Marketing Your University: The Student-Driven Experience

State of the Industry

Technology is changing the way the education industry does business. In fall 2011, we saw a decline in the number of high school student college credit enrollments, something we hadn’t seen in 15 years. While the number of potential students interested in higher education from a university has decreased, the competition to attract them has only intensified.

Much of this downward trend is a result of the many options students have for an education. As traditional brick-and-mortar schools offer online alternatives to keep up with their competition, we have also seen the emergence of MOOCs (massive open online courses) changing the way individuals can gain college credit.

The overall demand for education is still strong – Google’s education search analysis indicates, “education-related search queries grew year-on-year in the first quarter of both 2012 and 2013.” The competition to attract these students is harder than ever.

Marketers must engage their target market with the right message, at the right time, on the right channels. It is essential to find the intersection between what the brand can offer and what the student needs to create student driven marketing to connect.

A Multi-Screen Journey

Another facet of marketing in this era is that the consumer decision journey takes place over multiple devices at any given time. In May of 2015, Google officially announced there had been more searches on mobile than desktop. When applied to the education industry, we are seeing that half of all prospective students use mobile devices to research higher education institutions. It is the job of marketers to understand how this is impacting the decision journey.

The data shows that students start their search journey on mobile, but their search does not always end on mobile. Mobile is currently acting as the gateway to a potential conversion on desktop. A report by ForeSee showed that people who started their experience on mobile, 50% ended on web, while only 23% ended on mobile.

Ashford University studied the new student decision journey and uncovered similar behavior. Prospective students often visited their website on smartphones first and then returned later on desktop for more information. The university decided to optimize its mobile experience by focusing on three features: embedded video, programs offered and a short contact form. The simplified view allowed the prospective students to get what they needed without being overwhelmed. The videos offer an emotional experience as it relates to the school, and the short form allows students to conveniently enter an inquiry.

The 2014 Social Admissions Report found that 97% of students have visited a school’s website on a mobile browser, 67% said the experience was “just OK” or “challenging.” Marketers need to understand that having a cross-device strategy is critical to win the hearts of potential students.

Why Students Go To College & How They Choose Between Universities

In order to create a student-driven marketing campaign, marketers need to understand why an individual wants to go to college. This is part of the awareness stage. These are the main reasons that student’s choose to attend college:

Once the student has decided to attend college, they transition into the consideration stage. At this stage, marketers will now want to understand the factors prospective students use to decide on a specific university.

As the student narrows down universities that meet their needs, they move closer to the purchase stage. In order to craft a marketing campaign that will speak to the target audience, marketers must identify the factors that students deem as influential in the final selection. 

Resources Students Have To Help Them Make Their Decision

Marketers should identify the key resources that prospective students have at their disposal with the goal of finding different ways to support and influence their journey.

  • Geography: The distance most students travel when choosing a college is 4-5 hours driving/flying from home.
  • Influencers: Counselor, teachers, friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors.
  • Google: 9 in 10 enrolled students have used the Internet to research higher education institutions and use “conversational searches” such as:
    • What degree do I need to become a teacher?
    • What are the best schools for nursing?
    • What are the top MBA programs in Chicago?
  • Online Video: The number of people using video to research education is on the rise. By taking full advantage of digital tools to tailor their messages, schools can leverage the power of video to shape perceptions and deliver content that’s right for someone’s device and decision journey stage.
  • College Homepage: 77% of prospective students will first visit a school’s website at least two weeks — and often two months — before taking action. Education marketers must incorporate guest speakers, major events, student awards, faculty accomplishments, and athletic teams on their website.
  • Student Blogs and Online Chats: Universities must monitor these areas to be able to answer the questions that are being asked in real-time.
  • College Comparison Websites / Online Resource Sites: A Higher Education website, College Prowler, and com were the most heavily accessed online resources. Online content-aggregating sites are often “the first and last stop” on a student’s college search and the most requested content from online sites was scholarship information. It is important for marketers to partner with (or at least monitor) online resource sites.
  • Social Media: 67% of students use social media to research colleges, and 75% find it influential. 75% of students think colleges should have a presence on social media to reach students; yet, only 4 in 10 students find the information posted on a school’s social media site relevant. The topics students find most relevant include campus events, student life for undergraduates, majors offered, and the dating scene. Interestingly, 31% of students have searched for hashtags related to their school of choice. Students say currently enrolled students (not alumni) and admissions counselors are important to interact with on social media.
  • In-person Visit: Research indicates that prospective students can identify the campus culture within minutes of visiting the school. We see this emotional decision as a huge opportunity for universities to connect with the individual by crafting customized campus admission tours for recruitment success. Here are some ideas to tailor the experience:
    • Campus tour
    • Admissions interview
    • Information session
    • Attend a class/event, meet an athletic coach or a club advisor
    • Encourage the student to have lunch in a dining hall or spend the night in a residence hall
  • Post-Acceptance Communication: The online relationship between a university and student doesn’t stop with an application or even acceptance. Only 56.9% of students accepted into their first-choice college decided to enroll. Nurturing students via marketing automation becomes important in combating any reservations students may have on attending. And believe it or not, they want and expect this communication after acceptance. 76% of students prefer emails from universities after being admitted over any other communication channel.

The Student Decision Journey

A student’s journey is not always linear, although some will simply apply, accept, study and succeed. However, the demographics of the modern university student are changing. We are seeing the rise of the 36-year-old who is looking to advance their career but also has a family. They enroll and then life happens, and they have to discontinue for a period of time. Both scenarios exist and they both need to be measured and marketed to appropriately.

You will encounter a very diverse audience when looking at applicants. Therefore, you must identify each student profile. For example, university marketers must segment audiences by degree programs and levels (Bachelor, Master, Doctoral). These are some of the questions that must be asked:

  • What are the demographics of the groups we are targeting? (Age, Profession, Geography, Interests, Ethnicity)
  • What are their wants, needs, and concerns during their search for a university?
  • What types of content do they engage with at each touch point? (Blog articles, videos, quizzes, infographics?)
  • How are we defining and measuring success? Key performance indicators will help in optimizing the customer experience.

To ensure you don’t get overwhelmed, focus on one theme at a time. Start to think about how you will structure your content for each student decision journey stage. Below is an example of the journey map of an undergraduate nurse. This will help you craft a roadmap that reflects a personalized brand experience tailored to their needs.

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