Marketing for higher education is more challenging than ever, but schools that leverage the right digital tools can recruit new students despite the obstacles.

Higher education marketing requires a clear plan and solid strategies to attract and recruit new students. Post-secondary institutions need to attract students from diverse audiences representing a broad range of demographics to build their enrolments and keep their reputations sparkling.

The past year has raised significant obstacles. It will take creative solutions to overcome them. COVID-19 has profoundly affected higher education, just as it has other industries and sectors. These challenges aren’t likely to disappear quickly, and they may change your audience targeting to some degree. They’ll likely disrupt your existing marketing plans and demand fresh ideas from your marketing team.

Schools will still need to compete for recent grads and returning students, but most have also had to shift their business models and deliver systems that work within travel restrictions and local closures.

The challenge isn’t just to adapt to new marketing tools and platforms while boosting enrolment numbers, but to finesse these necessary pivots into robust plans and confident messaging.

How can I engage more students while I am closed?

With travel restrictions and closures over the last year keeping students away from schools, traditional marketing may not resonate the way it did. There’s less opportunity for personal contact and more need to have a solid and reassuring presence online.

You’ll need to find ways to do an even better job of digital marketing. Online channels can help you re-energize engagement with your audiences.

Reflect on how your messaging might need to change as you review existing marketing plans. Are they relevant now? What’s changed for your school?

You may have moved to online learning, creating opportunities to market more aggressively outside your geographical area. Perhaps you typically count on large numbers of students attending from outside the country or region who may not return. Some may transfer to schools closer to home. Others may have taken a gap year due to restrictions but plan to return.

Schools would be wise to analyze these changes and look for areas where they’ll need to adapt their marketing plans.

Marketing strategies for higher education

What elements in your marketing plan can help you recruit potential students and retain existing ones?

Identify your target markets

You’re marketing to students, returning adult learners, and parents who may be helping with applications and supplying some of or all the funding. These groups may need different information to make decisions. Be clear about who you want to reach. This will help you target your marketing more effectively and build your audiences on social media.

Show tangible value

Don’t forget to show the value of launching and completing higher education studies along with glimpses into campus life. Students worried about student debt or delaying joining the workforce need to know what they’ll get out of attending your school. Showing employment, financial and academic outcomes is essential, as is being transparent about possible career pathways. Survey graduates who are successfully employed in their fields and leverage testimonials from current students and alumni to add value.

Get clear on your branding

Branding is how your school is recognized and known within your school community and externally. Create an authentic brand for your school that communicates what you’re about and how you’re different from others. There’s no cookie-cutter answer for this. Each school has its appeal, so find ways to share what makes your school special. Don’t fabricate what doesn’t exist. Retaining students who join your school community and find what they expected is as important as attracting them in the first place.

Leverage social media networks

Social media marketing is a crucial part of higher education marketing. According to eMarketer, “Social networks will reach almost full penetration among adult Gen Zers this year, or (99 per cent) of users ages 18 to 24.”

Here are a few tips:

  • Use platforms your audiences are using. Use social media demographics to decide where your posts will have the most impact. New grads might use Instagram, Snapchat and Tiktok, while older students and parents may spend more time on Facebook.
  • Video consumption is growing among millennial and Gen Z consumers. Try live streaming via YouTube, Facebook Live, and Instagram stories and reels.
  • If their favourite platforms use images and short-form videos, they’re likely to consume and engage with those types of content from you.
  • Make paid social media advertising part of your marketing plan.

Boost the quality of your website and mobile experience

Your institution’s website is a key part of your higher ed marketing. Potential applicants to your school will be researching their options online. Your website will be their first impression of your school’s mission, programs and campus experience. Having detailed, accessible information online will help students assess your school before they visit.

Ensure the user experience (UX) on your website is excellent. Use search engine optimization (SEO) to ensure you’re showing up in results when students and parents are searching.

As well, make sure everything you include on your website is mobile-friendly. In 2018, Statistics Canada reported nearly 98 per cent of Canadians 15 to 24 years old had a smartphone, with over 57 per cent checking their smartphones at least every 30 minutes.

Explore different advertising channels

When it comes to advertising online, you have a wide variety of options. They include pay-per-click, display and social media advertising. Targeted advertising means considering who you’re trying to reach and where they’re spending most of their time. You may want to try pay-per-click campaigns to boost your traffic from people searching online. Run display ads in content they’re likely to be reading anyway or on social media.

Explore how each advertising channel allows you to target effectively. If you use Google ads, research keywords to help your content show up when people search for it. If you advertise on Facebook, try using Lookalike Audiences to target people similar to those who already like or follow your school’s official Facebook page.

Don’t forget to consider digital audio in your marketing. Your school may be able to reach new students through podcasting, online radio or other audio platforms.

Answer their questions

Focus on what your audience wants to know, not just what you want to tell them. Anticipate and answer questions potential students may have across all platforms. If you do this well on your website, it can also help you show up in Google search results, as often only a snippet is shown in the results.

Email marketing automation and segmentation

Stay in touch and keep your school community updated with emails that offer them the information they need to be successful. Automate and test your email marketing by trying out platforms to optimize your emails to boost open rates. Use email segmentation to send relevant messages to particular groups so you don’t exhaust your audiences.

Why is marketing for higher education so important right now?

Transparency raises confidence. Due to COVID-19 schools had to change how they deliver courses, welcome students and administer exams. Ensure your school has clear COVID-19 policies and messaging. Be transparent about how these changes will affect admissions, courses, programs, exams and campus life in general.

What policies are in place to keep students safe? Communicate these clearly and update them as local guidelines and restrictions change. Help your students feel safe, supported and ensure they can still see their future in your school.

Distance learning has always been essential for some learners. Now, it’s imperative to have a business model that embraces distance learning and can deliver quality instruction and testing that will help your students meet their goals while maintaining the integrity of the education you promised them.

Trends to watch in digital higher education marketing

Digital marketing is essential for reaching existing students and new audiences. Now is not the time to fall behind, as new ways of reaching audiences will always appear.

Keep an eye on marketing trends like:

  • Using micro-influencers to extend your reach.
  • Testing user-generated content to build trust within your audiences.
  • Adding augmented reality features like Snapchat GeoFilters to amplify your social impact.
  • Taking advantage of interactive ads with quizzes or games to offer experiences that involve students.

It’s unlikely the challenges ahead will simply disappear. This puts pressure on higher education marketers to try new strategies and stay relevant. Working with an agency to help optimize your marketing across existing channels and take advantage of new trends can help you weather the shifts ahead.

Whether trying to stay afloat during a pandemic or stand out in a competitive market, communicating with confidence and transparency will always be an essential part of your marketing.