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Winning at Marketing in Higher Education

Tiffany Schreane

cartoon professor holding magnifying glass

Three strategies for success that higher education institutions can adopt to better target prospective students

Higher education is a crowded and intensely competitive industry. Traditional college trips and high school campus visits are no longer the optimal strategy to target prospective students. With the emergence of online learning platforms such as Coursera, Udacity and Lynda, prospective students now have more efficient and arguably more effective options to equip themselves for successful careers.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, college enrollment across the country is declining at a rate that places it near the benchmark level from 10 years ago. Meanwhile, Research and Markets projects that the online learning platform industry is expected to reach $325 billion by 2025.

What can higher ed marketers do to help mitigate decreasing enrollment numbers? How can these institutions position themselves as effective resources where prospective students can gain the skills needed for success? I asked a few higher ed marketing experts to weigh in on successful strategies they are implementing that have helped them relaunch, reposition and reevaluate their institutions for their target audience.

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1. Relaunch

Schools must look to relaunch and redefine college. They must go beyond traditional college trips and market to their target audience where they are most present. “There are more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the country,” says George Heddleston, vice chancellor of communications and marketing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. “An umbrella marketing strategy, often prepared by an outside vendor such as an advertising or marketing agency, usually does not work.”

Such a plan typically comes with a high price tag. UTC is a mid-major university of about 11,000 students, a median GPA of 3.24 and athletic teams in most major sports. Heddleston says the first step in a marketing strategy is to know your standing within the industry of colleges and universities. Taking its mid-market size into consideration, UTC set a marketing goal to increase its visibility using traditional and social media coverage. In just under a two-year time frame, UTC has executed the following:

  • Placed 12 advertising inserts in newspapers and magazines.
  • Earned coverage in 62 local newspaper articles.
  • Issued more than 200 web stories.
  • Created 140 videos and 521 photos on websites. Delivered 400 pieces of marketing collateral to highlight the university.

In addition to available majors and academic programs, Heddleston suggests driving awareness of other amenities that would make prospective students choose a particular school. “UTC is considered the crown jewel of the UT System,” Heddleston says. “We have highly rated housing and we are in a growing city with interesting outdoor recreational activities that draw students. We use that to our advantage. Additionally, we have ramped up international recruiting and today we have students from nations all over the world.”

2. Reposition

Higher ed institutions must shift their brand narratives, adjust their overall marketing objectives and ensure that their value is clear to their audiences if they are to stay aligned with their mission and strategic priorities.

The Fashion Institute of Technology was founded in 1944 as a fashion industry trade school in New York City. However, people have a much different perception of FIT 75 years later. The school boasts alumni such as designer Michael Kors, Elle Magazine Editor-in-Chief Nina Garcia and Google Vice President of Hardware Design Ivy Ross. FIT has remained relevant to prospective students and creative industries across the world.

Following the development of an institutional strategic plan that engaged the FIT community, school president Joyce F. Brown formed a Brand and Image Consortium of faculty, trustees, administrators, alumni and students. Facilitated by branding experts, the consortium focused its discussions and deliberations on FIT’s strategic goals and how to position the college to reach them. The consortium’s work became the foundation for execution and activation by FIT’s Division of Communications and External Relations. A subset of the consortium became the division’s advisory group and, in FIT style, conferral and consultation were part of the development process. 

“We called this initiative ‘powering the brand,’” says Loretta Lawrence Keane, vice president for communications and external relations. “We were not reconceiving this great institution, but we knew we needed to clarify it in the marketplace and ensure that our brand goals reflected FIT’s strategic goals. From the first market research study, the work took about three years and our North Stars were strategic goals, market research and community engagement.”

According to Keane and Troy Williams, the acting associate vice president for marketing and brand management, FIT undertook significant market research to understand their brand in the context of myriad target audiences. This research included testing for familiarity of the name usage of FIT versus Fashion Institute of Technology and case studies of peer institutions.

As a result, the market research findings helped FIT hone its place within industries and among its stakeholder groups. The school’s brand and messaging were clear to prospective students, parents and high school guidance counselors, as well as to industry partners and the public. “Fashion is our history and legacy, it’s in our DNA,” Williams says. “As we continue to power the FIT brand, we want to be clearly understood as an innovation center for creative industries worldwide.”

3. Reevaluate

“Universities need to do a deep dive to determine if they are offering relevant information in their courses,” says Scott Cowley, marketing professor at Western Michigan University. Academic programming is the bread and butter of colleges and universities, meaning institutions should reevaluate their course offerings to ensure that the material is appropriate. Cowley and other marketing professors studied the course offerings at marketing programs across the country and rendered concerning results.

“One in three undergrad programs in the U.S. don’t teach a digital marketing or social media class,” Cowley says. “In 2019, they shouldn’t get to call themselves a marketing program.” Cowley also noted that a lot of larger companies are changing degree requirements. “For example, Apple doesn’t require a degree for certain jobs anymore,” he says. “The job market is now more interested in the skills you bring than your academic credentials.”

Here are some tactics that institutions are employing to ensure they are executing premium offerings for prospective students:

  • UTC aims to build bridges beyond the classroom, connecting students to the foundation of a successful career. Every program has to be approved by the state. “Our key to building the bridge is experiential learning,” Heddleston says.
  • “Through courses such as design thinking, we make sure our students do not leave as the traditional business students and that they are not conventional thinkers,” Williams says.
  • “I check current job descriptions to ensure that much of what I offer students in the classroom can be added to their résumés,” Cowley says. “The perception is that higher ed is not equipped to teach digital marketing skills, so I create coursework that is much more experiential and skill-based that we can quickly communicate the relevance of our digital marketing program to the industry, and to make the transition from college to career easier for students.”

Moving into 2020 and beyond, more colleges and universities should take these steps to create more strategic marketing campaigns that align with their overall institutional goals and develop success metrics to ensure campaigns are measurable. Students should be achieving a return on their investment that is relative to the current job market.

Tiffany K. Schreane is a marketing, advertising branding professional with over a decade of experience working with Fortune 500 clients globally and domestically. Schreane’s professional background includes media director roles with Publicis Media and Ebiquity. Schreane is a marketing professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and Borough Manhattan Community College.