11 Strategies for A+ Higher Education Marketing

Getting a B.A. or an M.Phil. or a Ph.D. or an M.D.—any higher education degree—is a huge accomplishment. But enrolling in a degree program is a huge, life-altering decision that typically involves a lot of deep and personal contemplation. At least, that’s how it was for me. As a previous full-time account manager at a video software company, deciding to quit my job to enter graduate school as full-time nutrition student was a decision that required a lot of research, thought, budgeting, and soul-searching.

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While every student’s path is different, one thing is certain: Higher education marketing comes with a unique set of challenges. In this guide, you’ll learn how to plan for those challenges and create a higher education marketing plan with 11 strategies that work:

  1. Create personalized, targeted social campaigns
  2. Appeal to the emotions of your prospective students
  3. Make your school stand out
  4. Let your happy and successful students do the talking
  5. Hold events IRL to make personal connections
  6. Partner with successful alumni to show off your school
  7. Use the power of video marketing
  8. Start a well-written and inspiring blog
  9. Promote your positive press
  10. Advertise on popular podcasts
  11. Get out there with some guerilla marketing

What is higher education marketing?

Higher education marketing is marketing an institution to those seeking any type of higher education degree, which in the U.S. is defined as any degree beyond a high school diploma.

The higher education space is one of the most challenging marketing industries to be in. Not only is making this decision a huge personal commitment, but it also a huge financial investment. Current research also shows that higher education student enrollment is on the decline, making the state of the industry even more challenging for marketers.Making sure your marketing plan has strategies that actually work is more important than ever.

And with that, let’s jump in.

1. Create personalized, targeted social campaigns

We all know that social media has become a popular space not only for teenagers, but also young, middle-aged and even older adults to spend their time online. So whether your target audience is the teenage high school student starting their college search or the middle-aged parent looking to make a career change, they are spending lots of their time browsing through their Instagram feeds and checking their Facebook messages.

This is why your institution absolutely needs a robust social media marketing plan for all social media networks. The one thing to ensure you are doing with this plan is personalizing your ad experience for each audience. Luckily, platforms like Instagram and Facebook make this easy.

For instance, let’s say your school often has success enrolling high school students interested in environmentalism and politics. You can configure personalized campaigns to find those prospective students (see example below).

social targeting example for higher education marketing

Pay attention to the age and location settings as well as interest and demographic targeting in Facebook’s Ad Manager platform to ensure your campaigns are reaching your target audience. Then, make sure to cater your ad copy and content to these same people.

2. Appeal to the emotions of your prospective students

Something like a higher education degree can truly impact a person’s life in many ways. So it’s not a surprise that obtaining such a degree is often a very emotional and meaningful experience. Why not play this up in your marketing?

Emotional marketing is one of the post effective strategies. A Nielson study found that individuals are 8.4x more likely to trust a company and 7.1x more likely to make a purchase when they feel a positive emotion from that brand.

Luckily, there are so many ways to use the power of emotion when marketing in this industry because school is often the start of a life-altering path. Whether it’s inspiring people through stories of how one graduate’s financial life improved significantly by obtaining an education or showing how people who met through school changed their lives, think outside the box and pull together some compelling story lines to draw new leads in.

Take the example below from Harvard University, showing how two graduate students with disabilities were able to connect and work together to form a resource to support and empower other students. Combining a story with a human photograph or video is key to communicating these emotions and stories properly.

higher education marketing example from Harvard Instagram

3. Make your school stand out

So you work for a well-known institution, with highly regarded professors, an array of activities, sports, and clubs to involve the student body, a food program, and plenty of housing options for on-campus students. COOL—but what makes your school truly stand out? Most leads are aware of what is out there in terms of what higher education programs have to offer, and there is a LOT of overlap. To successfully hook a new lead, you need to promote what makes your school unique.

For me, when doing my research as a young and carefree seventeen-year-old, Fairfield University hooked me with their close proximity to New York City and Fairfield Beach. Okay, perhaps I was a bit young and naïve then, but if it works, then flaunt it!

Check out the example below from Northeastern University that often distinguishes itself with a very unique co-op program, where students gain a year of real-life internship experience before graduation.

higher education marketing example from Northeastern's website

The key is to find the thing that makes your different and desirable and then highlight that in your marketing campaigns.

4. Let your happy and successful students do the talking

You may not realize it, but as a higher education marketer it might just be best to keep your lips sealed. Think about it: You’re helping your school to gain more tuition and that can come off too salesy for your prospective students. Instead, you should let your happy current and former students do the talking—this is one of the best ways to market your school.

In fact, 88% of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations, and 72% say that positive reviews allows them to gain trust in a business.

Lucky for you this is the perfect industry to gain student testimonials. Students who have had a positive experience at school typically love to speak up and help other incoming students. Just take the example below that Elon University shared of a video showing a current student sharing her wisdom with incoming freshmen.

higher education marketing social media example of happy students

5. Hold events IRL to make personal connections

What better way to turn skeptical applicants into excited future students then to make real, in-person connections? I’m not the only who believes this. In fact, 84% of leadership believe in-person events are a key component to their company’s success.

Higher education marketers can greatly benefit from taking things offline and doing some in-person networking with some event marketing. Create a list of event ideas to bring new potential students together. For instance, host a summer barbeque on campus where you have current students and/or alumni join to speak with potential applicants.

higher education marketing events

At the end of the day, there is nothing better then making an in-person connection to get new students onboard so plan ahead to make your events frequent, organized, publicized, and successful.

6. Partner with successful alumni to show off your school

There is nothing like having your alumni succeed in major ways. Why? Because your alumni represent your institution, and when they are interviewed and profiled it will likely say where they obtained their degrees, giving you a little boost in credibility.

So how you can you take things to the next level with your successful alumni? Build and nurture stronger relationships with these individuals so they can partner with you to promote how amazing and wonderful your school is.

One great way to get this ball rolling is by honoring your successful alumni with awards. Take the example below from Fairfield University, which gave Kathleen Murphy, president of Personal Investing at Fidelity, an Alumni Professional Achievement Award. This is pretty inspiring for future students looking to be successful in the financial world.

higher education marketing with successful alumni example

7. Use the power of video marketing

Not all prospective students have the ability to travel to every institution they are considering applying to. Whether it be time, financial, or other logistical reasons, seeing an institution in-person before applying is not possible for many, which is why video should be a huge tool in your marketing playbook. Not to mention, video can serve as a way to get on the radar of students who may not have even considered looking at your programs.

Video has also been a growing tool that has proven to be effective for marketers. Marketers who use video grow revenue 49% faster than marketers who don’t. It is also no secret in the higher education industry, with 86% of universities and colleges having a presence on YouTube.

Take a look at how Boston College is using video on Facebook to show the excited students returning to campus. What a great way to show off the campus and get potential applicants excited!

higher education marketing blog example

8. Start a well-written and inspiring blog

For higher education marketers, having a well-written, quality blog for marketing purposes is key. While this venture may serve as more of a long-term conversion strategy, it is a great way to get potential students invested in your brand. And if you can run niche blogs for different interests, even better.

Take the example from Dartmouth University, which writes a blog for business folks called “Tuck Education Executive Blog.”

higher education marketing blog example

This blog features articles shared to teach and inspire current or future business leaders, but this type of content also includes CTAs to learn more about the program, like the one below.

higher education marketing blog CTA

I love this strategy of marketing because it feels genuine and not pushy, allowing potential students to do their own research without feeling pressured to convert.

9. Promote your positive press

Did your institution win a prize? Get voted into the top 10 colleges by the Princeton Review? Whatever it is, this positive press should not be ignored! Use it in your marketing campaigns to show off how well loved your school is to potential students. Why? Because these positive press moments are another way to instill trust in leads that your school is worth the investment.

Take the example below from Elon University. This school was ranked for several categories in the U.S. News and World Report and promoted this on their social media platforms to share with the world—because why wouldn’t they?

higher education marketing example of positive press promotion

10. Advertise on popular podcasts

Did you know that 51% of the US population has listened to a podcast with 32% listening every month? Podcasts are also most popular among young adults, i.e. those who are more likely to be pursuing degrees in higher education, according to Music Oomph.

higher education marketing podcast ad graph of popularity

I would only assume that podcasts are going to continue to grow in popularity as more and more are added. So why are you not running podcast advertisements?

Advertising on popular podcasts is a great way to sneak into a potential students mind as they are doing something they enjoy. For instance, let’s say you are recruiting for students to join your graduate business program. Sponsor some of the most popular business podcasts that these folks would be most likely to listen to in order to get your name on their radar.

11. Get out there with some guerilla marketing

Why not take things offline and into the wild? Whether it’s a simple poster on a bus or something fancier like a performance in the street, guerilla marketing is a great way to let your creative marketing juices flow to capture a potential future student’s attention as they’re living their day to day lives.

The other great thing about guerilla marketing is that it is often more budget-friendly since the campaigns are localized. If you’re in need of some guerilla marketing inspiration check out this post for 20+ guerilla marketing examples.

Now, you’re schooled in higher education marketing!

With these strategies, your enrollment rate will go through the roof in no time! So hit the books, and implement some of these strategies to take your higher education marketing game to the next level.

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