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12 Digital Marketing Trends to Help Higher Education Differentiate their Programs in 2020

12 Digital Marketing Trends to Help Higher Education Differentiate their Programs in 2020

Rival schools might seem like the biggest threat to enrollment at your college or university but let’s take a look at the real competition: $1.56 trillion in crippling student debt.

Now that student loans have claimed the second highest consumer debt category, piquing a prospective student’s interest is becoming increasingly more difficult. It’s no longer enough to promise a degree from a prominent university. Students will ask about the strength of your alumni network, will want to discuss internship opportunities in their field, and will be curious about the average job placement rate post-graduation.

Those value adds help justify the price of admission. And what’s the best way to showcase them? Digital marketing.

If you can’t compete on price, you need to compete on perceived value. So, let’s talk about how to differentiate your university or program in a meaningful way.

External Branding and Personalization

Prospective students compare dozens of colleges. They’re unlikely to immediately click the “enroll today” button, no matter how prominently it’s placed on the university homepage.

As they explore their options, you can stand out and encourage enrollment by nurturing personal communication and showcasing a memorable brand identity. The following seven techniques help develop these goals so that your school remains top of mind.

  1. Develop student personas

Let’s consider three majors: criminal justice, education, and cyber security. Those are three very different prospective students with very different goals and motivations.

John Scheer, co-founder at Herman Scheer, illustrates the benefits of buyer personas with a sandwich analogy, “Which of the following processes is more efficient? Making a sandwich and then asking the person you made it for if they have any food allergies as you place the beautifully plated sandwich in front of them or vice versa?”

Take the time to create the “ideal” student for each major so that you can dive into their unique characteristics and nuances to better understand their motivations and goals.

Scheer continues, “Unless you’re prepared to throw that whole sandwich away when your new friend tells you they’re deathly allergic to mustard, the answer should be pretty obvious. The same is true of a business. If you start building your brand before getting to know your customers, you’re probably going to have to go back and make costly, time-consuming changes that could have been avoided if you had created and referenced your buyer personas.”

student personasAfter you’ve gathered insight from your personas, ask “What jobs are hiring graduates of these programs?” And in turn, “What topics should we cover to educate students about their opportunities?” Use this proactive approach to guide your content strategy. When prospective students find an eBook or downloadable guide on your website that answers their questions, it establishes trust in your institution.

  1. Maintain an authentic social media presence

According to Hootsuite’s annual digital state of the union report, there are 3.8 billion active users on social media, which adds up to 49% of the world’s population. That number is expected to continue climbing. Don’t get left behind.

Although establishing a strong online presence might not feel important, imagine a prospective communications student. Why should they consider attending your university to learn about media best practices if the school isn’t keeping pace with the digital landscape?

Not to mention, it’s an easy, cost-effective way to meet your target audience where they already are. With the popularity of stories on different platforms and Instagram’s recent introduction of Reels, creating genuine content (and sharing plenty of user-generated content) is easier than ever.

For students hoping to live on campus, fit is big factor; on-campus visits often feel rehearsed. Prospective students want to envision hanging out in a dorm room with their friends, watching a game at the stadium, or grabbing a coffee at the campus library. Consider employing more creative initiatives, like a student social media takeover (pre-recorded and approved prior to publishing, of course) to showcase some of these more intimate moments of campus life.

  1. Incorporate video

Even if social media takeovers are outside of your comfort zone, traditional video testimonials and campus B-roll are powerful digital storytelling components.

USD Screenshot

In addition to capturing footage of day-to-day campus life, interviewing students about various majors, sports, and clubs breathes life into your school’s online presence. More importantly, it helps prospective students determine whether or not your college is the right culture fit.

Not to mention, incorporating video on a landing page could help increase conversions by more than 80%. Watching a video increases time on page, which helps your website ranking and gives the user time to absorb other content on your page. 

  1. Review the user experience

Speaking of websites, can a prospective student easily find information on yours? Is your website responsive? As Google moves toward mobile-first indexing, your website must be optimized for cell phone scrolling or your ranking will suffer.

Ultimately, creating a positive user experience helps future students easily access information. Naturally, that should be your number one priority. With the rising popularity of voice-search functionality in devices like Alexa and Siri, don’t forget to consider voice search optimization to increase usability and accessibility.

  1. Implement chatbots

As capabilities increase, accessibility is starting to mean being available whenever and however your audience needs you.

Do any of your programs target working professionals making a career move? Live chat may not be feasible at 11 PM on a Saturday night. But that’s when your target audience is probably surfing. From a conversion standpoint, you still need to deliver answers to their questions.

Virtual chat assistants, “chatbots,” are gaining traction; in the last three years, customer service chatbot use has increased by 23%. They’re quickly becoming table stakes for university websites. As a student compares five different colleges, quick answers to their questions from your website could be the difference between making it to their short list or not.

  1. Consider mobile and OTT communication

Keep meeting your prospective students where they are. By 2030, Gen Z will make up 30% of the U.S. work force, and they’re the first generation to be considered digital natives. As they become the new target audience, colleges and universities need to rise to the challenge. And that means reinventing your communication strategy to suit this upcoming generation and their tech-savviness.

Over the course of a day, 55% of Gen Z spends at least five hours on their phone. Wouldn’t it be effective for your institution join the conversation? By leveraging text message/SMS reminders, your college or university has an opportunity to reach students in a way that feels familiar and showcases your relevance.

Streaming is becoming more and more popular. In fact, only 33% of teenage Gen Z users watch cable TV. What does that have to do with higher education marketing? It’s an opportunity to leverage over-the-top (OTT) advertising, commercials strictly created for and distributed on streaming services. Since cable is on the decline, this promotional method provides a unique opportunity to reach students on their preferred platform.

  1. Apply email marketing automation

Lead nurture emails help naturally guide prospective students through their decision-making process. The user browsing sororities and fraternities has a very different mindset than a current criminology major clicking through graduate school course offerings. Naturally, they shouldn’t receive the same emails.

As part of your content strategy, you can set up automatic drip campaigns that students enter when they convert on a specified action. For example, if a student downloads a free guide on “9 Ways a Master’s Degree Improves Your Criminal Justice Career,” you already know that student is focused and interested in higher education. Could your program be the right fit? This is your chance to show them that it is through supplementary materials.

That first download could trigger additional content that you’ve strategically planned to position the program attractively and guide them toward the next step in the funnel. Maybe it starts with a virtual Q&A with a recent graduate, progresses to a webinar information session with one of the senior faculty members, and then ends with the option to speak with an enrollment advisor.

Internal Tracking

As you develop personalized content to attract students, it’s important to measure the traffic you receive and make sense of that data to guide adjustments. Tracking specific metrics is the only way to grow your digital marketing strategy. Below, we’ll highlight three areas on which to concentrate.

  1. Nurture lead generation

Lead generation is fairly straightforward. You’re trying to attract prospective students to your program and encourage them to enroll.

Hubspot writes, “In most cases only a relatively small percentage of your inbound leads will be ready to make an immediate purchase, leaving upwards of 90% of your inbound leads on the table.” Only addressing the 10% would leave too many opportunities on the table but don’t worry, you can speak to the other 90%, too. This process just takes a little more time, so that’s why we need the word nurture.

The email marketing automation that we discussed earlier is just one example of nurturing a lead. Not only will you improve user experience, but you’ll get a much higher ROI on all other marketing activities if you build your funnel to meet people where they’re at in their buyer’s journey.

This journey isn’t restricted to email marketing. For example, if a prospective student visited your site and chatted with a chat bot, then the next time they visit, the chat bot should say “welcome back” and offer additional material to progress their decision making.

USD Lead generation

Create these touchpoints to ease tracking. Then, you can assess data and tweak when necessary.

  1. Improve conversions

A conversion simply means that a user visited your site and completed a desired action. Maybe they’ve downloaded a guide or clicked a button to speak with an enrollment advisor. The more conversions your website has, the more engaged your users are, which ultimately increases your ranking and helps boosts enrollment.

For conversion rate optimization (CRO), first, you need a goal to measure against. Perhaps you want ten downloads on your newest eBook. Once you set a benchmark, you need to test different headlines and CTAs through A/B testing to help achieve that goal.

Consider the pages that are receiving a lot of traffic. If there’s a link or downloadable content that you want them to click, but they’re leaving before they convert, reevaluate the value-add of the next step. On the other hand, if you have a piece of content with a high clickthrough rate but the page has limited traffic, consider making adjustments to increase that content’s visibility.

CRO takes a lot of troubleshooting and strategy, but its benefits are well worth the time and effort. 

  1. Use SEO and PPC in tandem

Both search engine optimization (SEO) and pay-per-click (PPC) focus on keywords, but their strategies are a little different.

SEO is the organic method of increasing the quality and quantity of driving traffic to your site, which takes a lot of strategy because Google’s algorithms are constantly shifting. PPC also needs to be very strategic because it’s expensive. Since you’re paying when people click your ad on search engines, the cost can range drastically. On very competitive keywords, the cost per click could be hundreds of dollars (and that’s before the conversion).

Having an expert in place with insight to help guide PPC strategy bridges an important gap because it truly influences SEO strategy.

In paid, you can monitor the performance of keywords and the gathered data is very granular. This helps determine which keywords to rank for instead of ranking and finding out that there’s a poor conversion. Paid can act as a forward scout, which is hugely influential for ROI.

SEO and PPC Graphic

Without paid, you could pick the keyword, “criminal justice degree,” but you won’t have insight to the related long-tail keywords, such as “best criminal justice degree programs” or “criminal justice degree programs in Orlando.” You won’t even know those content opportunities exist.

By incorporating a paid strategy, you can pull the “Search Terms Report” revealing all the actual phrases that match your keyword. This uncovers patterns that would have been omitted from your initial keyword research due to low volume. But when you run it in paid, you see all the variations. This could be a springboard for additional content strategy and lead nurture campaigns.

Focusing on one strategy and not both is a huge missed opportunity based on the intertwined structure of PPC and SEO. If you’re conducting them separately, you’re getting a fraction of your potential ROI by only addressing the bottom of the funnel people who are ready to enroll.

Staying Relevant in the Digital Space

As the digital marketing landscape shifts, keeping your strategy flexible while tracking metrics is integral. As you’re attracting prospective students, it’s important to adapt your strategy to include trends. Influencer marketing and AI/AR are two areas worth closely monitoring.

  1. Influencer marketing

By 2022, the influencer marketing industry will be worth $15B. Thankfully, influencers don’t have to be celebrities or professional athletes (although they’re in the majority); influencers can be anyone with a large social following and an active online presence. But the most important factor is relatability.

So, it’s time to harness the power of opinion, but not just any opinion. Gather the people your target audience aspires to be: successful graduates who are financially stable and full of opportunity. Your alumni network.

You’re probably more familiar with the term “ambassador program,” but influencer marketing really is no different, except it’s more natural for your target audience.

Enlist a solid network of people willing to share their post-graduate experiences and opportunities with prospective students. You can vet these alumni to make sure that they’re good spokespeople, but then let them run the conversation online so that it’s a candid representation of your program.

A staggering 52% of Gen Z trusts an influencer on social media over other sources for information. It’s not enough for Gen Z to hear about the possibilities from faculty or admissions counselors; they want to see reality from someone with whom they identify. Influencer marketing isn’t a fleeting trend, so it’s time to strategically leverage its power to boost enrollment.

  1. Artificial intelligence (AI)/Augmented Reality (AR)

Likewise, artificial intelligence and augmented reality are already prevalent. If your university incorporates virtual tours, you’re utilizing the capabilities of AR. Running a drip campaign is just one example of artificial intelligence. And the potential is only growing.

Staying current on newly developed tools is integral to retaining a competitive edge. Google’s Responsive Search Ads are just one example of AI that could enhance your digital marketing strategy.

Google’s newest development allows advertisers to test out 15 different headlines and four different descriptions. Google then assesses and matches these options based on its user-generated data. Following the development of tools like Responsive Search Ads helps keep your advertising strategy relevant to your prospective students. Just imagine the possibilities of this tool combined with well-planned SEO and PPC strategies.

Establishing efficiencies

Universities can improve their digital storytelling with personalization and by strengthening their brand through each of the technical avenues we’ve discussed.

There are always opportunities for more intentional SEO, better paid strategy, better CRO, marketing automation, and social media enhancements. But how can you effectively prioritize and dedicate time to each?

Universities are often structured in a way that encourages siloes; departments are siloed, and programs are siloed. Earlier, we discussed how paid advertising influences SEO strategy. That same impact exists across the board. Awareness of the different tactics in this article is only part of the battle.

Without cross measurement, universities are missing a huge opportunity. Ultimately, the best strategy is to break down marketing silos and create efficiencies across all platforms. Harnessing all of that data and using it efficiently unleashes incredible enrollment potential.

Are you looking for help establishing an efficiency in your university or program? We’d love to connect. Reach out to Vital today to discuss how we can help you boost enrollment through digital marketing.

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