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10-Year Reflection: The State of Higher Ed Marketing

With a shrinking prospective pool, higher ed institutions need to tell their story authentically and specifically to not only attract but retain students throughout their educational and professional lifecycle.  

Setting the Stage


That’s how I would describe marketing landscape’s evolution within higher education. We need to communicate in so many different places to meet potential students where they are: web, email, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Snap Chat, TikTok…and we’re still doing print pieces. Nothing ever drops off our plate; more is just added on.

There’s more of an understanding that text needs to be adapted for various media channels. It used to be discouraged as “brochure ware,” where one would copy text from a brochure and drop it onto a webpage. (Then ask folks to go the website for more information.) It started with Twitter’s initial 140-character limit encouraging people to get to the point. Research continues to show that people tend to scan text online more than they do print pieces.

The growth of smart phones has also changed websites over the past decade. The most recent analytics report shows that over 70% of all visitors to are using their mobile device. Thank goodness for responsive design, so web professionals only need to update one site. Even with responsive design, it is important to review your site on mobile to make sure you’re communicating effectively.

Communication is becoming more data driven and individualized. Robust databases allow pertinent information to be sent to prospective students when it’s needed. Whether it’s an invitation to visit after they have requested information or a reminder to complete the application they abandoned before submitting.

Fading Strategies

Viewbooks are thankfully evolving. A few years back, I visited my niece early in her college search. The kitchen table was covered with viewbooks, all promoting knowledgeable professors with open-door policies, vibrant student life opportunities and competitive athletics. It was overwhelming and somewhat redundant. Omit color and logos, and some of the viewbooks were interchangeable. Plus mailing the traditional viewbook as a first touch is really expensive.

Phone calls are essentially dead as a first point of contact. Young people do not answer phones or even listen to voicemails. It is common for a high school student to have hundreds of missed calls and unread voicemails on their phones. They are not bothered by this at all. And text messages are also catching up to this reality. Students are fine “ghosting” people (not responding or leaving the message unread). They still prefer texting once they want to talk with someone because talking on the phone is too hard. But the days of calling nights for admissions counselors is long gone. Now, how to improve on this area…that is our next biggest challenge.

Staying Relevant

Identify and focus on your college’s unique features and be totally honest. We used to tell the story of an urban university through a beautiful, peaceful photo of students studying on a patch of green grass in its viewbook. During campus tours, prospective students discovered that one patch was the only green on campus. The rest was paved.

Be honest for retention purposes as well. If a student enrolls expecting A and experiences the exact opposite once they move onto campus, it is going to be harder to keep them enrolled. Be unique. Every college can say they have great professors who care, amazing alumni changing their corner of the world, a vibrant and engaged student body. Don’t tell me—show me. Share short stories and photos of interesting faculty-student research, student-led community engagement, what alumni are doing with a degree from your university.

Learning Curve

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

It’s always been—and will always be—about clear, consistent and authentic communication. The means of that communication will continue to evolve from print, to web, to social media, to whatever comes next, but it’s personal connection that will always win out. As is said at Bluffton University, “It’s all about relationships.”

Trend on the Horizon

Personally, I would not be surprised to see more high school graduates entering trade schools or going directly into the work force in the next few years. This would result in more pressure to recruit from a smaller pool of college-bound students.

Mike Rowe, of “Dirty Jobs” fame and the mikeroweWORKS Foundation, promotes the trades as a viable option for life after high school. At one time, the expectation was that you had to go to college to get a good job. That expectation is now changing. Plus, President Biden’s student loan forgiveness program, in my opinion, may have the unintended consequence of prospective students questioning the decision to take on this amount of debt when recent college grads are in need of loan forgiveness.

Thus, engaging, memorable outcome stories will become even more important. Don’t tell me you have an amazing business program. Show me what your students, recent grads and established alumni are doing.

The importance of top-of-mind awareness and Search Engine Optimization will continue to grow. When a person is ready for college education, you either want them to search directly for you, or you want to be the first search engine result.

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