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Higher Education Marketing Strategies for Attracting New Students

For at least a decade now, higher education marketing professionals have been facing a problem. According to research by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, total enrollment across institutional sectors in the United States has been steadily declining since 2012. During just the pandemic alone, higher education enrollment experienced a two-year decline of 5.1% or 938,000 students from fall 2019 to fall 2021.

higher education marketing

While boosting enrollment has always been crucial, the urgent need to attract and keep new students is more pressing than ever. Additionally, it’s now a two-fold challenge in which colleges and universities have to not only prove the value of higher education but also compete with each other for a student market that is both shrinking and changing.

To survive into the future, higher ed institutions must stay on top of industry developments and craft relevant strategies that effectively appeal to their target audiences. From adjusting your messaging to tapping into student expertise, here are 5 strategies to explore in your higher education marketing efforts:

1. Focus on career-focused messaging

With the value of higher education increasingly under scrutiny, schools can’t afford to be aimless in their messaging. Every interaction and message is an opportunity to convince students of the value that the institution can provide. To do that successfully, the language needs to focus on what the students themselves care about. In most cases, this is their work and career.

For a long time, the return on investment (ROI) of a college degree was assumed to be overwhelmingly positive. In other words, going to college or university could be costly, but the “guaranteed return” of a well-paying job and career made the investment worth it. As a result, the value of higher education wasn’t something that institutions needed to particularly emphasize to prospective students.

Today, societal attitudes towards the ROI of higher education have shifted. While the cost of investment seems to exponentially increase, the return is far from guaranteed. Even more, there are now other avenues for securing that return. With the rise of online certification programs and rising wages for jobs that don’t require a degree, it’s no wonder that enrollment has declined.

For schools to remain competitive, there needs to be a strong focus on the career value—i.e., the return—of their degrees and programs.

For schools to remain competitive, there needs to be a strong focus on the career value—i.e., the return—of their degrees and programs. Beyond simply covering the details of a program, the messaging of higher education marketing campaigns should also articulate how enrolling can lead to tangible career opportunities. Present insights from post-graduation surveys, industry statistics, and former student experiences to prove the value that your institution can offer.

2. Deliver relevant, personalized campaigns

With personalization continuing to dominate most of our experiences, prospective students are increasingly expecting campaigns to deliver meaningful and relevant information.

Break through the digital noise by forgoing generic campaigns in favor of messages that are tailored to recipients’ needs and expectations. This involves analyzing data sets that reflect student interest in order to create audience segments based on real-world behavior. From there, schools can tailor campaigns to each segment and even extend those efforts to lookalike audiences.

Remember that the appeal of personalization is in the effect of recipients being spoken to and treated like the individuals they are. In a world of excess information, the messages that catch people’s eyes are the ones that are addressed specifically to them. By leveraging data, analytics, AI, and automation tools, schools can launch engagement-boosting campaigns that appeal directly to their target audiences.

3. Invest in video

With video viewing up on an overwhelming majority of consumer internet traffic (82%, by some estimates), the format shows no sign of slowing down. Versatile and engaging, video is the preferred medium for most, meaning that schools who want to effectively connect with students need to include video in their higher education marketing efforts.

Embracing short-form video is one way to start. With the rise of TikTok and IG Reels, brief vertical videos that get straight to the point of a niche subject have grown in popularity. The shorter length lends itself to higher video completion and engagement rates, while also encouraging creative innovation. With only a minute or so to make an impact, more value is placed on using that time wisely as opposed to “high-quality” yet meaningless content.

Long-form video can be a powerful tool for engaging with prospective students.

At the same time, this does not mean that long-form is dead. Even Gen Z, often assumed to have rejected longer content in favor of short-form, has been found to consume both. According to a study by Horowitz Research, “Gen Z are splitting their viewing time rather evenly between long-form and short-form content, 46% and 54% of their time, respectively.”

Perfect for relaying detailed information or telling an elaborate story, long-form video can be a powerful tool for engaging with prospective students. The key is to be strategic with where you have the content live. For example, while long-form video would thrive on YouTube, opt instead for shorter lengths on platforms where the flow of content is quicker.

4. Dive into OTT advertising

Also known as streaming TV, OTT (over-the-top) is essentially “any type of streaming media content delivered over the Internet.” The transition from traditional TV to OTT has been well-documented, with the growing number of “cord-cutters” and “cord-nevers” making traditional TV advertising less effective than it used to be. As such, schools that include OTT advertising in their higher education marketing mix can extend their reach and connect with audiences they otherwise wouldn’t have access to through linear TV ads alone.

While some OTT services (like Netflix) don’t offer advertising placements, there’s a diverse group of popular platforms that you can work with, such as Hulu, Roku, Paramount+, HBO Max, Peacock, and more.

One of the key advantages of OTT advertising is that it enables more precise audience targeting. Going beyond just demographics, many larger OTT platforms have first-party insights that schools can leverage on top of their own data. This is huge in a time where privacy concerns are changing how data can be used. With streaming largely unaffected by the onset of a “cookie-less” world, OTT has become a powerful channel for advertisers. According to our media buying partner DCW, using opted-in, premium data targeting paired with evergreen first-party data is critical to an efficient media campaign that shows true return on attention (ROA) through enrollment and graduation—especially in light of cookie sunsetting.

5. Collaborate with students on social media

For higher education institutions hoping to improve their social media marketing, look to current students as a source of insights and collaboration. With authenticity and relatability as key values among social media users, what better way to appeal to prospective students than by leading with content curated by actual students?

In practice, this could mean collaborating directly with current students to craft social media strategies and content designed to resonate with their peers. Marshall University, for example, does this through a Social Media Student Ambassador program, in which the student experience is shared authentically by the ones actually partaking in it.
Colleges and universities can also repurpose student-made content (i.e. user-generated content or UGC) rather than strictly relying on the school’s official marketing assets. By spotlighting the positive experiences that current students are posting about, higher ed institutions can boost their credibility in the eyes of prospective students.

Higher education marketing in the future

While these strategies are poised to be effective in the current landscape, schools need to understand that societal attitudes, technology, student habits, and more can all change at the drop of a hat. To withstand such shifts, having a strong foundation is essential. When stripped down to the basics, higher education marketing is about colleges and universities honing in on what their students really want, identifying their value proposition, and communicating that value through messages and channels that truly resonate.

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Photo by Jeffrey F Lin

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