How to Succeed in Higher Education Digital Marketing
We live in a digital world these days. Having and making the most of an online presence is critical in 2022. To be perfectly blunt, those who do digital marketing well in 2022 and beyond will find success; those who don’t will fall behind.
This is true in almost every industry and sector but it is especially true for highly competitive sectors and those that are focused on a younger, more tech-savvy audience. For these reasons and more, digital marketing is important for institutions of higher learning.
The institutions that put effort into well-presented higher education digital marketing have had a leg up on their peers for years. Now, thanks to the rapidly changing landscape in higher education created by the COVID-19 pandemic, digital marketing is no longer something you can choose to do to give your institution an edge. It is something you must do.
Digital marketing can be slightly complicated and sometimes difficult to understand if you are starting your knowledge base from scratch. However, with an understanding of some basic concepts, higher education digital marketing does not have to be an intimidating endeavor.
To help get you up to speed on digital marketing for higher education, we’ll go through some of the most important concepts below. This includes strategy, content marketing, SEO, web design, development, and analytics. Here are the basics of how to succeed in higher education digital marketing.
Have the Right Higher Education Digital Marketing Strategy
Success in higher education digital marketing starts with a cohesive strategy. This is the first place where many organizations, in higher ed and elsewhere, go wrong. Engaging in digital marketing without the right strategy is like throwing darts in the dark. You may hit the board, but you’re just as likely to widely miss.
To start your strategic planning for digital marketing, you need to ask yourself a few questions to help clarify and codify your digital marketing program. Here are a few points to think about when creating a higher education digital marketing plan.
Who are your target audiences?
Identifying your target audience is a vital first step in any digital marketing campaign. This helps you create a picture of the average person to whom you are trying to market yourself. This is called creating a “buyer persona” and it helps give you a touchstone reference point as you build your digital marketing program.
When building a buyer persona, gather all the relevant data shared by your target audience. Where are they from? What do they like to do? What are their grades and standardized test scores? How do they look for colleges online? These questions will help you start to paint your picture.
In higher education, it likely won’t just be one buyer persona, it will probably be several. This is because your marketing will target different audiences. One audience will likely be potential students. Another could be their parents. Yet another could be high school educators, coaches, or guidance counselors.
What value propositions do you offer?
Value propositions are key to any marketing strategy, digital or otherwise. These are statements that describe the biggest benefits you offer to students who choose to come to your institution. Often, these value propositions are also a concise summary of why you stand out from the competition.
Starting off any plan with value propositions will help define your digital marketing message going forward. It should be relatively easy to do. All you need do is come up with a few sentences that summarize what makes your institution great in a unique way. These elements could be your location, course offerings, tuition, admissions standards, or other similar points.
What are your current marketing strengths? Weaknesses? Opportunities?
If your institution has a business department, it should be easy enough for them to show you examples of a SWOT analysis. This is a type of report that any business major knows all too well. SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. A SWOT analysis lays out each of these factors about an organization or a department or program within an organization. It is designed to be a starting point for next steps, whatever those may be.
Taking stock of where your digital marketing program is before you start optimizing it for success is a good idea. Even if you are doing very little digital marketing, anything that is inplace should be analyzed and evaluated to determine what you can keep and what you can improve. If you are doing some level of digital marketing already, there will usually be at least some things you will want to keep.
Who is your competition?
One last place to go for strategic planning ideas is directly to your competition. If an institution is competing for the same students and is having success, it just makes sense to check out what they do that works. Find out who your competition is (a buyer persona will help), see what they are doing, take the best parts and go further to find success.
Answering these questions and others will help inform how you approach the tactics below. Take the time to do this, and it will pay off in a big way. If you skip this step, you may waste a lot of time, money, and effort engaging in marketing efforts that don’t give you the ROI you want.
A good example of an institution that has obviously done strategic planning well is Skyline College with their “… and Yes, it’s Free!” campaign. This campaign clearly demonstrates its value proposition. Their related videos and social campaigns are targeted at budget-minded adult learners. There is no doubt this started with a top-notch strategic plan.
Use Content Marketing
Content marketing is broadly defined as producing any of a wide array of content that is targeted for a specific audience. This content can be written or is on video, audio, or a combination of mediums. For digital marketing for higher education, content marketing is a great way to get started reaching your target audience. Here are a few examples of what content marketing could mean for you and your institution.
Email marketing might seem a bit outdated in 2022 but the truth is, it is still an incredibly effective digital marketing tool that delivers an ROI of over $40 for every dollar you spend. Email marketing is a great way to send targeted emails to each of your target audiences. Email campaigns can be tailored to students, parents, and educators for the most bang for your buck.
Social media strategy
In 2022, more people than ever are on social media so every institution of higher learning should have a strategy for this medium. This doesn’t mean that one social media strategy works for everyone, though. If you are targeting continuous learners, you may want your strategy to involve Facebook and LinkedIn. For high school students, you may need to be more cutting edge and use newer platforms like Snapchat, TikTok, or even Clubhouse.
Thought leadership means producing content that establishes you and your organization as experts in your field. In digital marketing for higher education, this can mean tapping into your network of employees who can create content that answers the questions your target audience has. It can be topics such as how to pick the best online school? Or, what are admission officers looking for in high school transcripts? This doesn’t follow traditional advertising protocols but presents your organization in a more subtle way that shows you in the best light.
Whether it's in an email, on social media, or in a thought leadership article, content with video gets more views and engagement. Producing videos is an excellent use of your content marketing time and budget because they are so versatile and can be used in many avenues. You can do long-form informative videos or short, high-energy sizzle reels. It all depends on your target audience.
One of the great things about digital marketing is that much of it can be done on the cheap or even for free. That said, don’t neglect paid forms of higher education digital marketing. There is a whole world of paid digital advertising and marketing that can do wonders for your organization. Paid options include Pay-Per-Click (PPC) ads, ad retargeting, search engine marketing (SEM), and banner or social media ads. All of these tools cost money but can provide a great ROI, especially when compared to traditional paid ads on TV, radio, or print media.
One more type of paid digital marketing for higher education is influencer marketing. This is like an old-fashioned celebrity endorsement but in this case, instead of your favorite TV or movie star, the endorser is someone who has numerous followers on social media. Leveraging an influencer’s follower base is a great way to reach younger potential students.
One institution that does content marketing particularly well is the University of Chicago. Through their websites, news blogs, and social media channels, they produce a great mix of social posts, videos, podcasts, and thought leadership content. They even have a place where it is easy to input your email to sign up for their newsletter. They have the right mix of content marketing and you can easily find it all in one place.
Pay Attention to Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
Even if you’ve never so much as dipped a toe into the higher education digital marketing waters, you’ve probably heard the term SEO. This is a staple of digital marketing for which you must have at least a basic understanding and to which you must pay careful attention. Here are a few things you need to know about search engine optimization (SEO) and digital marketing for higher education.
Different types of SEO to pay attention to
Not all SEO is created equal. There are several different types of SEO. Each type requires a different set of practices in order to optimize and boost SEO. Each type also provides organizations with different benefits. Here are the three main types of SEO you need to be most familiar with for higher education digital marketing.
Also called standard or regular SEO, this is the most popular type of search engine optimization. This is the practice of creating content and optimizing your website so your institution comes up higher on a search engine results page (SERP). Specifically, you want to gear most or all your efforts towards showing high up on a Google SERP.
Google dominates search engine traffic with over 90% of market share, so getting your pages to rank on Google is critical. The reason SEO is so important is because about 33% of all online searchers click on the top organic (unpaid for) search result. 50% only click on the top two and 75% never leave the first page of results. These numbers should illustrate why SEO is important.
For higher education digital marketing, national SEO is especially important for online institutions and those that draw students from all around the country or even the world. Getting your pages on the first SERP will help draw an incredible number of visitors and, if you rank for the right keywords, will also bring higher quality visitors.
When you search a keyword phrase such as “colleges for business majors”, see what comes up on the first page. It will be some local school results (more about that below) and a few articles by college-related publications. For that phrase, though, one college comes up on page one; St. Thomas Aquinas College. They are doing a good job with their overall SEO.
[bctt tweet="If you are an institution that draws from a more confined pool, local SEO may be a more effective way to approach digital marketing for higher education." username="digitalpart"]
If you are an institution that draws from a more confined pool, local SEO may be a more effective way to approach digital marketing for higher education. This type of SEO helps you show up higher to people searching in your area and when users search using a local search modifier such as “near me”, “close by”, or in “X city or state”.
Local SEO is valuable because it signals purchase intent. Searchers who use these local modifiers are 20% more likely to make a purchase than those who don’t. While picking a place of higher learning is a little different than looking for a local pizza place, the idea is the same. People searching for colleges in the area are more likely to be looking for a place to attend than just general information.
The other important aspect of local SEO is the Google Map Pack (or 3 Pack). These three listings, which show up next to a local map in 90% of local searches, are prime territory for any organization. These results get at least 50% of all clicks on the page and the results are localized. Google something about higher education “near me” and you’ll see who in your area is doing a good job.
Last but not least, comes technical SEO. This is the term for the technical, backend, unseen aspects of your website that allows Google to “crawl” (look through) and index your page. Technical SEO provides the building blocks for all other types of SEO. If yours isn’t good, the rest of your SEO efforts will be for naught.
Technical SEO involves things like internal and external links, accessibility, metadata, tags, mobile optimization, and page load times. If your page load time, for example, is longer than three seconds, you will lose up to 40% of visitors. Google will “see” this and penalize your page for its bounce rate.
Make Sure Your Design Is an Asset
Creating the right digital marketing for higher education strategy and creating content that is optimized for SEO should help bring a larger quantity and a higher quality of traffic to your institution’s website. This is great; unless you have a poorly designed website.
A great website needs to attract and sustain the attention of your target audience. It should be user-friendly and easy to navigate. It should look and work professional or you will ultimately lose all the value that comes from the increase in site traffic. This is where the importance of web design comes in.
[bctt tweet="Creating the right digital marketing for higher education strategy and creating content that is optimized for SEO should help bring a larger quantity and a higher quality of traffic to your institution’s website." username="digitalpart"]
The significance of website design
Your website’s appearance and design are some of the most important pieces of higher education digital marketing for a thousand reasons. Your website is the first impression many people will get of your institution and your overall brand. It serves as a digital brochure or catalog for your school.
A well-designed website helps you stand out from (or at least keep up with) your competition. It also helps build trust with your target audience, gives them access to the information they need or lets them chat with someone who can get the information for them. As mentioned above, it is a key piece of your SEO and content marketing efforts.
Factors in website design
Many factors go into good website design. The most obvious is probably the look of the site. You can follow some visual best practices in order to achieve a well-designed website. These best practices will keep the look of the website clean and simple.
Color is very important in websites and your scheme should reflect your brand. You should also keep the whole site to five colors or less. You also want no more than three fonts, all of which should be easily readable in a variety of sizes. Making sure the images - whether pictures, videos, graphics, or something else – fit well with your institution is important, too.
The layout is also an important factor. Web designers will tell you that people scan a web page in an F-shaped manner. This means they scan the top, then the lines below it, then down the left side. Your site should be set to some type of grid with the most pertinent information in these areas.
People put much thought into the look of their websites but the user experience (UX) of the site is sometimes ignored. UX is the term web designers use for how people interact, or experience, your site. It is about how easy the site is to navigate and how well it is organized so that users can find what they seek. This organization is known as the taxonomy of the site.
Good UX design and taxonomy will include an easy-to-find sitemap, clear and helpful headers, and pages to navigate to so that people can find the classes or services they need. This makes people stay on the site longer, which is great for your SEO and conversion rates.
[bctt tweet="Digital marketing for higher education can only succeed when all the tools and foundational elements are in place to allow the digital marketing actions to succeed." username="digitalpart"]
Well-designed higher education websites
Many think that web design is in the eye of the beholder, as discussed above, but actual, tangible elements make a website design attractive and easy to use. These websites from well-known colleges and universities include, among other factors, good color schemes, fonts, taxonomy, and UX design.
When pursuing these sites, try to look beyond the flashy pictures and headlines to see what makes these well-designed websites more than just visually appealing. They are great examples of web design in digital marketing for higher education. Here are some of the sites to check out:
- Brown University
- Cornell University
- Johns Hopkins University
- Ohio State University
- University of Pennsylvania
- The University of Texas at Austin
Think Big When It Comes to Development
Web design is only one piece of an institution's overall digital development plan. Digital marketing for higher education can only succeed when all the tools and foundational elements are in place to allow the digital marketing actions to succeed. This means creating a best-in-class website, making sure all aspects of the website are working well. In 2022, even incorporating mobile apps is becoming more essential.
Much of your web development plans will come from your SWOT analysis. If your digital technology is a core strength, great. It never hurts to look for ways to improve but it doesn’t necessarily need to be a priority. If your web presence falls into the weakness or even threat category, you need to think big to improve and set your organization up for success.
Developing a new website
It should go without saying that if you don’t have a website in 2022, the time to get one was 10 years or more ago. If your current digital efforts aren’t up to par, there is a good chance that the website is to blame. A business concept known as “failing fast” posits that when you know something isn’t working, chalk it up as a failure and start again as soon as possible. This will stop you from wasting time and money trying to tweak something that is unfixable.
If you have a nonfunctional website that isn’t being used much or that isn’t converting visitors, you need to develop a new website. If your website is failing, think big. Scrap it and start again. Yes, it will cost some money but if you use a reputable and talented web development company to create a fantastic website, that money will come back to your institution many times over.
Developing/redesigning a portion of the website
You need to think of your website holistically. If your website is, overall, good or even very good, that doesn’t mean there is nothing to be done. In fact, this is the time to dig deeper into what the analytics are telling you and make changes to boost the success of your digital marketing effort.
Once in a while a website redesign might not be necessary, you can look at each individual aspect to see what is underperforming. Maybe your student portal isn’t getting the usage you think it should. Why is that? Is it difficult to use? Do students find it unhelpful? Are professors not engaging with it because they don’t understand it? If you figure out the root cause of an issue like this, a UX redesign can give your site a big boost.
Another issue could be that you have a potential student landing page that is not converting at a good rate. The average landing page conversion rate is around 2.5% yet the top landing pages convert at a 5% to 11% or higher rate. If you are average or even above average, it is worth developing something new to get to and remain at that upper echelon. Remember, think big when it comes to development.
Creating or improving upon a mobile app
It seems like everyone has an app these days. If you already do but it isn’t that functional or isn’t being widely used, improve it. If you don’t have one, maybe you should consider it. While it may not make sense for all schools, there are some situations where a mobile app might be a boon for colleges and their higher education digital marketing. Here are a few reasons an app might make sense for an institution.
- Does your competition have an app?
- Does saving data solve an issue?
- Does your marketing rely heavily on branding?
- Do you use student-generated content or data for marketing?
- Do you rely on student/ faculty feedback?
- Do regularly you contact online users?
If you answer yes to several of these questions, a mobile app (or certainly a more functional mobile app) may prove very useful to your organization as a whole and for your digital marketing for higher education. If you’re interested in checking out what are widely considered some of the best apps in higher ed, check out those from the University of Houston, Maine Maritime Academy, or Northern Arizona University.
Make Analytics Part of Your Higher Education Digital Marketing Strategy
If you strategize, do content marketing, SEO and stay focused on web design and development, how will you know if your digital marketing efforts are succeeding? By tracking and analyzing the data.
Analytics is the critical last piece of digital marketing. Anything you do online generates a ton of data. If you aren’t actively gathering, watching, and analyzing the data in order to constantly improve and make the best data-driven decisions for your organization, you will not find the highest levels of success.
Online analytics tools, like Google Analytics, help you see the bigger picture about who is visiting your site, when they are visiting, and how they move through and use your site. This raw data allows you to make inferences as to why these things are happening.
Are you getting more visitors after an email blast? If not, you should be. What happened? Do you have a high bounce rate (users leaving) when they get to a visual-heavy page on the site? If so, maybe you need to look at how fast that page is loading. Is your bounce rate much higher on mobile than on browsers? Check your mobile optimization.
In addition to online analytics tools, you can create and track your own data. If you have forms on your site for potential students to fill out, track when they are being abandoned and test if a smaller form or more helpful instructions make it better. If you have calls to action (CTAs) on your landing pages, test a few different ones and track the conversion data to see what works best. The more analytics you do, the better you will be able to make your digital marketing in the long run.
In higher education, succeeding in digital marketing is a process. It is the result of a long journey throughout which you hit all the road markers along the way. It starts with the right strategy, though. Take the time to analyze your own institution and others that have found success. From that you will find the road map to your own success.
When you have a general plan, it is time to get more specific. What mix of content marketing will work best for you? What type of SEO will serve you best? Answer these questions and move on to website design and digital developments. These are the building blocks for your entire digital marketing structure.
The last piece of the puzzle is to gather the data and use it to get better. Don’t shoot darts in the dark or use anecdotal victories to gauge your success. Find the real data and get better by using it. There is no silver bullet for digital marketing. It is about planning, execution, evaluation, and even sometimes trial and error. Embrace this cycle and you can find success in digital marketing for your higher education institution.