As higher-ed institutions navigate a new pandemic-driven reality, they must change their marketing strategies to attract prospective students.

Is higher education ready for its tech renaissance?

As higher-ed institutions navigate a new pandemic-driven reality, they must change their marketing strategies to attract prospective students

Higher education is in a very different place from where it was at the start of the pandemic. Roll back the clock to the end of 2019, and schools and universities were slowly starting to open up online learning as an option for students. The pandemic flipped that on its head. Suddenly, higher education institutions needed to bring each one of their offerings online to  integrate students into a new virtual environment. This led to faculties scrambling to understand how their students could meet, study, and be graded online.

Now, more than 18 months down the line, universities have attained a level of comfort with this new education landscape, and many are even looking to continue to offer a hybrid (or exclusively online) learning experience.

For students, this means they have a lot more options and can evaluate their learning in a different light. For example, doing courses online means no geographical boundaries and they no longer need to move states to access courses. For the universities, it allows them to look beyond the traditional advertising cohort of 18-year-olds and open up new markets, such as transfer students, adult students, and those looking for a second degree.

However, this means universities need to transform the way they market themselves. In the past, awareness was built through alumni networks, print advertising, and the occasional TV ad with a resplendent campus and a buzzing environment. With a broadening of their target audience, these old-school advertising channels are becoming ineffective methods for reaching prospective students. Instead, digital channels such as search engines, social media, and programmatic placement in online media are where universities need to focus their advertising budgets, mainly because audience targeting has become so sophisticated (if you know how to do it).

This shift is not without its challenges. Despite the digital transformation they have undergone, change is very often a slow process in higher education and many universities are still behind the curve in terms of their digital advertising understanding and capabilities.

So, what do they need to do and understand to make the shift?

The importance of data

For digital advertising to be effective, universities need to understand as much as possible about the people they want to speak to and how to reach them in the different digital environments. They need to understand how to effectively change consumer behavior, with the right messaging at an opportune time, and, because the digital marketing is done on an auction basis, how much that person is actually worth to them.

To do this at scale and at speed requires a level of technical maturity. That means understanding the platforms that can be used to target their audience(s), as well as the role of data science and machine learning in doing so. They also need to understand how to talk to each audience at each point along their sign-up journey, and how and when they interact with the university as well as how to effect change in their behavior.

Like any industry, there are going to be some that are ahead of the curve and some that lag behind. In the US, there are few out of thousands of higher education institutions doing it well. This means there is a big opportunity for universities to get ahead of the curve and gain a competitive advantage by making their digital advertising as effective as possible (or working alongside an agency that can help them get there.)

Connect the message to the moment

One of the key marketing lessons learned as the pandemic changed our lives was that the winning brands were the ones that adjusted and met the new reality with new solutions. They changed their creative approaches and messaging to match what was happening. This will continue to be true moving forward. Consumers react positively to communication that matches what they are experiencing and who they are. This means that universities need to ensure their communications are not tone deaf and reflect the experiences and realities of the audience they are speaking to. Targeting and relevance are key to unlocking engagement.

Universities need to be able to pay close attention to the behavior of their target audiences and social listening tools can really help them track how attitudes are changing. This information then needs to be able to be fed back into their communications, and this process must move fast to connect with the way markets are behaving.

This requires having a well-defined story and value proposition – knowing what makes their university different – as well as how that needs to change depending on where prospective students are on their engagement path. For example, knowing at the start of the process that communications need to target much more specific information about courses, whereas at the end when they are close to making their final decision, messaging needs to be more focused on what makes their experience at a given university unique.

Finally, while you can have live dashboards that show you how your digital marketing is working in real-time, there is no substitute for having the experience and knowledge of the sector and its seasonal fluctuations–for example, knowing that there is a magic window just after New Year’s when prospective students are suddenly very focused on starting the journey, or that many schools run out of budgets in mid-April. Knowing where surges are can help higher education institutions plan their digital ad budgets accordingly to ensure they raise and lower them at the right time. 

Schools and universities largely survived the pandemic intact. This came with great effort and resources, plus a willingness to meet and adapt to each new moment as it came. Some of the changes will remain and some will become even more important. To thrive in a post-pandemic world, schools and universities must find a way to embrace digital marketing to not only attract the best students, but to keep them.

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