Published on 2019/04/18

The EvoLLLution | Postsecondary Marketing in the 21st Century: Tips and Common Mistakes
Leveraging external digital marketing tools and resources, and then applying them to their unique organizations, is pivotal for higher education institutions to set themselves apart from competition.

The modern era demands more from marketers—more focus on customer demand, more focus on effective messaging, more creativity in channel use. Higher education marketers aren’t immune from this shift. Given the incredibly competitive space and the fungibility of the postsecondary product, there’s a significant amount of pressure on marketers to help their institutions stand out. In this interview, Russell Winer reflects on the shifting characteristics of the postsecondary “shopper” and shares his insights into how college and university marketing teams can evolve to better communicate with this new breed of student.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the central characteristics of a consumer making a major purchase today?

Russell Winer (RW):For a major purchase involving what we call extensive problem solving, consumers will use a large number of sources of information including online Google-type search, online reviews, word-of-mouth from friends/family, actual product trial (if possible), websites, and marketing sources such as advertising.

Evo: How is making a major purchase today different compared to 10 years ago?

RW: The major difference is the availability of online reviews and recommendations. This is often the first source of information consumers use to screen alternatives and develop a smaller set of products from which to choose called the consideration set. These reviews, ratings and recommendations have become very influential.

Evo: For college and university marketers, what do these differences mean when it comes to effectively marketing and differentiating their institution for prospective students?

RW: Well, today engaging potential customers—both students and parents—involves more social media marketing (e.g., Facebook, Instagram) and search engine marketing, as well as search engine optimization so searches using keywords deliver organic search results that are high on the search page results.

Evo: How can colleges ensure their resources are leveraged effectively to build this kind of marketing engine? 

RW: I think the best approach is to use external resources who have specialized expertise in both the technology and the industry. Internal people (the communications department especially) should be tasked with taking what is found and putting it to work for their institution, i.e. applying the insights from the research.

Evo: What are some of the most common mistakes higher ed marketers make in trying to appeal to the modern postsecondary customer?

RW: The parents of the children applying to college are just as important to reach as the students themselves. The Generation X parents are more “helicopter” and involved with their children’s lives. They cannot be ignored.

Evo: What does this mean when it comes to messaging the postsecondary “product” effectively?

RW: It means more segmentation and targeting. The messages parents want to hear—for example, campus safety—aren’t the same as those that the students want to hear. Sharing these different ideas will require separate and distinct materials and communications.

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Key Takeaways

  • Given the increased involvement of parents in postsecondary decision making, applying tailored messaging strategies to engage parents becomes crucial to any effective higher ed marketing campaign.
  • With so many stakeholders involved in enrollment decisions, bringing unique demands and expectations to the table, it’s critical for postsecondary marketers to ensure messages are highly targeted to their diverse audiences.
  • In-house communications departments can help institutions optimize recruitment efforts by making sense of the data pulled from external digital marketing sources.