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Identifying Gaps in Higher Ed Marketing Strategies

AUDIO | Identifying Gaps in Higher Ed Marketing Strategies
Institutions are being pushed to become leaner, but they’re simultaneously under pressure to improve their services to meet the demands of an increasingly discerning student population.

The following interview is with Wayne Parkins, a graduate education consultant and the former executive director of new business development in global business education with Pearson Learning Solutions. Higher education institutions are under pressure to become leaner and focus on their competitive advantages, while simultaneously improving their services and meeting the demands of an increasingly discerning customer base. In this interview, Parkins discusses the importance of lead generation and developing an inbound marketing strategy for higher education institutions today, and shares his thoughts on how partnering can help institutions remain viable in the new postsecondary marketplace.

1. What are the biggest challenges smaller schools face when it comes to marketing their programs?

One of the things I’ve focused on is understanding that your brand impacts who your future students actually are. As you think about what your brand is from a marketing perspective, you must have realistic goals. You’d be surprised how many schools still view the use of the Internet and online learning as creating that big blue ocean of opportunity. It has flattened the landscape and it’s making it more challenging for the smaller schools that have fewer resources. Another challenge is understanding your marketing budget and what that goes to. A lot of times, the marketing budget [at smaller schools] is just for the traditional message that’s now become brand management — print, radio, TV and billboards. That media span is still important but it’s not the most important. The new challenge for schools is to effectively balance maintaining that brand through some of that advertising and marketing with the whole digital strategy and the use of the Internet.

2. What are some cost-effective lead generation strategies smaller institutions can put in place to succeed?

One of the biggest is actually having a digital marketing plan. Some schools are equipped to build one, some aren’t. That goes hand-in-hand with your growth goals. The more students you want to attract and the larger pool you’re going to have to draw from, the more expensive it is.

At the end of the day, having a solid digital marketing plan and Internet strategy is critical because the way they’re going to quantify a return on their investment is down to the amount they’re spending per lead and then the amount it costs them to convert that lead. The biggest thing these smaller schools can do is either develop a digital marketing strategy or outsource that by going to one of the marketing firms that exist, one predominantly focused on higher education.

3. How can these institutions flip the equation so they get prospective students coming to them rather than the other way around?

Research is showing the majority of [prospective students] are discovering and enquiring about institutions they find online. Having a strong digital marketing strategy in place; a big component of that is working with a team that understands how to leverage the Internet effectively to draw students in based on keywords. It’s leveraging and putting to use the things that have made Amazon so successful. There’s nothing wrong with mimicking success and it can be done effectively in the pursuit for adult degree completion students, non-traditional students and students that want to enroll in graduate education.

We need to become more savvy in how we leverage the Internet. A lot of people are still amazed at how they can have ads and banners pop up on websites just based on their Internet using habits. If I go to a snow skiing website and then all of a sudden the next time I log on I’m getting banners for Patagonia and the North Face, that wasn’t serendipity; that was Internet marketing at its best.

4. Why are small school administrators better off spending the money to enter into a service partnership with a marketing firm rather than developing these strategies in-house?

As schools are forced to be more lean, from a human capital perspective, there’s going to be a bigger premium on finding providers that bridge those gaps. Determine where you’re strong. If a school has really good enrollment and admissions counselors that follow up on leads and have the ability to effectively promote and articulate the benefits of a degree program to the school, that may not be an area you want to outsource. You want to take your resources and put them solely on the Internet marketing component. Or you may have somebody that’s an expert in search engine optimization available on your campus.

5. How can internal marketing roles be adjusted so institutions aren’t forced to offload marketing employees when entering service partnerships?

Many of the service providers are beginning to unbundle some of their services. If a third-party firm isn’t willing to unbundle some of their services to best suit your needs, run fast, because that means they don’t have your best interests at heart.

The unbundling of services allows you to best align your existing staff where they’re most needed. As services are partnered with third-party providers, you’ll see full-time and part-time employees begin to move more into that admissions counselor area. Granted, some of these adult and professional studies departments don’t have anyone to follow up on leads. If that’s the case, full partnership with third-party providers is important. The more full-time and part-time folks you can put in that area in non-traditional working hours, the better off smaller schools are going to be.

6. Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of developing lead generation and inbound marketing strategies in order to help smaller institutions succeed in today’s highly competitive postsecondary marketplace?

What the trends are showing is that the non-traditional, fully online and graduate student enrollment is mirroring the traditional face-to-face enrollment trends based on the economy. When the economy’s good, enrollments dwindle. When the economy goes down, enrollments go up. It’s going to be more competitive than ever for these adult and professional studies departments on campus to attract students and to keep that in mind, as you go out to the marketplace and you look for third-party providers and know there are people willing to unbundle services to help you get to where you want to be.

The final piece also is the cost involved. It’s expensive to approve students and schools don’t really think about that. On average, to enroll one student, the overall costs are going to be anywhere from $3,000 to $6,000 a student and that sounds daunting but there are effective ways to get to that point. Schools really need to be looking at the return on investment of the third-party providers if they choose to outsource.

This interview has been edited for length.