In 2022, your school's higher education marketing strategy matters more than ever before. With declining enrollment, pandemic uncertainty, and an increasing number of options for alternative education, your institution needs to be on top of the latest trends in student recruitment to stand out from the rest.
In this article, we'll leverage our decade-long experience working with leading higher education institutions to provide you with trends and insights to boost your digital presence and improve your audience's web experience.
The Importance of Your Website
Despite the vast array of marketing technologies at your disposal, your website is still the hub of your overall marketing strategy and brand. In fact, according to the RNL 2021 E-Expectations Trend Report, a school's website is the most influential resource in students' college search.
Getting the design right to provide a top-notch user experience is more important than the technology behind the design. Case in point: according to the State of Higher Education Website and Marketing Technology Report, 58% of universities are currently redesigning their websites to modernize the user experience.
4 Questions for Your Higher Education Marketing Strategy
Before you redesign your website and create an effective higher education marketing strategy, you need to answer the following four questions:
1. What is your vision?
To provide a good user experience, you need to clearly understand who you are as an organization and what image you want to portray to prospective students. While this varies from school to school, most schools' vision will look something like this:
What do you do?
- Teach and engage with students
- Generate and promote research
- Prepare students for life
- Delivering a high-quality curriculum
- Creating a collaborative environment
- Giving access to faculty and hands-on learning
- Seeing your graduates contribute to society
- Changing the world through the research you produce
2. Who are your users?
Before you communicate your vision, you need to understand who your audience is, what they want, and how they want you to communicate with them. In the case of higher education, you may have several different users coming to your website for various reasons. These could include:
- Potential students (often high school seniors)
- Undergraduate students
- Graduate and postgraduate students (Master's, etc.)
- Students' parents
- Alumni and donors
The difficulty that many schools face, of course, is that what each of these users is looking for can differ greatly, and they may prefer to communicate in different ways. So how do you focus your higher education marketing strategy?
3. Your business goals vs. what your users want
For most institutions, your primary business goal will be to attract new students and retain current students. The good news is these two goals go hand-in-hand. By providing a positive experience for current students, you'll have an easier time attracting potential students to your school.
Figuring out how the goals of your institution overlap with what current and prospective students want is the key to creating an effective digital marketing strategy and positive user experience. According to the E-Expectations Trend Report, prospective students are looking for the following three things when visiting your website:
- Answers to financial and procedural questions - They want to easily find out how much it will cost to attend your school, what it takes to get in, what it will be like attending your school, and what their career prospects will be once their finished (in other words, they want to know their return on investment).
- An opportunity to interact virtually and in person - Remember that your prospective students have just spent the last two years attending school online. Even with the world opening back up, they will likely still desire a blend of online and in-person communication. So think about adding virtual campus tours, live streams and other digital interactions to your website.
- Easy, direct access to you - Students want their questions answered quickly and easily, so make sure you're providing invitations to get in touch with admissions counsellors at every stage of communication.
4. What does your school have to offer?
What is it about your school that makes it unique so that students will choose it over any of their other options? For example, do you offer small class sizes? Top-tier research facilities? A wide range of extra-curricular activities? A unique setting?
This is going to be an essential part of your core message, which should accomplish the following:
- Show potential students what's unique about your school.
- Demonstrate student engagement with stories about student life, academic life, and research.
- Include text and visuals that align with the tone of your brand.
Getting to Know Your Users
A big part of content strategy is learning how to craft your message to your primary audience, which means getting to know that audience. While using trend reports can be very helpful, the best way to understand what's important to your user is to ask them yourself.
Consider conducting surveys to ask your current students what they think. For example, why did they pick your school? What message did they want to hear from digital? What pain points did they have when interacting with your website or digital platform?
From there, you need to decide who your most important customer is. This can often be challenging for an institution to answer, but it's crucial because those are the users whose needs you will be serving. That information will help you build a distinctive experience.
Why do students choose a post-secondary institution?
According to the 2020 UCAS Undergraduate Report, the following factors influence students' post-secondary decisions:
- Age - One in three applicants reportedly first thought about higher education as early as primary school. Still, disadvantaged students are more likely to begin thinking about college later, limiting their choices.
- Degree subject - The report found that 83% of students decide what subject they want to study before choosing which school they wish to attend, highlighting the need for subject-specific outreach.
- Enjoyment is key - 99% of students report enjoyment as the primary driver of degree choice, but more than half report that high graduate employment rates have become more critical when deciding on a degree and school.
- Entry requirements - One in five students report being unable to study a subject that interested them because they did not have the prerequisites to be accepted to the program. This highlights the need to educate students about how their choices in high school can affect their later options.
- More personalized career information - One in three students said they did not receive information about apprenticeships from their school, and many believed receiving more information and advice would have helped them make better decisions.
Higher Education Content Marketing Strategies
Once you have an in-depth understanding of your vision and goals as an institution, who your user is, and what they want, it's time to start building your digital marketing strategy. Consider using the following 10 strategies in 2022 to ensure you're communicating with your most important users effectively.
Use an omnichannel marketing approach
Student-initiated engagement with potential schools dropped in the last year, likely due to the uncertainty created by the pandemic and the challenges students faced adjusting to online learning. Students are also using a wider variety of channels to search for schools than ever before, including digital ads, video, search engines, social, and more traditional sources like email and print.
So, colleges and universities need an omnichannel approach to connect with potential students, to be there for them wherever they are. Not every channel will be helpful depending on your user, so you must research your target audiences to optimize your mix and balance outreach with ROI. According to the Education Trend Report, the most effective channels include:
- Email - This was the only form of student-initiated outreach that actually increased in 2021. When designing your website, make sure email addresses for admissions officers are prominent and easy to find. Responses to student-initiated emails should be quick, specific to the student, and provide next steps or calls to action to keep the user engaged.
- Chatbots - Gen-Z users are much more comfortable chatting in either live or AI format than generations before them. Chatbots are an excellent first point of contact because it allows you to answer a user's question within seconds. To get the most value out of this tool, make sure you build in calls to action. For example, you could ask them to fill in an RFI form or allow them to connect with an admissions counsellor through another channel, like email, phone, or text.
- Customized communication - Provide students with the opportunity to select topics of interest when they're requesting information so you can adjust how you communicate with them accordingly. Key topics could include tuition and scholarship calculators, program-specific descriptions, opportunities for direct interaction (like email, call, or texts), virtual tours, and student experience testimonies. This is also an opportunity to direct them to your social media channels.
Design a mobile-first web experience
Gen-Z students are used to using their phones for all kinds of purposes, including searching for colleges and Universities. When designing your website, make sure to design a mobile-first experience instead of a mobile-friendly one. This will ensure your website doesn't lose any functionality when students navigate it on their phones rather than their computers.
Use a content management system designed for higher education
When redesigning your website, a high-quality CMS built specifically for higher education will allow you to quickly and easily update content to keep it consistent with your messaging and branding.
Your CMS should be built in such a way that allows non-technical users to update existing content without needing coding experience and should make it easy to update details like page titles, meta descriptions, and tags to continuously optimize your website's SEO so that students can find you easily.
Leverage current students
Gen-Z likes to crowd-source decision-making, so your current students are an invaluable asset when it comes to getting prospective students excited about your school. Think testimonials, stories about campus life, or success stories --- as long as they have a tie-in with your brand.
This is the perfect opportunity to use video to your advantage. In 2021, 70% of students said they watched a video on a college website, namely videos of campus tours and campus activities, current students talking about their experiences, and alumni talking about how their degree supports their career.
Students today value authenticity more than anything else when consuming content, so these videos don't have to be major productions. Keep them short (under 3 minutes) and make sure they showcase what life is like on campus in a fun, engaging, and authentic way.
Show them the money
Students want clear information about costs and funding, so make sure this information is easy to find on your website. This should include information about tuition costs, other potential costs students may incur, and upfront information about scholarships and funding. Providing a calculator is an excellent tool for students to estimate costs and shows that you're not hiding anything from them.
Don't neglect your program pages
When optimizing your website for SEO and conversion, don't forget to do so for your program pages as well as your main landing page. More than half of students search for specific academic programs instead of schools, which means they'll arrive at your program pages first instead of landing on your homepage.
This means your program pages need to rank highly against your competitors. They should also clear calls to action embedded in them to convert interested students into actual inquiries about your school. This is an excellent place to have a chatbot, an RFI form, and contact information for admissions officers.
Highlight career paths
While the main driver of students' program choices is still enjoyment, in 2020, over 50% of high school students reported that graduate employment rates had become more important to them since the start of the pandemic.
Students want to know their next step after graduation and know they'll graduate with good job prospects. Keep in mind that these pathways might be drastically different if you're targeting grad, undergrad, mature students, or people in professions who want to be close to the action.
By using alumni stories, highlighting career paths per program of study, or emphasizing their co-op and co-curricular programs, schools can help answer prospective students' career questions and give them confidence in making a choice.
Use video to your advantage
Students increasingly rely on YouTube and Instagram in their college search, demonstrating the power of video and images for engaging prospective students. Schools should have a solid social media presence on visually-oriented platforms to connect with students where they are.
Youtube and Instagram are perfect platforms for sharing videos about campus life, virtual tours of the school, and student testimonials and success stories. These videos should be focused and concise, and mobile-friendly since most students prefer to watch college videos on their phones.
4 Major Takeaways for Your Web Strategy
Schools and colleges face unique challenges when designing a higher education marketing strategy. To do so, higher education marketers should keep the following four major takeaways in mind:
- Don't neglect your website - Your website is still the center of your overall brand, and getting the design right to provide a top-notch user experience is the foundation of your marketing strategy.
- Understand your users - To design an effective higher education marketing strategy, you need to understand your users and how they choose a school. You should have an in-depth understanding of what they want and how that aligns with what your school provides and your overall business goals.
- Use various channels to reach your students - Today's students use a wider variety of channels to search for schools than ever before, including digital ads, video, search engines, social, and more traditional sources like email and print. Higher education marketers need to meet them where they are and communicate with them in a way that feels authentic.
- Promote students' ROI - Students want to know their investment in higher education will pay off, so be upfront about the cost and highlight student success stories to instill confidence in your school.
To learn more about how we can help your school create an effective digital strategy, click here and learn more about our work with higher education websites.