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Higher Education Marketing Departments Must Gain Competencies Outside Direct Marketing

Higher Education Marketing Departments Must Gain Competencies Outside Direct Marketing
Institutions able to identify their ideal market and develop relevant direct marketing products and online content will be the successful marketers of the future.

More than ever, marketers in higher education need to account for the effectiveness of their marketing expenditures. With increasing budget pressures and competition in the marketplace, traditional direct marketing strategies — print advertising, direct mail, email and other unsolicited contacts — will not produce enough right-fit students necessary to meet enrollment and retention goals. Successful higher education marketers of the future will need to increase their marketing competencies, both in traditional direct (or outbound) marketing as well as the newer “inbound” marketing, in which marketers focus on “getting found” by prospects.

The bedrock of successful direct marketing is relevance: getting the right message to the right person at the right time. And the most important element of a direct marketing strategy is a highly targeted, segmented list.

At first glance, enrollment marketers focused on undergraduates appear to have it easy compared to those marketing to adult students. For example, when it comes to the critical task of segmentation and targeting, the undergraduate marketer can simply order lists from the College Board or ACT, select geographic and score ranges, and have the basis for a reasonably targeted direct marketing campaign.

As a parent with a teenager who recently took the PSAT, I now find myself on the receiving end of these efforts. It’s clearly a challenge to make a school stand out amongst the overwhelming stream of emails, letters and viewbooks. Nevertheless, as a marketer, I can see that some schools are more sophisticated in their segmentation strategy than others. For example, my son scored particularly well on the math section of the test and received a clever, math-centric mailing from one school that has earned it a spot on the top of the pile. Schools that have invested in predictive modeling to refine the raw College Board/ACT data to focus their marketing efforts on prospects that look like their most desirable students clearly have a leg up and are positioned for success.

So, enrollment marketing for the undergraduate demographic is challenging. Ironically, it’s largely because the key list comes with highly relevant qualifying criteria out of the box, and is readily available to any school that wants it. The competition is fierce.

Marketers in the professional, graduate and continuing education space rarely have access to such lists. Thus, segmentation and targeting is significantly more challenging, but no less important. Understanding the purchase process of adult students provides a good starting point.

A recent study by The Parthenon Group confirmed what many adult higher-education marketers already know: prospects consider program first and brand second.[1] A Google study provides further insight, noting that 90 percent of higher-education shoppers don’t know what school they want to attend when they begin their search, and 83 percent of query paths begin with non-branded terms.[2] A third study found that search-engine results are adult students’ preferred way to research their higher-education options.[3] Based on these findings, it’s evident that online targeting and segmentation at the program level is required to attract prospective adult students.

Fortunately, the ability to target prospective students online is unprecedented. In addition to the vaunted Google Search Network, which matches ads to search results based on the terms a person uses to search, Google has built a display network that reportedly reaches 92 percent of US Internet users. The targeting tools within the Google Display Network (GDN) permit both contextual and topic targeting of both image and rich-media ads on tens of thousands of sites on a cost-per-click basis. So if your school offers an online bachelor’s degree in health information management (HIM), your HIM program ads can be served on pages of publishers participating in GDN with page content that relates to your keywords. You can also target sites that publish content with topics related to your degree, and based on important demographics such as age. Google’s “remarketing” tools permit you to repeatedly serve Web-based ads to people who have visited your site, but not converted, long after they have left your site — a cost-effective way to stay engaged with potential students and achieve the multiple “touches” known to be necessary to drive a conversion.

These are just a few examples of the online targeting tools available to marketers looking to generate leads for specific programs. Social media sites such as LinkedIn are target-rich due to the information members voluntarily provide in their profiles and their affinity group selections.

Despite the abundance of paid online targeting tools, higher-education marketers that master “inbound” marketing are likely to win the day. High-quality organic and referral traffic, collectively referred to as “inbound,” is key to a successful online marketing strategy. Driving inbound traffic requires more than just money, but rather a commitment to create content — blogs, podcasts, white papers and e-books — that resonates with your prospective students. The starting point is a deep understanding of their wants and needs through the development of search personas — profiles of the ideal prospects who are searching for your product. With true search personas and a disciplined approach to producing content relevant to your audiences’ needs, marketers can drive traffic and earn the trust of prospective adult students to meet enrollment targets. It is these direct marketing skills and strategies that all successful higher education marketers of the future will employ.

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[1] Ross, Chris. Are the Sleeping Giants Awake? Non-profit Universities Enter Online Education at Scale, The Parthenon Group, October 2012.

[2] Education Trends through the Eyes of Your Customer, Tracing the Learner’s Digital Journey, Google, April 2012.

[3] Copeland, Tim. The Interactive Marketing Preferences of Adult Learners — 2012, Demand Engine, March 2012.

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