Marketing Trends for Higher education

Top Higher Ed Marketing Trends in 2021

What the future holds for higher education in 2021 is very much up in the air. While the world of higher ed always seems to be in flux, with new marketing tactics and shifting budgets to deal with, as well as changing student populations guided by whims and proclivities of the latest generation of kids, it has never felt quite like this.

To put it bluntly, COVID-19 has wreaked a bit of havoc.


A “Novel” Set of Challenges Previously Unseen in Higher Ed

Take the California State University system, for example. The largest university system in the country moved its fall 2020 semester entirely online across all 23 campuses. At the same time, a steady trickle of athletic conferences, including the Big Ten and Pac-12, either suspended their fall sports or canceled them altogether. And campus COVID-19 outbreaks are causing the universities that have resumed in-person instruction, such as UNC Chapel Hill, to reconsider.

This kind of uncertainty makes the already difficult work of higher ed marketers and admissions staff even more of a strain. Admission rates were already way down before COVID-19 descended on the world, having decreased 11% since 2011.


“Unprecedented times” is an understatement. More like “perfect storm.” As we see it, here are the top challenges that higher ed marketers will be tussling with in 2021:

  • COVID-19 restrictions. With federal, state, and local health directives to keep up with, some of which change daily and impact an institution’s ability to operate normally, prospective students and their parents will have questions and concerns. What precautions and restrictions are in place at your university in light of the pandemic? Will my kids be safe? Is it even worth the risk?
  • Virtual learning. Even though online classes are nothing new, a whole heap of students have been thrust into distance learning environments involuntarily. As a recent New York Times piece illustrates, feelings about online learning are mixed at best, which makes the work of marketing a fully remote semester—with no definitive answer as to when in-person instruction should resume—quite challenging.
  • Students opting out. The entire situation has left a lot of students and parents wondering if going to school is even worth it. Why deal with the discomfort, inconvenience, uncertainty, and risk? It’s no surprise that many students are taking this opportunity to take a gap year, further depleting an already dwindled applicant pool.
  • Decreased marketing budgets. If you’re in higher ed, you know that budget is always an issue. Now, it’s mission-critical. As a result, many higher education marketers will have to find a way to continue driving awareness, applications, and enrollment, with even fewer resources.

In our ongoing work with marketers in the higher education field, we’ve put together our list of trends and strategies to lean into in 2021. Are they “pandemic-proof,” or immune to disruption? Of course not. Few marketing tactics are. But when it comes to reaching and attracting students to campus and driving enrollment, these eight higher education marketing trends are wise places to start regardless of external market conditions.


1. Address Any Gaps in Your Communication Strategy

Attention to how and what universities communicate to prospective students will be heightened in 2021. Put yourself in a student’s shoes: what was already a major life decision (where to go to college) is now rife with uncertainty. The ability of institutions to be transparent, clear, and timely will become a competitive differentiator as they try to attract enrollment from a severely depleted pool of prospective applicants.

As you build your 2021 marketing communications strategy, here’s the type of information that students (and their parents) will likely be looking for:

  • What is your university’s detailed plan for handling the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak and safely welcoming students back to school? Will classes be in-person in 2021? Online? Mixed? How will that look and how long will it last?
  • How will student life look this coming semester? What about athletics, clubs, and student organizations?
  • What digital resources will be made available to support the remote learning experience? What will that experience look like on a day-to-day basis?
  • What will campus experience be like? Will there be access to facilities like food and exercise? What about greek life and student housing?
  • What opportunities will students have to socialize and have fun?
  • How will international students be affected by these changes? And why should an international student still consider your university if it is temporarily moving to 100% remote instruction?

In communicating these details across your digital channels and campaigns, it is important to be consistent and authoritative. The idea is to engender confidence in prospective students that your institution is not only safe and circumspect, but that the student experience will be something safe, enjoyable, and rewarding for students.


2. Make Sure Your Digital Experiences Are On Point

Two important things are driving demand for excellent digital experiences:

  1. There is more focus and reliance on digital tools and experiences within the higher education space. Even in fully in-person learning environments, universities are leveraging digital tools to support and enhance the student experience.
  2. Today’s student body is not only digitally competent; they’re “digital natives,” and they expect the same quality and ease of use they can get on their iPhone every day.

This focus on digital will be even more urgent because of the challenges created by the pandemic and remote learning. We recommend closely scrutinizing the digital journeys that your prospective and existing students will rely on, for instance:

  • Conduct end-to-end audits of key processes used by a high volume of students. These might include the digital application process, class registration, tuition payment, and of course virtual learning experiences. Pay close attention to the experience for someone considering application and enrollment. Is the process easy and user friendly?
  • Focus on simple, clean design and logical, easy-to-understand navigation. You want to make it as easy as possible for prospective students to get the information they need to not only choose your university, but answer common questions, submit an application, or reach out. Enrollment and program information must be easily accessible, alongside ample FAQs and supporting resources.
  • Optimize for mobile devices. From your website and marketing materials to application portals and your chatbot, make sure that your mobile experience is on point. You’re marketing to a generation that was born with mobile devices in their hands. If your site isn’t mobile-optimized, prospective students are not only going to notice but possibly abandon the experience altogether.


3. Stay Ahead of the Chatbot Wave

If walk-in appointments are no longer available or restricted, that many more students and parents are going to be hitting the phone lines and other communication channels with their questions, concerns, and follow-ups. With administration busy enough as it is—saying nothing of any pandemic-related staff cutbacks—you might consider automating certain communications to ease the burden.

This is the perfect job for a chatbot.

When set up correctly, UX-proofed, and connected to a deep and organized content knowledge base, chatbots have the power to automate easy questions, direct prospective students to the resources they need, and dramatically ease the burden on your staff. Chatbots can also be used to drive site navigation, new applications, and enrollment.

Today, there are even chatbots specialized for enrollment, recruitment, and admissions. Here are a few examples (with which we have absolutely NO affiliation):


4. Build Campaigns That Show the Value of Virtual Education

Often, people oppose something like distance learning because they don’t quite understand it. Yet, virtual education is not without merit. Some distance learning experiences are really rewarding, and it’s the job of marketers to build awareness around how it works, why it’s valuable, and what students can expect from the experience.

Here’s an example. If I’m marketing to prospective students for A University, then I’m going to build a campaign around “What remote learning at a University is really about,” supported by short video testimonials from actual students, a video overview of the learning experience, and supporting case studies. I’m also going to work with other departments to get statistics about distance learning to support this campaign.

The goal here is not only to drive awareness but to help students imagine what remote learning might look like for them—to realize that this is a perfectly viable way of earning a college degree.


5. Personalize Your Digital Experiences

Personalization is no longer just a trend; for many current and prospective students, it’s an expectation. Think about it: for most young people, personalized and/or algorithmic experiences are part of their daily lives, from suggested viewing on Netflix, to what shows up in their Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook feeds.

Higher education marketers have an opportunity to cater to this demand for more personalized experiences. How? First and foremost, you’ll need to do the hard work of segmenting your target student audiences within your CRM (and making sure that your CRM is tightly integrated with all of your communication channels). Segmentation is essential to personalized marketing campaigns.

With this important piece in place, you can generate tailored content based on the student persona. For example:

  • Custom landing pages or website content. First-year, international, and prospective students might all see different content when they come to your homepage, or click through from a social media campaign. An international student might benefit from seeing tuition, admissions, and FAQ specific to their experience, as opposed to info generalized for all audiences. This kind of website personalization can be done based on IP address, authenticated user profile, and other information.
  • Personalized student portal experience. When a student logs into their university portal, it’s a great opportunity to deliver content that’s relevant just for them. If they have created an account for managing their application to business school, for example, you can display related content about and from the business school, including course material, publications, and staff bios.
  • Segmented email campaigns. With that important list segmentation in place, you have the opportunity to put students into personalized email sequences based on their persona. Students applying to a particular program, for example, might get emails with video messages from staff and students currently in that program. Prospective students can be nurtured after their application to help increase enrollment rates.
  • Customized direct mail packages. Who doesn’t like a little bit of swag? You can make students feel like part of the family by sending them some university-branded gear with their name on it, for example, accompanied by a hand-signed letter from the department chair of the program they’re applying to.


6. Launch Lots of Video Content

In the absence of in-person experiences due to COVID-19 and other circumstances, video will be an even more important marketing tool than it already is. Think of all the in-person experiences no longer possible on a college campus so crucial to the application process for prospective students!

Here are some interesting ideas for higher ed videos that you can use and repurpose across various digital channels and ad campaigns:

  • Campus tours. You can create general tours that highlight your campus, then department-specific tours, such as particular schools, student housing, and athletic facilities. Find creative ways to showcase what makes your campus special.
  • Welcome messages. Members of faculty, fellow students, coaches, and other members of the campus community can record welcome messages that can be personalized and sent to students once they’re accepted.
  • Speakers. Turn recorded virtual campus speaking engagements, guest lectures, and commencement speeches into repurpose-able video content that can be shared and made available across your marketing channels. The same goes for student performances and concerts.
  • Day-in-the-life. Especially now, students are wondering what it will be like at university. Create day-in-the-life videos as windows into what it’s like right now. Again these can be tailored to specific departments or student segments (student athlete, international, etc.).
  • Department-focused series. Do you have a really cool engineering lab with lots going on? Maybe an entrepreneurship lab or performing arts incubators? This might make for a good ongoing video series that prospective and current students can engage with and derive real value from (entertainment, how-to, support).

These videos can be also used in the personalized campaigns you launch (see #5).


7. Ramp up Investments in Social Media Marketing

What we’re seeing right now from the agency perspective is a near across-the-board drop in social media advertising costs. Social media usage, however, is up, with 44% of the world using social more since the onset of COVID-19. This creates a significant opportunity to reach and engage students.

Because we know for a fact that, not only do young people hang out on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, in many cases, they’re the driving force behind the growth of these platforms. Universities have an opportunity to not only reach these students but do a whole lot of brand building that helps differentiate from the competition.

Social media ads, for example, are a natural fit for all that great video content you created after reading #8. Social media campaigns can be built to drive awareness and enrollment; and their metrics can be tied to performance monitoring in those areas.

In 2021, social media will move beyond a simple imperative for universities; we predict that it will be a powerful competitive differentiator and ongoing source of leads.

If you’re looking for inspiration, read our article “Social Media Marketing for Colleges: Learn from the Best” to see how these schools are engaging prospective students and their student body.


8. Consider the Power of Influencers

While we’re on the topic of social media, consider the growing power of influencers among your prospective and returning students. According to a report from Morning Consult on influencer marketing, “72% of Gen Z and Millennials follow influencers, and teenagers are more likely to follow many.”

This is yet another opportunity to reach prospective students on their terms. Through engaging, personal videos, influencers can give a university their endorsement, or show students what it’s like to attend your school during, say, a global pandemic. And this can in turn encourage students to apply or at least inquire.

Here are two types of influencers to identify and promote within higher ed:

  • Existing students. Are there social media influencers already in your ranks? This can be an opportunity to enlist their services and tap into their platform reach in support of their own school. Often, prospective students would rather hear from an existing student they can more closely relate to, than a generic marketing message from the university president.
  • Distinguished alumni. Graduates of your university who’ve gone on to become influencers can help underscore how their education helped them to get to where they’re at in life, which can be very inspiring for prospective students.

This might seem like an activity only suitable for large universities with existing brand equity; however, influencers with smaller platforms and audiences can have a lot of impact on your university’s brand image (even if they’re only reaching a few hundred people).

Read our article “Student Ambassadors: A Marketing Strategy to Increase Enrollment” to get tips for building your influencer program.


Takeaway: It’s not Doomsday (Yet)

We’ll not sugar coat it: the world of higher education has been severely disrupted by the global pandemic, especially in the United States. At times, the outlook is quite grim, with more and more universities moving to online learning only or, in some cases, closing altogether.

The good news is that the trends we’ve listed above would have likely guided your activities in 2021 anyways—pandemic conditions have merely accelerated the pace and made resource challenges more acute. Looking at the glass half full, marketers in higher education have a tremendous opportunity to differentiate their institutions by getting out ahead of these 2021 trends. In doing so, they’ll lay a stable groundwork to help weather whatever circumstances might come, for however long this pandemic might last.


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