Content Marketing for Higher Education

Top digital marketing tools, constraints, trends, lead generation planning

 
Most universities and colleges have been involved in “content marketing” for decades without actually using the term. They have produced countless brochures, leaflets, and other printed material that provide information about their institutions and try to catch the eye of prospective applicants. But in the digital age, online content outsmarts printed promos and almost never fails to get more attention from prospective students than printed matter.

These are difficult financial times for higher education, and digital marketing now holds the magic wand for success, or survival, for universities and colleges. An April 2016 survey report by QS Digital Solutions says digital marketing is high priority for 75 percent of universities. Fifty percent of universities indicate that despite fund constraints, their digital marketing budgets are higher in 2016.

The survey, conducted between December 2015 and January 2016 in Europe, North America, Asia, Oceania, Latin America, and Africa, says email remains the most used and most effective digital marketing communication channel for universities. Universities give high importance to website design and optimization, and combine internal and external expertise to improve their digital marketing programs. The main objective is to increase student recruitment and to improve branding.
 

Key digital marketing tools

Most universities consider their websites as the foundation of all their digital marketing efforts and strive to improve design and content, focusing on clarity and easy and engaging communication with visitors. Universities have realized that students often struggle to find information from institutional websites and have prioritized design and content improvements.

In a report, Hanover Research says that an intuitive website is among the most important tools for online marketing. Websites that have great content, including videos and slideshows, and an easily navigable design, engage visitors and draw them to “call-to-action” buttons.

Universities also know that email is another tool that can engage prospects and hold their attention through regular updates. Well-worded and prompt email messages tell prospects that the institution cares for their requirements and concerns.

Universities also widely use social media to maintain communication with their prospective and current students and alumni, who can be a valuable resource in the admissions process. They also give importance to social media, a platform that many of them already use but perhaps not up to the full potential of the channel.

Other key digital marketing tools are video channels, search engine optimization, pay-per-click advertising, banner advertising, and virtual calls and fairs, though the last named is now low on the priority list.
 

Constraints to digital marketing

Nearly 38 percent of respondents cite budget constraints as the main difficulty in improving their digital marketing, and 27 percent say they don’t have adequate resources, such as access to design/development teams for taking up website improvement. Eighteen percent point out that they lack the time for implementing these projects. However, 38 percent of the respondents expect their budgets for online activities to be higher in 2016.

Interestingly, only 14 percent of universities report a dedicated internal team for digital marketing efforts. Forty-four percent have a combination of external and internal agencies undertaking online activities, and 38 percent have internal teams working on both offline and online efforts.

Only about 6 percent of respondents who give top priority to digital marketing feel they have top expertise in using digital channels. Many others realize the importance of digital marketing, but have not acquired expertise.
 

Digital marketing trends

What are the digital marketing trends among colleges and universities?

Creating responsive website design is top priority for universities across the board. Universities are now keener than ever on creating well-designed websites with informative and interesting content that can be enjoyed on various devices. Great content doesn’t just improve website quality but also accelerates social media and email marketing efforts.

Institutions appreciate the developments in mobile technology that have made it popular among young people and are offering content that are mobile-friendly. They are also alive to search engine optimization and aware that they need to come at the top of the pile in search engine results.

Universities keen on increasing international student recruitment cannot afford to ignore data analytics: it is important for them to know from which part of the world they derive the maximum response from prospects, so that they can concentrate on these markets for student recruitment. They also need to find out which of their programs are most in demand, and what type of content they need to have.

There is hardly an institution that has failed to make a foray into social media, through Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, blogs, and podcasts to market their programs. But many are yet to find their feet about how to create a social media strategy for the best results.
 

Creating unique content

University and college officials engaged in student recruitment have one big question on their minds: How to create unique content that tells a story?

One big tip is perhaps to go easy on self-promotion and aggressive marketing while creating content. Content that helps prospective students, builds trust, and creates a sense of authority needs to be created, says a blog on Mcguireeditorial.com.

The blog provides examples of universities and schools with admirable approaches to content marketing—Boston University, Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Drake University, Harvard Business School, MIT, and Dartmouth University. The content of these institutions don’t come across as promotional material but make sense to all readers, including those who have already decided to attend a particular college and those still searching for information.

The key to creating engaging content, says a blogger on Marketing Land, is to tell a story that will resonate with prospective students. The competition for higher-education students is tough, and the USP of an institution should stand out in the story and the value proposition should be clear. By narrating how students fare on the campus, how they are treated, and how they become a part of a large community, the story should make prospective students feel that they will fit in.

Admissions information should be given in such a way that it banishes doubt or hesitation in prospects gently and persuasively. Through honest and clear content, colleges should strive to remove any preconceived notions that affect their image. They should also build trust—about the quality of education, career opportunities after graduation, and the atmosphere on campus, for example.

Material about campus events and students’ experiences about a school are particularly useful—for example, posts on “Open Days,” applicants’ responses on receiving acceptance, and anecdotes about students’ first day on a new campus, says a blog on Higher Education Marketing.

It is well-known that a large majority of prospective students research colleges on the Internet, many of them from social media sites on their mobile devices. Content, therefore, has to be “mobile-friendly” and social-media-friendly. Blogs are particularly useful if universities can persuade their students to write their own stories.
 

Online technology platforms vs offline events

Are offline events such as MBA fairs still useful in this era of digital technology? Let’s look at some statistics.

  • 9 out of 10 prospective applicants search online for information about admissions.
  • 6 out of 10 students use social media to get information about colleges.
  • 4 out of 10 students use their mobile phones for finding this information.

It is anyone’s guess how even the most-well-organized MBA fairs compare to well-produced university and college websites. The advantages of ready access and speed of information delivery of online platforms obviously leave fairs far behind.

MBA fairs, for one, are conducted mainly only in metros and tend to leave out prospective applicants elsewhere. Information is usually provided in printed brochures, which struggle to match the constantly updated newsfeeds and interestingly presented blogs and videos on university websites.

In these days of tight budgets, fairs are often just an expensive ego trip for most universities. The return on investment is unpredictable, as many MBA hopefuls attending fairs may not really be interested in the institution or its programs. Apart from being a costly method to build a university brand and making an institution’s presence felt in a few cities, fairs don’t seem to be an intelligent option anymore.
 

Lead generation

The most important aspect of lead generation for higher education involves paid search in Google, Bing, etc., and remarketing on the Google Display Network and Facebook, says a blog on the website VONT. While paid search directs prospective applicants to university/college websites, remarketing encourages previous visitors to websites to return, and drives them with a call-to-action (typically something that requests them to fill in a contact form on the website) in order to convert them into a “lead.”

As the lead becomes more involved with the website, remarketing persuades him or her to attend campus events or online programs such as webinars. As schools have application deadlines throughout the year, call-to-action reminds prospective applicants of the dates and persuades them to apply. Once a lead has submitted an application and been accepted, constant, direct digital communication with the prospective student ensures that the prospect does not review the decision to join the particular school.
 

Building a lead generation plan

With the advent of digital marketing, colleges are adopting an analytics-based approach to improve their higher education lead generation. The approach includes the use of search engines, smartphones, email, and social media.

Building a plan for lead generation should start with defining the targets for higher education marketing drives and ensuring that online and offline efforts are synergized. The next step is to monitor achievement of website goals and constantly evaluate the performance of marketing initiatives.

Periodic reports on these achievements should follow, so that lead generation, student recruitment, and brand-building efforts can be tweaked if necessary. Based on the reports, the elements of online (search engine optimization, for example) and offline activities (campus visits) can be improved. The final step is to evaluate the success of lead generation and student recruitment strategies in the context of return on investment.

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