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Portfolio Marketing in the New Graduate Education Marketplace

AUDIO | Portfolio Marketing in the New Graduate Education Marketplace
As programs become increasingly innovative, institutions must find ways to bring in the best possible students without cutting themselves off from the larger pool of potential enrollees.

The following interview is with Julie Corwin, executive director for marketing and communications for the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University. Marketing in higher education is rapidly evolving and, as programming across the board becomes increasingly innovative, postsecondary marketers need to be equally innovative to ensure these programs attract the best possible students. In this interview, Corwin discusses the best approach to marketing in the modern graduate education environment and shares her thoughts on the benefits and drawbacks of the targeted approach.

1. Why is targeted marketing important for graduate programs?

Part of targeted marketing is first identifying who is the target or targets. If you look at demographics for graduate programs for the non-traditional student, it’s such a vast audience. Demographics will say [these students are] anywhere from 23 to 55, it’s 50 percent male, 50 percent female, and you really don’t get much information out of it. Demographics is dead.

What is more appropriate is diving into the behavioral types and starting to target by that, because you can then tell your message and let a higher ed person who this appeals to opt in. Some people know exactly what they want but there’s an awful lot of prospective students who don’t. They don’t have a subject, necessarily, to explore and some of your targeted marketing needs to go by that personality.

2. How do you go from simply finding a cross-section of the population to finding your target groups based on behavior? What goes into that process?

What we did here was take the data from our current students and the full lead database that was not current students and we contracted with the group who then came up with these segments. As they started to go down that progression, they refined this type of personality or behavior and they created what we call ‘personas.’ [Some segments were defined as living] under these zip code areas and [looking for certain things] in a degree. For them, brand is important; they want to be considered ahead of the curve, they’re willing to go into debt to get there and they want to be recognized for being a leader when they start down that path.

We now have zip codes where a lot of these people are most likely to live, we see where they aren’t and then we have a message strategy around the personality type. [We also know] what channels they use the most often and how to change our strategies around that concept.

3. What is the greatest drawback to the targeted approach to marketing?

The biggest drawback is you’re missing an awful lot of your people you need to target. Targeted marketing also means getting refined about who you target to have a bigger impact with less spending and less people in the database.

I’ve developed, here at Northeastern College of Professional Studies, what I call portfolio marketing and we use the personas primarily to know the types of people we need. We can’t [create] in all of our marketing different campaigns for each target. That would be ideal, but resources don’t allow that yet. We started to look at using that plus the portfolio marketing and that is more general, national marketing. That hits the masses and then people opt in because the ads resonate.

And then I leave the niche marketing, and that’s where you do paid search, for people who are specifically looking for this type of degree. That used to be almost 100 percent of how we did our marketing. You can’t do that in higher ed; it’s not scalable and also you’re missing an awful lot of your market. So we have this tiered leveling of it, starting with our segment, more mass-marketing specific, the other is more industry-specific. It’s really a tiered approach where you do targeted and then not-so-targeted.

If you go extremely targeted, you miss probably 50 percent of people who are looking for graduate degrees. We tested it … we took one portfolio and those five degrees in the past. We were only marketing three of them because there were only three selected as priority, and ignored the others, [decided to] let them organically get students. Based on when we did it that way, only doing the degree program, we spent twice as much for fewer ultimate students than we [have] today.

If I had a $50,000 budget for two degrees and we only got 50 students, this year, I’m only spending $25,000 and I’m getting 100 students. That’s the benefit of what I call the portfolio program.

4. Is there anything you’d like to add about marketing graduate education and the value of the tiered portfolio approach when it comes to driving enrollment to innovative programs?

As we’re all moving forward and the tools are more available, the data is more available, start thinking about how you can get more efficient with the marketing instead of just thinking what works for your specific university. We can create the best practice based on our individual situations, and that’s really where the future is going. It’s what’s right for you, not necessarily what’s right for me, based on which specific degree programs you’re targeting.

This interview has been edited for length.

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