Top 6 Higher Ed Digital Marketing Trends to Embrace for 2017 - Challenge. Test. Grow. Small moves every day. | FRWD in Minneapolis MN

Top 6 Higher Ed Digital Marketing Trends to Embrace for 2017

By December 21, 2016 Education, Lead Content

Every marketer in the space is facing an onslaught of choices to reach prospective students. With budgets constantly under scrutiny, institutions need to ensure their marketing dollars are tied to results. Traditional media tactics to reach potential students with TV, out of home, and direct mail aren’t always cutting it anymore for the modern metric-driven marketing organization. Data shows that students apply to an average of three universities. Getting on their shortlist requires being efficient and effective with marketing as well as meeting the demands and expectations of a prospective student.


One thing is clear for 2017: universities need to appeal to an ever-increasing audience in an environment that has become more competitive than ever. The following six key trends are being applied by leading higher education marketers to improve effectiveness and become more accountable.


Digital Targeting

It’s tough to truly measure the impact of traditional media, especially relative to digital. As technology advances, it’s important to be aware of media placement and how performance will be measured to improve the efficiency and transparency of marketing program performance.

With the advancement of geo-targeting, marketers can now target ads right down to the zip code, IP address, and even longitude/latitude. This means an undergrad program can target paid digital media at conferences, events, or even the homes of prospective students.  Graduate schools can target the IT building of a major corporation to promote their IT Masters program or an industry event to target analysts.

In addition to geo-targeting, marketers can now more easily target third party sites online.  In the past, placing a banner on USA Today, Wired, or The Wall Street Journal required a massive media commitment.  Now, technology is allowing marketers to secure inventory without the commitment. It further allows them to place constraints on who and where the messages might be seen, giving universities another opportunity to market to the right audience and find efficiencies in their marketing budgets.


Content That Moves

Don’t spin wheels on content that doesn’t have a purpose.  For example, stories of past students’ success is a compelling way to inspire and motivate potential students with something that they can relate to.  At its core, the “purpose” identifies what motivates students to embark on the journey of earning an advanced degree.  For the most part, these motivations will fall into one of two buckets: career advancement or global advancement.

A prospective student interested in career advancement is looking for the skills required to increase the value they provide their employer.  Students often look at their return on investment, their earning power, ability to advance quickly, and their employability.  Creating content that highlights the career successes of past students will undoubtedly strike a chord with potential students motivated by achievement.

Students who are motivated by global advancement are less concerned with earning more money, but are more interested in being stewards of change.  This could be local, national, or global politics or becoming an important part of advancing medical research.  Sharing stories about past students’ successes as a result of their advanced degree becomes a strong motivational factor.

Creating truly engaging content is one of the greatest challenges marketers face. To effectively develop this type of content, your strategy must be exceptionally focused with a clear outcome in mind.  Once the goal has been defined, it’s equally important to measure the results of the content.  As marketers learn what types of content drives more engagement, it can guide future content development.


Social Media That Reaches New Heights

Let’s face it – everyone is using social media.  However, Social Media has become a pay to play arena.  To be effective, universities not only need content with a purpose, but they need to get it in front of the eyes of target students, which is nearly impossible to do organically.

Social media platforms have made it incredibly easy to target messages to specific audiences.  For example, LinkedIn can allow grad programs to target business professionals working in specific industries with a certain amount of experience and not currently holding a master’s degree.  Facebook has excellent demographic targeting to reach potential undergrads that are about to graduate high school.  Twitter can also be a great way to promote local events, information sessions, and gatherings.

Often, marketers spend an enormous amount of time crafting a great piece of content and promote it on social media, but don’t bother to put thought into the results of their different content pieces. When reviewing results, it’s important to define “success” (e.g. clicks, likes, registrations, brochure requests, etc.) for each individual post and then measure its ability to achieve that “success” against previous content that targeted the same result.  When putting media dollars behind social content, all platforms allow for testing multiple posts. Potentially, a “free breakfast” post could drive 15% more leads than a “complimentary breakfast” setting a standard for future posts.  Marketers who aggressively test images, headlines, and copy in single variable tests will always beat those who don’t bother.

The ability to target specific audiences across social platforms and measure the success of each has made it quite easy to identify what content and media platforms perform the best.  Approaching social media with a pay-to-play and testing mentality to learn from is imperative to reaching long-term success.


Video – An Emotional Endeavor

A recent study has shown that 80% of college prospects watch videos published by universities to help inform them as they research potential schools.  Consumption of digital video has now surpassed the consumption of social media.  Those that embrace video and do it well will be on the winning path.  Well produced videos can leave prospects with a better sense of campus life, instructor quality, degree specifics, alumni successes, corporate partnerships, or whatever the content “purpose” may be.

When producing video, it’s important to be brief and succinct.  Keeping video length around around 60 seconds or less is optimal. A 30-60 second video is perfect for highlighting one or two benefits.  It’s important to not attempt to deliver too much information within one video.  Often, marketers think they need to sell all benefits every opportunity they get.  The key is to be decisive and impactful when delivering messages.  When a student visits a program page, a minute-long video about the world-class instructors and small class size is more relevant and impactful than a 3-minute video overview of the campus, athletics, and dorm life. Break longer pieces into smaller, more relevant and shorter bits.


Lead Nurture

Relationship marketing is a real thing that universities are coming to understand.  The heartbeat of relationship marketing is data.  Through collection and analysis, institutions can develop personalized communication and promotional strategies based on interests, behaviors, and previous interactions.

When a potential student lands on a site to research and requests more information, automation can simplify the outreach process and ultimately improve enrollment.  Advanced data systems allow for marketers to capture lead information, track pages viewed, and even notify them when a lead returns to the site at a later date.  This amount of automation may sound like it borders a gray line of respecting privacy, but marketers need to understand that consumer’s expectations are changing.  In a recent survey, 62% of potential students who request information from a university expect a response within 24 hours.  In addition, they are expecting their response and interaction to be personalized to their interests.

While most universities have a customer relationship management (CRM) tool, it’s often underutilized.  Marketers can be more relevant and timely with their nurturing efforts by simply scoring student prospects by level of engagement and phase of the enrollment funnel they exist.  For example, blasting out an invitation to an information session is concerning to a student who has already begun their application.  Most CRM tools allow marketers to avoid these scenarios, provide their recruitment teams with more information about leads, and allow for a customized email content approach.


Landing Page Experience

Most savvy marketers understand once you’ve done all that hard work to get visitors to your website, the next big step is to convert them into actionable leads (i.e. a name and contact information). The best way to do this is through a relevant landing page that contains some content, a need, and/or a desire to request more.

If someone clicks on an ad for an MBA, the last thing you want is to send them to a university homepage and expect them to navigate to the information that they want.  Each program deserves its own unique experience and with sufficient content to keep visitors on their landing page.  Nothing gets more tiresome and annoying than having to hunt for information.

The first step is to ensure each program has its own landing page containing just enough content to interest potential leads, but still leaves something to be desired.  The “something to be desired” can be delivered in a “Free Brochure” by simply completing a form requesting a name and email address.

Once the page has been established, it’s time to test and learn.  Beginning with the “control” (original) landing page, make single variable changes and test them.  Using Google Experiments or other webpage testing tools available, measuring performance becomes simple to implement and measure.

When developing landing pages and testing them, it’s important to understand the source of the traffic and what the desired outcome of the visit is.  Data shows that nearly 30% of potential students conduct research on a mobile device.  Optimizing the landing page experience to be mobile friendly with content that is easy to digest, and actions easy to execute are becoming increasingly more important.


As more and more people continue to consider advanced education, these game changing trends should be essential elements to any marketing strategy for 2017.  Establishing a framework for these strategies sets the stage for evolution and advancement in a highly competitive industry.

If you’re looking to test and learn your overall marketing strategies and programs, using these tactics or others that may be relevant, FRWD can help guide the process and share our deep learning and expertise in education marketing. We’d love to speak with you.