Visit Modern Campus

Beyond Traditional Boundaries: Expanding Student Outreach through Digital Marketing in Higher Education

Marketing today requires utilizing the proper digital tools and resources to communicate to a broad audience of potential learners and personalize their experience of your institution of higher education.

Digital marketing has evolved immensely over the past few years, and higher ed leaders must keep up. Reaching new audiences is critical to survive the decline of traditional student demographics, which means implementing digital marketing strategies that speak to the modern learner. In this interview, Samantha Lehmond discusses the importance of a digital marketing strategy for prospective learners, how to leverage your website and meet modern learner needs.

The EvoLLLution (Evo) How have you seen digital marketing evolve over the past few years?

Samantha Lehmond (SL): My first thought always goes to what exactly digital marketing is because it’s constantly changing and evolving. Right now, it’s your website, SEO, blogs, social, SMS and so much more. Managing digital marketing hinges on leveraging technology, requiring the right combination of specialized skills, resources and software. Higher ed digital marketing tech stack is often made up of software solutions that don’t talk to each other and data sets that can’t be aligned, adding to the complexity.

So, we can’t talk about digital over the past few years without talking about the impact of the pandemic, which accelerated the movement of almost every experience online. It also led to increased competition. While there can still be a regional element in selecting an institution, it’s not surprising to see institutions from outside your region in your backyard. The strategic importance of digital marketing strategies has never been greater. Not only does the website remain a prospect’s number one source of information, we’re seeing changes to both paid and organic online content like more expensive Google AdWords or retargeting campaigns and the growth of content marketing. Adding value to digital channels is necessary to making them useful, requiring increased or reallocated resources.

Evo: Why is it important for higher ed to focus on strategies that go behind digital marketing towards perspective learners?

SL: Brand and reputation are experienced, built and formed well before we physically connect with students. A student’s first interaction with us will more than likely be online or digital in some way. It also extends well into the customer journey. Many of the pieces fit together and overlap. You can’t ignore it—it’s here to stay.

You also have to reach them where they are. When I was recruited as an undergrad student, it was relatively simple: visit the website and maybe tour the campus. That isn’t the case anymore. Prospects aren’t just in their hometowns; more than every, they are everywhere digital—social media, email, online. Plus, they’re not just 18-year-old direct-entry high school students. To reach them where they are, we need to include digital marketing in our toolbox and consider different audiences in different seasons of their lives who use digital differently.

Evo: How can higher ed marketers leverage digital marketing to get learners’ attention?

SL: It comes down to targeting and personalizing. Typically, personalization is a technical thing—creating custom content based on an interaction with an email or website, for example, which brings up different content or experience. This type of personalization works.

For smaller institutions, though, it can be difficult to reach that level of sophistication with the tools we have. What we can do is personalize based on market segment with simpler elements like promotional copy. We often write our digital copy (website, blogs, ads, etc.) talking about ourselves, about our institutions, from our point of view. Instead, we can personalize and segment by creating relevant messages, stories and content that speaks to a student’s why. Why are they seeking out education? What are their barriers? Can a prospective student relate to or see themselves in your messaging? This type of personalization doesn’t necessarily require complex technology but does need skilled copywriters, sound prospective research, strategy and constant evaluation and improvement.

Evo: How can the website be leveraged in this situation?

SL: Let’s look at online inquiry management. CRMs are key to leveraging personalization with your website and are often when the prospect will become known to you, but you have to ask the right questions. As part of your inquiry form, if you ask which specific program a prospect is interested in before you ask about career or educational goals, you might not be getting the right data. Then your data can be misleading, and you may send a student down the wrong path with the wrong nurturing campaign.

We have to start advising before we can actually talk to anyone, and that starts with digital marketing channels. Part of advising isn’t asking what program a student wants to take but asking if they feel they need an education? What goals and outcomes are they seeking? Then we come back and provide some suggestions best suited for them. We want to make sure they’re not doing the bulk of the work here. There are opportunities throughout their digital experiences with us to do this.

Evo: What are some of the challenges that come with marketing digitally to those perspective learners?

SL: We’re large, complex institutions, and prioritizing content based on priority segments and programs is so important. It’s often driven by internal politics. When it comes to digital marketing, content decisions are often quite challenging. For example, what’s in the homepage navigation, what’s featured in the blog or what events are advertised. Add to that the fact that we’re serving new types of learners with different levels of familiarity with our institutions, our processes and terms.

Sustaining resourcing is a challenge. Think about the number of social accounts, web content editors or newsletters. Everyone is excited about these ideas, but they fizzle out fast because there’s a lack of content or it’s being done off the side of someone’s desk. Underestimating the impact on the brand and the required skills, technology and resources needed is definitely a challenge I’ve seen.

Measuring ROI is usually perceived to be easier in digital marketing, since you can get concrete numbers like click-through rates and open rates. But you have to also recognize that success in digital marketing depends on the channel’s role in your strategy and isn’t always about the highest number. High clicks on an ad from the wrong audience doesn’t equal effective digital advertising. Lower website referral traffic from organic social doesn’t necessarily mean the channel isn’t working, as its purpose is defined by quality engagement to build your brand.

Evo: What are some first steps higher ed leaders can take to overcome these obstacles?

SL: Successful marketing depends on an institution’s culture and leadership’s view on marketing. They must see the student as a customer and recognize that we recruit customers. They’re not customers because they’re always right or can determine the outcome of their classes but because they have choice—the choice to choose another institution and the choice to stop or start their education.

Leadership must accept that we’re in a competitive business, which gets reflected in the investment in digital marketing. That ultimately determines how well we can brand ourselves and create awareness to develop enough leads and convert these prospects to students, ultimately meeting enrolment goals.

Collaboration on campus is crucial. It can be something as simple as ensuring consistency in your institution’s inquiry management, making sure the student doesn’t have to navigate your administrative structure as part of the recruitment process. In digital marketing and our generally centralized/decentralizing models, different players on campus generally own different pieces of the tech stack (your CRM, CMS, student management system, advertising, etc.). Bringing these key players together to talk and collaborate, even informally, will make a difference.

Evo: How can a website and digital marketing influence the student experience?

SL: I bring it back to customer service gaps. Is there a gap between a prospect’s expectation and the experience they get? That gap will affect the entire experience—digital, too. Maybe we don’t have control over all expectations, like expecting an Amazon-like shopping experience, but sometimes we do. For example, if we have an autoreply saying we’ll respond within 24 hours, then we have to do it. Identify what the touchpoints are, what we can control and can’t and create a digital experience with intention.

The first touchpoint of the student experience will be digital, and it will carry through to recruitment and beyond. It doesn’t matter if the experience is digital or offline, it follows the same principles. What’s different with digital marketing is we don’t have the ability to directly respond to the experience all the time. We may never know about it. So, it’s important to be monitoring, planning and always improving.

The connection between your digital marketing and the more traditional in-person experience is critical. The perceived service gaps won’t differentiate. Digital marketing must be integrated into your overall marketing and student experience strategies.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Author Perspective: