Skip to main content

The Current State of Higher Education Marketing

It’s only July and already 2020 has proved itself to be one of the most disruptive, if not the most disruptive year of the past several decades. While the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on society and the economy still remain unknown, it’s clear that in the short term some industries are more impacted than others. In recent weeks, the best way to approach the Fall 2020 school semester has been a huge topic for debate, both at the local and national level. The debate centers on whether schools – ranging from elementary to higher education – should return for in-person classes or implement online programs to facilitate social distancing. However, with so many factors to consider, it is not likely there will be a one size fits all approach to in-person classes versus online learning for institutions. 

Higher education institutions (including public universities as well as national, private and community colleges) are facing a unique challenge in the wake of COVID-19. As of this July, The Chronicle of Higher Education has reported only 7% of colleges and universities have committed to holding classes completely online, but many remain undecided. With the school year quickly approaching, every school must make the difficult decision very soon to either proceed with in-person schooling, online schooling or a hybrid approach to classes. Schools must make this decision while keeping the immediate well-being of its students, educators and larger faculty in mind. At the same time, institutions must also recognize both the short and long term impacts of these decisions. 

For instance, large universities that typically enroll a freshman class who primarily reside on campus may see Fall 2020 applications and enrollment decline in a response to the shift to online-only instruction. Conversely, established online schools (particularly graduate programs) may see interest increase as established professionals seek at-home options to advance their career while sheltering in place. Regardless of these short term trends and obstacles, higher education institutions need to keep long-term goals and priorities in mind. 

A long-term perspective is particularly important when communicating and engaging with current and potential students through digital and social media. The message a university communicates now will impact perception over time and may influence prospective students’ decision to enroll in the future. To effectively reach and meaningfully engage with potential enrollees, higher education institutions need to deploy a long-term, full-funnel digital strategy, keeping several best practices in mind. 

Meet Them Where They Are: Embrace Social Platforms & Influencers

GenZ and Millennial audiences are increasing time spent with social media, particularly in environments outside of Facebook. A recent emarketer study reports that Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok represent the highest increase in daily usage among users ages 12-34. Vertical videos are featured across these apps in the forms of user-generated content as well as branded content. Vertical video is immersive and maximizes real estate on a mobile device, allowing a brand’s message to take up the full screen. Vertical formats, particularly vertical video, can also lead to higher engagement, ad recall and improved brand perception. 

Higher Education institutions should capitalize on this trend by developing creative assets that are authentic and consistent with organic content. Creative should be developed with niche audiences in mind with tailored messaging that emphasizes the values that resonate with prospective students across all phases of their journey to enrollment. 

Leverage What You Know: Utilize CRM and First Party Data Effectively

First party data, including CRM and website activity, are the most effective data sources to understand an institution’s current and prospective students digitally. CRM data should be utilized to provide insight into student behaviors and values. Current and prospective student lists can be shared with digital data providers to identify commonalities across target markets and  provide insight into student interests and activities. Based on the data analysis higher ed marketers can then create strategic audience segments to customize creative and test various messages to evaluate what resonates most with each grouping.

It’s important to note that universities can utilize CRM data while also protecting student privacy. Intermediaries and third party platforms such as Liveramp allow institutions to upload their first party data and anonymize all information prior to sending it over to any external parties.

In tandem with CRM data, an advanced pixel strategy can allow higher education markets to effectively communicate with prospective students across digital environments. For instance, users who have visited or started applications for specific programs can later be re-targeted with ads that are specific to their desired disciplines.

Be in it for the Long Haul: Long-Term Relationships Don’t Happen Overnight

With so much data and so many tools at our fingertips, it’s tempting for higher education marketers to hyperfocus on short-term performance and expect near-immediate results. It is common for institutions to exclusively focus digital campaigns on students’ when they are actively applying to college. Of course, it’s important to reach students during their application process, but considering which factors may influence that decision over time is also equally important.

Choosing a school is a huge decision both for undergraduates as well as graduates and continuing education students. A student’s perception of prospective schools can be influenced by an innumerable array of factors, including family associations, sports affiliations, programs, current events, public perception to name a few and can begin forming in one’s early childhood. With this in mind, it’s vital for institutions to expand their target audience beyond the students who are currently eligible to enroll. 

Embrace Change: Strategically Plan, Test, Dynamically Optimize & Repeat

Across digital initiatives, higher education institutions should strategically plan based on their business objectives. The media mix, targeting, messaging and key performance indicators should look very different for an awareness focused effort versus a campaign intended to drive enrollment. Immersive channels and formats such as longer form videos can be a strong tactic for upper funnel initiatives. However, if a marketer finds very few users are finishing their :60s video ad, they may pivot to a :30s or :15s version to help deliver their message to completion. Conversely, when a lower funnel enrollment campaign is not driving leads, marketers may pivot to a broader traffic objective to bring new prospects into their retargeting pool. Regardless of the campaign objective and tactics, universities should approach all digital plans with the mindset to test, learn and actively make adjustments based on results. 

Even the best researched plans have potential to fall short when in-market. It’s crucial higher education marketers are nimble and responsive to performance and trends in real time. It’s also important to consider all factors that impact a digital campaigns performance. Digital ads often serve as an initial point of interaction between a school and a student, but are only a small part of the process to enroll. The user experience on a universities website plays a critical role in nurturing potential students from consideration to action in the application process. Information on how to apply or seek more information should be prominently displayed to maximize conversion and create a positive user experience.


If you’d like to talk about potential strategies for your higher education clients, contact us here