Is Your Digital Strategy Keeping Pace with the Changing Higher Education Landscape?

Digital marketing has played an ever-growing role in higher education over the years. Today, digital is undoubtedly the most important resource used by prospective students conducting research and navigating enrollment decisions.

Colleges and universities have invested in more digital marketing programs and technology to expand their brand across media channels, promote on campus programs, increase visibility of online offerings, and boost student enrollment.

The need for intelligent, data-driven digital marketing continues to rise as higher education institutions wrestle with the changing landscape. Schools face declines in traditional enrollment, continual rise in online programs, and increased focus on certifications and adult education.

Key Higher Education Trends

Preparing for Generation Z

Generation Z, the true digital natives, is now starting to enter colleges and universities.  They are students born between 1995–2010. They account for 25.9%, the largest percentage, of the United States population and contribute nearly $44 billion to the economy. Gen Z has spent nearly their entire lives immersed in technologies that are crucial to living and learning. Higher education must prepare for the arrival of a new generation of digital natives.

  • With incredible amounts of information at their fingertips, Gen Z is more pragmatic and analytical about their educational decisions than previous generations.
  • Gen Z consumers are educated about brands and the realities behind their promotion. They know how to do research, quickly develop a point of view, and make informed decisions.
  • Generation Z is accustomed to having everything personalized for them.
  • Video is the preferred medium. Gen Z ranked YouTube second to teachers as a learning tool. In fact, YouTube ranked well ahead of lectures, in-person collaboration with classmates, learning applications, and books according to a McGraw Hill study.
  • While Millennial’s believed that they would graduate college, find a job, and prosper–- Gen Z doesn’t necessarily believe this. They consider the financial burden on themselves and their parents, the increasing alternatives to a four-year college, and the idea of entrepreneurship over becoming an employee.

For colleges and universities, this means careful consideration of how they speak to Generation Z Members may be interested in discussing the pros and cons of attending a higher education institution.

Balancing Younger and Adult Learners

While preparing for Gen Z, higher education must still embrace increasing enrollments from adult learners.  According to the National Center for Education Statics (NCES), 38 percent of undergrads are older than 25. Enrollment in postsecondary school is forecasted to keep increasing through 2025. By attuning themselves to adult student needs, institutions can make room on campus for the growing surge of post-traditional learners.

Online Enrollment Growing, Surging Interest in Master’s Degrees

It’s not a new development, but worth pointing out.  The latest data on the nation’s college and university enrollment shows that online is steadily climbing its way up to more than a third of the student population—as face-to-face continues to decline. That’s a surprising turn in the long-time arc of academic population growth.

In particular, online master's program enrollment has increased substantially over the past decade. and is more common than among bachelor's degree programs. An Urban Institute study found that 31% of students enrolled in master's degree tracks reported that their program was entirely online, with 21% reporting taking some classes online. In contrast, 12% of bachelor's degree students were enrolled in fully online programs, and 31% reported taking some online courses.

Marketing Hurdles to Overcome

While there are bright spots in online, graduate and adult-friendly programs, overall many of the societal, market and demographic trends that drove higher education growth for years are diminishing. Affordability, perceived value vs. college debt, and the rise in alternative college options are factors changing how people view higher education. What’s more, marketers face constant budgetary pressure to do more with less and show positive ROI to prove the value of their efforts. Many marketing teams are understaffed or underfunded to launch new digital programs. 

Finding the Best Candidates.  One of the biggest challenges is the changing profile of the student population, and figuring how to target them, including Gen Z, adult learners, mid-career candidates for MBA programs, and international studies. The good news, prospective students can be reached digitally via social media, display ads, onsite engagement, and email remarketing.  Access to user profiles, behavioral data, lookalike modeling, and demographic targeting are all techniques to find new applicants.

 One-to-One Connections.  If you’re preparing for Gen Z, they expect everything to be personalized across every channel they use – websites, mobile apps, online ads and social media. With the decreasing applicant pool and increased competition for hot new programs, higher education marketers are forced to adopt strategies that dive deep into personalized experiences to create authentic relationships and engage the best prospects. 

Mobile Micro-Moments.  With 35% of .edu visitors coming from a mobile device and spending less than two minutes on average, marketers must determine how to engage with visitors on the go. It’s more than just making sure information is viewable on smartphones.  Marketers have to rethink how they create consistent experiences across all devices.

Doing More with Less.  One constant across higher education seems to be that colleges and universities are trying to do more with fewer staff. Research shows that states collectively have cut spending to colleges and universities by 16% which impacts all operations, including marketing.

 Deploying Digital Marketing Best Practices

 We’ve worked with over 50 higher ed institutions and the most successful digital campaigns that we’ve seen – based on generating enrollments -- are built around five key factors:

  1. Hyper Targeting

Access to market intelligence to better understand audience interests, desires, values, goals and behaviors is the key to finding more of the right prospects. Higher educational marketers need to apply the full suite of media channels to maximize their reach to target prospective students.

  • An impactful method of hyper targeting is using your first-party data to create lookalike audiences of students who are likely to be a good match because they resemble your existing student profile. 
  • In many cases, search engine marketing is the first stage of the higher education funnel; but keywords can be expensive if not managed properly. Deciding where to bid and how much to bid takes more than just calculating the propensity of a click. Having the right resources to identify high-intent keywords and manage bidding is essential to capture traffic from audiences most likely to complete the enrollment journey.
  • Social media is the ideal vehicle to reach an audience that is already more immersed in the digital space than any other generation. Facebook offers penetration into the widest range of target audiences, making it a logical first step into advertising for higher education, whether you are promoting traditional, adult, graduate, or online degrees. Instagram offers the best format for mobile advertising, and reaches over 700 million active monthly users.
  • LinkedIn is a great tool for graduate program prospecting. You can build custom audiences using authentic, member-generated demographic data to identify candidates based on highest degree completed, industry, years of experience, membership in groups, skills or companies they follow. You can target the top companies your students are coming from to capture qualified prospects. Successful campaigns also geo-fence and IP target feeder schools and facilities.
  1. Full Student Journey Optimization

While many schools have already invested in marketing automation, no advertising or marketing platform can perform successfully without intelligent optimization at every stage of the student journey. The best performing campaigns have a seamless handoff between advertising, to attract prospective students, to marketing tactics designed to engage, re-engage and convert applicants across all mobile and social channels. 

  • As the online experience becomes more complex and the research phase gets longer, using onsite engagement techniques has proven to reduce website abandonment by nearly 10%. Display ads and video provide contextually-relevant content along with dynamic call to actions (CTAs) to engage and move candidates deeper into your marketing funnel.
  • According to research, 77% of education seekers will first visit a school’s website at least two weeks – and often two months --- before taking action. Email remarketing, with personalized, strategically timed emails, is the perfect way to stay top of mind with them to ensure they return and convert.
  1. Customized, Audience-Focused Messaging

Continually refining your audience will ensure you have a focused approach that creates the personalized marketing experiences that drive results. Your personalized content -- including program information, career advice, faculty information and industry news -- can guide prospective students to relevant information and events as they do further research. In our experience, personalized content drives up to 15% more conversions.

  1. Constant Optimization and Efficiency

Use real-time analytics and optimization to deliver the right message to your targeted audience at the right time to drive more enrollments. This is not an easy task but working with a vendor you can trust will ensure you monitor every channel and call to action to find qualified candidates and keep your cost per acquisition low.

  1. Define Your ROI

ROI for higher education can be calculated based on requests for information (RFIs), student enrollment, campaign performance or revenue dollars. The key is to set your campaign goals, measure performance and optimize every component to drive the greatest efficiency. Many marketers track both engagement metrics (likes, shares, click-throughs) and performance metrics (conversions, cost per lead) to get a comprehensive picture of how their campaigns are performing. Prospective student engagement and interactions must be properly attributed to demonstrate tangible value. Access to a central data hub or dashboard that captures every touchpoint – across every channel – ensures you can accurately track ROI.


The ground keeps shifting in higher education marketing because of the downturn in enrollment, changing habits of prospective students, and the increase in digital and mobile communications. Yet, marketers face the reality that they must drive lead generation, event attendance and application submission.

The good news is marketers have access to more data insights, tools and expertise to make the transition and exceed expectations. Some schools have seen a spike in applications with 120% growth from previous periods. With limited staffing and resources, working with the right partner to deploy a custom combination of data analytics, programmatic display, paid social, search engine marketing, onsite engagement, and email remarketing makes attracting and converting users an achievable goal for any higher education institution.

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