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Getting Real About Digital Marketing in Higher Education

At the Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education, hosted by the American Marketing Association in Austin last week, many attendees expressed big worries about meeting their enrollment numbers. However, many of the sessions painted what I feel was an overly rosy picture about how digital marketing can increase brand awareness, gain visibility for programs, and engage prospects.

It takes a lot in today’s highly competitive business school environment to use digital solutions to help grow enrollments, rather than what is often loosely termed “brand presence.” There was little data presented at the conference about how an increase in impressions or clicks translates into enrollment growth (which at most institutions is the ultimate goal of digital recruiting efforts.) This type of tracking requires a highly calibrated marketing and enrollment funnel that tracks prospects from initial search through to application and matriculation. Below are three observations and ideas that were not part of the conversations we heard at the conference but are critically important components to leverage digital solutions to strategically drive enrollment growth.

PPC, SEO, and social media are not “strategies.” They are tactics.

Based on our experience working in higher education and our ongoing market observations, approximately 90% of all of the institutions are doing just that: the same thing. Sure, you need a nice website, strong pay-per-click advertising campaigns, and search engine optimization, but what you really need is a strategy. Most institutions are only competing on the tactical level, thus significantly limiting the opportunity to really leverage the power of an integrated digital marketing strategy.

Digital is not a “magic pill,” but can help you capture market share.

Yes, 97% of all prospective students start searching for college, university, and business school programs online, but there are limitations to the impact digital marketing can have on enrollment. First and foremost, you should understand the market demand for your programs: How many people are actually searching for programs like yours, how many choices do they have, and what percentage of the market are you currently capturing? If there isn’t any market demand, or the market demand is shrinking for programs like yours, then digital marketing can’t help grow the market.

Consumers are changing much faster than you can, so you need to respond in real-time.

Higher education institutions are notoriously slow, which significantly limits the impact they can have through digital efforts. Updating a website page can take weeks, realizing your tracking code isn’t working can take days to discover and often longer to fix, and if your campaigns aren’t managed daily, then you are likely missing valuable marketing opportunities. The power of digital marketing rests in the insights you can derive and respond to in real-time. If you aren’t iterating, adapting, and evolving, it is likely your competition will get ahead of you. There is no end to digital marketing: To truly manage a digital strategy is a substantial internal commitment for an institution. Not only does it take time, it also takes expertise, and a commitment to keep up on how the digital landscape is evolving. This is why Eduvantis offers services to support, enhance, and increasingly act as your internal digital team to help you get—and stay—at the forefront of digital marketing.

We enjoyed the engaging conversations at the conference and we look forward to continuing the dialogue about how to effectively leverage digital marketing to drive enrollment growth for your programs.