Higher Education and Beyond: A Changing World for Marketers

Engagement Marketing


Class is now in session! Marketers can learn about a lot more than just textbook knowledge from higher education. Marketing has undergone significant changes in the past few years as consumers have shifted their interests to online and mobile channels. The landscape has become much more competitive with marketers fighting to capture and retain interest among the masses. And that’s true for all marketers.

For higher education in particular, 58% of admissions directors had not met their goal of filling fall classes by the May 1 deadline this year, according to Inside Higher Ed. To fill this gap, marketers need to start integrating holistic digital strategies into their day-to-day campaigns, targeting everything from new prospects to existing customers, and for those in higher education, high school students to alumni.

Based on a 2015 E-Expectations study of high school students:

  • 78% of respondents indicated that college websites make a difference in their perception of the institution.
  • 70% of students have looked at a college website on a mobile device.
  • 60% of seniors and 55% of juniors stated that they are more likely to consider institutions that employ digital strategies.

What does this mean? And how are institutions taking these insights and evolving the way they approach and improve enrollment, retention, and advancement? Hanover Research has recently identified three core areas that outline these trends; while their research applies to higher education in particular, these trends span across all industries:

Importance of branding and marketing

Institutions are becoming more and more aware of the importance of creating a unique brand presence to differentiate themselves from their competition. There is an increased focus on digital channels, with 61% of education marketers stating that they began their branding strategies within the past five years. Colleges and universities are now investing in responsive design, analytics tools, social media, and marketing automation. To provide a truly coherent student experience across all touchpoints, institutions are starting to understand and act on the need for an integrated multichannel strategy based on student behavior. It’s critical for them to ensure consistency among positioning, identity, strategy, stated goals, and personalized communications.

Takeaway for marketers: Integrate your marketing strategies across all channels to best target your messages based on your customer’s behavior, online and offline.

Engagement across the student lifecycle

Student engagement does not stop at successful enrollment—it continues through the time spent in college and long after students graduate and become alumni. In addition to meeting admissions goals, institutions need to worry about increasing student retention and graduation rate to transform students into donors and advocates. This is where engagement marketing—marketing to your consumer with a relevant message, based on who they are and what they are doing—comes into play. Through relevant, targeted, and personalized communications, administrators and marketers can build lifelong relationships with students.

With a plethora of channels and information at their disposal, students need to be reached at the right place at the right time. If a student’s digital body language says she is looking for a financial assistance, she should be entered into a nurture program centered around loans, grants and scholarships. After enrollment, if she starts displaying interest in going abroad, she should be sent communications on exchange programs, overseas internships etc. Efforts like these can go a long way in increasing her affinity and loyalty with a particular institution.

Takeaway for marketers: Look at your customer’s journey as a whole, from acquisition to engagement, retention, and advocacy.

Rise of digital education

Online education is growing drastically, with 71% of institutions currently offering remote offerings. Some colleges have even partnered with the Khan Academy, a non-profit educational organization, to deliver online education globally. While the biggest disadvantage of remote learning is the lack of face-to-face interaction, institutions are adopting experiential learning and innovative approaches to instruction such as “gamified” teaching to address this. Students can create a character, play as part of a team, and earn experience points and rewards based on class-related behaviors. Other examples of this are adaptive learning, where the system modifies the material in response to student performance, as well as “flipped classrooms” that place emphasis on students’ engagement level and convenience rather than the instructor’s.

Takeaway for marketers: Distribute your content online to promote engagement and attain a higher reach.

All of these trends point at one core, oft-repeated theme: “student first”. Private schools, public universities, and community colleges alike cannot ignore the importance of making everything student-centric, from branding and marketing to engagement and education. With the massive investment students today need to make in to earn a higher education degree, it is understandable for them to be selective over their choices. And it’s only fair that institutions provide them with the experience they need, from their high school years through and beyond their long careers.

These trends ring true for higher education and beyond, as marketing is now, more than ever, focused on putting the customer first. The digital marketplace has put the power back into their hands and it’s up to you to convince them.

For a deep dive into these findings and insights in higher education marketing, download the new Hanover Research report, 2016 Trends in Higher Education Marketing, Enrollment and Technology.

Ready to start implementing these strategies? Tune into our free on-demand webinar Enroll and Advance Students with Engagement Marketing and hear George Washington University share its success story.