Spreading the word about your academic programs is an opportunity to show learners your unique ability to provide education that fuels their aspirations and leads to achieving their goals. When university marketing is done well, learners will think of your university first when they decide to enroll in classes.
Becoming a top-of-mind university involves many moving parts. Let’s walk through practices that help you develop the brand, strategies, and infrastructure for attracting more learners to your online and on-campus programs, and ultimately, support strong student outcomes.
Establish and manage your brand
Let’s face it: higher ed is a crowded industry. In addition to competing with other universities in your region, you must also compete with online academic programs that have a coast-to-coast reach.
In response, establishing a broad brand that’s “everything to everyone” may seem appealing. But that approach only clutters your message, making you blend in with the crowd instead of standing out.
Centering your brand on three to five distinct value propositions will always work best. This way, you can focus on connecting with the students likely to enroll and thrive in your academic programs — and avoid allocating your limited resources toward trying to convince unlikely candidates.
Which value propositions should you select for your brand? Answering that question demands analyzing what makes your university unique and the market trends influencing whether your academic programs will resonate with learners.
“A good litmus test is to compare your university’s messaging and advertising with your competition. Begin with schools you believe are in your caliber of competition, but don’t disregard any schools you are actually losing students to,” said Jocelyn Stiefel, our Senior Director of Partner and Brand Marketing. “Then you can determine the best ways to differentiate your brand and the programs you offer.”
Your value propositions should focus on how you can best meet students’ needs and the outcomes you’ve achieved. A storied tradition and U.S. News & World Report rankings are great starting points, but there are many other ways to share your tangible benefits.
For instance, you could build credibility by highlighting your high-profile accreditations, such as AACSB for business programs and CCNE for nursing programs. Another option is to focus on career-connected education, showing students that you specialize in fulfilling their employment aspirations.
Further differentiate yourself by selecting value propositions for your academic programs. Start by researching how your tuition and admission requirements compare to other universities. This process will show if you can compete on cost or flexible admissions, such as waiving GRE or GMAT scores.
You can also make your academic programs top of mind by focusing on:
- accelerated course schedules
- career outcomes for alumni
- employment projections
- certification exam preparation
- prominent faculty and alumni
- clinical placement assistance
Remember — higher ed and the economy evolve constantly. While consistency matters, don’t set your brand in stone. Stay agile to keep pace with market trends, prepare learners for the most in-demand career fields, and continue building on your tradition.
Improve visibility with paid media
According to recent research from Wiley University Services, 58% of students turn to Google first after deciding to return to college. While they trust Google to guide their search, they rarely look beyond the first 10 organic results.
In other words, if your university isn’t on page one, students likely won’t find you.
Of course, ranking among the top organic results is becoming increasingly challenging. But that isn’t a reason to give up hope. Instead, it raises the value of the text ads beneath the search bar.
“Most students search for disciplines or the degree they want to get, not a specific school,” said Nicole Gauzens, our Senior Director of Media. “That’s why paid media matters — it allows your university to get in front of the student and make sure they know about your academic programs first.”
SEO remains an integral part of your marketing strategy, and you may be able to achieve a high organic ranking with time. But text ads help you appear on page one today, accelerating how quickly you can attract learners to new programs.
Text ads also provide stability when Google updates its organic search algorithm. If an update causes your organic ranking to slip, you can bid on keywords, essentially holding your position with text ads while optimizing your web content for the latest search requirements.
The types of ads you run may depend on your budget. If funds are limited, you may want to allocate them toward generating leads. That means prioritizing ads that promote specific academic programs before you run brand awareness campaigns. Even if you don’t rank organically on the first page, you can still have a presence in those organic results. How? Through placements on lead aggregator sites.
Lead aggregators organize higher ed content into different categories, such as program disciplines or online degrees. These sites provide prospective students with one-stop guidance for programs fitting their interests, helping them achieve high Google rankings. So, you can gain visibility by partnering with lead aggregators to feature your academic programs.
Google and lead aggregators sit at the tip of the media iceberg. You can also engage learners through banner and social media ads, using geotargeting to reach local audiences. Taking a local approach makes sense when you consider nearly 60% of online learners select programs offered by universities within 75 miles of home. Ensuring your university is top of mind with local learners raises the chances they’ll choose one of your academic programs over options available from a competitor.
Complement student engagement with marketing automation
Enrollment counselors work in fast-paced environments. Responding to an unending tide of student queries can feel overwhelming, putting staff at risk of early-career burnout, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
Unfortunately, budget constraints make it hard to address this challenge by hiring more enrollment staff. Inside Higher Ed reported the pandemic could cost higher education $183 billion. That’s on top of cuts to public funding that have lingered since the 2008 recession.
Here comes marketing automation to the rescue. It increases your student engagement exponentially through automated emails and texts that answer student questions immediately. Plus, it helps you provide a self-service model so students can complete the admissions process without ever picking up a phone.
“This self-service model helps students move through the admissions process with much less friction,” said Lindsey Vickers, our Senior Director of Marketing Operations. “Students still access valuable information about tuition, financial aid, and admissions, only in a self-service format they prefer.”
Successful automation doesn’t replace the enrollment team — it partners with it. So, it’s wise for marketers to collaborate with the enrollment team before crafting automated messages.
It’s important to listen to the people who are on the phone with students every day. Their input will help you identify the best touchpoint for nurturing leads and format your content in ways students find helpful and engaging.
Craft messages with a friendly tone that students find easy to understand. In addition to coming across as more engaging, conversational messaging can boost your conversion rates, per Search Engine Journal.
You should also strive to deliver automated messages that students consider relevant. That means it’s vital to update your CRM data continuously and account for the actions each student takes. When you do, you can deliver the right message based on where students are in their journey.
A great time to engage students is when they return to your website to learn more about programs or research tuition. In this scenario, you could send an automated email detailing ways to pay for school and receive financial aid. Most students will welcome this message because it matches the topic they’re researching at that moment. These messages also show that you’re invested in the student’s success while helping them advance toward enrollment.
Acoustic is an excellent platform to use for marketing automation. When you integrate Litmus with Acoustic, you’ll have a straightforward way to test your automated messages, confirming emails display correctly on mobile vs. desktop and across email platforms, such as Gmail and Outlook. It’s also important to monitor your automated messages for ADA compliance, such as making content readable, providing alt tags for images, and ensuring content works with screen readers.
Develop your creative strategy
In competitive industries like higher ed, you can’t deliver messages in a cookie-cutter way. Developing a creative strategy that elevates your brand goes a long way toward helping your university stand out to prospective students.
“An effective creative strategy showcases your mission,” said Mike Leonardo, our Director of Creative Services. “It tells the history of your university and community and communicates what makes your university unique.”
Brand guidelines serve as the foundation for winning creative strategies. They establish a roadmap for your visuals and voice, ensuring your content always looks and sounds like “you.”
Once equipped with your brand guide, you’ll be ready to develop your creative strategy. The Digital Marketing Institute suggests focusing on these four areas:
First, determine the most basic level of your strategy: What will you say? You’ll also select the media for delivering your message, such as email, text ads, or posts on Facebook, Instagram, and other social platforms.
Decide the actions you want students to take after engaging with your content, such as “request information” or “apply now.” You can also map your student engagement, so you can keep learners interested in enrolling.
Craft a compelling story that shows learners you understand their goals and provide education for achieving them.
Reference back to the brand guidelines as you develop how content looks. Be sure to follow contemporary trends when designing content. You’ll get ideas for keeping your brand fresh and creating visuals that strengthen the user experience.
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Harness user testing for flawless UX
Design means more than creating an attractive presentation. It can also dictate how students experience your web content.
With user testing, you can design web content based on specific student motivations. It also helps you identify content that frustrates or confuses learners, cluing you to why they bounce without completing your request-for-information form.
“Think of user testing like it’s a science experiment,” said Rafael Zorrilla, our Senior Director of Digital Optimization. “You make an observation. You form a hypothesis. You build an experiment. Then you look at the results.”
Experiments often take the form of A/B testing, pitting two options against each other to learn what students prefer. Then you can make decisions based on insights, not hunches.
For instance, imagine a university’s website uses a red Apply Now button. If applications lag, the web team may hypothesize that red subconsciously tells prospective students to “stop.” Then they could conduct an A/B test for that hypothesis, displaying a red button to some students and green to others. If the green button performs better, the university could roll out that change to all visitors.
Of course, user testing involves more than colors. You can conduct A/B tests on images, web navigation, and written content, such as how to phrase a call to action.
When conducting user testing, you can utilize:
- Google Analytics to learn how students interact with your website and landing pages. These insights help you understand the journey students take before joining academic programs.
- Glassbox to replay the student behavior sessions on your website pages. Then you can observe and identify patterns to what discourages or encourages them to apply.
When refining your outreach approach, don’t feel defeated when a hypothesis doesn’t pan out as expected. Instead, you should feel informed about how you can help students.
What’s more, you’ll never run out of user tests to perform. After all, the changing nature of the internet provides endless opportunities to optimize your content and user experience further.
“With the internet, evolution is constant,” Zorrilla said. “You’ll always see new technology, new devices, new behaviors. User testing provides feedback for applying these market changes to your benefit and theirs.”
In addition to user testing, you’ll need to run quality assurance tests to verify your website provides a flawless user experience. For instance, ongoing testing of your leads and application system helps address issues before students see them.
Personalize your content for the greatest impact
While user testing makes your content more intuitive, personalizing content makes it hyper-relevant. How? By focusing your message on a prospective student’s needs. And it starts with data.
It is imperative to understand who your students are before you personalize content for them. Understanding your audience goes beyond demographics, as you’ll need to consider:
- psychographics — research how students make lifestyle decisions to tailor messages to their needs
- attitudinal traits — analyze how student feelings influence their behavior
- consumer motivation — learn what inspires action to craft the perfect CTA
Armed with these data-driven insights, you’ll understand the barriers students encounter and what energizes them. You are then in a position to engage them even better when they’re ready to take the next step in their education. From there, you can create personas for different student segments. These personas will serve as models for personalizing your content.
Your personalization doesn’t need to be as sophisticated as using a student’s name in content. (In fact, many students find that tactic off-putting, not persuasive.) Instead, strive to engage them when you can help them take the best next step in their journey.
You can also personalize content using the first-party data in your CRM system. For instance, are there opportunities to share relevant graduate programs with students who earned a bachelor’s degree?
You can update your approach regularly to tailor content based on the latest data and student needs. After all, anything in marketing is made with clay, not stone. You must be ready to start over and adapt.
Build a winning team
We’ve outlined numerous things to do but left out one of the most important parts — the people who will devise your marketing plans and put them into action. To harness each tactic shared here, your university will ideally have individuals to oversee these functions:
- Marketing director — guides all marketing efforts by planning initiatives, directing strategies, allocating funds, and establishing the brand
- Media manager — coordinates the placement, creation, and scheduling of digital and traditional advertising, including paid social
- Marketing strategist — researches trends and opportunities to develop strategies for achieving your marketing objectives
- Web analytics manager — analyzes website performance to maximize traffic and conversions, such as requests for information and applications
- Web developer — applies technical acumen to maintain a content management system (CMS) and support site technologies
- Interactive designer — designs digital visuals and applies research to provide students with a seamless user experience
- Web administrator — maintains your website by adding or adjusting content, troubleshooting issues, and keeping content secure
- Content strategist — synthesizes your mission and objectives in content strategies that will guide all content you develop
- Copywriter — develops copy for websites, landing pages, and ads outlined in content strategies
Assembling a results-driven marketing team will pay dividends as you strive to engage students using the tactics shared here. That said, finding the right people and building your marketing infrastructure demands significant time and resources.
Fortunately, you don’t have to go for it alone.
Discover the impact of our flexible higher education marketing and brand management services. We can develop and implement a marketing strategy for becoming a top-of-mind university poised to match qualified and interested learners to your academic programs.
Plus, we’ve already conducted market research and built the infrastructure for rolling out personalized, automated marketing outreach to your prospective students. Contact us to discuss how we can tailor a marketing solution for your university.