The Shifting Landscape of Higher Ed Marketing


While many factors play a role in enrollment, one thing is increasingly evident: Digital marketing is a critical part of the equation. Having a strong, cohesive, and impactful digital presence is no longer optional with 86 percent of higher-ed prospective students citing digital to be an important part of the decision process, according to a longitudinal study conducted by Google. 

It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the rapid rate at which digital marketing is evolving. A quick look at the evolution of the Marketing Technology LUMAscape (an annual report highlighting the scope of companies within a particular industry) provides an intense visual that helps demonstrate the growing complexity of the space over the years:

Digital marketing has become a complex web of channels and specialization areas, technologies, and vendors, and the best organizations are relying on data to drive strategic planning, execution, and optimization to drive growth.

A few things to keep in mind as you consider strategic planning for the year:

Crawl Before You Run

First things first: Data should drive all your marketing strategy decisions. Make sure your data infrastructure is architected in a way that enables you to track, report, and analyze the key campaign-level performance metrics for your institution—this will ensure you can measure and demonstrate the return on investment for each of your marketing initiatives, which will go a long way in securing budget and support for continued and expanded efforts.

It’s also important to maximize your owned and earned media efforts because the organic leads these activities generate tend to be more likely to convert into enrollments than inquiries generated through paid marketing efforts. 

  • Owned Media– These are channels you create and control, such as your website and blog. Developing a strong presence here is key to ensuring that prospects who are further along in the research process can easily find the information they’re looking for and can take action as soon as they’re ready through mechanisms such as well-placed request for information forms and toll-free inquiry numbers.
  • Earned Media– The most common example of earned media is word-of mouth, but this area can also include social shares, student reviews, etc. Essentially, this is content that’s voluntarily shared by the public. 42 percent of the population is on social media and spending an average of 1.5 hours a day on these platforms (Emarsys, 2019), so developing, implementing, and maintaining an active strategy here is critical.

Once you have these foundational elements in place, you’ll be well-positioned to amplify your messaging through paid media.

Be Strategic in Your Resource Planning

With the complex web of channel and specialization areas have come a number of jobs that didn’t even exist just 10 to 15 years ago. True digital expertise doesn’t come cheap; however, strategically investing in seasoned experts with a focus on driving performance and ROI can pay dividends. It’s important to consider the total cost of ownership here—does it make sense to build a team internally? Or are you better off outsourcing to leverage the benefits of a consultant and/or broader team of digital experts? It’s worth building out your core requirements and conducting a cost/benefit analysis to determine the right path forward for your institution.

When it comes to budget, most of us don’t have the luxury of access to unlimited marketing funds, so it’s critical to focus your investment in the marketing channels that will produce the strongest return. Coming up on 10 years in the higher ed space, I’ve repeatedly found that paid search efforts yield the strongest ROI. That’s because this channel effectively equates to prospects actively raising their hands and demonstrating intent to pursue or complete a degree or certificate program. Awareness-building efforts such as display advertising and video also play an important role in the marketing mix, but I like to maximize inquiry generation from higher-converting channels first, then layer these activities in as I find the need to generate more awareness and, ultimately, demand from key audiences.

Beware of BSOs (Bright, Shiny Objects)

With thousands of vendors crowding the marketplace, it’s easy to get sidetracked by all of the options. And there’s always a hot, new marketing tactic or technology (bright, shiny object) in the spotlight, further adding to the distraction. One could spend a lifetime vetting vendors! Defining the key marketing channels you want to focus on will help clear much of the noise, but there will still be decisions to make around where to invest your budget. 

Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  • Seek performance-focused vendors. Look to pay based on measurable actions, such as cost per click, to ensure you are getting some type of activity for your investment
  • Avoid what seems to be too good to be true. It’s important to put on an investigative hat when engaging with pay-per-lead vendors. Dig in deeper on how they define a lead, whether the leads are owned solely by you (as opposed to being sold to other institutions), and how leads are curated.
  • Dip a toe before diving in headfirst. Start with a smaller test to determine whether the activity is worthy of a larger investment. Depending upon the goal, I prefer to start with a budget of between $5K and $10K to get a read on top-of-funnel metrics like clicks and leads to determine whether the effort is worth continuing.

With the high level of trackability in digital advertising, marketers are now on the hook to show tangible results. There’s now a science to the art of marketing that was elusive prior to this shift, which is exciting because all your strategic decisions can now be backed by data. Whatever strategies you decide to employ for your institution, I encourage you to focus on planning and implementing trackable, performance-focused marketing campaigns that enable everyone to feel confident in the outcome of every dollar invested.

Questions? Please reach out—I’d love to hear your thoughts and perspective. Blackboard’s Strategic Marketing & Recruiting Services have 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:

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

Marketing Technology Landscape Supergraphic (2018): Martech 5000 (actually 6,829)