With higher education becoming ever more competitive, it's essential for institutions to develop enrollment marketing strategies that differentiate them from their competition. Our recent article, Top 5 Enrollment Marketing Strategies and Why They Work outlined the most effective strategies, and Ian, Robert, and Torr sat down to discuss those strategies in detail.
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Summary of the Discussion
Our top enrollment marketing strategies are personalized communication, targeted digital advertising, student ambassadors, campus visits, financial aid information, and SEO optimization.
Personalized messaging can increase the likelihood of a prospective student applying to a college or a university by up to 30%. It's relatively easy to create tailored content that speaks directly to a prospective student's interests and aspirations, and e can all identify with the idea that we want to feel like more than just a number to these institutions.
The days of social media getting much organic reach are over. It's now rare for a post to organically be served to more than 5% of your followers on any social network. Social is mostly a pay-to-play space now, so it's worth investing in digital ads. There are many different types of digital ads you can run, but you should make sure to always be targeting by demographics and/or geographic characteristics. Geofencing can be used to "personalize" and introduce your message to the right audience. Institutions need to spend a little more time taking advantage of these features because they semi-"personalize" ads, and it can be done without requiring a large ad spend.
Student ambassadors can be used to connect with prospective students. Current students list their majors and some of their interests and prospective students can set up a time to chat with them and get their questions answered and share their firsthand experiences and insights with prospective students. Student ambassadors speak from the heart in a way that is truly authentic. Student ambassadors are eager to help spread your message. If you ask one of your top students to speak and act on behalf of your program, they usually opt right in.
Campus visits and events are another great way to supplement your student ambassador strategy. A recent study found that this strategy is the most influential factor in a student's college selection process with 54% of students citing college tours and events as the most important factor in choosing a college or university. Another study found that 72% of students who visited a campus ended up enrolling in that college or university.
Higher education costs are often the number one barrier to entry to college for prospective students. Prospective students want to know how much your college or university is going to cost, and whether they'll be able to afford it. Making information about scholarships and financial aid difficult to find on your website is not going to help your enrollment numbers. Make that information easily accessible on your website as it shows you're committed to transparency. And a side benefit of doing so is that your college or university will get the search equity of having that information on your site.
SEO is a key part of a college's marketing strategy, and unlike social media, this is not a pay-to-play space. Colleges and universities need to make sure their websites rank well on Google and to do that you need to first use one of the free SEO audit tools that are available (we even offer our own.) SEO optimization isn't just about on-page SEO of what language you use, there's also technical SEO where you monitor things like how quickly your site loads, and how it renders across different types of devices. SEO optimization helps indirectly grow enrollment by making your website appear in search results more frequently, which leads to more visitors to your site.
Ian Evenstar: Let's get started with the first strategy on our list, personalized communications.
Robert Johns: I think we can all identify with this idea that we wanna feel like more than just a number or a data point to be marketed to. Students who are looking at a university or college also want to feel like they're more than just a number. They want to feel like they're being seen and heard. This can take many forms these days. With the advancement of marketing tools such as HubSpot and others like it, it is relatively easy to create tailored content that speaks directly to a prospective student's interests and aspirations. There are simple things that you can do within a tool like HubSpot where you can personalize their first name or last name in email communications. Depending on how you have it set up, you can also insert key data points or key information that relates directly to their interests. As an example, if you have a prospective student who is very much interested in maybe the sports programs or athletics or different things like that at your school, it might not resonate with them as much to send them information about clubs or things like chess; things that may not relate to their interests. But if you do have a student who maybe wants to be a part of a chess club or is really into reading or history, but you send them only information about sports and concerts, again, it may not resonate. And those data points you can very easily tag within a tool like HubSpot or another marketing tool that you use, and send information that is tailored exactly to their interests. This puts you at a level above other institutions that are competing for that same student. So all that to say, with the tools we have available to us it's relatively easy to personalize information digitally.
IE: That's a great example there and probably the leading reason why personalized communication is our number one strategy for enrollment marketing is because of the direct impact that it actually has on conversion rates. I pulled some data points and wanted to share those to confirm why this is the number one strategy, thinking about how you personalize your communication. According to a study by Salesforce, they found that personalized messaging, as Robert was just describing, can actually increase the likelihood of a prospective student applying to a college or a university by 24%. Another study by the firm EAB found that personalized communications can increase application rates by up to 30%. And then lastly, there was a study by Liaison International that I found in the research that showed that personalized outreach, whether it's talking about chess or those sporting programs or extracurricular opportunities if those are personalized, can actually increase enrollment rates. So it's worth noting that personalization across the board, in any of your higher education, marketing, and communications, can take many forms like your email campaigns, your landing pages, personalized messaging in your SMS outreach, and all of which, according to the data, is going to put up double-digit improvements on your enrollment numbers.
RJ: I think we understand that it would be nearly impossible to do one-to-one marketing and communication with every prospective student. Admissions teams, as we all are aware, struggle with bandwidth. They have so many students that they need to reach and only so many people on their team. So we're not saying that every student needs to have a one-to-one relationship with an admissions counselor or somebody on the admissions team. But there are ways that we can tailor your content to not feel so sterile or generic. We're not saying we understand the needs and the requirements of admissions teams, and that's why these tools that we've been talking about can help you make your job a little bit easier.
IE: There are some clear limitations and I think like any good consultant, Robert, you have to qualify all of this by saying, work within your means; the specific impact that personalization does take on your conversion rates will vary depending on your approach, depending on your tech-stack, and your own ability in-house. It might also vary depending on the degree program, we've found. Personalized degree program messaging does well depending on the specific program, and of course, your target audience. Across the board, there are some limitations and some variance, but nonetheless, the data is clear, not just from these studies, but the success of our own campaigns, that anytime you make that additional effort to personalize your communications, it will have a significant impact on the success of your enrollment marketing. There's one other place where personalization of your messaging and communications occurs, and that's in your targeted digital advertising. Our second top strategy for enrollment marketing. Torr, tell us about this.
Torr Leonard: Yeah, so when we're talking here about digital advertising, just to lay the groundwork, there are so many different types of digital advertising you could do, whether it's Google search ads, display ads, advertising on social networks, OTT, over-the-top advertising, which is a newer medium that is the ads that you see on smart TVs and on streaming services when you're paused, that kind of thing. So the key when you're doing this advertising, and I'm shocked when I see ads being run that don't do this, is that you should always be targeting based on demographic characteristics or geographic characteristics. You can have ads of that type that use what's called using geofencing. You can have it be, "I wanna only serve ads to people who've gone to certain places in real life with their mobile device." And then also you can do it with targeting you based on, "I want this ad to go to people who've visited our website." And even within that, it can be, "I want to serve this ad to people who visited our website and didn't take action." Or people have visited a site and did take a particular action. And what happens there is you start to have the ads follow you around online. It can be weeks later and you're visiting different websites and you're still getting served display ads related to a specific site that you visited once, perhaps. I just want people to recognize that it's not enough to just say, "Oh yeah, we're gonna do some digital ads. Let's run 'em on these platforms. We'll target it at a certain state or a certain country." This is the sort of thing where you have so much flexibility for what messaging you wanna put out there and in front of which particular demographic or geographic areas. So I feel like people need to spend a little more time taking advantage of the fact that you can kind of "semi-personalize" ads. An overall point that I wanna make is that the reason why digital advertising and cost-per-click advertising are so important now is that the days of social media getting much organic reach, whether it's your Facebook page, or your Twitter, those days are over, we're pretty much in a pay to play space now when it comes to virtually every social network. You can look at your insights and your analytics, and see, it is very rare for you to do a post and have it be seen organically by more than maybe 5% of your followers, without you putting some sort of budget behind boosting that post. So the days of organic social media are behind us. Obviously, everyone hopes for, "Oh, we're gonna do something, it's gonna go viral." Maybe that will happen, but it's probably not very likely. So that's why we're putting so much emphasis on cost per click, CPC advertising now, because it's a bit of a pivot away from doing things on social channels.
RS: Something that relates back to your comment about over the top and let's use Hulu as an example. I always kinda laugh, and this also happens when I'm watching kind of standard cable television, maybe more so there, is when you're watching "The Office" or something on cable TV and a commercial comes up in the break and you think to yourself, "I'm watching this show, but this ad has nothing to do with it. It's like a medication or a product that's completely unrelated to anything that I would need or want." And it always gets me thinking, "What information do they have and what demographic do they think is watching this show?" And then when it comes to Hulu or whatever platform you use, clearly they have the opportunity or the availability, to see the data to see who's watching. And when I get an ad on one of those platforms that feel completely unrelated to anything that I might be interested in. I just think it's funny what some brands or companies do in terms of their strategy for serving these ads.
TL: That actually reminds me of an interesting thing I wanted to mention is that I was reading recently about how the reason one of the ways in which Smart TVs can be sold so inexpensively now is because unless you dig down into the settings of your smart TV, far deep down in those settings where you can turn off, "I don't want this company to be able to sell the data about what types of things I've been watching." So yeah, that's the kind of info that they have because it's running in the background. It's turned on by default when you buy these TVs. That's just a funny thing about why you can get TVs so cheap now because they're able to make money off of selling your data about your viewing habits and whatnot.
IE: We have a couple of examples in our own repertoire of campaigns that we've done. Just thinking about the geo-targeting and geofencing. So one campaign for a music program was geofenced around high school music festivals. And so when you have people who are in a band or concert or jazz band attending these festivals, what a great opportunity to geofence that event and then show, of course, your program of interest to those people. And geofencing doesn't just stop at the time of the event. It can actually continue to track and keep that data for that perspective student long after the event. We had another case where we were looking at engineering students for the entrepreneur program, and so we were targeting different hackathons around the region and looking at those engineering events as an opportunity again to start to personalize and introduce our message about the program to that highly qualified and best-fit student. So clearly it's the right message at the right time to the right audience, right? We've heard this a lot. This is what makes it effective, but it's also a pay-to-place space, right? Not all programs have a large budget. Sometimes they need to get creative with their strategies. So Robert, maybe you could share a few opportunities as we look at our next strategy on our list where you could maybe deploy something that doesn't cost as much if you don't have such a large advertising budget.
RS: So what we're talking about here are student ambassadors. I was thinking this morning about the dynamic of higher ed. You've got generally older, really smart people running institutions who are trying to market to high school, sophomores, juniors, and seniors, and there can often be a disconnect between those two demographics. One and, at least in our experience, is very proud of their faculty and their programs and maybe their buildings. And high school students often are interested in what's fun and what's the food like, and what do I get to do while they're on campus. And so you have this disconnect between the two audiences, which is where student ambassadors can become a really key element to your marketing. Institutions can recruit and hire and train student ambassadors and tap into the power of peer-to-peer marketing. Current students and existing students at a university can share their firsthand experiences and insights with incoming students or prospective students. They can answer questions and provide a unique perspective that resonates with their peers. And these can be formal questions. What are the best programs and professors and how much do things cost to some of the more fun questions like, what do I do on a Friday night? Or what's the best food around here? And what clubs are you a part of? So you can do this, these student ambassadors can provide a range of information from a peer-to-peer standpoint. There's an example with one school that we worked with where they actually deployed this in the digital space. So they have an admissions website where prospective students could elect to chat using a chat feature with student ambassadors, and they had, let's say a list of 20 different ambassadors. It would list their photo, their name, their major, and some of their interests, and these prospective students could say, "okay, I think I would connect with, or I identify with this particular student ambassador. Let me set up a time to chat with them and get these questions answered." I've often seen student ambassadors using a kind of in-person scenario where if you come to a campus visit or you're there for orientation or whatever, that's where you have those connections. I hadn't actually seen it done in a digital space before, which I thought was really cool. Whether you want to utilize these student ambassadors in person or in the digital space, it's a great way to engage with prospective students and get what they might feel is a more authentic or real insight into the school or university.
IE: And Robert, you've probably found also that these student ambassadors, they're eager to help spread your message, right? If you were to ask one of your, top students or outgoing students to speak and act on behalf of your program, they usually opt right in for it.
RJ: Even if they're paid student ambassadors, let's say they're on your admission staff as a student. I would assume that you're not gonna apply for such a position if you don't actually like the school or what you're doing and what you're a part of. So yeah, they are whether they're on the payroll or not, they are fans of the university and will provide objective maybe not completely objective, but unique insights that otherwise might not be shared with prospective students.
IE: I think they are because of the fact they are student ambassadors. They are currently enrolled or maybe in some cases recently graduated. They are biased, but they are authentic to their point of view. We say often in branding, you have to be authentic and true to your voice, true to your message, and that has to feel genuine and authentic. And your student ambassadors are gonna speak from the heart in a way that is truly authentic to their own experiences and to your program, and that's a win. That's a very compelling message, especially when a prospective student has reservations or key issues and concerns they want to air out. So number four on our list is campus visits and events, and this is another great way to supplement your student ambassador strategy. It actually helps warm up your prospect to what life on campus may be. How the campus experience feels different than your competitors, and it's great to have ongoing opportunities throughout the year that kind of supplement these other strategies that we've talked about. I wanna spend a bit of time going deeper on this one just because of how powerful these are. They really allow the prospective student to immerse themselves in the culture and get a feel for your community. And as I mentioned, they are a primary way to help differentiate from your competitors. It's sometimes difficult when you're looking at two brochures from two universities, given the language, and maybe they haven't done a good job of calling out what genuinely makes them different. A prospective student is going to be at a loss comparing apples to apples. But through a campus visit, an event campus experience, they can instantly discern what makes this campus experience different and unique compared to say, one of their other top choices. So universities, and I know we're preaching to the choir, as they say, but universities can host open houses, they can have information sessions, they can have campus tours. This could be done digitally or virtually as well as in person. And this is all provided within this strategy. So think about how you're creating and investing in those memorable experiences with prospective students. Guaranteed, this is going to be the number one driver to increase enrollments. The data proves that this is the leading strategy. A study recently by the National Research Center for Colleges and University Admissions found that this strategy is the most influential factor in a student's college selection process. Let me say that again. This is the most influential factor in a student's college selection process. That's 54% of students citing college tours and events as the most important factor when they chose that university. The same study by the National Research Center for College and University Admissions also found that students who visit the campus, they're more likely to apply and enroll. So thinking about not just your application numbers, but your enrollment numbers, right? There are two cliffs of conversion there. So the study found 64% of students who visited the campus applied to that institution compared to the 45% that didn't apply if they hadn't visited. So this feels like it should really be our number one most absolute strategy on our list. And I'd say the only reason it isn't is that we know and we find that most admission teams already have this fairly well-developed. As they say that it could always be better. You could always be revisiting your campus events and revisiting those college tours, and looking for room for improvement. Maybe hearing this discussion today has given you the inspiration to go back to your team and say, "Hey, look, this is the leading driver for our enrollment. What can we do to enhance this?" And Robert, I think you have an example of a unique campus visit that you thought was particularly effective.
RS: So the college that I went to when I would've been a junior or senior in high school, I can't exactly remember, but they had a program where you would come to the university for a full weekend. So you'd show up on a Thursday afternoon, you'd be able to stay in the dorms, eat in the dining halls, and audit classes. They would often try to schedule it around maybe a football game or basketball game. They would throw a concert or something bigger. Obviously, this is much more of an investment than a college tour on a Friday afternoon. But this was a full-blown experience and it, as the data suggests, thinking back, was probably the reason why I selected to go there. I visited other schools, but it was, maybe a two-hour event. Here are some classrooms, and here's some faculty, have a good day. Whereas, when I got to go there and experienced living in the dorms and eating at the dining hall it made an impact. Not only was it fun, but I could envision myself being there, unlike other places. So obviously a strategy like that would require, as we've talked about, some investment, some money to put together, but it wasn't for just me this weekend, they invited hundreds, maybe thousands of students that would come to campus. And so you're able to basically plan one event for hundreds of thousands of students and get the impact. And if, I'm sure I don't have the numbers in front of me, let's say 10% of those students end up coming, you've paid for the entire weekend probably many times over.
IE: And that's maybe a little more in-depth than what your program is willing to do. But again, I'll throw another data point at our listeners here, the Educational Policy Institute found that students who visit a campus are more likely to apply and enroll with an astounding 72% of students who visited a campus actually enrolling in that college or university. 72%. So think about how you could maybe personalize your communications, use targeting through your digital advertising and your student ambassadors to actually get people to your campus tours and events, all of which is gonna supplement this strategy and help you with that 72% of students who visit campus and then eventually enroll. The other thing I'm gonna provide here is that we had a talk recently with the producer from the Amazon Prime series, "The College Tour", a really cool series. They're going in-depth campus to campus, all across the country to look at and share what campus experiences are like at each of these campuses. So take a look at that. I think this is just a great way to maybe emulate or supplement your offering by looking at what other campus college tour experiences are like and maybe modifying yours or enhancing yours based on that. There's a podcast you can check out for the college tour as well as an article if you wanna refer back to that. And then, the very last thing I'd like to say on this, I know we went a little more in-depth here, but just that I think it's cool that there are actually some campuses that are even paying their prospective students to fly out and visit. A few examples that come to mind that top our list are Dartmouth College, Oberlin College, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT. So they obviously recognize the importance of this strategy, and they're even willing to fly students out to experience campus firsthand. All right, so looking at our next top enrollment strategy, this is rounding out our list. The reason why this is on the list is that it addresses the most important question and concern a prospective student has. So once they're aware, once they're interested, and maybe even once they're admitted to your program, they're asking two questions, how much will this cost? And how can I pay for this? So Robert, what's the best way to address these concerns and nurture that student into your college program?
RJ: Yeah, it's really funny because at least in my experience, higher ed and money, for some reason it's a touchy subject and we often don't wanna address it yet, as you pointed out, it is often the number one barrier of entry. A student might like the campus and the programs and the faculty and the food or whatever else, but if they can't afford it, none of it matters. So this is often, even before they've started applying or visiting campus, they're probably looking for and searching for information about how they're going to pay for it and if they can and can't afford it. It's also interesting that this is the one thing that every college deals with. It evens the playing field in many ways because every student applying to every college is gonna ask the same question, how much does it cost and how can I pay for it? As we all know, college is getting more and more expensive. So many, if not most students are relying on financial aid and scholarships to go to these schools. Making this information difficult to find or understand is not gonna help your enrollment numbers. You're not gonna trick anybody, so by trying to hide it or mask it or you're not tricking anybody going to your school and being like, "Surprise, this is how much it costs." After the fact, you're just gonna turn people off. So what we recommend is to provide transparent and accessible information about financial aid and scholarship opportunities on your website or in video content or on social media. There are a number of different ways that you can put this information out there, but I guess the most important thing is that it's transparent. So that you're telling the truth and being as clear as possible and that it's accessible, that people can find it easily. You wanna make it easy for people to ask questions about their unique situation. So if there's a way that you, they can call into financial aid or chat or email and have quick responses, everybody's got a unique situation, whether it's, parents or family or military or health. There is any number of reasons why people might, may, or may not be able to afford something, so making it easy for them to ask questions and get personalized answers is going to set you apart from other institutions. I don't have the data in front of me. I'm sure we could provide it, but I would be willing to bet this is one of the highest search terms out there. How do I pay for college? What scholarship opportunities are available at X University? So not only does this help students make an informed decision and feel like they're engaging with a transparent and authentic institution. The side benefit here is that you get the search equity of having that information directly on your website. I know this isn't on our list so we're gonna consider this a bonus strategy, but talk to us a little bit about SEO and why that matters.
TL: Yeah, so I'm a little surprised when I've seen colleges and universities in their print advertising, billboards, and TV ads. I've seen ones that they do emphasize the fact of "affordable costs", that kind of thing. But I've been shocked by how little seem to utilize that on their website. If your college or university has ever been acknowledged as the most affordable, say, "business degree in Florida" or any particular state, you should have pages on your website that are specifically written to try to rank well on Google for people searching those particular questions, because those are exactly the types of search queries that people are making when they're looking for "What colleges and universities should I even be bothering to apply to?" And on the overall subject of SEO, there are simple things everyone should be doing. There are a bunch of free SEO audit tools out there, we offer our own, unincorporated.com/growyourenrollment. These no-cost tools out there will scan your website and identify areas for improvement, particular pages that if you made alterations to it, or where you could potentially rank higher in search results for particular phrases. And when we're talking about SEO, this isn't just about on-page SEO of what language is on your website. There's also the technical SEO side of it, where you need to be worried about how quickly your page loads, and when it does load, whether there is a shifting of content. Those are all elements that Google looks at to determine how it's gonna place you in the search rankings. So I just think it's an element to all of this that I don't think enough colleges and universities are paying enough attention to putting enough time into, properly optimizing around. You should be writing content moving forward that is written specifically from the perspective of "We want this page to rank for this focus key phrase." It's a lot easier to do that moving forward than to go back to your old content and try to modify that content to rank well for certain terms. And the reason why I like to put so much emphasis on SEO is that, unlike social media, this is not some pay-to-play space. Yes, there's gonna be a few ad results at the top of Google search results, but what's great about organic SEO is it's a world where if you put great content out there that answers people's questions that they are highly engaged with, this is something where anybody can still rank well for particular key phrases. So I just love it as an opportunity because it's not just some pay-to-play space. I need to get a little plug in here: we recently published the Ultimate Guide to SEO for Higher Education. So if you want to know what it's comprised of, and what you can do to improve our SEO, that's definitely something you should check out.
IE: I absolutely love the fact that we're putting forward the strategy of making your financial information readily available. We're talking about tuition costs that address how much will this program cost and how will I pay for it. And then linking that to your ongoing content marketing strategy and your SEO. So really leveraging a phrase like, "How much does tuition cost at Florida State University?" Making sure that you're showing up for that search. That is the number one search that students in your area, thinking about and considering your program they're gonna be entering. It's not exactly branded fully, right? You're still adding the keyword modifiers there around financial aid or tuition cost, but it does introduce your brand as well. So I'm really glad we included SEO as it relates to our last strategy, and yeah, we've had so much success helping universities and colleges grow their enrollment by optimizing their SEO on their website. This includes publishing, keyword-rich content that lands these programs on the first-page result of Google search or Bing searches. And also by using Google Analytics to inform where the best investments are in terms of time and resources spent on ongoing web management, ongoing enhancements, and ongoing content publishing. So there you have it. Our top five enrollment strategies are personalized communication, targeted digital advertising, student ambassadors, campus visits and events, and lastly, financial aid and scholarship information with the bonus. Shout out for SEO and content marketing. Robert, Torr, thanks for your time. Thanks for sharing your insights and just continuing to support the mission of Higher Education. I wanna leave the listeners with a final thought. We've seen college administration really embrace these strategies and our advisory work and grow exponentially. We've also seen administrators who know the importance of this type of work, but never make the connection. So my hope is that if you need help with any of this, whether it's the big picture, high-impact enrollment, marketing strategies, or maybe developing a comprehensive plan for your next year, please reach out to us. The conversation is free. We'd love to hear from you and connect with you, even if it's just to answer a question or provide additional guidance on a particular challenge. Or if you'd like to take immediate action on your website in improving your SEO and increasing those conversions, go to unincorporated.com/grow your enrollment, and that's where you can choose a campaign to optimize your website and continue to grow your enrollment numbers. Until next time, thanks for listening.