How to Determine What Higher Ed Marketing Agency is Right for You

Finding the right digital marketing agency for higher education institutions sounds like a daunting task. “Digital marketing” isn’t exactly a phrase most college faculties are used to bandying about anyway. Academic professionals tend to look down their noses just a little at this whole “marketing” field, which means they aren’t the best ally to higher ed marketing teams. Surely, the students should flock to your honored institution based on its outstanding reputation alone, should they not?

However, we can think of an even more daunting task: surviving the post-COVID-19 world as a higher education institution in the first place. Man, it’s like that microscopic little virus had it in for your industry, personally! Universities and colleges have to change everything about how they operate, and going with a more virtual and remote learning plan exposes them to each other as competitors like they never were before.

Previously, you at least had location working in your favor. But if your campus experience is now replaced by lectures in a Zoom window on a laptop, there’s suddenly a lot less difference between your institution and the ones all over the country. Higher ed is forced to dig in and get competitive because the day is coming when the weakest institutions may start dying off.


Why Higher Ed Needs To Hire a Digital Marketing Agency

Once your institution realizes that they need to ramp up their marketing engine, the next question will be: do it in-house or outsource it? In-house marketing may seem feasible for the largest universities, some of which may feel “We hand out diplomas in marketing every year; we’ve got this!” However, managing a robust integrated digital marketing strategy is a challenge even for the biggest universities.

A higher ed school may not be ready to take on marketing if:

  • Their budget doesn’t allow for marketing. Schools are on a tight budget now as it is. It is likely to be cheaper to outsource than to hire a full department in-house and provide them all the support they need.
  • They’re not up to date with digital marketing practices and technology. Even though schools are an academic field with top experts on the staff, hardly anyone besides a full-time marketer knows how to set up targeted Facebook ad audiences or manage an advanced marketing automation platform.
  • Their competitors are outsourcing! You don’t want to be playing a home defense game in this scenario.


The Six Faces of Digital Marketing for Higher Ed

There are six main components to any digital marketing strategy, and you likely incorporate these into your marketing mix. When you are evaluating digital marketing agencies, you need to first assess their experience and expertise in:

Search Engine Optimization:

This is the tricky task of making Google like your website enough that it will list it higher in search results. Google, perhaps getting a bit big for its britches these days, makes strident demands on websites that change from year to year. It has standards not just for content, but also for website mechanics like speed, working on mobile platforms, or having high domain authority.

To attract your ideal student and bring them to your website, you need to understand why and how they search.

Content Marketing:

The art of generating publicity and brand awareness through planning, creating, and producing content. This constitutes the lion’s share of how Google ranks your website content in the first place. While content creation may be associated with the liberal arts department, there is a canny science of strategy and statistics underlying this practice. It has to be done this way because nobody tells Google to go find a sales funnel.

Website Development and Design:

The nuts and bolts of maintaining a web host and running a full stack of core software technologies to deliver customers from the web at large to a converted customer. This is done with a menagerie of software parts ranging from Apache web servers and WordPress CMS to customer service software like Salesforce and HubSpot. This is especially important for universities because the younger generation judges you based on your website first.

Brand Reputation Management:

This is the part of marketing that occurs off the website, on rating and review websites, and in the case of higher ed, on the front pages of the local paper. Remember that your reputation matters not just to the students, but to parents, teachers, counselors, potential faculty, potential donors, and the occasional politician.

Social Media Management:

The endless stream of micro-content that must be managed into streams on the various social platforms. Here again, this is a particularly sensitive spot for universities because students live their whole lives on social media. Managing social media posting is another creative endeavor with hard science behind it. For every company-sponsored funny meme on Facebook you’ve clicked “LOL,” there’s a panel of market research experts who refined that meme like it was petroleum.

Digital Advertising:

Finally, we get down to actually paying for advertising on other mediums. Advertising today is not as simple as plastering a message on a billboard; digital advertising has to be customized to reach the right audience in the right frame of mind, even at the right time of year. Recent innovations allow digital advertising to target an audience by demographics, spending behavior, and whether they’ve visited your site before.


Seriously? SIX faces?

All six of these faces come into play in every marketing project. Even if you do nothing for social media, or focus on strictly content marketing with no ads, that was still a conscious decision. Given different case scenarios, it may be that you don’t need some parts of the digital marketing plan, at least not deployed all at once.

Nobody has to go all-in, of course, which is why it’s worth separating those functions into discrete departments. Typically, you may want to start small and work your way up, introducing phases of a marketing plan in step with your needs—and budget.

Of course, there is also the scenario where your school actually can support part of the marketing in-house. At this size of a project, your digital marketing agency should work in a coordinated partnership with your institution. For example, many universities have no problem supporting basic content marketing in-house, provided their school includes a media department. A few eager student ambassadors with Twitter accounts can help out with the social media end.


How To Pick The Best Digital Marketing Agency For a Higher Ed Campaign

There are several qualities that a digital marketing agency should meet in order to tackle the prospect of marketing a higher education institution:

Experience with large-scale digital marketing projects

Colleges, universities, and schools are large-scale industries. A typical higher-ed institution employs a faculty of hundreds, with a complement of thousands of students. There’s also a huge difference between marketing a school and marketing other services because school attendance is a life-altering decision. Every student puts weighty thought into making this big of a commitment. This is one reason why things like brand reputation and consistent social media messaging matter for a school; you want the messaging to stick with the potential student over time.

A proven track record with a diverse portfolio

Every school is different. Higher ed plays a pivotal role in practically every other industry since expertise in any field has to begin in somebody’s classroom. Marketing a culinary arts course, a science research lab, or an all-star athletics team calls for experts in other fields besides just academics. Wherever possible, you want a digital marketing agency that has managed campaigns for a wide variety of industries. This experience will leave them well-informed and able to market your school successfully.

Knowledge of the youth market

How do you connect with these kids, anyway? What is on their mind, what do they want, and what do they really think of you? Why are they sick of hearing the term “millennial” and why should we re-introduce “generation X” and “generation Z” into the demographic lexicon? How do you sell yourself on TikTok without being branded as a “shill”? Marketing to students is one time when you need a digital marketing agency with a full-scope view of the prevailing Zeitgeist and a realistic lock on the career prospects of tomorrow. You don’t get many second chances to make a good impression on a young mind.

Equipped to integrate a broad technical infrastructure

Campuses are natural environments for an eclectic collage of data sources, sub-systems within systems, and departments. It’s important to marshal a school’s full power behind a marketing effort, to keep consistent branding and market targeting from admissions to student ambassadors down to the lunch hall. Data portability and visibility count for a lot here, so you want an agency that is prepared to plug into whatever infrastructure you have running.

Handles more than just designing websites

Even though the website is the backbone of any digital marketing campaign, there’s much more to a robust marketing strategy. Researching the market and gleaning valuable data from it is just as important. Determining brand identity and strength of reputation is important. Knowing when to launch an aggressive ad campaign and when to fall back on social media content is important.

Higher education marketing calls for an agency well-versed in diverse digital marketing strategies.

Services align with your goals

As we mentioned earlier, not every campus needs to out-source every facet of digital marketing. In some instances, they may just want to outsource PPC advertising management. In others, they may need help with brand identity design. Often academic institutions are natural content mills, with ample opportunities to publicize the school’s assets, which fills out the content marketing aspect nicely. Full-service agencies are a great fit for some universities. Others only need help with specific elements of their marketing strategy.

The bottom line is that an academic institution should work with an agency that aligns with their needs and who can augment their in-house team.

Where to Find Out More About Higher Education Digital Marketing

We have a number of resources we’ve composed that focus on innovative marketing strategies for colleges and universities. There are some inspiring and exciting opportunities in this list, with some original ideas you won’t find anywhere else.

How to Find Out What Students Think About Your School

Have you ever wished that you could read the students’ minds? This comes close, using market analysis tools to track brand identity, reputation, public perception, and media intelligence. Learn how to analyze these results to get a clearer picture of your institution’s image and how to take control of that narrative.

Student Ambassadors: A Marketing Strategy to Increase Enrollment

We mentioned student ambassadors earlier; here’s a whole article about them. Student ambassadors are more important now than ever because today’s media-savvy teens and young adults are more trusting of their peers. Indeed, they may “OK-boomer” the dean, but they’ll heed the message of a student representative.

The Top Higher Education Marketing Trends in 2020

As we mentioned in the beginning, the year 2020 was a low watermark for the academics industry, which will go down in history as a tough time for schools. COVID-19 not only changed the game, but it also flipped the playing field. These education marketing trends are the leaner, tougher strategies you need to compete in the new market.

The Top Ten Questions Students Search About Your College

Another mind-reading post! We share how you can use keyword research tools to find out practically everything anyone has ever asked about your school. This data is sorted and analyzed to find the most common questions. Some will be about what you’d expect, some will be surprising, and maybe a couple will be so obvious that you overlooked them.

How to Market to the STEM Student

Ah yes, the exotic student who is heading for a career in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, medicine, or an equally highbrow topic. Almost every school wants STEM kids, and this article is the most intimate snapshot of what makes these kids tick, where to find them, and how to make them feel at home on your campus.

Using Social Media to Show the Culture and Character of Your University

This is an aspect that universities sometimes overlook. Not every student puts their career goals and academic standards first. Some students care more about questions like “Will I fit in here?” and “Will I feel safe from harassment, hazing, and even crime?” For some students, the classes are obligatory, but finding peers who share their passions, values, and even hobbies are what makes school a worthwhile experience.


Concluding Thoughts

We’re making an effort to reach out to schools because to us, an academic institution isn’t “just another client.” We firmly believe that schools shape our future and that this time in history calls for more support for our educational foundations than ever before. Not to point any fingers, but maybe it’s easy to see where one would consider some of the people in charge of this country and think, “A couple more books and lectures there wouldn’t have hurt.” At the least, we have a civilization to run here, and we need enlightened minds to run it.

As one education fund used to say in commercials, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” We consider a school to be a valuable asset to society. That’s why we’re committed to helping academic institutions connect with the right students.




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