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The Evolution of Marketing in Response to Short-Term Offerings

To successfully attract attention to your school, you must showcase real people and their stories, your network of connections and the level of personalization you offer.

Marketing today isn’t what it was ten years ago—especially with the increasing demand of short-term offerings. Simply marketing to a traditional-aged demographic won’t cut it anymore, and students know what they’re looking for from an institution. It’s critical for higher ed leader to be tuned into what’s being asked of them. In this interview, Heather Douglass discusses the evolution of marketing in higher ed, the challenges marketers still face and how Maine Community College System is able to market their offerings to serve 1000 employers in the state.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How has higher ed marketing evolved in recent years when it comes to this increasing demand for short-term training offerings?

Heather Douglass (HD): First, we need to identify that what we are marketing has evolved in recent years. Our students, whether on the short-term or academic side, have told us they want more flexibility in class scheduling, learning modality and recognition for work experience. 60% of our trainees in short-term education are over the age of 35; they have jobs and families, and they want to advance. But training needs to fit their schedule. And during COVID, we saw an uptick in the number of individuals who were ready to switch careers and invest in their professional growth. 

We’re also working with nearly 1,200 employers across Maine, learning what their needs are and incorporating an employer pathway from a three-month training into a career path through which the employer will continue to invest in its workforce. That adds a new business-to-business (B2B) strategy that isn’t typically used to attract new students.

Technology and the platforms and tactics we use to reach a target population have also evolved. Maine has seven community colleges, and each college’s region is vastly different. In some areas, radio and the local news station are still the best channels to reach students for upcoming programs, while in others it’s social, OTT, TikTok and the latest, newest platform.

Evo: What are some challenges marketing departments are currently facing?

HD: Maine’s community colleges offer 300 certificate or degree options. In April 2022, Governor Janet Mills passed a budget that funded the Free College Scholarship for students who received a high school diploma [or equivalent] from 2023-2023. We saw a 12% enrollment increase with the initiative. Concurrently, we’ve stood up 200 short-term training programs over the last 18 months. 

The biggest challenge facing any of our campus’s marketing departments is the sheer volume programs small teams have to support. 

Technology and data collection also come into play. Many of our campuses don’t currently have CRM that integrates with a marketing platform, so they’re working off spreadsheets and across three or four products that don’t talk to each other. We’re currently undergoing a two-year integration with Lumens and Anthology that will streamline those efforts tremendously and give our colleges more leverage in a student’s journey.

Evo: What are some best practices for marketing teams to strategically attract and retain learners for the long-term?

My top ten recommendations would be:

  1. Home in on the messaging. Talk to your students. What attracted them in the first place?
  2. Use real students in your advertising. Make content engaging and sincere.
  3. Utilize testimonials. Prospects are going to identify more when the image and story align with their own.
  4. Make the user experience the same as a traditional student’s from the marketing journey to the time they spend on campus.
  5. Celebrate the victories and completers and invite their families. 
  6. Build pathways and continuums to your degree programs and promote them. Let students know they have a place to come back to.
  7. Leverage technology in your strategy.
  8. Consider businesses in your influencer category. 
  9. Automate what you can like follow-up emails and surveys to keep potential students engaged.
  10. Revisit and revise and revise again. Use your analytics to see what’s working and what’s not.

Evo: How is Maine Community College System marketing the work they’ve been doing to the 1000 employers they’re serving in Maine?

HD: It’s fairly easy to get an employer’s attention when we say we have funding available that will help subsidize their training costs. Our team does a lot of boots-on-the-ground work in attending and exhibiting at industry events and tradeshows, engaging with our chambers of commerce, presenting to associations and trade organizations, and advertising in business and industry publications. 

We’ve recognized that we’re building such a robust network we’re offering incredible value-add. We’ve been utilizing video and testimonials to emphasize the full spectrum of services we can provide, the customization our workforce departments can offer an organization and how we can invite a company that hasn’t been engaged with a community college in a number of years to see all that we do. 

My favorite part about working with these organizations is that they see what we are doing as a tool for recruitment in the sense that they are committed to investing in their workforce, identifying a career path and a continuum and helping an employee get there. Maine has 2.5 vacancies to every unemployed worker today. We’ve seen the shift in decision-making transfer to the employee and that is changing the culture and the narrative. Our Compact members reflect over one third of Maine’s workforce and they are truly keeping pace with what employees want.

Evo: What advice do you have for other higher ed marketing leaders looking to market more of a 60-year curriculum to learners?

HD: It needs to start with common language across your campus and recognizing all learners as students, whether they’re coming to you for an online badge, a three-week training, a nine-month certificate or a two-year degree. 

Highlight the work your team does every day. Each student’s story is different. Each pathway is different. They are marketing’s great asset—it’s their stories that will make your campus, your program, your staff make your school feel like the right choice for prospective students. 

And finally, start with marketing the immediate goal of training to career. Over 73% of our trainees have a high school diploma but no degree. Many are looking at a college-level program for the first time, and it is intimidating. Recognize that it is attainable and that there is a pathway into a degree program with or that an employer that you’re working with has the supports for on-the-job training once they’re hired. We break down our work into three stages: pre-hire training to enter a career, incumbent worker training to gain new skills and advance, and scholarships to help aid in financial support of obtaining a degree. Create as many on-ramps as possible. Results may not be immediate, but a student will see you as the resource to return to each time they’re ready for more.