Published on 2014/09/09

Marketing For The Student, Not The Market

Marketing For The Student, Not The Market
Higher education marketing is not advertising, but providing the right message and the best service to students when, where and how they need it.
Higher education institutions across the country are facing enrollment challenges in the face of escalating competition and increased differentiation across institutions, especially in the distance education space. While an investment in marketing is an important aspect of holding your ground in such an environment, the nature of the investment is critical.

During a recent conversation with an administrator from an institution struggling to maintain new enrollment levels, it was mentioned, with an accompanying eye roll, that the institution had plans to “spend an additional million in marketing” in the upcoming year. This is certainly better than the alternative of cutting expenditures, but the issue is that in higher education, “marketing” is too often understood to simply mean advertising. To increase marketing is to increase paid search budgets, produce and air a new commercial or run print ads in a magazine. This sounds simple enough, and it is relatively easy to execute, but the problem is it fails to address the real issues being faced. Increased competition means inquiries are hearing from more institutions at a greater frequency. To set your institution apart, you must address the entire experience from interaction with the advertisement all the way through to course registration and, most importantly, graduation.

In situations where revenue is decreasing, chances are slim that an institution can increase advertising to boost inquiries and simultaneously add increased phone handling bandwidth. Therefore, investing in additional inquiries as a starting point is like pouring more sand into the top bulb of an hourglass, knowing the neck remains the same size. The neck is your enrollment experience, which consists of, automation, personalization, usability and interaction.

So before an institution starts spraying marketing money into the air, only to have it dissolve before it hits the ground, they must address the following four areas of the enrollment operation:

1. Automation

As new inquiries arrive at your institution, do they immediately receive relevant, personalized information and clear calls-to-action that help your school to better understand the inquiry? Investing in automated follow-up communication may seem like a no-brainer, but whether or not this is in place is far from a yes or no question. Notice I include relevant and personalized here. Having a generic email triggered with the same information provided in your ad or landing page does not help the prospective student in meaningful ways. Automated follow up must be designed to serve the future student and capture additional information to further improve service moving forward.

2. Prioritization

As mentioned, in times of financial challenge you’re most likely doing more with less, meaning you have to invest wisely in technology and processes that help you do just that. Systems are available to help your institution segment “interested” prospects on the basis of their interactions with your institution’s website, email, chat and phone communications. Using these systems, you can apply logic that will allow you to direct staff to provide focused service to those future students needing it the most.

3. Usability

Advertising helps direct prospective students to your institution, but this is only the first step in a series of many to help a prospective student make an informed decision about enrollment. Once they arrive at your website, receive an email or answer your phone call, future students expect their questions to be addressed with efficiency. This means designing your website, emails and phone communications with the prospective students’ point of view in mind. Not only does each of these components of the experience have to be well planned, implemented and managed, but they have to be done so in alignment. If this is a new concept, seek outside perspective and guidance.

4. Interaction

Even in a world where almost anything can be done with the click of a mouse or a tap of the screen, real people and relationships still matter greatly to students. Aggressive competitors get this and you can be sure they’re prompting prospective students to chat from their website or connect through a phone call. First, make sure you have the technology in place to make this happen with ease for your future students. Second, make sure the person representing your institution really knows how to address the individual needs of the future student. Most importantly, hire people who care about students and make it your personal mission as an enrollment administrator to regularly remind them why their work matters to students.


Enrollment management and marketing isn’t about silver bullets and shiny buttons; it’s about service. Institutions must invest in providing the best possible experience for students from their first glance of an advertisement through to their decision to invest in the education. Educating the student shouldn’t be left to the academic departments. We all must invest in providing the best experience possible to those we serve.

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Readers Comments

John Edwards 2014/09/09 at 2:10 pm

These are pretty standard tips for engaging in targeted marketing, but you’d be surprised how many institutions fail to implement them. We’re getting to the point where prospective students, being at times more savvy than institutions, even expect these targeted efforts to reach them — and critique institutions that don’t do this well. These students evaluate an institution based on every interaction they’ve had with it, whether that involves seeing a web banner, receiving a targeted ad in a Google search or accessing the institutional website. Institutions that have the ‘whole package’ appear more polished and often do a better job of recruiting students as a result.

Emma Coyle 2014/09/10 at 9:34 am

I think most institutions have the first three areas down pat, but interaction is still something that needs to be developed. We’re seeing a push by online retailers to offer “live chats” for people who browse their product pages. It makes sense for institutions to offer similar tools to engage their site visitors. This can be particularly important for institutions looking to attract online students. How the “live chat” interaction plays out could influence the prospective student’s opinion of what it would be like to do an online program at the institution.

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