How Enrollment Marketing Has Become Essential for American Colleges
April 2, 2018 | Kaleigh Moore
For most colleges and universities, enrollment marketing is a big piece of the student recruitment puzzle – and it shapes their marketing strategy from top to bottom.
The reason: Today’s higher education landscape is more competitive than ever before. Data from a 2015 Gallup poll of admissions directors showed that 58% had not yet filled their fall class rosters by the usual May 1st deadline. What’s more: More than 80% of polled college administrators in that dataset were “concerned” or “very concerned” about meeting their annual enrollment goals.
There are other challenges to factor in as well – like the fact that today’s college student demographic is different from that of the past. Not only are modern students extremely tech-savvy, but their core values are different, too: they think differently about financial aid and put more emphasis on campus-based experience than past generations.
So how are colleges and universities connecting (and converting) prospective students in this increasingly competitive environment? Enter enrollment marketing.
Defining Enrollment Marketing
First: Let’s get on the same page about what enrollment marketing is.
Most define enrollment marketing as a collective strategy used by colleges and universities to attract and engage potential students and their families. It’s similar to traditional content marketing efforts, but different in that its end goal is to convert prospects into students. It encompasses marketing efforts across many different channels and mediums like social media, PPC, radio, email, print, digital, and more.
Think of enrollment marketing as part of a college or university’s sales funnel. The college marketing and admissions department, much like any traditional marketing and sales department, is responsible for driving lead generation, conversions, and ROI for the organization. Enrollment marketing efforts help these teams accomplish their goals with a multi-pronged approach.
An Overview of Enrollment Marketing Trends in 2018
At a high level, data illustrates some important findings on the current state of enrollment marketing. A report from Hanover Research showed that:
Marketing is more important in higher education than ever before. Investments into enrollment marketing are up across the board, and some schools are even hiring external firms or professionals to supplement their brand-building and recruitment efforts.
Digital is on the rise. To accommodate the preferences of the college-age demographic, more colleges and universities are focusing on improving their digital touchpoints like their social media presence, website, mobile marketing and more. Data shows that as of 2015, more students prefer to communicate with campuses digitally (via email) than through traditional direct mail.
An omni-channel approach is key. Long gone are the days of the direct mail-heavy approach: Today, students need a cross-channel experience in order for marketing messages to stick. That means leveraging email, social, network ads, and more – all working together with a seamless message. Automation helps make this less time-consuming.
Storytelling is important. More institutions are promoting alumni narratives and lifelong learning benefits in their marketing materials to showcase success stories as a form of social proof.
As you can see, there are a lot of commonalities that those in the higher education vertical share with those in a business/customer-facing environment. Both are working to drive lead generation, and ultimately, conversions.
Next, let’s add some context and take a look at how different higher education institutions are using enrollment marketing in their day-to-day work.
How Colleges and Universities Use Enrollment Marketing
Colleges and universities (both large and small) use enrollment marketing in different ways to attract new students. I reached out to a few professionals to see how their school deploys this tactic. From experience-based marketing messages to fostering personal connections through storytelling, they shared some interesting examples.
Building a foundational brand
For some colleges, creating a strong, cohesive brand is an important part of the enrollment marketing strategy. Not only does it help ensure messages resonate across various touchpoints, but it also improves the relevancy of marketing efforts for the target audience.
College marketing content strategist Eliza Anne Green said,
“Experience is shaped by everyone and everything from the freshman RA to the alumni relations office to the food served in the cafeteria. When establishing your brand, colleges have to consider all these areas before finalizing a messaging platform, a logo, a photography style – or even a color palette. This can be a little unwieldy, but it’s a crucial step in order to stay consistent across all marketing from your website to campus tours. Choosing a postsecondary school is a very emotional choice, and having consistency and authenticity woven throughout the organization’s marketing will not only ensure potential students are clear on what to expect from your school, but it will establish trust from every touchpoint.”
Experience-based marketing messages
Many universities are on board with experience-based marketing messages. Because today’s students crave experiences, tying that element to marketing materials improves the odds they’ll connect.
Dawn Marinacci, Marketing Director of Ologie said,
“Members of Gen Z (today’s college student) are significantly different from other generations – and there are big differences among students. We recommend reaching this demographic by thinking about individual attitudes and behaviors, rather than gender, race, or community. Yes, technology is an extension of Gen Z’s identity, but they crave real-life experiences too. Give them a taste of life at your campus on your website and through mailings and digital marketing. Show that variety reigns supreme. Prospective students want to know what their daily life might look like: where they will eat, sleep, learn, and socialize.”
Colleges like Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania are doing just that. Through visual marketing efforts on Snapchat and Instagram (think photos and videos), they help prospective students get a sense of what campus life is like so students can imagine themselves as part of the campus community.
Holly Landis, the Web Content and Social Media Manager for the college said, “Enrollment marketing is a crucial part of our strategy for bringing in new students. As a small school, it’s important that we show prospective students and families what Elizabethtown is all about and how we might be the right fit for them.”
Targeting niche student demographics
Other schools like Wheelock College use targeted campaigns across digital channels like YouTube, Pandora, and Instagram to connect with a specific type of student that’s likely to connect with what the school has to offer.
Jake Wilkenfeld-Mongillo, the college’s Director of Marketing, explained that as a smaller school, one of the things they do well is connect with niche student demographics through storytelling.
“Our marketing has positioned us as a smaller school that is a good fit for students looking for a specialized type of learning experience – and that’s a gift. An example of this is the spoken word video we promoted on digital channels in which a young female alumni speaks about her path into service.”
“We heard from one student that saw this ad on YouTube that she ended up watching it all the way through – and then immediately scheduled a campus visit,” he said. “It spoke to her.”
Why Enrollment Marketing Matters
We know the what and how of enrollment marketing now – but what about the why? What’s the driving force behind this shift in marketing strategy for colleges and universities? Based on the conversations I had with marketing professionals, there are a few key factors that make this approach important and effective.
Students have a lot of choices
Today, students look at many different options when it comes to different colleges and universities. With the help of digital resources like virtual campus tours, students can easily “visit” more schools than ever before, too.
This means students are aware of their options in a way past generations have not – and there’s more competition overall. It’s more important than ever before for colleges to communicate their value proposition.
Financial aid is viewed differently
Because today’s college-age demographic is more aware of their options about secondary education, it’s shifted their view of financial aid. Many students view it more as an investment, so they want to get the best possible experience and education for their money. Lowest cost is not always the top deciding factor for today’s students, as indicated by the increase in student loans over the past 10 years:
It’s part of a larger retention strategy
Much like brands in a business setting, reducing churn and boosting long-term customer retention is an important piece of the overarching goals around marketing and sales. Higher education institutions face the same challenges in regard to student retention.
By continuing to build the relationship with students attained from enrollment marketing efforts, they essentially increase the lifetime value of the student by ensuring they complete their four years at the school. This lowers their proverbial “cost per acquisition.”
Enrollment Marketing: A Modern Approach
Across the country, colleges and universities are already on board with enrollment marketing. Much in the way businesses have goals around conversions, ROI, and long-term retention, enrollment marketing is the strategy that’s behind these similar efforts for higher education institutions.
And it’s working: In an increasingly competitive environment, it’s helping them connect with prospective students in new, more meaningful ways – transforming them into eventual alumni.