Higher Education Marketing 101: Strategy, Planning, and Tools

Higher education marketing strategy and planning

Higher education marketing might have made strides in the past, but some cliches remain unchanged. For example, photos of unrealistically happy students appearing on campus tours.

Modern marketers have learned to filter this type of run-of-the-mill marketing. They're now moving toward social media platforms like Instagram and Reddit, where they highlight actual students' perspectives about their institute.

For example, Harvard Kennedy School ran hashtag campaigns on Instagram to promote fundraising campaigns. They went a step further by embedding the Instagram hashtag campaign on their website, showcasing their students' happy faces in a better way.

Harvard Kennedy School puts their instagram feed on website as a part of higher education marketing strategy

Similarly, if you're a higher education marketer, you must move beyond conventional strategies to address present and upcoming challenges.

Challenges keeping higher education marketers on their toes

Given the fiercely competitive space, pressure's always been on your shoulders. However, as Gen Alpha has entered the student pool, marketing challenges have been mounting with even greater intensity.

To give you a snapshot:

  • The second enrollment cliff is coming soon with a year-on-year decline in the college-aged population.  

  • International students are likely to fill this gap over the next decade, as the recent soars in college enrollment suggest. This brings a new challenge in how marketers navigate the local vs. international student pool.

  • Your institutional reputation is no longer enough to attract enrollments. Gen Alpha's choices are purpose-driven. They want to attend schools that align with the values and social causes they support.

  • Worst of all, the recession, high inflation, competitive labor market, expensive college tuition, evolving job roles, and online alternatives have collectively changed the perception of higher education. Many students and parents are questioning whether college degrees are even worth the time and money.

See? There are too many bottlenecks and too little budget, staff, and morale to counter them. But on the brighter side, you can reach potential students and win their favor with authentic communication and audience-centric marketing initiatives.

So, step #1 should be a switch in the mindset, as Jamie Hunt, renowned higher education CMO, touts in her LinkedIn post.

How to create a marketing strategy for higher education

When you think of engaging and relevant university content, Harvard's Take a Seat in the Harvard MBA Case Classroom video probably comes to mind.

As a brand, Harvard needs no introduction. But to virtually witness the brilliance inside its four walls is something else.

The high-spirited teaching style of the professor and the equally energetic participation from students is infectious even through the screen. You can see how students are cold-called and invited to join the sessions, then watch their testimonials in the next frame.

But you know what stands out the most? The diversity of students present in the classroom. It speaks volumes about the institute's commitment to inclusive and skill-based learning.

Now, which MBA aspirant wouldn't want to take a seat here?

This is the power of digital marketing. Unlike brochures and course pamphlets, digital-first content goes beyond physical limitations, helping you reach a wider audience with various content and communication channels.

Of the many digital marketing strategies you can use for higher ed marketing, four stand out for their effectiveness:

Social media marketing for higher education

Social media is the most powerful marketing channel for Gen Z and Gen Alpha. Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, TikTok, and others are their preferred hangouts, pastimes, and channels for searching and discovering stuff. And it's not just the students; you can also reach:

  • potential staff and faculty

  • parents

  • aspiring high school students

  • alumni

  • potential corporate partners

  • other higher education institutes

This is why, when done thoughtfully, social media marketing can help post-secondary institutions create a solid presence to attract and connect with potential students—even when they're scrolling for fun. You can promote courses, interact with students, answer queries, promote student-generated content, connect with alums, collect emails, and drive traffic to your institute's website.

How universities use social media to attract more students

1. Alumni success story video by Falmouth University

Alumni video from falmouth university

This YouTube playlist from Falmouth University highlights alum success but in a non-conventional, behind-the-scenes way. Instead of highlighting why their portfolio of creative courses is the best, FU highlights the life students can live after taking one.

2. University of British Columbia's Instagram page to curate campus life stories

University of British Columbia's Instagram page to curate campus life stories

The University of British Columbia (UBC) runs an Instagram page (@ubc_studentlife) dedicated solely to student life. Students can use the hashtag to get featured, encouraging participation and interaction.

3. Harvard displays hashtag feeds to engage students

Harvard displays hashtag feeds to engage students

Harvard Kennedy School curates and displays their social media feeds on campus TVs, digital screens, and websites during events like sports meets or fundraisers, keeping the students engaged.

But what type of content should you post on social media? And when? Here's a quick overview:

Social Media Platform Types of Content to Post Best Time to Post (Buffer data)
Instagram Student-generated content
“Day in the Life” series
Stories & highlights
7 a.m. – 8 a.m. on weekdays
Facebook Student and staff achievement
Information about sponsorships and financial aids
Live sessions
9 a.m. – 10 a.m. on weekdays
LinkedIn Alumni success stories
Information about career workshops
Skill-building webinars
9 a.m. – 5 p.m. on weekdays.
X (formerly Twitter) Real-time updates
Awareness programs
Hashtag events
11 a.m. on Monday and Friday
YouTube Campus tours
Inside the classrooms
3 p.m. – 4 p.m. on Fridays

Jennifer Hoitsma, VP of Marketing at SmartPass and an experienced EdTech leader, suggests doing the following to boost social presence and engagement:

  • Focus on user-generated content (UGC). In higher education, nearly all users (students and staff) are easy to find on social media and often active. Your student and faculty populations are also more diverse than those of other industries. UGC is a great way to highlight different perspectives and backgrounds. 

  • Encourage participation by setting up a student ambassador program. Make it easy for students to participate by clearly explaining what, where, and when to post! 

  • Develop a unique voice. If you will build a brand new community, focus on your unique brand voice and have a reason for professionals to join. Will they get exclusive content? Discounts to industry events? Behind-the-scenes tips that will help them do their job better? It's beneficial to hire someone who understands (or is part of) the community you want to tap into, whether it's students, faculty, administrators, etc.

Search engine marketing for higher education

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is the practice of using online advertising and search marketing to help potential customers (potential students, in the case of higher education) find your website on search engines like Google or Bing. It uses two distinct approaches:

  • Paid search marketing, or pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, involves paying search engines to show your Ads to prospective students when they search keywords like "best law university." These Ads appear at the top of the search engine results page (SERPs) and are called paid results. 

  • Organic search marketing, also known as search engine optimization (SEO), improves your website's search engine visibility by including targeted keywords (again, like "best law university") in your web page content. Search engines like Google then rank these pages based on relevancy and quality of content in organic results.

Together, the two results are shown in the image below:

Ahrefs example of google search results

Even though the two methods differ in approach and cost incurred, their primary goal remains the same: improving your website's visibility and discoverability on the SERPs.

Here are a few tips to improve your website’s visibility on SERP:

  • Create a high-converting landing page. Either way, your website will be the first touchpoint in the student's journey. Three in four prospective students surf your website to seek initial information. Make sure it's informative without being overwhelming. It should be interactive, engaging, and easy to navigate.

  • Build a keyword cluster to target. When making the list, prioritize keywords based on factors like search intent, relevancy, cost per click, search volume, and whether or not they can result in direct sales.

  • Think mobile-first. Most prospective students look up information on their Smartphones, so optimizing your website and Ad copies for smaller screens makes sense.

Content marketing for higher education

Content is the foundation of every effective marketing strategy. If you create valuable, audience-centric content that informs, educates, and delights in equal measure, you can keep your pool of students engaged and coming back for more.

But what are the different types of content you can create for potential and existing students? There are many options, as shown in the image below:

semrush example of content types of higher ed marketing

However, you don't need to create every type of content. Consider the knowledge needs and preferences of your target audience. For example, Gen Zs spend over 80% of their time on YouTube, followed by Instagram and TikTok. Since these platforms are focused on short-form video content, you know what to create to attract Gen Z's attention.

Email marketing for higher education

Email marketing for colleges is a stone that kills not just two but three birds together:

  • Send personalized emails to recruit best-fit students. Share valuable information about courses, financial aids, workshops, and important announcements.

  • Keep the alumni network connected. Update them with institutional achievements. Send invites for alumni meets and networking events.

  • Provide news and updates to enrolled students. Broadcast important information, gather feedback, promote events, and embed interactive elements like Instagram feeds to boost engagement. With Flockler, you can embed Instagram feeds in various email marketing platforms with a few clicks.

email marketing statisitcs in higher education

At 4.4% and 28.5%, the education sector has the industry's highest click-through and open rate. This is reason enough to invest in the channel. Yet, not all email communications are appreciated. No matter how well-thought-out, email communication from colleges, as from brands, can end up being "time-suck" for the audience.

On the Confessions of a Higher Ed CMO podcast, Ashley Budd, Senior Director of Advancement Marketing at Cornell University, shared how they tend to exceed 55% open rates for their email campaigns. How do they manage such a feat?

She spilled the beans and gave a mini-masterclass on email best practices:

  • It boils down to the quality of the content. Are you using the right tone for your audience? Are you covering suitable topics for your audience? How long does it take them to read the email content? You should consider major and minor details when writing emails to get the best results.

  • Are your emails even landing in the inbox? First and foremost, make sure your emails are not ending in spam.

  • Should the email be sent from a person or organization with which the recipient has a relationship? This will depend on the recipient or how you've funneled the email leads. For example, Cornell students don't have a first-name relationship with the marketing team, so their emails are sent from the organization.

  • Your subject line should always reflect the email content. Trying to be cute here will only come across as gimmicky. Instead of leaving the meat for the email body or the pre-header, prioritize the subject line to get higher CTRs.

  • Recipients perceive email and website content similarly. They read it in the same F-pattern. So, when drafting email campaigns, pay attention to the user experience.

How to craft a successful higher education marketing plan

A higher education marketing plan is unique to each institute. So, while there's no "right" approach to writing one, it's always best to define and expand your marketing strategy with three core elements: segmentation, targeting, and positioning, also known as the STP marketing model.

Let's break down the process before you can get to the strategy bit. It will have five simple steps.

  1. Conduct market research and analysis

  2. Define clear marketing objectives

  3. Develop a marketing strategy

  4. Craft an action plan

  5. Track performance and update the plan

Step 1: Conduct market research and analysis

Start by conducting an in-depth internal and external analysis of your marketing so far. What worked? What didn't? Before getting your hands dirty, run a quick Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, and Threat (SWOT) analysis of your past performance.

This front load will inform how well your strategy plays out later. Look into:

  • Opportunity. Review how the changing demographics, socioeconomic factors, and competitor activities affect the opportunities in your targeted pool of learners.

  • Trends. Consider audience sentiment and perception around colleges and courses to find the best way of positioning your institute. For example, prospective students are considering the diversity of courses and tech-driven skill enhancement instead of world-class amenities when picking a college. This is why the University of Michigan is using its Center of Academic Innovation as a competitive advantage.

  • Tools. Dole out surveys, use audience research tools, share feedback forms, and interview the direct student pool to gather first-hand insights.

Step 2: Define clear marketing objectives

What's the primary goal of the marketing plan? It could be:

  • boosting student enrollment rates

  • increasing international student recruitment

  • strengthening student retention

  • improving alumni network and relations

This goal will serve as the North Star to your marketing team as they navigate the tides of a fresh admission season. Your goals should be measurable and time-bound, so you'll know exactly what you're working towards, for how long, the metrics to track, and how effective specific tactics turn out.

Step 3: Develop a marketing strategy

Let's rewind a little and revisit the STP framework shared above. Dave Chaffey of Smart Insights has brilliantly conceptualized and visualized it, as shown below.

A visual representation of the STP marketing model

As you'll notice above, the process flows from segmentation to targeting to positioning.

  • Start by segmenting your best-fit applicants. Depending on your marketing objectives, these can be adult learners looking for online courses, international students from Asia, recent high school graduates, or their parents—to give you a perspective.

  • Once you've identified the target segment, learn everything you can about their preferences, expectations, behavior, level of engagement, and more to determine the right marketing mix.

  • Lastly, a well-developed understanding of the target segment will help you understand your value proposition, how to differentiate your offerings, and how to communicate it through the right messaging.

Step 4: Craft an action plan

Your action plan is a roadmap covering digital marketing strategies, tactics, tools, and performance metrics. It should detail each of the following factors:

  • Timeline. Decide on a realistic timeframe to execute the action plan. Factor in your goals

  • Budget. What resources, skills, and expertise do you need on the team to execute the plan? Set a budget to match those needs and get stakeholders' buy-in.

  • Marketing mix. You can choose a mix of digital marketing strategies after considering your audience's journeys and touchpoints. Also, consider team skills, campaign needs, and budget limitations to determine the ideal mix for promoting your institution.

  • Goals. Set specific goals for every marketing tactic or channel. For example, the engagement campaign's email open rates should increase by 5%. This way, you'll know which tactic produces the best results.

  • Tools. As you execute the marketing plan, you may need to invest in paid tools for project management, market research, social media marketing, and more. Consider this spending to better allocate the budget.

  • Key performance indicators(KPIs). Before you begin marketing efforts, select a KPI for every campaign or activity you'll execute, such as engagement metrics (likes, comments, shares) for a social media campaign. This will tell you how effectively a marketing tactic works and where it needs improvement.

Step 5: Monitor performance and update the plan

A marketing action plan isn't set in stone. You can (should) re-work and re-create the roadmap based on its effectiveness.

Monitor performance by collecting weekly, fortnightly, or monthly data – depending on your marketing plan's timeline and goals. For example, if you're running PPC ads to target prospective students during the spring intake, start as early as April, track performance, and optimize the ads weekly. This performance tracking and optimization cycle will ensure you're getting good returns on the marketing investment.

Higher education marketing trends in 2024

Besides building a solid foundation, a good marketer also pays attention to the signs of the times. Here are two higher education marketing trends we see dominating in 2024:

1. Personalized interactions will be key to engagement

2. Creator-focused degrees will prove to be a competitive advantage

Get started with higher education marketing

You now know the key challenges, strategies, tactics, and tools for higher education marketing.

Begin first with audience research. Understand their ethos to build a strategy and create a marketing plan with goals, metrics, budget, and timeline. Document every step of the process and monitor performance periodically. This will help you reach prospective students and boost student recruitment and retention rates.

With Flockler, you can gather and display social media feeds from your favourite channels. See the full list of supported content types and sources

Flockler helps marketers like you to create social media feeds and display user-generated content on any digital service. Keep your audience engaged and drive sales.

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