Inbound Marketing

How to Create the Best Inbound Marketing Program for Your University

Along with the other upheavals to the markets that 2020 has brought, the higher education industry has changed overnight from being merely competitive before to practically cutthroat now.

Before, we had other factors impacting enrollment: higher cost, lower birth rate, unsure economy, and other standard market woes. Then—dramatic trumpets!—COVID-19 hit! The rest of 2020 has played like a dystopian film where Keanu Reeves has to single-handedly save universities from attacking robots. This “new normal” means that universities have to alter their approach to marketing and how they attract students.

One of the most effective ways to connect with prospective students and boost enrollment is by using inbound marketing. Instead of chasing students who aren’t interested or ready to make a school choice, you position your school to appeal to those that are ready. In short, you make them come to you.

There’s a whole formula to the inbound marketing equation, so let’s put it up on the chalkboard:


Inbound Marketing Methodology

Inbound marketing for higher ed aims to attract interested students and their families to your institution, convert them into leads, and convert those leads into newly enrolled students.

Like any large project, it’s helpful to break it down into individual units. The inbound marketing methodology focuses on four distinct stages that prospective students move through:

  • Attract: We draw in students who are likely to seek continued education
  • Convert: We present our offer and make it easy for them to pursue
  • Nurture: The “customer service” segment, where we interface with the prospective student directly
  • Close: Signatures to applications, we intake a new enrollment

At each stage, you develop content and experiences that appeal to their needs at that precise moment. To do this, you have to understand our market and what they want. Because higher education is not an overnight sale, the process is slower and more complex than the typical marketing cycle in other industries. So before we reach “attract,” let’s see what’s going on just before that.

How Students Research Higher Education

According to Inside Higher Ed, over 50% of students research their learning options for a full year before they first contact a university. Among the things they are researching:

  • Course catalog viability: How relevant is this course to my planned career?
  • Career outcomes: Do students who follow this course end up where I want to end up?
  • Typical students: Are the students who attend this course path my close peers?
  • Class and faculty: What professors teach these courses, and how do they teach?
  • Tuition costs: What’s the price tag?

Most students have a typical “shortlist” of schools they’re considering, with 75% of them not including new schools in their initial list. We might ask, why do they keep this shortlist and why do they disregard other schools outside it? Times Higher Education has a survey finding out what sells a school:

We can sort those motivations into general categories:

  • Quality: Well-ranked, prestigious brand, good career pipeline, high-quality
  • Affordability: Scholarships, low-cost accommodations, near home
  • Sociability: Networking opportunities, ample clubs, diversity, like-minded students
  • Familiarity: Friends and family go there

Quality of education and career viability are consistently the top concerns, with the financial arrangements running a close second. Beyond selling a particular university over another one, the survey also asks why students go to university at all.

“Learning” is naturally the most important motivation, both for necessary career requirements and also just being in it for the intellectual stimulation and personal development. Some of these reasons, like “a change in direction” or “a fresh start,” suggest a spiritual period where students are seeking out the place where they belong. People still go to college “to find themselves.”

We would have guessed back there that “location” would have been a reason why students keep the list of considered schools so short. That turns out to not be a factor, and likely far less of a factor as electronic telecommunications continue to erode the distance between one location and another.

Now that we have an idea of our potential target market, we can go about the process of building student buyer personas and then setting out the “onramp,” so to speak, that leads them to our door. In the case of higher education, you might need to create several personas to sufficiently account for your diverse student body. There is a difference between the post-grad with their eye on an internship already, and an undergraduate who’s hoping the next introductory course will give them a sign from the heavens.


“Attract” – The Art of Being Found

To attract potential clientele, the digital marketing playbook is clear in recommending content marketing and search engine optimization (SEO). In content marketing, we produce content in the form of text and multimedia and share it on multiple channels including a web platform and social media.

Through SEO, our content can rank highly in Google searches that our target market is likely to perform and to attract an audience likely to share our content (and good brand name) with their social circle. Modern Google search engine results pages (SERP) include several high-ranking features like the map results, featured snippet, and “people also ask” feature. Here’s a look at what your student may see when they conduct searches:

Maps results

Featured snippets

Q&A, AKA “people also ask”

It is useful to strive to appear in as many of these top results as possible. These results directly answer the question the searcher seeks. Getting back to our potential student market, we see from the ways students choose colleges that we could arrange content around anticipated searches:

  • Best university rankings
  • Highest quality course programs
  • Scholarship opportunities
  • Benefits of post-secondary education for career
  • How to choose a major
  • Degrees worthwhile in this job market
  • Best schools for international students
  • Best engineering school in the country

Now picture the content we’d build around these searches. Those would be blog articles, FAQs, and multimedia content.

The best university blogs have several different approaches to attracting potential students through content. Specialized schools like med school blog directly from the lab, writing about their research, recent publications, and career interviews with med grads. Fine arts academies are wide open intellectual spaces, celebrating an environment of inspiration and stimulating talent. They share visiting artists exhibitions, curate work from inspiring artists, and share student-created multimedia content, like video and animations. Others simply share student ruminations, alumni success stories, or warm-hearted stories about campus culture.

Beyond Google, you can attract students through the channel they spend the most time: social media. Their intent shifts on social media, instead of education, they’re typically looking for entertainment or inspiration. The best university social media channels tailor their approaches to suit the school’s character and their target student market. Whether focusing on athletics and school spirit, showing off their quirky and diverse campus culture, or headlining their outstanding faculty, schools try to put their best cultural aspects forward on social media. When you have a deep understanding of your student body, you can develop content that they’ll relate to, engage with, and share with their peers. Through building this relationship, you’ll position your school to be considered when it’s time to make their school choice.

Student ambassadors are also becoming more common, and are an effective method for attracting prospective students. Collaborate with them to develop social media campaigns that share their unique perspective as current students. This will help you to forge authentic relationships with your audience.

As the student moves into the nurture phase (which we’ll discuss shortly), the student ambassador’s role shifts and they can act as a new student orientation leader.

“Content is king” in content marketing, and the marketer with the most content usually wins. You want a lot of content, you want to post often, and you want to always be trending on social media streams. Tap your natural resources as a school: Enlist your faculty, instructors, alumni, students, and staff to share their thoughts and experiences online.


“Convert” – The Art of Making Leads

In marketing, we call any potentially interested customer a “lead,” as in “we hope this leads to a sale.” We’re not closing the deal yet! We’re putting down the path that the lead can follow when they’re ready to convert into a customer.

The most basic lead generation tool is the email address harvester. You’ve seen a million websites with a form box that pops up: “Subscribe to our newsletter!” Sometimes they offer what’s called a “lead magnet,” with a special offer: coupons, free eBook, webinar, case study, or anything that adds educational or entertainment value.

Social media can be used to convert and capture “leads” too, simply through getting visitors to “don’t forget to like and subscribe!” We do this on multimedia content too. How many YouTube video-bloggers do you see who insert reminders to hit that “subscribe” button into their content? While it’s not as secure a lead connection as an email address, it’s still a good channel to nurture the lead until they’re ready to commit.

All of the above, whether we’re asking leads to sign up for email or subscribe to our channel, are called “calls to action,” or CTA. Any prompt we can set out to encourage any commitment right now, no matter how light, is the solid gold first step.

Remember our student persona from above? No matter what their ultimate motivation, all students are looking for information, entertainment, or academic stimulation. Offer this content on your website and use persuasive CTAs to encourage students to convert and give you their email address. Once you have that, you can continue to nurture them and send them content that will help you convince them to enroll.

Landing a lead is so intrinsic to the process that we do this on a “landing page.” It consists of a bit of content and a form to sign up a lead. Here are a few examples of landing pages that an academic institution might use:

Content Offer: Complete Guide to College Grant Application Process

CTA: Sign up to download our free grant catalog and worksheet to find out if you qualify

Content Offer: How Students Can Secure More Financial Aid

CTA: Visit our Student Financial Aid Center to talk to one of our financial counselors

Content Offer: Navigating the College Application Process for First-Generation Students

CTA: Download our handy college application toolkit

Content Offer: What First-Year Engineering Students Need to Know

CTA/: Join our engineering newsletter and hear from the top industry experts

Content Offer: Comprehensive Guide to the Computer Science Program: Everything You Need to Be Successful

CTA: Download our free ebook: “Exciting Opportunities in Computer Science” by our professors

It works just like fishing. Put out the bait, reel in the bite.


“Nurture” – The Art of Negotiating a Sale

So we have a lead, who may be interested in enrolling. Now what?

Remember above that we showed how students narrow a list of candidate schools down to a few and select only from there. You’re not competing with the whole wide world now, you’re competing with about three to four other schools for this student. At this point, you want to make your school the most attractive option. The student is weighing options and deciding what’s best for them.

So why should they choose you? This is the point where you want to turn the corner into hard-driving marketing. Convert your lead by touting your programs:

  • Highlight Graduate Success: Job placement, expected salaries, alumni success stories, testimonials, case studies
  • Showcase School Features: Video campus tours, classroom video lectures, amenities
  • Show Off Awards: Rankings, achievements, academic awards, noted faculty
  • Highlight Culture: Diversity, campus life, school spirit, community activities

You will also want to make things as easy as possible for students to sign up. Be sure to include clear steps to take to begin the application process, and both video and text tutorials to guide them through the process. Remember, your students have started to judge your school’s quality by this point. If you can’t teach them how to get through a FAFSA application, they’re going to wonder how you do teaching organic chemistry.


“Closing” – The Art of Keeping Customers

You might be familiar with the term “buyer’s remorse.” It’s that little imp of doubt in all of our minds after we’ve just made a commitment, asking “Did I just make a mistake?” For the potentially life-altering commitment of signing up for university + all the financial arrangements they’ve had to sign, there’s an emotional cliff at the point where the student realizes it’s too late to back out now.

You can help them over that cliff by showing the student that each and every enrollment is as important to you as the first. You should have an onboarding and orientation process that guides the student through their first few days with your institution. This is also an important time for those student ambassadors, who should help introduce the new student around and be available for a brief tour of the facility and to answer any questions or concerns.

The same content channels you used for content marketing can also be extended into inter-school communication. Announcements from the dean, professor blogs, and instructional videos from a guidance counselor can continue nurturing the new sign-up as they settle in. Remember that this is the time the student is forming new impressions of your institution – and likely to leave reviews and ratings on different ranking sites, tell their friends about it, and write that first letter to the folks back at home. Make sure they enhance your reputation. You want that student back next year, you want them to spend their post-grad time with you, and you want their good word of mouth for more leads later.


Can Automation Software Make This Process Easier?

Oh boy, can it ever! Digital marketing has the side benefit of taking advantage of all this new shiny technology. At the same time, as schools turn to remote learning and virtual functions (COVID-19 again), automation software makes a native complement to the tech-driven learning environment.

You can do more with less when you automate as much as possible.

  • Email marketing can be automated with scheduled delivery
  • Social media marketing can be automated with scheduled posting through Buffer or Hootsuite
  • Personalize your communications using dynamic email content
  • Use metrics analytics to track leads’ engagement
  • Save lead data for when they take website actions or convert so that admissions can view it
  • Set up automated marketing triggers based on engagement steps

Some marketing automation tools you might consider include…

  • Hubspot: Inbound marketing software for customer relationship management
  • ActiveCampaign: Customer experience automation cloud-based software for medium businesses
  • Salesforce Pardot: Part of the Salesforce Marketing Cloud, a marketing automation unit
  • Marketo: Adobe’s account-based marketing software

Don’t forget to leave room for virtual assistants. They’re one of the hottest trends in higher education marketing. A complex process like pursuing an academic course calls out for a chatbot or two to help with questions about financial services application, or as a classroom accessory to notify students of schedule changes. Today’s younger generation is perfectly comfortable interacting with a virtual assistant.



It takes time and commitment to develop a robust inbound marketing plan. Some higher education institutions are still getting used to the idea of marketing at all, and might not have a full marketing staff in-house. You might want to consider outsourcing the marketing to a specialized agency.

While inbound marketing is a heavy investment of time and resources, the results pay off like nothing else. The competition for students has been steadily increasing, even before (trumpets again) COVID-19 and the fandango it danced on the market. Yet the education industry still has an advantage, because we’re obviously not going to quit going to school. There is still demand for higher learning in today’s and tomorrow’s world. It just takes some focused marketing to make sure students choose you.



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