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Embracing Digital Marketing Principles to Stand Out in a Competitive Market

Personalized digital marketing is a necessary tool to attract potential students and their parents to your university, especially in a highly competitive space like higher education where consumers are faced with endless options.

Among the myriad challenges facing higher education, the demographic shifts that shrink the pool of potential students are perhaps the starkest. The U.S. population under age 18 fell from 24.3% in 2010 to 22.1% in 2020; there were 1.1 million fewer children in 2020 than in 2021. Higher education institutions seek shares in a smaller market in an environment where they must also navigate increasing costs, high inflation, decreasing public investment, political and social polarization, and technological challenges. To succeed, they must adopt and adapt digital marketing principles used across industries. Here are some lessons learned as we undertook an aggressive digital marketing strategy at Miami University.

Centralize Data

We employ a single information source to make decisions in ever-changing market conditions and develop strategies to ensure short-term gains and long-term sustainability. Relying on consistent data helps define goals and vision, illuminates outcomes and builds trust with campus partners. The most frequent question we hear is, “What is the return on investment (ROI)?” Centralized marketing data help answer it and so many more. It builds efficiencies, enables marketers to focus on strategy, supports customer service models (both online and offline) and enhances the customer journey. In short, it opens new doors to recruitment and messaging. If you are moving to a more centralized model, here are three lessons from our experience:

Reduce the number of marketing and communication vendors

This enables greater consistency and creates partnerships with vendors who have deeper brand knowledge, allowing for greater visibility into the achieved results. Information on a successful pay-per-click campaign for one program could guide a tactical shift in another. 

Create a central repository

Create a data warehouse that pulls raw data from disparate sources into one location which powers standardized reports and dashboards. This enables team members to gauge how campaigns and initiatives hit their key performance indicators (KPIs). This centralized repository stores both structured and unstructured data from all relevant information sources: paid digital advertising, social media, public relations campaigns and news media placements.

Focus on team efforts

Our university’s communications and marketing team collaborates closely with enrollment management and student success operations to get a holistic view of how marketing campaigns play out. By analyzing data in our customer relationship management system (Slate), working with campus partners and sharing data, we gain a greater understanding of what strategies attract a prospective student to inquire, then apply, then confirm. The collaborative, cross-functional team constantly evaluates the data and advises team members on how best to evolve a larger top funnel (more interested students) and help move prospective students through it.

Optimize Organic Search

One primary way a university can be found online and build loyalty with its audience, including prospective students, is by ensuring its website resources and academic programs appear in organic search results. Prospective students use online searches to learn about the university, including what programs it offers. Search engine optimization (SEO) is the strategic effort to maximize a website’s visibility in organic search results, so website visitors inquire about an academic program or apply to the university.

A variety of technical changes can help a website rank higher in search engine positioning, but a large part of running a successful SEO strategy involves how website content is utilized. Not only must website content be optimized to contain keywords and topical relevance, but new content can be written to match the user intent and provide answers to questions. This part of an overall content strategy can reassure users of a university’s ability to meet their needs, lead them to become customers and heighten visibility for the entire organization.

We have discovered in our SEO strategy the importance of five key components: SEO basics, keyword research, technical SEO, on-page and content optimization and off-page SEO.

  1. SEO basics include the setup of Google Analytics 4, Google Web Console, generating a comprehensive XML sitemap and ensuring search engines can index the website. 
  2. Keyword research is where we identify SEO opportunities. This process shows keyword competitors, reveals the topics and keywords people use to traffic our site and helps us prioritize keyword utilization by search volume and keyword difficulty.
  1. Technical SEO is the stage where one can repair technical problems with their website. This can include crawl errors, broken links and missing HTML tags. Working to improve website load times is also important.
  1. On-page and content optimization is the core of a successful SEO strategy. Creating new content to provide thorough answers for user questions discovered during keyword research is vital. We actively audit content and prune unnecessary or duplicate content across the site; improve title tags, meta descriptions and page content; and organize, write and publish content into topic clusters to make our website a trusted and useful resource for users in our primary audience segments.
  1. Off-page SEO is where we leverage, among other things, digital PR and social media to build back links to the website. Turning unlinked mentions into links on other authoritative websites helps the site rank better in search engine results. Persuading websites that link to competitors to link to your website is another approach. As you can imagine, this process will take time to mature.

Experiment with Location-Based Marketing

Geofencing and geotargeting aren’t just for retail stores trying to attract foot traffic or entice a passerby with a convenient sale. These location-based marketing strategies are instrumental in raising brand awareness among prospective students and issuing a call to action such as “learn more” and “apply now.” Applying both tactics to connect with prospective students in physical and digital spaces where they are likely to be interested and ready to engage is one approach. Geofencing creates a virtual fence around a particular physical location using GPS, Wi-Fi or cellular data. As consumers enter and exit the designated space, they receive notifications or messages on their devices. Geotargeting is based on a user’s location, which IP address, GPS coordinates, or ZIP codes can identify, and is executed across the different devices and channels where a consumer is active.

Extend the University Experience Through Social Media

Now more than ever, prospective students want to feel a sense of belonging and connection at an institution. At Miami University, social media is an extension of the university experience. While many consider organic social media the best (and free) way to tell a brand’s story, paid digital strategies are equally important.

Paid social media strategies open doors to new customers and, if executed correctly, can authentically open a student’s eyes to a place of learning, growth and development that motivates them to attend an in-person campus tour or fill out a request for information. Parents are also targets for this approach because this generation of students looks to their families for input when choosing where to attend college.

While paid social media helps secure new prospects, universities need to keep existing alumni, parents, students and faculty top-of-mind, which is where organic social media comes into play. These individuals are our brand advocates and followers because they believe in the brand. To take care of these individuals on social media, universities should focus on three core areas of organic social media and do them well: content strategy, customer service, and data and insights.

We have learned to conduct significant market research to better understand our different social media audiences. Developing personas for each social media channel and curating content to best resonate with the key demographic is essential. For instance, a Facebook page can feature content to appeal to proud alumni and parents. It will feature stories and images that spotlight student research and the opportunities their children will have on campus or highlight campus beauty to evoke nostalgia and excitement. This differs from TikTok content, which is geared toward prospective and current students and features behind-the-scenes videos and an authentic student perspective.

Reach Beyond the Direct Customer

Universities must market beyond their key demographic of prospective students to connect with parents and families who also play a critical role in the college decision-making process. Over the past few decades, universities have seen parents increasingly involved in their students’ day-to-day lives. Universities can embrace the parent demographic.

Understanding parents’ influential role in the college search and decision process will be increasingly important for all universities. We have found success by collaborating with student life, admissions and enrollment operation teams, utilizing e-mail communications, social media and events to connect directly with parents. The series of enrollment communications focusing on parents includes application generation and yield efforts.

The ever-evolving world of marketing is arguably the most vital element in recruiting students to college campuses. As the competition intensifies because of demographic shifts and fewer high school graduates, prioritizing digital marketing is necessary to elevate your university’s success.

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