If you work in higher ed marketing, then you are well aware that outreach efforts have changed dramatically since the pandemic (and even before). Anyone who was trying to increase applications (Recruitment), planning the next capital campaign (Relations), or providing the various services requested by students (Retention) was forced to quickly pivot, continually adjusting their sails over the past few years.
But there is another way to view such times of disruption. Changing winds are also an opportunity for unparalleled creativity, new collaborations, and groundbreaking innovations in each of the three “R’s” described above. Whether you focus on recruiting applicants, retaining students, or engaging graduates through alumni relations, the COVID experience changed work for everyone in the business of higher ed marketing. The pandemic forced communicators to become even more nimble and to learn new ways of interacting with their peers across their institution – literally overnight.
Just like other forms of marketing, higher ed has turned away from traditional, in-person activities and moved towards digital marketing tools and virtual events. Every academic institution now finds themselves in the same boat – managing revisions to procedures for travel and lodging, health and safety, and more. Yet, in keeping with this oceanic metaphor, we’re reminded of the opinion that “rising tide lifts all boats” — an approach that was notably visible during this unusual time.
Following are five marketing strategies that higher ed professionals can use to sail across this new landscape as you continue to collaborate creatively during the 2022-23 academic year.
1. Focus on Outcomes
Students (and their families) have become more dubious about the value of higher education and question whether the investment is worth it. Therefore, it’s more important than ever to show potential students what your school can do for them. According to the 2022/23 Trends in Higher Education report from Hanover Research, students want academic portfolios that focus on developing employment skills.
It helps to focus on facts. Current statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics show that workers with bachelor’s degrees earn 67% more than people with only a high school diploma.
So how can your college capture members of this pool? The best approach is to offer tangible examples of success. Tell students how — in addition to developing their critical-thinking and academic skills — they’ll get the chance to prepare for their ultimate employment, which is the measure of return on investment for most students and families. Find inclusive ways to help students meet the evolving needs of future employers. Highlight opportunities for engaged learning experiences on and off-campus, including internships, community work, and networking events. Use examples from others who paved the same paths.
According to the 2019-2021 Strada Education Survey, expectations about future enrollment have rebounded and respondents say they are more likely to enroll in additional education over the next five years. In order to appeal to prospective students, marketers must articulate the clear connection between academic disciplines and career preparation. This will demonstrate that a degree from their college does, in fact, provide a positive ROI.
2. Personalize the Experience
Thanks to the pandemic, remote activities have become more commonplace. With that, students have also become accustomed to different ways of interacting with schools. When asked what influenced their decision to enroll in a specific college or university, 26% of students reported a positive application experience as a top factor.
Today’s students expect real-time communications regarding admission, enrollment, and registration. And, as both marketers and consumers know, a critical part of a good communications strategy includes not frustrating your customers.
Colleges that show that they care about reducing enrollment barriers and removing financial burdens also do well. Addressing these issues shows that a marketer can put themselves in the student’s shoes and is sympathetic to their concerns.
Be transparent about tuition and fees and clear about your testing policies. Promote flexible methods to connect your potential students with advisors and financial aid staff. Schedule both in-person and virtual opportunities for them to meet.
Also, try not to bury students in red tape. Whenever possible, use plain language in your communications materials. (The application process can be especially confusing for would-be applicants whose parents didn’t go to college.) In Indiana, 72 percent of residents said they found their state’s financial aid options “overwhelming.” Avoid creating barriers to entry that could discourage applicants. Rather, use personalized, relatable messaging that makes them feel heard and understood.
3. Be Creative – Virtually!
In order to attract their traditional body of domestic students, as well as the more than 1 million international students who enroll in U.S. colleges each year, marketers have been forced to adopt new communication methods. A new part of the communicator’s toolbox includes virtual engagement opportunities. These include virtual tours, interactive maps, and virtual chats and events to reach prospectives, as well as stay engaged with alumnae/i and other stakeholders.
Colleges and universities still need to advertise the programs, activities, history, and the surroundings that make them unique. But now, they must be able to share this information virtually and meet students where they are, including audiences who are unable to visit them in person.
According to a 2022 internal Concept3D survey, 83% of incoming first-year college students used virtual maps when selecting which schools they applied to. In addition, almost 90% of students went back to review those same maps once they were admitted to the school. Self-guided, digital experiences have become a permanent mainstay for marketers, giving a leg-up to colleges and universities, and serving as a unifying tool for campus communities.
Today, every school must accommodate a more diverse student body and provide services that aren’t bound by time or place. Virtual tools like these can help.
4. Know Your Reputation
The best marketers understand the student journey, as well as what affects students’ decision-making. But in order to succeed, college marketers must also pay attention to the ancient maxim: “Know thyself.”
As a communicator, you must use whatever tools are available to accurately assess your college or university’s reputation. This helps when crafting responses to comments or complaints, and can help you evaluate whether the portrayal of your college, (ie. the product), that’s offered through marketing collateral is accurate.
Set up social listening tools to follow social chatter. Peruse your campus newspaper and watch what students report. Survey accepted students about their experiences and evaluate their responses with open ears. Use every available tool to gain insight into what your stakeholders care about – from the current student body to alums – and how they truly feel.
In order to do this well, try to remove your campus mindset and accept constructive criticism as well as the compliments. Incorporating useful feedback is how your institution will evolve and improve.
5. Invite Advocates
As an industry practice, it’s common for institutions to produce marketing slogans and advertisements touting themselves as “the best.” However, (and forgive the messenger), in reality, separate universities have more in common than their marketing departments may like to admit. Many schools can boast outstanding faculty who care about their students, intimate class sizes, and learning opportunities outside the classroom. This is because these factors were all born out of the market that demands them. Therefore, marketers must uncover other ways to distinguish their pitch.
No matter what school you’re selling, stories from actual customers (in this case, past students), are what resonate with people. Personal stories and pictures from others who took the same classes, slept in the same dorms, and ate at the same dining halls generate a sense of nostalgia for your graduates and connection for your existing students. Nostalgia can be a powerful marketing tool. And, despite being digital natives, the Gen Z audience still seeks out “real” connections like these with actual people.
To capitalize on this approach, marketers can welcome alumnae/i to tell their unique stories. Invite graduates from around the globe to contribute to a user-generated campaign. Interview successful professionals about their current jobs or causes. Create engagement opportunities for returning alumnae/i to interact with students (beyond annual fundraising campaigns). These personal conversations between different generations can turn into memorable moments, or even better, long-term relationships that foster a shared sense of pride.
In order to stand out from competitors, colleges must identify at least two or three things that truly separate them from the pack. No matter which of the three “R’s” you focus on in higher ed – recruitment, retention, or alumni relations – following these current marketing tactics can help to maintain or improve your competitive advantage from 2022 to 2023, and beyond.
By the way, if you’re looking for help in charting a new course for your institution, contact Concept3D.