Strong analytics can help administrators find the right students to meet higher-ed enrollment goals with data.

Navigating higher-ed enrollment marketing with data-driven strategies

Strong analytics can help administrators find the right students to meet enrollment goals

Key points:

For colleges and universities, marketing to prospective students has never been more complicated or crucial. As they navigate this post-affirmative action landscape, most admissions directors and campus leaders also are grappling with a “deteriorating” financial outlook amid drops in retention and enrollment.

To meet future goals and the commitment to educating people from all walks of life, finding new ways to reach students who match higher-ed enrollment objectives is critical. And in this battle for students, the answer to effective marketing most often is this: the right data.

Unique datasets that are accurate, up-to-date, and privacy-compliant empower admissions offices and enrollment marketers to activate and tailor outreach efforts. With it, they can target the ideal individuals–highly motivated prospective students whose education and career aspirations align with the institution’s mission and offerings.

Any higher education marketer can tell you that the days when effective outreach involved simply papering mailboxes with the same brochure are long gone. In the competition for the next class of students, data-driven and personalized digital marketing is the answer to ensure higher education institutions can connect efficiently and effectively with the right students.

New challenges, new expectations

College campuses are facing a cascade of challenges, forcing higher education institutions to cast their nets wider and in new ways for prospective students.

While improving, overall student enrollment remained down in spring 2023, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Retention has also been an issue. The center’s 2023 Persistence and Retention report found that rates are just now returning to pre-pandemic levels.

What’s more, while trying to build diverse student bodies, admissions directors must navigate still emerging rules to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling that ended race-based admission practices.

Amid those challenges, institutions are facing an uphill battle in finding a message that actually resonates with today’s students and families.

Higher education institutions must prove the value of a degree to students and a new group–their parents. According to a Wall Street Journal/NORC poll, 56 percent of adults believe that a four-year college degree is “not worth the cost,” up from 40 percent in 2013.

And if that wasn’t enough, institutions face a skeptical audience — Gen Z. Bombarded with advertising on their phones and tablets since birth, they can quickly identify marketing speak when they see it. For colleges and universities, crafting personalized messages that feel authentic and transparent to prospective students is the best way to lure them in.

Right students, right hooks

That need to expand the search for students and these new expectations for authentic messaging is why data-driven digital marketing is so effective today. Personalization is key. One study by EAB found that student response rates skyrocketed by 50 percent when the content centered on the student, not the institution.

The best digital marketing should address prospective students’ academic or career interests. Students interested in business, for example, might get an email from the business school dean, featuring programs and internship opportunities. Teens eager to learn more about computer science might be invited to a virtual program featuring the university’s current computer science students.

Detailed information about student propensities/likes and dislikes and student households can be gleaned through first-party data as students peruse the school’s website, click through different pages, or engage with a chatbot. With the right technology tools, schools can organize and sort the data, making it easy for enrollment marketers to hone in on high school students from the Southeast interested in studying abroad or considering pre-med programs.

A new star: Third-party data

But, as schools seek to expand their pipeline of students and attract people who have yet to discover their campus, third-party data must play a starring role, too. The right data analytics and customer intelligence make it possible to create pre-built audience lists that allow an institution’s digital marketers to uncover new student segments, based on their needs.

Maybe the school is seeking to build socio-economic diversity into the student body. A dataset can target sought-after prospective students from different income levels who attend highly desirable high schools.

Maybe the goal is to find more students who can afford to attend college without the benefit of grants or scholarships. A dataset can identify groups of anonymized students who live in affluent zip codes.

Or build a list based on the institution’s unique audience segments as it launches new academic programs, professional certifications, and other initiatives. Third-party anonymized data such as age and other demographic markers helps to uncover new prospective students to nurture.

Amid all these challenges and new expectations, finding the right students may feel more complicated than ever, but it doesn’t have to be. With the strong data analytics tools, built with data privacy, accuracy, quality and transparency in mind, colleges and universities can have the information they need at their fingertips, focusing in on the kinds of students they need to meet enrollment goals and craft the right hooks to lure them in.

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