Higher Education Marketing: Best Practices That Boost Enrollment

How much of a tight spot is the extended learning industry in? Let’s check some stats.

Now, do you want to hear the worst part of the picture? Go back and check the dates on the stories we just listed. All of them came from the Fall of 2019! Before COVID-19 hit in the United States. Needless to say, since then the picture has gotten worse. We don’t have to tell you. NYU marketing professors are going around pronouncing universities extinct. Like a triceratops in a tar pit. How anybody with a university career can get out of bed in the morning and face the news every day just boggles the imagination.

Even though more schools have started embracing the concept of “marketing” in recent years, there is still a lot of foot-dragging among the rank and file. “Marketing,” to some of the faculty’s ear, sounds like this crass, dirty thing that only other industries have to do. But there’s no choice now. Layoffs and salary cuts have begun. It’s time to market or die.

In fact, it’s a bit more Darwinian than that. It’s “adapt or die.” We will call today’s lecture “How to avoid letting the COVID-19 comet make you a dead dinosaur.”


Make a Higher-Ed Marketing Plan

Before we get started, let’s just point out that marketing is cheaper than most people think, especially for higher-education institutions. In the face of slashing budgets, it’s difficult to stand up and say “we need to add new marketing expenses.” But the cost for the kind of marketing that universities need to do is far less than if you’re, say, Nike trying to market a new shoe. You already have most of what you need on hand, it’s just a question of getting it out in front of people.

You need a strategy for University marketing, which is going to look very basic because the important part is what you don’t need to do:

  • You don’t need to sell people on the benefits of your product. The public’s consensus is that education is a good thing. You’re not marketing cigarettes here.
  • You don’t need to go international. Your natural market is mostly the local or regional area.
  • You don’t have to buy a commercial spot on TV. Your potential customers are all young people on social media. You get a total break here! Digital marketing is the cheapest marketing ever. Tweeting is free.
  • You don’t have to struggle to get your website noticed by Google. You have a .edu domain, ergo Google loves you already.
  • You don’t need to pay celebrities to endorse your product or hire a band to sing about your campus. Higher-ed marketing just isn’t sold that way.

Granted, not all of these are hard permanent rules. Universities do try their best to attract international students, but that strategy has a risk that manifested this year: US government seesawing about student visas. Currently, the threat to deport and deny is off, but since when did a court ruling slow this administration down? As for celebrity and band endorsements, we’d love to see music used in school marketing more…

Just, uh, not this music.


Higher Education Marketing Best Practices

Now, let’s get serious. These are tried-and-true, proven best practices that fit any educational institution. Treat this as your cram course:

Create Comprehensive Student Buyer Personas

Your students are your primary buyers. Even though the parents hold some or all of the purse strings and some high school staff may steer the students one way or another, the student is ultimately the decider of their educational fate. Get to know your students! This is the most important best practice your marketing team should adopt, especially now.

You may think you know your students like most universities do, but you could be mistaken. For example, the College Post has a survey where just over half of all Americans think that higher education is headed in the wrong direction. Problems they point to include affordability of education, access to higher education, skill development with a realistic view of the coming job market, and access to more applied, hands-on learning with less academic book worming.

That survey shares valuable insights, which should motivate you to innovate ahead of your competition. Half of the prospective student market is untapped because it is turned off by what most universities do. Can your institution give these unsatisfied customers what they want? If so, can you communicate that advantage over (ahem) “the competition” to your students? You have several potential angles to compete on: fees, requirements, campus culture, a more career-focused learning model, etc. To determine what matters most to your target student market, you need to conduct thorough research and develop insightful buyer personas.

They’re the foundation of any effective higher education marketing strategy, and they reveal what prospective students want, what problems they have, what decision criteria they value, and potential barriers that might prevent them from choosing your school. With that information, you can refine your value proposition and craft a message that will persuade someone to choose your school.

Traits come next, and we’ll see that they’re very important in the next step. Your traits profile should answer questions about your ideal potential student such as:

  • What careers do they aim for?
  • What are their recreational interests?
  • What size school do they prefer?
  • Where do they get their news?
  • Whose opinions do they trust?
  • What are their preferred communication channels?

Remember, buyer personas shouldn’t just consist of simple demographic data. But once you develop an intimate understanding of your desired student, you can then augment your personas with data like age range, gender distribution, home location, household income, marital status, and so on. You can find out most of this information from a census report. This data can then help you better target your campaigns on platforms like Google Ads and Facebook Ads.

Lastly, don’t neglect to create buyer personas for other people who are involved in this major academic decision. A parent or teacher of a student may run across your marketing campaign and show it to your prospective buyer. Young people sometimes express their desires to those around them without knowing where to look for the answer.

Use Buyer Personas to Identify The Best Marketing Channels

Once you have buyer persona research you can count on, and you’ve double-checked its accuracy, you can apply this knowledge to shape your message, plan your campaigns, and put it out through the correct media channels.

For the vast majority of your market, we can cut to the chase and guess that social media will be a likely target of your efforts. There’s more to it than Facebook and Twitter though. We have a complete updated social media marketing guide for 2020, which addresses social media marketing trends in depth. For a thumbnail sketch, some channels to consider are:

  • Discussion forums: Reddit, Quora, and Stack Exchange attract the intellectual, tech-savvy, and socially aware
  • Video: YouTube is the perpetual favorite here, but this can also include channels like TikTok
  • Live streaming: This extends from Twitch, attractive to the gaming set, to Facebook Live-streaming for those home-bodies keeping in touch with the folks back home
  • Podcasts: They’ve been around for nearly two decades, steadily attracting subscribers
  • Teleconferencing: Zoom is big right now, and young people are starting to gravitate to it because they figure that it’s going to be a job skill soon

Now we have something that’s starting to smell like the foundation of a marketing plan. We can get a little excited now. We know who we’re talking to, what they want, and where to go to get our message in front of them.

Do you know what’s missing? Your brand identity! Have you ever seen a commercial where you aren’t even sure what company is doing the advertising? You can’t count on the student clicking through your square little ad on Instagram to do business with you right at that moment. But if you consistently put your message and brand identity in front of them, they might remember you later when they get serious about making a school decision. Keep hammering it and they’ll be guaranteed to remember you.

Develop Strong a Brand Identity

This is where expert graphic design comes into focus. Branding is mostly visual. You might not be able to draw the Mona Lisa from memory, but a dollar says you could do a fair job tracing the logos of Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, or Walmart right now.

Marketing is also quite a bit concerned with psychology. In branding, we want a strong, definitive logo that can’t be mistaken for any other. It should be like a stop sign or a wet floor sign: instantly recognizable from a distance. We see that little yellow plastic tent and instinctively look at the floor to avoid the puddle, just like Pavlov’s dog. We do that because it’s embedded in our subconscious from our earliest memories.

What makes a wet floor sign so effective? We have seen it a lot, so we’ve had ample time to learn what it means. The design seldom varies. Always that school-bus shade of yellow, with bold black print, usually with a stick man skidding sideways with his arms flailing. The clear visual signal fires off a neuron deep in our brain. Harvard Business Review has a few more words to say about logo design.

When we see the collection of university logos above, we see differences between university branding and commercial product branding. University logos are typically non-descriptive, text-based, and heavily attached to their fonts. When opting for non-textual elements, most go with a crest or shield.

University logos have design motifs in common with logos for banks, law firms, technology companies, and political campaigns. They are all projecting an image of solidness, commitment, permanence, and stability. What they want to do with these logos is to inspire trust and confidence, a solid foundation upon which to stake one’s long-term future.

A logo is just one element of brand identity; you also have to consider your color palette, graphic motifs, photography style, typography, and the tone of your communications. These elements work together to communicate your school’s personality and values. When crafting your brand identity, seek an outsider’s perspective to determine what image you’re projecting. Are you effectively showcasing your school’s 200-year legacy? Proudly displaying diversity and acceptance with powerful photography? Using graphics to boldly communicate your school’s academic prowess and success? These graphic elements tell a story—make sure it’s the one that you want.

Whatever you determine, you must be consistent with its application. To build a recognizable brand, you have to show up every day wearing the same colors and saying the same thing. You can’t change your logo and typography willy nilly. You have to commit to these visual elements and use them consistently. Strong brand identity is important because nobody decides which college they’ll attend in one day. It’s the canonical “sleep on it” decision. The student is likely to do a lot of window shopping before they make that decision. So you want a recognizable brand identity, a consistent message, and you have to show it a lot, in short bursts over long periods. The best university marketing efforts are year-round, not just in the months leading up to enrollment season.

Proactively Manage Your Brand Reputation

Once you’ve built a recognizable and trustworthy brand identity, you want to keep it that way. Your school’s reputation, in the present media climate, has never been more important. Schools with a bad reputation end up on lists like this one. Reading through those listings, we see some of the common pitfalls that can damage a school’s standing.

Fortunately, we might be in luck going forward. Not to gild a silver lining onto the COVID-19 cloud, but the present pandemic climate does minimize the risk of some incidents. We can kiss sports-team-related scandals goodbye for a while, along with the revenue from the sporting events, unfortunately. More social distancing and remote interactions certainly cut down on the incidents that can arise from a party atmosphere and person-to-person contact.

But there’s still plenty about your reputation that you want to manage. Your campus should always strive to project the impression of quality. Tout the value of your courses, the success of your alumni, how in-tune your institution is with the needs of your students, and your thriving community. Most universities and colleges instinctively seek out opportunities to publish PR-friendly articles in publications and participate in events designed to preen school standards.

Amid the current COVID-19 climate, be vigilant to threats that might damage your reputation. Listen to what current and prospective students are saying and try to address their concerns. Transparency and sincerity are essential. Your response to the pandemic will follow you and influence how people view your brand for many years.

Build a Welcoming Digital Front Door

We can figure that this goes without saying for the most part. The Internet is the native stomping ground of academia since the World Wide Web was literally designed with academic usage in mind. The average university and college website we see gets a passing grade, though some need an update or a makeover. But just to reiterate, current and prospective students care a great deal about your website. It’s often the first place they go to get information. At the least, best practices for your website include:

  • Fast loading
  • Responsive design
  • Mobile-friendly
  • Compliance with website standards
  • Easy to navigate
  • Rich with high-quality content
  • Optimized for search
  • Helpful in every possible way

If you need help developing an SEO-friendly website for your university, you came to the right place!

Use Online Media Tools to Complement the Purchase Funnel

Most of these are also common sense. Need we point it out again, your student persona is a tech-savvy individual who was born a digital native and grew up with a mobile phone in one hand. They reach for Google for all their answers, look to Netflix for their entertainment, trust Steam reviews for what video game to buy next, and congregate with friends on their favorite social media network. They are comfortable talking to bots and digital assistants.

We are talking about the potential student, your customer, now navigating your sales funnel, which is what your marketing plan builds. Your branding created awareness, your message created interest, your website is where students go to learn about your programs, and filling out that first enrollment form is the action step.

Some of the digital tools that can help grease that funnel include:

  • Ad managers: Automate the process of displaying digital advertisements
  • Search analytics: Find out what your buyer persona searches for and how they find your site
  • Social media management tools: Don’t tweet manually when you can load tweets into a hopper to go out at scheduled times
  • Marketing and CRM automation software: email, newsletters, automated assistants, etc.
  • ERP software: Manage enrollment and tie all your marketing activities together


Your Entire Higher Education Marketing Plan Coming Together

“Come Together” is more than just a Beatles’ song. Part of your university’s new marketing plan should be collaborative meetings. Big, faculty-wide meetings. Large institutions typically deploy a diverse collection of talent, all on their own separate pages. You want them on the same page so that you present a cohesive brand identity and message. You want to foster communication between departments and have your marketing campaigns visible to everyone from the dean to the parking lot sweeper.

Remember those dinosaurs back at the top? To avoid being one of them, your institution needs to evolve and adapt fast. Adapting and evolving is never a piecemeal process; it doesn’t do any good to evolve with a wing on one side and a fin on the other. It must be a conducted whole, all hands pulling in the same direction. The last thing you want to do at this point is to fall behind the school that was able to organize and row in the same direction.

Students may be pickier in the coming market than they were before, but at the end of the day, most of them still want to get an education somewhere. That’s the important thing to remember, despite the dire climate for the education industry, is that you’re mostly only competing with other institutions.

In evolution, you don’t need to evolve to run faster than the lion. You just have to be sure that you’re not the slowest zebra.


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