In higher education marketing, everything revolves around showcasing the experiences offered at a particular college or university to prospective students. To differentiate a school from its competition, a higher education marketing agency will brand that experience and education as superior; something that can only be obtained from attending that college or university.
Currently, several factors are affecting higher education marketing teams and their strategies globally the most significant being COVID-19. To keep students and staff safe during the pandemic, colleges and universities have increased virtual learning and safety restrictions, making traditional higher ed marketing strategies, such as in-person visits, and college fairs, difficult to implement. Ultimately, this has forced marketers to think outside the box and expand their digital reach.
A Defined Audience
Does the term “prospective students” seem too broad? That’s because “prospects” only account for a portion of students in the admissions funnel. To hone in on a particular group, ask yourself: Where in the admissions funnel are they being targeted, and with what content? Most importantly, how are they responding to or engaging with it? The first step in defining your audience is to determine at what stage in the admissions funnel are marketers reaching students.
The Higher Education Admissions Funnel
- Prospects – These students are beginning to build awareness into higher ed institutions
- Inquires – Students are becoming familiar with the college or university
- Applicants – Applicant is considering which college or university to apply to
- Admits – Admitted students must choose which school they enroll in
- Enrolled – Students are enrolled in the college or university
Once a higher ed audience is defined, it is the higher education marketing agency’s job to decide which strategies and trends they will use to engage this particular audience. This task has become increasingly more complicated, as the pandemic has had an impact on which trends and strategies are likely to be successful.
Marketers need to consider what strategies they are implementing at which stage of the admissions funnel to ensure that they are reaching the right audience at the right moment, every time.
Higher Education Marketing Strategies
Even before the pandemic, college enrollment numbers were on the decline. Because of the rising costs associated with higher ed, students are thinking twice about enrolling for an experience and education that will most likely take them 10+ years to pay off. Additionally, parents want to know that the money and time their child is investing in higher education will benefit them as a career outcome.
The higher education industry is in a unique position; students and their parents are truly looking at the value that education would bring, acknowledging the expense that accompanies it.
To combat these doubts, marketers should try leveraging the graduation rates of the institution — this illustrates to parents that their child will be more than likely to receive a degree from that institution during the critical applicants and admits phase in the funnel. Hiring rates are an even more powerful asset to highlight because they demonstrate to students and their parents the data of being hired right out of college with a degree from that university.
Engaging Social Media Presence
Most traditional college students range between ages 18-22, meaning that they belong to Gen Z — the most online, tech-savvy generation to date, especially in regards to social media. TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram are popular social media platforms being utilized by higher ed brands to effectively reach these “Zoomers”  in their element.
A study conducted by TargetX found that “58% of aspiring students use social media to look up schools they are considering”, and “9 in 10 potential students in this demographic use social media” . Platforms like Instagram allow for current students to use hashtags and locations when they post, granting prospective, inquiry, and applicant students an authentic look into student life at that institution. If a college or university is serious about their social media brand, they can utilize these hashtags and locations by posting images and graphics to their profiles pages. Using these digital spaces to showcase the campus experience and culture should be a top priority for higher education marketers, especially when trying to reach students in the admissions funnel.
Utilizing Video & Streaming
With the novel coronavirus putting a stop to in-person tours and visits, marketers have been forced to think outside the box by utilizing media platforms to reach inquiring and applying prospective students.
One of these platforms is Twitch, a video live streaming service. Twitch is utilized largely by gamers, but higher ed marketers have also been using it to engage their prospective students who cannot visit their campus in person. Marketing teams can use this tool for the question and answer sessions with the admissions team, how-to-apply videos for applicants, live tours, and lectures for inquirers and prospects. In addition to streaming videos, the marketers behind the effort can also utilize data in Twitch’s analytics to refine their practices.
Another social platform being utilized by higher ed markets is YouTube. With on-campus visits slowed if not completed stopped, YouTube can become an effective, strategic marketing opportunity. Colleges and universities can develop brand identities utilizing the platform to reach a broad audience with video. YouTube videos can offer an “inside scoop” — such as a dorm tour or recorded lecture — to inquiring and applying students. YouTube videos can also be helpful later down in the funnel for accepted and admitted students — for example, a video guide for campus life or an interview with an alum can very well be the memorable content that sways a student to choose that institution.
Marketers can build a following by encouraging users to subscribe to their YouTube channel and follow their content. In 2020, Harvard University had the largest amount of subscribers, with 1,180,000 following their YouTube Channel. Berklee College of Music came in second with 1,120,000 subscribers .
The release of Google Analytics 4 in October of 2020 gave marketers insights across web applications, one of which being YouTube. Now marketers can monitor their efforts and gain insight into what content is resonating with their YouTube channel audience. For more information about the release and functionality of Google Analytics 4, check out our recent blog post.
Ultimately, social media marketing in higher ed is about meeting your audience where they’re at. If the majority of Gen Z prospective students are already on Instagram, Twitch, and YouTube, the options for methods to engage them on the platforms are virtually endless.
The Power of Word of Mouth Marketing: Alumni
One of the most impactful marketing strategies, regardless of industry, is word-of-mouth marketing. Conversely, It is also one of the most difficult strategies to control and center campaigns around.
A strategy that higher ed institutions can utilize to harness their word-of-mouth marketing is tapping into their alumni base. No matter how perfectly a college or university markets itself, prospective students in the admissions funnel are going to put more gravity into what a recent grad has to say about their experience at the institution — particularly in the admissions, application, and inquiry phases. Combine the power of video with word-of-mouth marketing by interviewing alumni and asking about their meaningful experiences at the college or university.
Marketers can also use this content in paid advertising campaigns, as well as showcase favorable data, like hiring rates after graduation. Leveraging the positive experiences of an alum or favorable data will also help market the institution to the family of the prospective student.
In addition to the above example, what new trends are we seeing in prospective student paid marketing? We are seeing an increase in email marketing vs. direct mail — Statista reports that more than 70% of students would rather get information from a college or university from an email . As well as being eco-friendly, email marketing allows marketers to utilize digital trends. These can include video tours or testimonials to show prospective students throughout the admissions funnel what an education from their institution could look like.
Thinking about higher education marketing strategies? Higher ed website design? Let us know, we’d love to get started!
 Merriam Webster- Words We’re Watching: ‘Zoomer’
 mStoner & TargetX – 2020 Digital Admissions
 ComboApp – Higher Education Marketing Strategies in the Era of COVID-19
 UniRank – Top 202 Universities on YouTube
 Statista – Distribution of Communication Frequency Preferred by High School Students Researching College In the United States in 2016, by Contact Method