Published on 2012/11/23

Top Five Ways to Market Higher Education to Adult Students

Successfully marketing to adult students requires a college or university to go beyond simply having resources available. Those resources must be optimized to enhance the student’s experience, and designed in such a way that they felt understood.

With a majority of college students falling into the category of commuters balancing their education with jobs and kids, the label of “non-traditional” has been flipped. Rather than focusing on the quality of the dorms and fitness centers, these students are evaluating transfer credits accepted and flexibility of delivery models. The big question: “Is this even possible, given my busy life?”

There are plenty of institutions out there that are more than eager to offer the ideal solution to the non-traditional adult student. For-profit and non-profit institutions alike are becoming increasingly savvy at delivering immediate follow up to prospective students. Just fill out an inquiry form online and count to ten; you’ll have an email in your inbox, a voicemail on your phone, and an invitation to chat with a live representative. Will those messages aim to educate or persuade? Just as education providers are becoming more savvy, so are the prospective students. So the question becomes—you have their attention—will you sell or will you serve? The following are just a few of the many ways to make the most of the short window of time your institution will have to earn the extended attention of your prospective students.

1. Provide an adult student-friendly website experience.

Many institutions slap up non-traditional program information as an afterthought to their traditional student-centric experience. Traditional programs are less complex in nature and are simply what many administrators and faculty know best, so they tend to dominate the .edu experience. If this is the case, don’t make the adult student dig to find the door to relevant content. Present it up front and then send them down a path that will surround them with an experience that speaks to their needs. Create a balance of personal, yet factual, messaging throughout the experience.

2. Search engine optimize your web content—seek professional help.

Adding a few meta-tags is simply not going to suffice if you want to appear on top of the search results of adult students. Your key pages must be written for Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and that must be handled by a professional. Do-it-yourself SEO is a dangerous way to handle a critical element of your marketing strategy. This is especially true given the fact that many institutions of higher education are working with minimal marketing budgets that sprinkle instead of soak key markets with media dollars. Organic search results are your best friend when this is the case. Identify areas where you offer a unique solution for non-traditional students and optimize your content to get prospects there quickly. You’ll serve the student and your institution.

3. Use a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) System – A traditional Student Information System just won’t cut it.

If you plan to provide an efficient, relevant experience for those interested in learning about your institution, it will most likely require a combination of automation and personalization. A CRM helps you to collect information from your prospective students in an organized way, respond to their needs immediately, and track your interactions with them for future targeting. Determine what communication you can automate to make the time required for relationship building.

4. Integrate content-rich self-service resources.

Adult students, more than any other population, are constantly being sold to before they even inquire. By incorporating interactive tools and self-service elements to your website and landing pages, you give them the opportunity to feel in control of the research they are conducting to educate themselves on their educational options. Proactive outreach is important, but “under the radar” exploration is equally valuable. Video testimonials, program previews, transfer credit calculators, plain-English knowledge bases, live chat, and unfiltered social media conversations provide a way for the prospective student to get to know your institution on their terms. An increasing number of stealth-applicants tells us that we must give them this option.

5. Last, but far from least, reinforce empathy with your admissions staff.

While the website, emails, and social media aspects of the shopping experience are important for prospective students to learn about your institution, there is no replacement for the comfort and assurance provided by a caring admissions counselor. Collecting information from your prospective students along the way helps counselors to align your schools offerings and services with the needs of the student. However, it is all in the delivery. For adults, jumping back into an experience that may not have been successful the first time around is often a fear-filled proposition. That first step of exploration is often the most difficult. Admissions Counselors need to be trained to speak concisely and accurately about your programs, but they also need to learn to see the experience through the eyes of the adult student. For adults, this is a decision that involves far more than selling points and application processes. They can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but you need to help light the tunnel to get them there.

It is up to our institutions to invest in the creation of a foundation of systems and processes to collect, organize, and integrate information about the prospective student and their individual needs into our approaches to communication. It will guide our marketing and recruitment strategies and tactics in an informed way that will lead to a more relevant, useful experience for future students. When prospective students can make a balanced and informed decision about which institution will best serve their needs, it is a first step in the direction of a successful journey to complete their educational goals.

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Readers Comments

Phil Gunnarson 2012/11/23 at 10:43 am

It is refreshing to see “empathy” being vaunted here as a top marketing strategy for adults. Too often, adult learners are seen by institutions (often underfunded) as a “cash cow,” a previously “untapped” resource that can bring in tons of new students and tons of revenue; this is, of course, a concern, but it cannot be a priority that comes through in your marketing campaign; as Mr. Maslowsky mentions, returning to school can be an anxiety-ridden and stressful experience for adult learners, perhaps even more than for traditional learners, so they really do need some personal empathy along the way.

The conversation about marketing to adult students is ramping up, and yes, they need a customer/student-centric experience, yes, they need accessible and targeted information, but I think most of all what they need and what might set one school apart from a whole hoard of others would be the human element– an understanding counselor or advisor who will support you through your transition back to higher ed.

    Tina Nunez 2012/11/23 at 3:02 pm

    I agree that empathy is important Phil, but I don’t think an institution needs to hire a whole slew of admissions counselors to give adults the impression of an empathetic institution that care about them and their needs; to make this too much a priority would be ineffecient and costly, as most ways you could provide this personalized attention would require a lot of staffing and would not be cheap. I proposed a modified version.

    Mr. Maslowsky didn’t speak of this directly, but it is certainly implicit in the strategies he outlines: big data. Data-driven marketing can do wonders for providing personalized and sensitive information and communications to prospective and incoming students; from what time of day is best to contact them, to what their main concerns will most likely be, et cetera. Informed by this detailed set of data (if an institution makes the effort to collect it), one strategy I have heard of is creating a rich and detailed “phone tree” based on the different questions, concerns or responses that might come from adult students. Some concerns could be addressed by a targeted, automated message or email response; some would direct you to a real human being to talk to (when empathy is really in order, so to speak). This kind of strategy not only streamlines the need for committed student services staff (or at least makes it more useful and efficient), but provides a more targeted and accurate customer/student-oriented experience for your students.

Chuck Zahn 2012/11/24 at 2:00 pm

I think it was inevitable, but I find the shift in higher education marketing and orientation from catering to “students” to catering to “customers” fascinating, and not completely unproblematic.

On the one hand, I think it is about time that universities came down from their high horse and catered to their students in a helpful way, giving them an experience that is student-oriented; and I think the author’s thoughts on marketing here show that shift to customer-oriented strategies at its best and most effective. In fact, I’d like to thank adult students and their more developed demands and concerns for precipitating this change.

My hesitations are about the learning experience; if the student to customer shift extends to the learning environment, I think this could have dire consequences on the quality of education being delivered in universities and colleges. Call me old fashioned, but educating a student isn’t simply giving them what they want– it is challenging them, and pushing them to do better. It is not always nice, and it is not always going to leave them satisfied. In the classroom, the customer most certainly is NOT always right. I suspect that adult learners are for the most part self-motivated enough that this may not escalate into a real problem, but I think the danger is there and it’s something to keep an eye on.

Rosa-Fay Milnar 2012/11/26 at 5:38 pm

Thank you for making the case for “empathy” by staff. I would extend that to empathy for the students by everyone the student comes in contact with. This goes especially for the faculty. For many students the faculty is the face of the organization. No amount of marketing money and no number of advisors can combat bad encounters with a faculty member.

Viviana Vanova 2013/05/09 at 5:27 pm

I also believe that showing prospective adult student what they will get at the end of their study us very important. It’s a kind of investment that people make – of both time and money. And as with every other investment, we like to know what is the potential gain we are looking at. In other words: What are the real-world skills I will acquire through your program?

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