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Re-focusing Higher Ed Marketing as Enrollment Continues to Decline

J Katherine Bahr

Undergraduate fall enrollment in the United States is down for the seventh straight year. Reasons cited range from a declining birthrate to low unemployment, but it’s clear that competition is increasing, and universities can no longer rely on traditional marketing tactics to engage prospective students. Marketing News spoke with Megan Danielson, associate vice president of marketing at Collegis Education, about some new strategies for navigating these changing market forces.

Danielson has 14 years of experience in the higher education space and built her career around creating cutting-edge digital strategies and go-to-market solutions for educational clients. She leads the team responsible for helping clients with branding and creative through digital advertising, website strategy, conversion rates and SEO at Collegis. 

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Q: What shifts are you seeing in the education market and what prospective students expect of higher education?

A: There are definitely some interesting dynamics at play. Because of low unemployment, more competition and the shift in student preferences, institutions need to work harder to gain a student’s attention.

Really, a lot of the change has to do with consumer communication preferences. If you think about your own shift in decision-making behavior – how you use your mobile device today versus ten years ago when making purchases or conducting research – some of those preferences should be clear: Shorter content. Multiple touch points and engagements. Mobile-ready web pages. Simplified web experiences. With increased mobile-centric consumer needs, consumer-centric marketing experiences for the smaller screen are needed now more than ever.

Also, institutions have to own their brand identity and understand what differentiates them. Everyone has “online, quality, flexible” programs. Students want to know something different about you – that they identify with your values – and you need to communicate that within three seconds of them visiting your website.

Q: What kind of experiences are today’s students looking for? 

Prospective students are just like any other modern consumer – they want experiences to be frictionless, relevant and distinct. Most universities let their internal processes and functional silos dictate their consumers’ experience instead of the other way around. Some of the steps students need to go through just to get started are not aligned with the desired outcome. Students shouldn’t have to provide personal information like their birthdate on initial forms just to begin a conversation. Instead, this should be a simple, integrated process already mapped out with the student in mind.

Another inquiry form example is on the thank you page. As an industry, we have been so motivated around generating the inquiry that we focus on the form and forget what happens after a prospective student clicks submit. Doing nothing at all is a missed opportunity. Is that really how you want to introduce someone to your institution? All it takes is a simple thank you and the next steps to show that the process has initiated, you appreciate them and to help boost their excitement.

Q: What do you see as the best way for university programs to market themselves to prospective students?

It’s amazing to me how much focus in higher ed marketing is still on acquisition through list buying and paid media. Those strategies bring in quantity, but don’t necessarily bring quality applicants or drive sustainable yield improvements. An institution’s website is the primary source of brand and enrollment engagement. If you’re not communicating your brand and driving students through the enrollment process on your website, then you can’t leverage any of your marketing to its best advantage.

The first step is understanding the prospective student’s need and aligning your brand and program differentiation. Don’t just use catalog or academic content to populate your key marketing and enrollment assets.

You need to start thinking about communications from their perspective. For website delivery, this really means filtering your webpages, communicating key pieces of information quickly and identifying what action you want them to take. Be strategic about addressing the students’ needs and build your website to address those needs through content and design.

Q: What are the biggest website performance issues you see among higher education that prevent growth? 

Most institutions manage their website for multiple owners. When your website incorporates input from faculty, deans, alumni and current students, it dilutes the intent to engage core audiences (prospective students, current students, academics). Universities need to shift their thinking to show how their content aligns to these needs.  

Knowing your data and understanding who is coming to your site and who you’re designing it for makes a huge difference. At Collegis, we center an entire discovery period around identifying a university’s unique audience and helping them navigate placing the best mix of information on their homepage to serve multiple audiences while engaging prospective students.

Q: A lot of universities might not feel like they have that kind of data from their website. What big, long-term wins can universities pull from the data they currently have?

Actually, universities have data all over the place – it’s just in silos. To get to long-term wins, you need to make connections in the data you have to inform what kind of students you should go after. Dig into alumni databases and enrollment records to see who has been successful at your institution and who hasn’t. Look at student profiles to develop unique identities at your university. That kind of data can inform your conversations about marketing direction and help tighten up those critical engagement points in the student experience.

Q: How can universities set themselves up to get the data they need that will help them differentiate in the future?

Data is extremely intimidating for most of us. It will always be messy, and it will never define truth. But it should lead to an outcome – and the best way to accomplish that is to start with a set of questions. With a tool like Google Analytics, you don’t need to be a super user to inform questions like where your students are coming from and what social media communities they belong to.

Websites and data don’t need to be intimidating if you think through them the right way. One individual – even several teams – can’t organize this information and communicate on it alone, though. Align on the key questions that you want the data to address and use that data to empower decisions that you are making about your overall brand differentiation.

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J Katherine Bahr is a freelance writer and content marketer with almost a decade of experience helping organizations engage their ideal customers.