in the public mind. Among the negative images a school can have:

  • Low retention: a “drop-out school” with low graduation rates
  • Over-priced: Maybe good otherwise, but fees are high and financial support is flimsy
  • Low value: A “party school” or “diploma mill”
  • Outdated: Schools that do not modernize their practices, policies, or technology
  • Corrupt: A school plagued by scandals and controversy

Most of the negative images that schools tend to have are based on having a poor perceived ROI. Students today pay attention to the bottom line like no generation before. They want to see low costs and great graduation rates with high career prospects to follow. This can be tough to address because statistics are openly accessible online.

Reputation has to do more with impressions passed down to the student from second-hand sources. A continuing education student picking out their academic career will be swayed by opinions from their parents, teachers, counselors, peers, mentors, and just about anybody in their social circle. They will also look up what your school’s alumni have to say about the experience. Students will also search for old news stories about a negative incident in the past, which can be very damaging.

Finally, your school’s brand is what your school has to say about itself. Here, too, schools can stumble by not keeping their marketing and message updated. You should be sure that your brand:

  • Appeals to the modern generation and its values
  • Is consistent and transparent
  • Stays current with modern trends
  • Expresses a personality and reflects the school’s identity


An easy mnemonic of branding is to remember the “four Ps”: “product (education), price (tuition), promotion (marketing), and place (your position of academic relevance).”

You have to keep your brand up to date, and then deliver on that brand’s promise. Students will pick up cues from your marketing in unexpected ways. They are looking ten to forty years into the future at their career prospects; you should be looking forward with them.

Pay Attention to What Students Say Online

What are students saying about your school online? Where do they go to read school reviews? Before you can develop a strategy to enhance your image and reputation, you need to know what’s out there. Search popular websites to see if there are glowing reviews or if you need to conduct damage control. Here are a few websites students tend to use:

Now that we have the groundwork for your current reputation and the reputation you’d like to implement, we have four key fronts to manage reputation:


School Website Management

Students have come to expect a university to be one of the most tech-savvy institutions they will deal with. Technology has changed the career landscape, even if you don’t have a tech-focused career. Students today are thinking about things like:

Will my career become outdated?

  • Will I be trained on the latest methods and applications in my field?
  • Can the school handle remote learning or prepare me for remote work in my career?
  • Is my STEM curriculum up to date with the latest research?
  • Will future-looking companies hire me from this school?

A school with a poorly maintained website sends the message that your school is poorly managed, and doesn’t care about the digital generation. Here’s a quick checklist for a university website:

  • Perform a full website audit
  • Make sure the whole site is easy to navigate for both users and Google search crawlers
  • Check your UX design and follow best practices
  • Pay attention to your inbound marketing funnel, making it easy for users to engage with you
  • Make “mobile-first” your website motto, prioritizing phone users

Your site’s information should present clear and concise copy that’s easily scanned, with helpful links to find more information. And of course, for reputation management, you should highlight successes and good press prominently. Have a blog or news feed that showcases your awards, local articles about your school, alumni testimonials, community activity and engagement, and good statistics about your academic record and student achievements.

Website maintenance and digital marketing are topics we cover in very much depth on our blog, so we need not dwell on them here.

PR Management

Luckily, the rules for having an effective PR strategy haven’t changed as much as other aspects. Your local media, including newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio, still matter as much as ever. Most of your PR work will happen on two fronts:

  • Proactive: Reaching out to media outlets with every positive story you can find
  • Reactive: Crisis management for critical events to manage the media response

When it comes to press relations, it’s good to keep in mind that you have some natural allies. No doubt, your local politicians, businesses, and institutions want your school to have the best reputation. The more students you attract, the better business is for everybody around. Your city and state want to take pride in your institution. For that matter, your local reporters at your town newspaper would rather be writing news about your school than, say, twiddling their thumbs.

Proactive PR:

Make a commitment to press releases and pitches to your local media outlets. Let no alumni success go unreported! Every new piece of research from your engineering department, every new avenue of financial support for students, every new faculty member coming on board, all of this should be pitched to the media. At least half of the reputation management game is “saturation.” Drown the media in good stories and then a bad story will barely have a chance to break.

Show prospective students the opportunities your school can give them by highlighting student achievements in media outlets, on your website, and through social media channels.

Reactive PR:

As for crisis management, you should have a media team on standby. Should a negative event come up, the worst thing you can do during that time is to be inactive. When you’re sure that a scandal story is going to break, make sure that you’re the one breaking it. Address the crisis, express regret that it happened, and make a statement of what you’re doing to resolve it. A news story about your school should never end with “the university could not be reached for comment.”


Social Media Engagement

In the eyes of generation Z, second in importance only to your school’s website is your school’s social media channels. Today’s student spends most of their day on social media, where again, their judgment of your school is likely based on a scrutinization of your social media presence. The important channels are currently:

  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • YouTube
  • Twitter
  • Snapchat
  • Pinterest
  • TikTok
  • Reddit

These social media channels come and go with the wind, too. Google+, for instance, died in 2019. Keep up with the latest trends and you’ll always be the first source Generation Z hears for messages about your school.

On social media, you want a specialist team who is responsible for keeping a welcoming, upbeat presence that is aligned with current trends. Define your brand and mission, create a social media strategy, and release stories of your every success and the success of your students and alumni, and show off some school spirit.

Does every school social media channel have to sound alike? Certainly not! The best school social media accounts highlight an appealing aspect of the school, but they are all unique to that school’s brand identity. You can spotlight your science department’s cutting edge research, your accessible and friendly staff, your high-tech connected campus, your commitment to social causes, your emphasis on the environment, or whatever you can find to emphasize.

Don’t let your social media channels become a drone of dull marketing. Catch your audience’s attention by commenting on current events, participating in the latest social media challenges, and sharing high-quality photographs and authentic video. When you do, you’ll inspire them to join the conversation and share their perspective.


Involving the Students

Now, at last, we come to your students. Your students should feel at least a small investment in your school’s reputation. Nobody wants to say they go to a crummy school, right? Your top students are a resource for your best word of mouth recommendations. This resource can be tapped with an effective student ambassador program. Student ambassadors are viewed as a trusted resource by potential students.

Alongside this, you can implement a testimonial and review program. This can be as simple as developing a student feedback system that emails students at the end of the semester. If you don’t ask for reviews, you won’t get that many of them. The people most likely to leave a review are those with unfavorable things to say. Don’t leave your digital reputation in their hands. Instead, develop a review solicitation system to encourage more students to leave positive feedback.

As the reviews start to roll in, you can then cherry-picking the students with the best reviews and incorporate them into your marketing strategy. Amplify the good news by giving those students a platform through your website, social media channels, and email and print campaigns.

Glowing testimonials and reviews should be leveraged as much as possible. Beyond posting them on your website, incorporate them into your digital advertising. Run Facebook and Instagram advertising campaigns that feature student ambassador testimonials or share quotes from review websites. These messages can help persuade students who are on the fence that your school is the right place for them.



We covered a lot of ground in a short space here, so follow the links to other articles where we discuss some of this material in-depth. For that matter, we have a whole blog of higher ed marketing inspiration waiting for you to dive in!

As we follow the media landscape from day to day, we learn that reputation management isn’t always easy. One bad day or a bad quote can cause you to be “canceled,” while good news has to be hammered in until it sticks. This is not an easy game, and it takes a lot of work to stay on top of it. Just remember, this is just as hard for your competitors as it is for you! Stay in better standing than your immediate competition, and you’ll always have the high ground.


Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in September 2017. It’s been completely revamped and updated to reflect new digital channels and strategies and to improve the accuracy of information. 


Marketing Messages for the Things Students Care About Most

Of all the life decisions, choosing a school for continuing education is one that people tend to ruminate upon for a long time. It’s one of those few decision points, like marrying, starting a family, or moving to a new state, that tends to set the narrative for the rest of your life. As a higher education institution, your mission should be to use marketing to guide students along the path to selecting your school and answering all of the questions and concerns they might have along the path to that decision.


What Are the Top Criteria Important to Students?

This isn’t always such an easy question to answer. The factors that matter most to students choosing the path of their finished education is reflected in environmental factors, their cultural roots, their career motivations, and their finances, among many influences.

A student in the 1960s, for instance, might not have had as weighty a financial consideration, but likely would have had a corporation-directed career goal, e.g. work for Dow Chemical or Procter & Gamble. Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate (1967) was advised by a family friend to set his career goals for “plastics.” Would a 21st-century student have such a rigid fixation on a single industry or would they set their sights on other goals?

According to LinkedIn surveys, there’s a growing trend where employees are seeking more flexible work arrangements, in terms of scheduling and work-life balance. So maybe a student might be more swayed towards work more easily done remotely (even before the global pandemic). This is just one example of how career goals for students can change over time and why you need to assess if your marketing strategy is addressing what they want.

Now, let’s review the criteria in order of importance to students.


Job Prospects

Of course, most students do aim their academic goals towards their expectations of a career. Their chief concerns:

  • Ability to secure employment post-graduation
  • Internship availability
  • Salary potential

The graph above shows a survey of students, with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) graduates most confident about their future job potential. That makes sense, given the current trends. STEM students likely research the field and find that the career prospects for STEM majors are stable and high-paying. This is just one example of students “doing their homework” before they set their academic course.

No matter the subject and major, students want to know that their chosen path leads to the best possible career outcomes.

Marketing Message For Job Prospects:

The core message of this marketing niche should be “show me.” Develop marketing campaigns geared to demonstrating that graduates from your school are satisfied and successful in later life. You can show this information on an individual basis and a statistical basis.

For individual stories, you’ll obviously need to focus on your past students. Promotional mediums that work great here include:

  • Videos: Interview your past alumni and have them talk about their careers.
  • Articles: Share the news when one of your former students are featured in the media for a career landmark.
  • Blog posts: Invite alumni to share their success stories in your university publications.
  • Open house: When your campus has an event, have former students come back to meet and greet students and share their experiences.

What if you’re a newer college, trying to promote a new academic program, or are otherwise lacking in viable alumni that fit the “Fortune 500” model of success? You can still make a case through published research and statistics.

Of course, you can make this case with any advanced degree over a bachelor’s or high school diploma. But it should be easy to find statistics to show positive postgraduate job placement for just about every major career path. You can look for positives in aspects such as:

  • Time from graduation to hire: Nobody likes a long job search
  • Rate of promotion in a field: Talent should pay off
  • Average salary: Money talks
  • Stability: For some people, success means never getting laid off no matter how bad the on-going recession
  • Number of openings: When you’re in demand, you never have to worry

Whatever your course and the end career goals of that course, you should be able to find positive statistics to show that the career path is worthwhile by one measure or another. Tout those statistics in all of your marketing materials and across channels.

However, there’s still more to college than just getting a “job coupon”:


Academic Quality

A close second concern for students is receiving not just any education, but a high-quality education. Some students are more concerned about whether they’ll be able to muddle through to graduation and seek out colleges with the most support. Some students may be passionate about their field and want to learn in the most academically stimulating environment. Some students simply weigh academic quality in line with potential job prospects, reasoning that the better the program, the better the career prospects.

Some of the aspects students look for in a school’s academic quality might include:

  • Quality of instructors and materials
  • Support from tutors, mentors, community
  • Flexibility of course schedules
  • High graduation rate
  • Staff involvement and commitment

Marketing Message For Academic Quality:

The core message of this marketing niche should be “dazzle me.” You want to highlight faculty achievements, feature testimonials from students and teachers alike, and demonstrate your involved support network. Make sure the world knows when your faculty receives an award. if they publish a paper or speak at a conference, share it! Did an academic club and faculty team launch a new community initiative or resource? Share it on social! It can be as simple as live streaming lectures or presentations from renowned academic guests.

You want to see it from prospective students’ point of view: how accomplished and respected are the faculty? Are they engaged and active participants in the community? Will I have access to leaders in my field of study? Whatever your strengths, trumpet them as loud as possible.

Nearly any medium and channel can be used to promote this message:

  • Social media: show off your lectures, student community, classroom projects.
  • Video: Get your most inspiring professor to deliver a stimulating lecture and put it on YouTube.
  • Tours and open houses: Whether in-person or in virtual tours, show and tell your school’s facility and staff.
  • Website: As much as possible, your school website should be loaded with content showing off what makes your program unique and exemplary.

The next student criterion is closely related to this one:


School Reputation

A school’s reputation is naturally affected by all of the above factors. Academic quality, alumni success, retention rates, faculty support—all of this feeds into school rankings. The reputation of universities is expressed in metrics such as:

  • US News university rankings
  • News stories about the school
  • Word-of-mouth recommendations among students
  • Fame of professors and other faculty
  • Area of college emphasis

You should of course always be vigilant in improving your school’s image and managing its reputation. Be quick to jump on a crisis and address it, should one come up. Tout your school’s achievements wherever possible. Look to your feedback and student surveys for complaints students have and ways to shore up your weak points.

Marketing Message For School Reputation:

The core message of this marketing niche should be “stay positive.” There are some aspects of a college’s reputation that resist change. Older colleges will always be seen as more established. Liberal arts colleges have one sort of reputation while research universities have another sort. Private and public colleges have built-in respective expectations that people tend to confirm. These are just some examples.

However, just as people are all individuals with unique qualities, schools all have their strengths. Play to your strengths in your marketing message. Perhaps look back over your statistics and records to find something to accentuate. Do you graduate more of a certain major than any other school in your state? Does your campus celebrate diversity? Do student testimonials reflect that your professors are the most inspiring? Does your law school have the highest bar passage rate?

One extra hot spot to focus on here: the COVID-19 pandemic and the logistical fallout from it left schools scrambling to adapt. This gives you two more areas to accentuate: Your school’s measures to keep students safe and healthy, and your programs’ flexibility in remote learning. Indeed, some schools had an opportunity to raise their stats a notch by being the first to adapt and innovate around the pandemic.

Whatever you can find to tout as a positive, let that be a cornerstone of your reputation. It’s pretty self-explanatory. Now on to another area that isn’t so straightforward to market…


School Location

This is the ultimate factor you can’t change unless you can physically pick the campus up and move it somewhere. Your location can matter in several ways to students. For students who seek the closest school in proximity to their home or their intended home, pure mileage is the main criterion. If students are willing to relocate, then the location matters in ways like:

  • Urban or rural: Urban is closer to important resources, rural means cheaper living and some quiet study time
  • Cost of living: A university isn’t much good if you can’t afford to live anywhere near the place
  • Local activities: Off-campus life should provide some recreation
  • Local culture: We all need to feel like we can fit into a place
  • Proximity to points of interest: Sometimes the best asset a campus can have is a nearby airport

Keep in mind that school location is lower on the list of concerns. A student who is determined to get the best degree possible for the dollar doesn’t care if your school is on the moon. But location plays some consideration after the other criterion are crossed off the list.

Marketing Message For School Location:

The core message of this marketing niche should be “you are here.” No matter where your facility is, you should first help students find it, understand its proximity, and what it costs to live there. After that, you can share information that highlights your regional features.

Cost of living is often a big concern for the stereotypical broke college student. Give them as much practical information as possible.

  • Dormitory and live-in facilities: If you provide these
  • Local rents: The average studio apartment or most economical living
  • Price indicators: Gas prices, cost of a cup of coffee, tax rates
  • Median local income: Both an economic indicator and a social class indicator

The rest of your marketing message should focus on regional promotion. This is the part where you take a lesson from your local tourism bureau. So, what is it about your location that makes it attractive to students? You can always find something positive to say here. Recreational activities should revolve around the minimal student budget:

  • Beaches: Fun in the sun, admission-free
  • Parks and natural features: Hiking, biking, and backpacking, also free
  • Urban features: Museums, amusements, nightclubs, cafes, theaters, and stadiums
  • Shopping and dining: For those with the money to spend, a place to spend it
  • Industry: Local corporate headquarters and businesses make it easier to intern and network
  • Local culture: At the least, most universities have a nearby bohemian shopping district with some art studios and antique shops. Share what makes your community unique.

To influence your prospective students’ decisions, you should include all this information in your website, brochures, and other promotional media. Make liberal use of photos and a bit of “travel writing.” List your proximity to every conceivable point of interest, possibly including local highway or bike trail travel routes.

Not only will this persuade students that they can build an exciting life at your campus, but it’ll also help you with local searches. Creating content, like web pages and blog articles, about your region will help you rank for location-based search queries like “colleges near national parks.”



This is the most self-explanatory factor. The criterion that matters here is just your tuition fees, meal plans, on-campus housing costs, costs of textbooks and other charges, and the availability of financial aid.

Marketing Message For Cost:

The core message of this marketing niche should be “accessibility.” Don’t try to hide your costs. Students need this information to make their decision. Make it easy to find in brochures and on your website. Prospective students should be able to clearly understand the full cost (no “hidden fees”) and the total budget needed. Next, make your financial aid information just as easily accessible and include contact points for your student funding resources. If you offer scholarships or grants, make sure students can find them.

You can also bring up some factors from the previous section. If your local cost of living is rock bottom or you offer amazing campus facilities, bring this up in the financial section too. Any perk you can offer—free parking, student pass transportation, on-campus laundry—is worth pitching in here, because every penny saved decreases the overall financial impact of attending.


Campus Culture

Just as your location matters for the full student experience, your school’s quality of student life is a selling point as well. Students care about campus culture in many ways:

  • Social opportunities: Nobody wants to be the lone wolf
  • Diversity: Everybody wants to fit in, even if it’s a cultural melting pot
  • University Resources: Anything from a theater to sports to a library
  • Recreation: You have to have fun sometime

Campus culture is an underrated selling point. We go to school for the education and opportunities, but decades later, we remember the fun times and friends we enjoyed along the way.

Marketing Message For Campus Culture:

The core message of this marketing niche should be “embrace me.” Students want to feel good to be at your campus and to feel like part of a community. Throughout your marketing channels, you can use visual and video media to convey your message, accentuating your day-to-day campus life.

This is where you bring out your school’s “fun factor.” Show off your community and accentuate student-generated content whenever you catch them in high spirits. Bring out student ambassadors to act as cultural guides, getting students involved with activities. Do what you can to provide recreational spaces and facilities, which can be anything from a tennis court to a cozy study lounge. Sponsor special activities, be it “social media challenges” that facilitate wacky photos, scavenger hunts, game tournaments, anything that gets the kids to blow off some steam.



The marketing mantra is “find a need and fulfill it.” When you understand what your students are looking for, you can tailor your marketing message to address their interests. This helps you create useful content that answers student questions and helps you appeal to the student on the level of being “in touch” with what they need.



How to Increase Word-of-Mouth Recommendations For Your School

Today’s college-age students, by a growing proportion every year, are from Generation Z, and we’re gradually learning quite a bit about them. In some ways, this generation runs along an axis of values and trends set before them by previous generations, while in other ways, they take off in their own direction.

Not only is Generation Z the most native to digital technology yet, but they are the social media generation, which has fundamentally changed their concept of authority, expertise, and opinion. Going by think tank studies, Generation Z is more likely to turn to peer review for information on business transactions.

  • 41% of them follow brands on Instagram
  • 99% are more likely to rely on word of mouth and online reviews when choosing a restaurant
  • 68% read three or more reviews before making a first-time purchase
  • 30% have made a word-of-mouth recommendation

In addition, we have the rise of influencer marketing, which is basically marketing by a social media spokesperson. The same way celebrities might have sold products over broadcast media to previous generations, so do influencers sell products over social media to Generation Z. It’s a brave new world of marketing – and it hinges on word-of-mouth!

Since deciding on which college to attend is the kind of decision that calls for serious research, this means that your school’s word-of-mouth reputation is out there now. Can you direct this conversation?

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How Students Evaluate Schools

School choice is a significant life decision, with some risk involved because the rest of your life will be determined by the career paths you take, starting with your completed education. When students are making this decision, they have several important criteria to consider:

  • Career prospects
  • Academic quality
  • School reputation
  • Geographic location
  • Cost of attendance
  • School culture

Of course, since Generation Z was practically born with a phone in their hand, they turn to digital means for research. As we linked back in that Pew Research study, the majority of Generation Z reports being online “all the time.” Where do these students go to research your school?

Typically the online research path goes like this:

  • Google
  • School website
  • School blogs and social media
  • Discussion forums about schools
  • Rankings and reviews about schools
  • Friends, family, teachers, and peers (through Facebook)

The pattern resembles a decision process born of a lack of faith in institutions, but a strong faith in the power of community. The reasoning for not trusting “expert” opinions is, why trust a source with a financial motivation to bias their opinion? Thus, they eschew commercials and ads and consider the opinion of the university itself second-hand. But by weighing the opinion of neutral peers, they hope to screen out errors and arrive at the most correct answer.

This process is actually the old made new again. It’s consensus decision making, such as the Quaker-based model. At its heart is a belief in democratic values and a deep-rooted sense of fairness. And the Generation Z decision process, by consensus of peers, is designed to prevent manipulation of the outcome by entities that have a stake in it—except for the student, of course.

Yet word-of-mouth is not entirely out of your control…


Create Exemplary Experiences to Get More Word-of-Mouth Recommendations

This part should go without saying. A student who has not had a satisfactory experience with your institution won’t make a good recommendation for it. Naturally, you should do everything you can to listen to student concerns, address the complaints or issues they may have, and constantly strive to improve your school’s service.

But beyond this common-sense approach, there are more subtle forces at play that can guide you to a favorable outcome. Start by asking “Why don’t these students trust experts?” It’s because they are perceived as not caring about the student’s welfare over their profit motive. You can change that impression through the magic of empathy and sincerity— the rare qualities these students are actually seeking.


Improve Your Communications

Throughout your school’s staff and faculty, and through your marketing message, you should adopt empathic practices. Understand the student’s concerns and challenges. Utilize your staff to act as mentors, tutors, and student liaisons, keeping more communication channels open more of the time.

Some guidelines for empathic communication:

  • Transparency: It is fine to say that you have a profit motive, that your school policy is set a certain way, or even to tell the student that you have no easy solution to their problem. But make sure they understand the “why.”
  • Listen to the concerns of students: You get points just for being a set of ears. Even listening shows that you care.
  • Be as helpful as possible: Provide every solution you can. If you don’t have a solution, bring it to the students by using the same consensus decision process – how would they solve the problem?
  • Embrace technology: Stay in the social media trenches, communicate through the same channels they do.
  • Use automation, chatbots, and SMS alerts: It may seem counterintuitive to say “be empathic” and then “use a bot,” but if a problem is trivial enough that a bot can answer it, that frees a responsible adult to listen to a problem the bot can’t solve.

This is the beginning of entering the new realm of Generation Z’s values. You might start to notice that the deck wasn’t stacked against your marketing efforts as much as you might have first thought. If you can just impress students that you care about them as people, that goes a long way.


Embrace Their Social Media

It is mind-boggling how much we all use social media nowadays. In the age bracket of 18-29, 88% are on social media, spending time on their platform of choice daily. The remarkable thing is that no medium previously has been so engrossing for its users. Even the most dedicated couch potato turns off the TV sometimes. Now? We have people going to sleep with the phone on their chest.

So we have to engage students on social media, using the same popular platforms they do, and then we have to participate in their conversations. While we are there, even if we don’t count as “a peer,” we can amplify good word of mouth from their actual peers.

  • Feature the achievements of students at your school
  • Celebrate your school victories
  • Reshare student content—especially when they praise your school
  • Run interactive events
  • Host small contests
  • Solicit student-generated content

Here is a new university marketing buzzword for the year: the “student takeover.” It’s where the students get to drive your school’s social media channel for a whole day. This is done with some preparation beforehand and the knowledge that the students are doing so as a representative of your school. You can set the tone, giving this a fun “anarchy” theme, or serving as a consequence-free day for the students to communicate in their own words.

Student takeovers are a fun idea, one that could only be born in the Generation Z climate of egalitarian social media. Here again, we are meeting them on their ground. Boy, it sure is great that your school isn’t bothering students with all that stuffy “marketing,” isn’t it?


Solicit Reviews and Testimonials

The law of averages is on your side the more reviews you solicit. That’s because the average person, students included, is a generally nice person who doesn’t like to say mean things. The more reviews you solicit, the better your average, and the more you can tout the good reviews.

Remember that people also like to blow off steam, so if you never solicit reviews or any other kind of feedback, a frustrated student is going to vent anyway—by complaining in a long Snapchat or Instagram Story rant. Rather than have them broadcast a toxic opinion to the world, providing them with a direct line to you defuses that problem before it starts. A few sour apples might still gripe on social media anyway, but Generation Z also understands that there’s no pleasing some people.

While you’re farming these great reviews, keep an eye out for student ambassador material. High academic performers are great candidates since they’re showing full engagement with the school experience already. Turn your student ambassadors over into your school’s own “influencers.”

Don’t forget alumni!

Your former students can be social media ambassadors too. Their word-of-mouth is the most valuable of all to new students making a decision. Your alumni already graduated and are now (hopefully) living out a successful career. Nurture a relationship with them and keep them in touch with university goings-on.

Just as with anybody else, your university alumni will appreciate some empathy too. So don’t write them just to hit them up for a donation. Send them personalized communications they’ll be interested in, like news related to their field of study or perhaps updates from their athletic department. Once you have engaged alumni, invite them to speak at school events, invite them as guests to open houses, and see if they can do a little community outreach.


Conclusions – Mind Over Mouth!

Like many developments over new forms of media, word-of-mouth turns out not to be such a new thing after all. It’s based on very old, even prehistoric tribal, ideals. At the same time, it has points where savvy marketing can infiltrate it just like any other media paradigm.

As always, marketing is at least 50% psychology. Treat this article as your little safari guide into the jungles of social media to observe the Generation Z student in their natural habitat. Learn to think like they do, speak their language, communicate through their channels, and they’ll be putty in your hands!


Marketing Strategies to Increase MBA Enrollment

[feat-text]Summary: The market for MBAs is stronger than ever. Learn how your school can capitalize on this new interest and develop a digital marketing strategy that encourages MBA enrollment.[/feat-text]

The Master of Business Administration (MBA) is one of the oldest business degrees standing, with origins that date back to the early 20th century in the United States during the industrialization boom. Since then, it’s been a staple of the business world, the signature degree of a go-getter who is out to make their mark in the business world. Yet not so long ago, it seemed the business world had a glut of MBAs that temporarily made it a less popular degree.

But there’s big news now: the MBA is back! Modern business pundits cite the COVID-19 pandemic as one factor. The resulting unsteady economy has influenced some students to head for a more resilient degree. There might have also been a generational shift in attitudes towards MBA graduates and the business climate in general. The stats are up across the board for MBA applicants, with 67% of MBA programs reporting growing activity and 2 out of 3 MBA programs reporting application increases.

Your school can join this groundswell on the crest of the wave, just by some well-positioned content and savvy communication strategies. Let’s see what it takes to court the modern MBA candidate.

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Demonstrate That Your MBA is Worth the Investment

While an MBA is not the most committed degree, it still takes forty to sixty credits (leaning towards sixty) to complete, which is still more than some other master’s degrees in a more specialized field, such as accounting, finance, or management. An MBA is a degree you seek when you want to “do it all,” but it’s also one of the most employable degrees.

This infographic at BusinessStudent.com is the kind of quick-reference data that you can put in front of potential students. It shows statistics such as:

  • Over 90% of MBA grads land a job within 3 months of graduating
  • You can even work at a non-profit and still make $82K/year as an MBA
  • Consultants with an MBA can make $126K/year on average

This is an easy selling point because MBAs have outstanding career success statistics. All you have to do is round them up and present them to potential students.

Meanwhile, at MBA Central, we’re presented with a pithier infographic:

This graphic tells a story that we see echoed year after year in business news headlines. The world is full of idealistic dreamers who want to be the next Elon Musk. The tragic truth is that some of our best creative minds and spirited visionaries never get those dreams off the ground for one simple reason: they’re terrible at business. For every Thomas Edison, there’s a Nikola Tesla who was less famous because he couldn’t step out of the laboratory to attend to the business end of things, even though he had twice the STEM inspiration.

Higher education can sell an MBA degree as an “enabler,” the industrial knowledge that lets entrepreneurs realize their dreams. It is simply a path to putting the mechanics of business to work for you.


Attract MBA Candidates with Content Marketing

We’re all familiar with the concept of the sales funnel but the education industry should be thinking in terms of the “enrollment funnel.” The difference is that the student candidate is looking for a degree as a means to another end, not an end in itself. Ultimately, they want to know if the school will help them achieve their goals and be successful.

When they first begin to consider business school, they have vague ideas of what an MBA can give them. If you want to nudge them through the enrollment funnel, they need tangible facts and outcomes. As they learn more and decide it’s a path they want to pursue, then they start to compare programs and what they can give them.

Business school candidates have specific questions at each stage of the funnel that you must answer. Questions like:

  • I’ve heard about MBA degrees, but is that right for me?
  • Will an MBA help me make more money? Land my dream job?
  • What’s the ROI of an MBA?
  • What does an MBA take in terms of fees and time commitment?
  • Which college offers me the best MBA program for my budget and time?
  • How do the different MBA programs at these colleges compare?
  • What GMAT scores do I need?
  • How do I write a winning admission essay?

When students have questions, they turn to Google for answers. If your school has a content marketing strategy with a solid SEO foundation, those answers will come from you in Google’s search engine results page (SERP). Ideally, your content should answer each of their questions at every stage of the decision process.

Google’s FAQ search feature is a helpful tool to learn what questions prospective candidates are asking. Below, we have a few snippets we reaped from a SERP to illuminate some common queries:

To answer this query, create content that compares the earnings for MBA grads as opposed to other degrees. In today’s economic environment, especially with the recent turmoils from factors like the COVID-19 pandemic, students value economic security. “Money talks,” as the proverb goes, and you need to show candidates what they can expect from an MBA in a statistically provable way.

This question plagues most MBA candidates and the advice they receive often comes from both camps. A visit to the Reddit MBA community shows that people have strong feelings about business school rankings. While the benefits of attending a top-tier business school can’t be denied, that doesn’t mean that they’re the best choice for everyone.

If your school isn’t one of those elite few, don’t despair. There are other ways to distinguish your program. Many candidates are more concerned about the overall costs of obtaining an MBA and the expected return on investment (ROI). Others are looking for flexible schedules or internships. Many are just looking to check a box to land that promotion.

Identify what your school does well, what unique value you offer to candidates, and the type of people most interested in that value. With that information, you can develop content that speaks directly to the type of people most likely to choose a lower-ranked business school.

This one is sort of slanted opinion-wise, but does drop an important phrase in the answer: “fast wealth.” You can take your own philosophical approach to whether or not it’s “prestigious.” We might say that nobody’s degree makes them “prestigious,” it’s what they do with it that counts. Viewing it the other way, some of the most respected names in the world have an MBA behind them.

Alumni Success Stories: Your Most Important Content

We’ve mentioned before that young people have more trust for information when it comes from a peer. In the case of a student making decision points along that education funnel, alumni testimonials will speak much louder than a faceless batch of statistics. Your content marketing program should turn to alumni first for success stories.

It would also be advantageous to have an editor or two on hand to make sure the alumni’s message comes through loud and clear. Use effective story-telling, using the template of “this was my dream, and this is how an MBA helped me achieve it.” The strength of an MBA is its flexibility. Some degrees pigeonhole you in one industry; MBAs go on to every field and pursuit. It’s important to emphasize this.

Beyond blog posts, your school can use other types of content to amplify your student’s successes. A video testimonial is a great way to showcase an alumni’s new business venture or a recent award. They get exposure and promotion, and you take credit for getting them there. Videos can be distributed using a variety of channels like social media, your website, or email. Video testimonials are great to incorporate into digital advertisements and can be targeted to reach your ideal candidate.

Another idea is to bring alumni into campus tours, presentations, round tables, and open house events (be they live or virtual, depending on how long pandemics shape our practices). This gives prospective candidates the chance to get answers to all their questions, straight from the source they trust most.


Amplify Your Student’s Successes with Social Media

We find that in general, the education industry uses social media in some capacity, even if it’s just an Instagram for the sports team or a YouTube channel for their STEM program. But business schools, you guys have to get in there. Don’t let the hippies from OccupyWallStreet tell the whole story. Every time one of your former MBA graduates has a career step worth pinning on their LinkedIn profile, you have to tweet congratulations.

This is just the same marketing idea you would use for any business, really. Higher ed’s “product” is success, career opportunities, and advantages in realizing visions. The point with alumni success stories is that you put a human face on those statistics, showing happy people who are where they want to be in life right now. Note, also, that these group photos show a diverse lot—every time you can give someone their role model, you’re showing them “here’s somebody just like you who made it big.”

As we mentioned earlier, video is essential for social media. On your school or program’s page, consider sharing alumni video testimonials or hosting Q&As with faculty. Popular platforms like Facebook and Instagram make it easy to host live events that anyone with a mobile phone can watch.


Nurture and Engage with Email Marketing

Whenever a prospective student signs up for a campus tour, downloads a program brochure, or reaches out to your school in any way, they become a lead. The marketing playbook for handling leads prescribes that we obtain their email and use that as a future channel to encourage the lead along the path to enrollment.

Nobody decides to attend college in a day. By being a presence in their inbox, you can help keep your name in mind and at the top of the list for consideration. Send consistent emails showcasing everything your school has to offer. Spike this email schedule with occasional invitations, such as (real-time or virtual) campus tours, open houses, and enrollment fairs.

You can take your email marketing program to the next level by implementing marketing automation software like HubSpot, Marketo, or Salesforce Marketing Cloud. These integrated software tools can track prospective student activity and use lead scoring to identify top candidates. Once you identify the most engaged prospects, you can send them personalized content to help persuade them to consider your school. If they’re on the fence, an offer for a one-to-one career consultation or an invitation to chat with program advisors can go a long way.

Email doesn’t stop once they’ve applied to your school. Create automated nurture campaigns that tell them what they should expect next or remind them of additional deadlines. Continue to send them student success stories and highlight your MBA program’s achievements. Many applicants are considering several schools and you want to keep them engaged and eager to join your ranks.


Compete with the MBA Market

As we mentioned at the beginning, student interest in MBA programs is on the rise. MBAs remain incredibly employable, with the added benefits of networking potential. As The Guardian notes, companies see an MBA grad as the cream of the crop of candidates, “an incredibly smart group of people.” However, just because a student is interested in pursuing a business master’s degree doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to pursue it through your school.

What can you do to attract MBA candidates if you’re not a top-ranked school? There are a few ways you can compete:

  • Offer more flexibility in the schedule: A part-time MBA takes three years, which is still a far shorter time than many other programs. For students balancing family and work needs, you can afford to stretch the schedule out a little farther.
  • Specialize programs for target industries: Here we just said how flexible an MBA is, and then there are tech-focused MBA programs. That’s a good specialty, and there are a few more industries that would benefit from specialized MBAs.
  • Waive some requirements for your program: Waiving GMAT and GRE requirements? It’s already happening at the U of Michigan, MIT Sloan, and the U of Virginia. The reason given is, you guessed it, COVID-19 hardship.
  • Add in some real-world business experience: Corporate-business partnerships let your program bring real-world business problems into the classroom to be solved by fresh-minded students. This has worked in the past and led to ongoing curriculum changes.

Once you determine how you can differentiate your program and develop a strong value proposition, you must then engrain that message in all of your marketing endeavors.

Back there, we also pointed out that your alumni success stories and past students’ career statistics can give you something to brag about. “The proof is in the pudding,” the saying goes. At the end of the day, students may not care as much about the prestige of an Ivy League degree, as they do about having those precious three letters after their name.


How to Build A College Thought Leadership Marketing Strategy

What is a thought leader? When you see this phrase, you likely think of the kind of person who delivers a keynote speech at a conference or an expert cited in a reputable publication. A thought leader is recognized as an expert authority in a specialized field. We can see thought leaders in action whenever we turn on the news or pick up a paper. They bring out Neil deGrasse Tyson to offer his thoughts on astrophysics whenever we launch a rocket or find a new comet.

Next question: do you think your school’s president can fill the role of a respected thought leader? Well, you should!

The leadership team at most universities is well-suited to assume a thought leadership role, even if they’re nervous to do it. Higher education institutions, by their job description, are at the forefront of public thought and matters of collective social intellect. Positioning a college president in the role of a thought leader can help enhance your school’s reputation and distinguish it from competing schools. It’s a growing marketing strategy that more schools are employing.

In this article, I’ll explore the benefits that thought leadership brings and outline a plan for you to build your leadership team’s reputation.


Why Should a University Care About Thought Leadership?

Scandals aside, there’s no such thing as having too much exposure. Higher education is a competitive industry, and if you want to persuade those candidates lingering on the fence, you need to get your brand featured as often as you can. Getting your college mentioned in a news source boosts brand awareness every time. By developing thought leadership content, a college can distinguish itself from its competitors, attracting new student interest while at the same time strengthening its reputation with alumni and faculty.

The marketing objectives of a university are broad. Beyond trying to attract student candidates, you’re also trying to appeal to prospective donors to help meet fundraising goals. Donors want to align their name with the school that has the best reputation or one that is making a difference in the world. Publishing thought leadership content helps show them that your school is worthy of their donation.

Thought leadership has an important marketing function besides attracting prospective students and donors. By becoming a news source worth citing, an article featuring your college president’s informed opinions attracts valuable backlinks that boost your organic search rankings. If you want to appear at the top of Google, you need to build a strong backlink portfolio, and publishing thought leadership content is one of the best ways to build links.


Challenges and Opportunities Calling for Thought Leadership

While we may be tired of hearing about the COVID-19 pandemic, the discussion will continue as it has hit the education industry in a deeply wounding way. It has changed a lot about how higher ed markets itself and operates. On top of that, the higher ed industry was already facing challenges with declining enrollment due to demographic changes, a rocky economy, and a national sociological climate that questions education more each day. Higher ed has to fight back against all of that by marketing its brand, and developing thought leadership content is an effective way to do that.

We were just about to mention how much of a problem public ignorance is when no less than Barrack Obama just said it for us. The former president (talk about a thought leader!) has spoken out in concern to say that the spread of conspiracy theories is the single biggest threat to democracy. Should a university care about democracy? Well, we’d ask the two universities in North Korea, but they seem to have trouble speaking freely to the outside world these days.

Universities in the past have taken a passive role in the media, resting on the notion that the validity of an education to the quality of life went without saying. That assumption doesn’t seem to be a given anymore. There is certainly a call for somebody to step forward and speak out against the tide of misinformation affecting our media climate. Why not a college president?

Here’s a few modern topics where an education expert’s opinion could land a few blows to combat ignorance:

  • COVID-19 denial: The sooner we convince people to take the pandemic seriously and trust the vaccines, the sooner it ends and we can get back to normal school functions. If you have a medical studies program, this is an opportunity to share their findings.
  • Fake news: Education isn’t just about sharing knowledge; it’s about teaching people how to think for themselves, by giving them the tools of skeptical thinking and fact-checking. This is an opportunity to tout courses in logic and debate. Media literacy is something that needs to be encouraged and taught.
  • Tolerance and civil rights vs. hatred and bigotry: Campuses have long been at the forefront of providing equal opportunity to all, by the necessity of their marketing. Every campus has a story to share here.
  • Student mental health: The pandemic has had a crushing impact on student well-being, even among those who are otherwise functioning within the education system. Sharing all you can do to assist with this crisis makes you a valuable resource even in the academic community.
  • Education infrastructure: This is the fall-back topic. We have many on-going concerns about adapting to remote learning, tuition and student loans, and adapting the education industry to better serve the next generation of students.

We may cringe at the notion of a college president acting like a social media influencer. But that’s becoming our reality anyway. If you don’t speak up in today’s media climate, you don’t exist in the public’s attention. Every day, somebody is going to get up on that soapbox and rant anyway. We might as well have it be somebody who actually knows something.

The important thing to do is to focus on the issues and ideas first. Otherwise, it’s just a plug for your campus. Tackle a current subject, and have something solid to say about it that’s backed by research and experience. The examples we outlined above are just some low-hanging fruit.


Steps to College President Thought Leadership

There’s a system to thought leadership, just like any kind of content marketing. “Content marketing” has, at its heart, the goal of boosting a brand’s reputation by providing insightful information to the community and potential clients. Follow this formula and you’ll have the press eating out of your hand before you know it:

  • Study other higher ed leaders who have made an impact: We will provide resources for this further down
  • Form a writer’s team: Communicators who identify hot news topics and issues worth an address, which the college president and writing team can develop in tandem
  • Keep faculty in the loop: As we pointed out above, your medical school faculty no doubt has things to say about COVID-19 right now
  • Consider co-authors: Partner with the president of a nearby community college, or have a professor assist with the message delivery
  • Stay alert: Keep on top of the news, look for continuing opportunities to lead the conversation on controversial issues
  • Be consistent: Don’t think you’ll see success after one article; keep at it and you’ll build your name in time
  • Don’t be afraid to have a strong opinion: The kinds of people you will alienate by saying “science matters” are the kinds of people who likely aren’t interested in higher education

Does the public care to hear what you have to say? According to Pew Research, there’s an audience waiting to hear from higher education. Science itself has become a partisan issue. Speaking as a non-political authority, your college president can guide the conversation back to the realm of the rational. Most tellingly, 60% of Americans want scientists to have a more active voice in the media.

The trouble with this is that scientists, by themselves, aren’t always comfortable in public performance roles. That’s where co-authoring comes in. A college president has at least a little politician in them and some public speaking experience, while the research staff can provide the research and data. When your leadership team works with your faculty, you can create the kind of content that gets noticed and referenced.


Case Studies: Thought Leaders in Higher Ed

Here are a few examples of higher ed leadership that we see making a difference and things you can learn from them:

“Mental health should be among colleges’ most urgent priorities.” —Shirley Collado, Ithaca College, New York

The president of Ithaca College, Shirley Collado, uses her vast experience in organizational development and psychology to champion programs that improve student access, expand diversity and inclusion initiatives, and enhance the residential experience for students. She’s also been a demographic ground-breaker in several ways: she’s the first Dominican American to hold a college president’s office in the US and the first person of color and the second woman to hold her post.

Ironically, her call for the importance of mental health on campus came even before the global pandemic, which has only magnified the problem.

Collado has been published in the Chronicle of Higher Education to talk about her campaign to build a diverse leadership team, among other pieces. She stays active both at her LinkedIn profile and her Instagram, showcasing many progressive causes she’s tackled. She’s accomplished much more than we have room to cover here. These publications have not only made a name for her and Ithaca College, but they’ve also helped generate positive exposure and backlinks for SEO.

Take-aways for Shirley Collado:

  • Be not just a thought leader, but an activist
  • Have an open communication policy with students
  • Be a pioneer, and let the world know it

“What I learned from an academic redesign…” —Lori Varlotta, Hiram College, Ohio

Lori Varlotta discusses her project to strengthen the financial footing of Hiram College beginning in 2017. She relates how she restructured the liberal arts college’s academic programs, evaluating what to grow, what to shrink, and what needs cutting. In our present-day with a pandemic triggering a new economic downturn, there would be even more interest in cost-saving measures in academic programs. In a fully detailed report, she covers the data-driven change process in clear steps that took into account common first-year, core, and major courses, graduation paths, and career outcomes, and then her mission of trimming the academic fat away from Hiram’s curriculum.

Varlotta has recently transitioned to California Lutheran University’s president as of 2020, which announcement also documents some more of her accomplishments, such as “sparking nationally recognized initiatives in high-impact, integrative learning, and mindful technology,” and the record-breaking fundraising campaigns she led throughout the second half of the 2010s. She’s published numerous insightful articles on her leadership innovations.


Take-aways for Lori Varlotta:

  • Be the Steve Jobs of college leadership (we make it sound so easy)
  • Don’t just share your successes, but document them in a transparent project report that any other leader could follow
  • Build funding upon your thought leadership

“How colleges can improve students’ social mobility…” —John Broderick, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia

John Broderick points out the big picture of how increasing opportunities for the underprivileged creates a more robust society in the long term. This is why he made social mobility (serving low-income, first-generation students) a focus at Old Dominican University, leading a Social Mobility Webinar series. He has also launched a Business Gateway program to serve as a business-friendly access point for the university’s intellectual capital.

ODU’s office of the president page details more of Broderick’s accomplishments, encompassing innovative initiatives in establishing a climate change study center, transferring 2.8K courses online during the Coronavirus outbreak, and constructing a Student Success Center and Learning Commons. Under his guidance, the school has seen record graduations. He has a rich blog with an archive going back ten years.

Take-aways for John Broderick:

  • Have a vision for a better future
  • Roll up your sleeves and implement it
  • Meet every challenge head-on


Any College President Can be a Thought Leader!

While it’s easy to arise to legendary status when greatness is thrust upon you, not every higher education institution is in a position to make the kind of broad strides that get you in the evening headlines. But as we outlined above, there’s plenty of problems in the world that need discussing and solving. By nature of the career, a college president would have to have some idealist in them. All you have to do is pick an issue to address, and detail some plan of how to solve the issue.

You may feel intimidated stepping into a thought leadership role, but you shouldn’t be. There are experts and thought leaders amongst your ranks. Once you decide to build a thought leadership program at your school, the next step is to bring together your team and listen to their insights. They’ll help you determine what content you can create and how to position your leadership team.

What matters is that the academic community hears your leadership loud and clear and that the crop of student candidates is attracted to your school because it’s a place where important things are happening. Nothing is more exciting to a young person than strong leadership with a vision!


Marketing Mental Health Awareness in Higher Education

[feat-text]The stresses of the global pandemic have exacerbated mental health issues among college students. Universities should make mental health awareness part of their marketing and communication strategy and help students access the support they’re desperately seeking.[/feat-text]

Today’s generation (higher education’s target market) seems to be more aware of mental health than ever before. If you want a good barometer for the cultural mood, look no further than online memes.

You will note that younger folks have an outstanding proclivity for dark humor and a willingness to discuss mental health. This has led some to conclude that the younger generation is more sensitive. But in truth, younger generations are simply more aware of mental health issues than previous generations and are willing to talk about it.

In other words, we had just as many people struggling with their mental health decades ago as we have now, but it was stigmatized then and swept under the rug. The alternative was to be sent off to the “funny farm” for some electric shocks or dose up on patent medicine full of heroin and cocaine. If those were your choices, wouldn’t you keep your psychological symptoms secret, too?

We’re more open about our mental health now, with far less stigma attached. Even our celebrities aren’t afraid to own their psychological issues, which inspires our younger generations to both face their mental health struggles head-on and to have confidence that they can still lead a happy life.

We had an increasing trend in young adult mental health awareness already. And then along came the pandemic

Yeah, we’re all so sick of hearing about it. The COVID-19 pandemic is almost the perfect storm of aggravating mental health already since it cuts us off socially and isolates us. We can’t even get out to a movie theater or experience normal restaurant dining to blow off steam. Issues like Seasonal Affective Disorder are now starting to combine with COVID-19 for a double whammy.

Of course, the pandemic has thrown a monkey wrench into the educational industry, which is still scrambling to cope. This has added to the load on young adults with ambitions of a degree. Normally, we typically look back on university campus life as being at least fun, even the proverbial “best years” for some. COVID-19 snuffed out the fun part fast.

What does this mean for higher education marketing? Traditionally, higher education has focused on a shortlist of value propositions for its marketing message: quality education, flexible financing, secure living arrangements, vibrant campus culture, etc. How strange does it sound to focus instead on mental health support? “Come to our campus because we do our best to ensure that you won’t crack up, and if you do, doctors are standing by! (no electroconvulsive treatment, we promise)”

Well, we might have to start thinking that way…


Student Mental Health: An Invisible Pandemic Crisis

The second-leading cause of death among college students is suicide. Some 12% of college students report at least having suicidal thoughts during their educational career. Primary risk factors include “a sense of isolation and lack of support,” depression, substance abuse, and traumatic life events.

We can see where the pandemic can aggravate those risk factors, and indeed, Inside Higher Ed reports that this is exactly the case. The more recent report from the CDC cited by that article shows that 25% of 18- to 24-year-olds had “seriously considered suicide” in the last 30 days. Concurrently, the Student Experience in the Research University finds students screening positive for depression and anxiety at higher rates. At the same time, student surveys show that students are having a difficult time accessing mental health care.

Impacts on mental health specific to the pandemic include:

  • More financial stress due to the economic crisis we have going along with the pandemic
  • Fear for one’s safety
  • Relatives and loved ones falling ill or passing away—with US deaths approaching 300K, this fear is growing
  • Uncertainty as to when the pandemic will end or what we, as a society, are going to do about the aftermath
  • Lack of access to supportive staff or resources

Students are saying that they simply do not know where to turn for help. In a pandemic, medical treatment is focused on those directly infected, which is currently overwhelming the healthcare industry. This might contribute to mental health being pushed to the end of the line.

Beyond the obvious crisis of suicide, student mental health impacts the bottom line of universities as well:

  • Lower GPAs due to impacted concentration
  • Higher drop-out rate
  • Lower enrollment
  • Security issues from potential incidents brought about by higher stress levels
  • Lack of appeal of campus activities

Notwithstanding the students, we can think of a few university faculty and administration members who have plenty of reasons to be in a pretty blue mood lately, too. Everybody is barely holding it together right now. But students struggle with a heavier load and often less experience coping with major life challenges so their mental health needs to be a top priority.

On a side note, we all know that universities, by the very structure of higher education, tend to harbor the more brainy among us. Your average university graduate does better on a standard IQ test than the mean population. Well, there’s a dark lining to that cloud, because it turns out that the smarter students are more prone to mental health disorders than the mean population too. The highly intelligent are at an increased risk of 80% for ADHD, 80% for anxiety, and almost overwhelmingly prone to a mood disorder.

We aren’t even equipped to guess why—something about the brighter you are the more sensitive you might be—but it’s another clue as to why universities might have a particular struggle to preserve the mental health of their student body.


Making Mental Health a Part of Your University Marketing Message

The best answer to the student’s mental health crisis, as is the answer to so many other student problems, is “support, support, and more support.” Unfortunately, this answer is not so simple, with schools also having a staffing pinch and financial strain thanks to the same pandemic. Let’s see what we can meet half-way:

Action item: Let students know where help is available.

Even if your institution doesn’t have in-house services, there are likely to be several local non-profit or charity-funded organizations in your community. There are several on the nation-wide scale as well. The AHCA provides a list of these services. Your school can create a lifeline of sorts simply by having one representative at the school direct students to these external services.

Beyond that, a school counselor or two should not be outside the scope of even the most modest college budget. Perhaps even a therapist if you can swing it. This is also an area where a robust student ambassador program can come in handy. They can check in on students and spread the word about available services.

Action item: Base a brand awareness campaign around resources for help.

You can make the introduction of mental health and counseling facilities part of your campus open house (even the virtual kind) and student orientation. You can make “mental health awareness week” one of your school programs. This can be directed towards an educational campaign about recognizing symptoms and where to find help, or a social awareness campaign to reduce stigma about mental health problems.

As with any awareness initiative, you get the side benefit of raising your brand awareness. Any community service message or resources you can put out to your community is just one more act of goodwill you can proudly affix to your school brand.

Action item: Add “neurodiversity” to your school vocabulary.

Neurodiversity” is an acceptance movement centered on those individuals born with different shapes of mind. For conditions like ADHD, autism spectrum, and other variations in human brain wiring, it is an acknowledgment that these people are not “mentally ill” or “disabled,” but rather have different special needs that the rest of us can work to accommodate.

Your school can look into special facilities and accommodations for neurodiverse students and add them to your campus amenities promotional package. These features can include specialized therapists and tutors, enhanced structured scheduling, personal assistants in the form of chatbots, “chill rooms” on campus for a calming break, and so on.

Action item: Kill stress!

In the “old days” before the pandemic, campus extracurricular activities served an important function no matter how frivolous the context. They provided stress-busters, pressure release valves, venues for students to get their social needs met, and even a quick meal off the snack tray at certain functions. Whether orchestrated by the school or dreamed up by the student body, all that horsing around helps students forge relationships, destress, and have fun.

In your school’s marketing, you can dare to say the word which no one has spoken since the pandemic hit: Fun! We have a whole other article on simply bringing back campus culture. As long as we stay in the mindset of the day-to-day drudgery of “surviving the pandemic,” we’re living in doomsday where it’s no wonder people think about suicide. Now appeal to young people’s naturally rebellious spirit by changing it to “thriving during the pandemic.” Every school is “surviving,” but if your school can say it’s having fun, pandemic be damned, that’s an attraction in itself.

Action item: Promote your school’s mental health awareness and policy.

At least a page of your university website can be devoted to mental health information and your social media channels can include some awareness outreach as well. YouTube can be especially effective here; you can have videos on recognizing common symptoms, advice for seeking help, tips on de-stressing, and outreach from school faculty addressing the issue of student mental health.

Remember that a big problem students are having right now is simply not feeling understood and feeling isolated. Merely telling them “you’re right, this is stressful, we understand you” can go a long way.


Investing in Student Mental Health

The American Council on Education puts out a fantastic publication on “Investing in Student Mental Health.” The PDF is available here. It makes many good points that we won’t have room to cover in detail here, so it’s worth a skim to gain some insight into this eye-opening issue. One thing they do point out is that working to improve student mental health, as with any other health crisis, can save the school money in the long run. The PDF also includes many successes and case studies of universities that are winning the student mental health battle.

Higher education is in the mental health business to start with if you look at it one way. A more educated population is presumably a happier society, if we may be permitted to make such a politically bold assertion in these challenging times. Certainly, a better education leading to a better career tends to lead to better financial success. We know, “money doesn’t buy happiness,” but it gives you more access to the means to find happiness.

One final thought about promoting your school’s mental health support: You might consider a small revamp of some campus materials, like tours and photos. Try to accentuate the cheerful and colorful side of your school. Try to make your curriculum schedule less demanding and offer an extra break here and there. Mental health is a game of mercurial influences. That one moment of hope can save a life.

If you’re interested in marketing mental health awareness across your university but don’t know where to start, contact us! We can help you develop an integrated PPC, SEO, and social media marketing strategy that demonstrates your commitment to fostering student happiness and well-being. When your students feel supported, it’ll boost word-of-mouth recommendations and enrollment.


How Social Media and College Students Are Evolving

When marketing higher education, your target age demographic is pretty cut and dried:

For-profit schools can count on 80% of their students being under the age of 40. Public 2-year and 4-year public + private nonprofits can count on that percentage being even higher. At this time, that means the oldest Millennials are beginning the march to middle age, while Generation Z is emerging into the front and center of your potential student pool. This may make for an awkward time to be advertising to both groups because they have radically different attitudes.

In this article, we’ll focus more on Gen Z because even the youngest Millennials are starting to age out of the ideal continuing education window. Of course, let us remember the usual caveat that there are outliers of every generation and some mixing of values in those born right on the cusp between generations.

As we all know in marketing, you have to promote your message using the same medium the target audience uses. For higher ed, that pretty much means drop everything and head for social media. Here are some eye-opening stats from HubSpot:

3/4ths of them burn free time online, spending up to 10 hours online per day. 2/3rds of them report using more than one Internet-connected device at the same time. This sounds weird, but they’re probably pumping Netflix to the TV, keeping an eye on work email on their laptop, and talking to their friends on Snapchat all at once. Living the dream!

Notably missing from the late-Millennial / early-Gen-Z media diet: newspapers, magazines, radio, and cable or satellite TV. So your only chance to reach them is the little glowing rectangles they keep in front of their noses every waking hour. Naturally, the rise of smartphones has contributed to this media shift. The phone has typically become a one-stop office, social outlet, shopping portal, entertainment center, and gaming console.

We do see some schools maintaining a social media presence, but not nearly as many as we would expect. For an industry that almost exclusively targets the younger adult audience, it’s surprising how little they invest in social media. When we do see higher ed on social media, there’s about a 50/50 split between those who are using social media effectively and those who seem lost in the social media sea.

If you want to up your social media game, you need to know how social media has evolved and the current trends. So, let’s get a snapshot of the social media landscape for 2020. What’s hot, what’s not, and what do we do with it?


Evolving Trends in Social Media

Business Insider has a poll up from the summer of 2019:

This is a good starting point, but we suspect even this data has changed by the end of 2020. COVID-19 made us all even more reliant on Internet services, with more of us working from home, remote learning, and ordering goods and services online. Social distancing and stay-at-home quarantines have restricted our contacts in many ways, so there might be a couple of angles to the way the pandemic has impacted social media use.

The biggest change is that Facebook is dwindling in popularity with younger audiences. Now that most of the world is on Facebook, the youngest set is steering clear of it except for keeping a tether to their parents and older acquaintances. Facebook, to put it bluntly, just isn’t cool anymore, despite being born on the Harvard campus as a medium specifically for college students only 15 years ago. There is always a tendency for young people to steer away from media platforms that have become too popular.

However, we see that Facebook was very wise to acquire Instagram in 2012. Instagram, native home to the “social media influencer,” stays on top of the market, at least for now. Instagram differs from Facebook in having a radically image-focused interface. You can’t make an Instagram post without providing an image or video. The photographs and videos also tend to be of a higher quality with users creating highly curated and groomed profiles. People go to Instagram to find inspiration as well as show off their accomplishments and style.

YouTube is the second most popular social media platform, and indeed the world’s second most frequently used search engine. YouTube is obviously centered around video content, with no alternative media. It is the platform that has enabled the great change in video accessibility; a user’s video blog from the couch can show right next to professional studio content and even music videos and movies.

Snapchat has been another disrupting force to the social media market. According to Snapchat, 90% of 13-24-year-olds in the U.S. have used the app. It is a privacy-focused platform, featuring end-to-end encryption, password-protected sharing, and no long-term archive of past content. No matter what you say on Snapchat, it’s gone in 24 hours. The ephemeral nature of Snapchat lends itself to conversations with friends and content that you typically wouldn’t broadcast to the world.

Twitter is still the old reliable standard for small communications. Multimedia content can be posted, but the great majority of Twitter content is simple short texts and emojis. Twitter, being one of the first recognized social media platforms to gain worldwide popularity, has played a massive role in global politics, from the Arab Spring Middle Eastern protests to the communications of US presidents. It’s the primary news network of social media; breaking news often breaks there first.

TikTok is another new platform whose popularity has skyrocketed in just a few years. Users create short 60-second videos of lip-syncing, dancing, impressions, pranks, you name it. It’s immensely popular with Gen Z with more than 60 percent of users under the age of 30. Its influence is also spreading to other channels; Instagram recently launched a similar feature called Reels that is picking up usage. It’s clear that people want technology that will allow them to create unique video content.

Discord is the puzzle platform in the social media scene. It is a texting app for instant messaging, with video and voice calls. It also hosts servers and private chat rooms. It has a stripped-down, textual interface that reminds you of a terminal command line. If you’re saying “that sounds just like the old IRC,” you’ve pretty much got it. Discord is favored strongly with the STEM set, gamers, programmers, techie geeks, and almost no-one else.

Last, we have Tumblr, which is one of the oldest blogging platforms. It does qualify as a social media platform because users frequently engage each other via following feeds, and re-blogging content from each other. Tumblr, of all platforms, lends itself to activist causes and is notorious for being the soapbox of choice for niche cultures.

Round-up: Which platforms are most important to higher ed marketing?

  • Instagram: Loved by all, it seems, needs to be in your social media strategy
  • Twitter: Its convenience and ubiquity make up for its smaller user base. Great for sharing news, commenting on events, and social discourse
  • YouTube: The leader in video content, it’s where 91% of Gen Z goes to be entertained
  • TikTok: The place for creative video content, use it to feature student ambassadors, host contests, and to hop on the latest dance trends
  • Snapchat: With 71% of users under the age of 25, it’s another great platform for video content, student ambassadors, and storytelling

Secondary platforms to consider:

  • Facebook: It still has some considerable reach, even if Gen Z doesn’t engage openly on it
  • LinkedIn: Young people avoid it like the plague, but serious career-minded Millennials can also be good post-grad studies candidates
  • Reddit: It’s still the web’s #1 communal news site, attracting intellectuals and activists of every stripe
  • Stack Overflow: A popular question-and-answer forum with STEM graduate types

Now that we’ve learned the social media landscape, how do we put it to work for higher ed marketing? The American University of Washington D.C. has a great guide on this, albeit a little less up-to-date on the platforms, so we have to give them a shout-out. Beyond that, let’s explore our in-depth strategies:


Ways Your School Can Use Social Media

As we point out often, universities should consider themselves digital natives. When the Internet was first starting up, education institutions formed half of the online presence, with the government occupying the other half. Over time, universities had a constant presence on the Internet to the extent of being the primary host for open source software projects, and the World Wide Web was created with the original purpose of making it easier to publish and share scientific papers for easy peer-review.

Just keep that in mind in online interactions. Nobody should be surprised to see a university on the Internet. You were here first.

Student-Generated Content

Your current students are likely to be your most dependable source of school-branded content. In the first place, publishing content can be an assignment or showcase for various branches of study:

  • Any media or communications class
  • Most arts will do well with multimedia content
  • Science programs can share their research
  • Degree programs can broadcast their publications and presentations
  • Medical programs can share their research
  • Various surveys and reports from other fields can be posted

Giving your students their own digital corner will encourage them to share more of their academic lives. On top of that, your school can sponsor fun activities such as contests or challenges and share them on social media. This is an important part of promoting campus culture during a pandemic anyway.

Inspirational feed: West Virginia University, which is bursting with color, school spirit, humor, culture, and branding, with most of that student-generated.

Faculty and Alumni Content

One of the most important questions on a student candidate’s mind is “What is the staff like?” Wherever possible, your professors should have their own blogs. They can share interesting lessons, publish findings, and have a soapbox to discuss their academic passions. Opening comments to students lets them have another channel to interact with the professor, a more important channel of communication since the pandemic.

Alumni should be tapped for a supportive blog post or at least an article or two in a journal. They can share their success stories, career insights, advice for new students starting in their chosen major, and sound counsel about the job market.

Inspirational feeds:

  • Crash Course is the rock star of academic YouTube blogging. Everybody loves them!
  • SchoolHouseTok is a collaborative TikTok channel community of educators.
  • @realscientists is a Twitter account hosting a different scientist each week for Q&A.
  • A Law Unto Herself is a blog run by an associate professor of law.

Student Ambassadors and Influencers

We’ve talked before about using student ambassadors as part of your higher ed branding, and the importance of influencer marketing in higher ed. Well, both of these strategies become more important as your marketing efforts shift towards social media.

Social media naturally shapes itself around a structure, where different users assume different roles:

  • The lurker: Least engaged, just watches and reads
  • The critic: Engages a little, still mostly a spectator
  • The engager: Likes everyone, follows anyone, reshares everything
  • The participator: Posts some content, mostly to journal personal stories or share a funny meme
  • The marketer: Just here to promote their business, not very popular
  • The performer: Produces a steady stream of professional content, hugely popular
  • The influencer: Melds the performer and marketer aspects together with a huge following

Young people tend to listen most to influencers, as opposed to marketing that is perceived as coming from the traditional corporate channels.

Generation Z is especially attracted to social media influencers, with some 44% saying an influencer recommendation shaped their purchase decisions, and 87% following at least one influencer. The concept here is that peers and colleagues are more trustworthy than a random commercial ad. The bottom line here is that a student ambassador influencer on a video social channel is likely to be one of your most important recruitment tools.


A Higher Ed Social Media Plan

Use this for a simple template in composing a social media strategy for your school. Campaigns benefit from structure.

Listen to the market:

  • Listen to social media channels to study what students talk about, what’s important to them, who they follow, what they like, etc.
  • Use polling features to survey students
  • Host an “AMA” (ask me anything) event to collect ideas about academic priorities and issues

Create a social media strategy:

  • Define your target audience and create a persona
  • Appoint a social media team of managers and creators
  • Develop brand guidelines and ensure that all involved staff is briefed on your brand voice
  • Identify and communicate how social media supports your broader organizational goals
  • Develop campaigns for both prospective and current students

Be the voice of your school:

  • Feature student, staff, and alumni accomplishments
  • Give students a voice and encourage their participation
  • Take a stand when needed and lead crisis communications (the pandemic has demonstrated social media’s role here)

Track your campaign:

  • Review data to see what methods succeed in engaging an audience
  • Conduct periodic audits of your social media campaigns
  • Be ready to adapt your strategy because social media changes with the wind
  • Read the audience, with an objective eye for what works in general without trying to please everybody

In conclusion, social media marketing is one of the most complex marketing venues ever. Gone are the days when you could just record a commercial and broadcast it on TV, or harvest leads from a page banner ad. Social media marketing gets your hands dirty; you have to get in there shoulder to shoulder with your audience and experience it through their eyes. Treat your social media audience well, and they’ll become loyal fans and promoters.