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Digital Marketing in Higher Education

As the marketing landscapes adapts to a more digital approach, it’s critical for institutions to develop their own strategies to reach the endless potential of prospective students that are waiting to find the right school in the digital space. 

Higher ed is known for sitting comfortably within their traditional structures, rarely changing—until now. The pandemic has shaken up the higher ed landscape, and the best way for institutions to survive and thrive despite it is through digital marketing. With today’s modern learners expecting an Amazon-like experience in all aspects of their lives, it’s key that institutions deliver that experience. In this interview, Dr. Joe Sallustio and Elizabeth Leiba speak to John Farrar about how the digital marketing space is rapidly evolving, why employers and institutions need to establish more partnerships and how to stay competitive in the digital environment. 

EdUp Experience: What have you seen from a higher ed perspective on what is happening in the digital marketing ecosphere?

John Farrar (JF): We’ve seen major changes just in the last year. COVID-19 has changed this landscape so dramatically and has forced people to enter disciplines that they haven’t been in before, and we have been specifically confronted with change in student acquisition—enter digital marketing.

Geographic borders that were previously an asset to institutions are now down. As a result, institutions need to look at how they acquire students completely differently–specifically institutions that are typical state-run flagship universities in some of the biggest brands in this space. This is a new discipline that they haven’t had to worry about before, and they now find themselves on the same digital block as their peers from around the country.

A lot of the online education pioneers have been fully immersed in digital marketing for years, if not decades, at this point. So, there is an interesting dichotomy between new entrants into online education and those who have been considering this their core discipline for years. 

How those two are reconciling themselves in a space where students are mapping their professional paths, attaining their educational goals and manifesting them into an outcome for the longer term. So, digital marketing is at the heart of a lot of schools and for different reasons than ever before.

EdUp Experience: What role does branding have when it comes to digital marketing, and how can institutions distinguish themselves?

JF: On one hand you have these huge brands in the U.S. that are synonymous with higher education. At the same time, many of them don’t have the robust online student populations or platforms that some of their counterparts have been building in this space for a long time. There’s a big difference between conducting classes online and online education. 

Right now, we’re starting to see big brands make very aggressive moves to build out and/or invest in these platforms that might fast-forward them into some of that expertise. There are a lot of holes in that need-state right now, and that needs to get reconciled. It’ll be interesting to see how all of these brands in our space position themselves based on this new need and maybe outside of their core competency. 

EdUp Experience: Are you seeing more large state-run institutions refusing to open up to the online environment despite its potential for enrollment growth?  

JF: We’re seeing all these things unfold in real-time and being handled differently everywhere. Some big, state-run institutions pivot into the mindset of building a platform to educate the students as a mandate in terms of their responsibility to educate the people within our state, but also leveraging their brand across the country. 

The purely online players have been creating more of a borderless world. So, some places are starting to pivot to being responsible for not only the students within their borders but also in other areas in which they can help. 

On the flip side, for years we’ve had those online platforms really working in a borderless world already. Those things are converging now, and it’s fascinating to watch how both sides are trying to shore up the historic weaknesses they’ve had on either side—whether it’s not having an online education platform or not having the brand. 

EdUp Experience: How do you explain marketing and digital marketing to someone who might not understand the depths of it? 

JF: Nobody changes behavior in the midst of a comfortable situation. And higher ed has been comfortable for a very long time. The product has been pretty static, and as a result, some of the recruiting methodology has been pretty consistent over the better part of a century.

That’s all changed right now, so how do we explain it? We have a team fully dedicated to getting people up to speed on the digital marketing landscape. So, we’re certainly doing that with the institutions reaching out to us directly. A lot of them are also deploying agencies or OPMs to try to get up to speed on that front. We work with those partners as well to do whatever we can, and you’re starting to see some of the big flagships invest in the resources they need to have internally because they see where this is all going.

All of that to say that it’s different depending on the school, but for our part, we see ourselves as a tour guide in this space. Students, faculty, and universities certainly need not just us but everybody in Silicon Valley to be helping as this space evolves. The digital marketing side is a big part of that because that’s how the messaging is going to get out. Student needs are different from what they used to be, and certainly much different online because of who you’re competing with.

EdUp Experience: What are some key strategies a school needs to think about?

JF: The importance of search strategy is key, especially right now, when you have students thinking about going to campus or not. I’m doing a lot of research about how their plans have changed. You want to make sure you’re there at their moment of need. 

There’s a complete search strategy that should be invested in, and that goes a long way in understanding who your audience is today and who you want it to be going forward. Demographically, geographically, how does that align with what your school is known for in terms of core competencies? You want to be there when they get to a search engine, you want to pop up on your relevant targets, search page, when they get there.

The other part too is online video, which is an increasingly big part of how people are researching. There are a lot of things that schools should probably be doing. This is what we’re trying to emphasize: there are a lot of things you can put up organically about either your school, your subject matter, how they relates to job outcomes that really is not there today and that I think students could use.

What is the value in a particular degree? All of those things universities know a lot about, and in which they could assert themselves as experts for students navigating this journey. There’s an assisted experience that schools could be invested in, in online video. But all of these elements are born out of defining your audience, and digital can really help on that front. 

EdUp Experience: Do you have schools that are trying to make sure they’re increasing access and ensuring they’re being responsive to some of those concerns?

JF: Absolutely, and we’ve been putting out live streams for the industry on specific topics that we’re taking on. Education equality was something we did in the spring and something we’re working on with our institutions to better understand their future student pipeline.

If you’re under 17 in the United States right now, you are more than likely to be part of the multicultural majority, which comprises most of our future students , and that population has very different needs.

There are differences in their expectations, specifically with online education. The desire for online education  is much higher in that group. They also want more student services—whether we’re talking about course assistance, career assistance, mental health counselling, on campus or in a virtual environment. 

So, we’re attributing to unique data here that we helped schools understand their place at a local market level, or an audience level, in an online world. 

EdUp Experience: Would you say that digital marketing gives institutions an advantage when competing with other schools? 

JF: It’s an advantage, and it’s the advantage of articulating your service. The day has come when employers and universities need to start working together to produce positive student outcomes in a much more overt and obvious way to create that line of sight to return on investment for the student.

Gone are the days when we pick a school just for its reputation and then hope for the right outcome, a job. But again, nobody changes a comfortable situation.

Both corporate America and higher ed are now looking at how they can work together and help each other. That’s different than universities helping each other, but I do think there’s a role to play between employers and universities going forward. And how that then plays into your messaging from a digital marketing standpoint will be fascinating to watch.

EdUp Experience: Is there anything that you’d like to add in terms of what you’re doing at Google on the education side, and then what you see as the future for higher education?

JF: Everything’s on the table right now. And I would tell schools to reach out to their partners and ask questions. That’s not just Google–that’s anybody else who might be assisted in this process as things change. A lot of these companies have resources and experts that they can deploy against some of these issues. We want to be assisted in that regard.

At flagship universities, you’ve got to think about what the traditional student experience is going to be. Online is much more of the expectation. We pulled the online education trend forward, and that is going to include more people in a pure play sense coming online. It’s also going to include more of the student experience. We’re starting to hear from schools that say that a traditional student said, “Listen, I might be coming back to campus, but I don’t know that I’m coming back to class.” 

We could have more students on campus saying they like the flexibility that online is giving them. They can travel whenever they want or take an additional job. It’s going to be important to understand those things and then adjust accordingly and move from a mindset that only focuses on traditional students in your region. It’s about adapting the mindset of educating people across their lifetime. 


This interview was edited for length and clarity.

To Listen to the full interview, click here.

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