Two young female college students sitting on steps in front of a university building, looking at a laptop screen together.

Putting Digital Marketing into Perspective


It’s time to make good on our promises of a student-centric approach, which means addressing head-on the things that are most important to a prospect: how much, how long, and what do I get for it.

About a year ago I hosted a webinar in partnership with Wichita State University’s Online division and UPCEA on thinking bigger around marketing strategies and tactics for scaling enrollments. During that webinar, a significant number of attendees indicated they were facing stagnant or declining enrollments at their respective institutions. While it’s tough to acknowledge the challenges ahead, I like to think there’s always a little comfort in knowing we’re not alone.

Of course, there are many factors that play a role in enrollment growth, but one thing is becoming increasingly evident: digital marketing is a necessary part of the equation. Just last year Google ran a longitudinal study which found that 86% of higher ed prospective students considered digital to be an important part of the decision process. It’s clear that having a strong, cohesive, and impactful digital presence is mission-critical for institutions.

A nice framework for organizing and executing your marketing plans and efforts is what marketers refer to as the Digital Marketing Trifecta:

Owned Media– These are channels you create and control, such as your website and blog.

Earned Media– The most common example of earned media is word-of mouth, but this area can also include social shares, reviews, etc. Essentially, this is content that’s voluntarily being shared by the public.

Paid Media– These are channels you pay to have a presence in, including ad sponsorships such as paid search or display placements.

All three parts of this trifecta are critical to success. Their influence can’t be understated when you consider how complex the prospect-to student journey has become. The same Google study found that one prospect had more than 3,000 digital touch points in just six weeks, as she worked through questions in the awareness, engagement, and action stages of the decision process. All three of these areas must work in concert to help the prospect arrive at one, important conclusion: your school is the right fit for their needs.

Marketing has become a complex web of channels and specialization areas, and the very best are driving strategies and decisions with data. A “one-size-fits-all approach” won’t get you far these days—savvy prospects expect value-add information that’s personalized to their needs. 

Higher-ed marketing is full of what I like to refer to as a “sea of sameness”—thousands of institutions touting the same benefits (“flexible, online, accredited”), making it extremely difficult to break through all the noise in the marketplace. Boiling your messaging down to focus on what’s most important to a prospect, as well as your key brand and program differentiators, can help your institution stand out from the crowd and resonate with prospective students.

Here are a few good questions to get you started in this process:

  • Is my website serving up information that’s useful for prospects during the various stages in the decision process? A good starting point would be the three points mentioned at the start of this post—how much, how long, and what do I get for it. If you’re not addressing these head-on, you’re missing the boat on what matters most to prospective students.
  • Am I investing my marketing dollars in channels that are relevant to my current audience or the audiences I’m looking to break into? (A friendly tip that nine in 10 enrolled students have used the Internet to research higher-ed institutions, according to a Google study.)
  • Are all my interactions with prospects—known and unknown—adding value? For example, am I providing usable information such as career services, job outcomes, financial aid options, etc. that can help encourage prospects to take the next step in the process?

Changing buying behaviors have disrupted many industries (retail comes to mind as a “prime” example), and now it’s higher ed’s turn. But that doesn’t mean you can’t adapt. By implementing a sound digital strategy—one comprised of an integrated mix of owned, earned, and paid media that meets prospective students where they are, with the information they’re looking for—your institution can address these challenges head-on.

Questions? Reach out to Stacy Williams, Senior Director, Business Development. Blackboard’s Strategic Marketing & Recruiting Services has helped dozens of institutions break through the noise to reach their target audience with digital marketing campaigns that capture what makes the brand or program unique, while addressing the questions prospects care about. We’d love to do the same for yours too.

Sources Referenced:

2012 study conducted by Google and market analysts Compete.

CALEM 2017 Presentation: “Win Hearts, Minds and Enrollments with Digital” by Shannon Snow, Head of Industry, Education at Google