January 30

3 Pillars of a Basic Digital Marketing Strategy for Higher Ed


The higher education landscape is rapidly changing, with competition getting stronger for a dwindling number of potential students, even before we hit the expected “demographic cliff.” Here are the three parts of your digital marketing strategy to prioritize to reach your enrollment goals.

As a professional in higher ed marketing, you know it isn’t just higher ed that is changing. Digital marketing is changing, too. New platforms and user trends constantly emerge, which can leave you wondering: What should we be doing? Where should we be investing our resources now?

Fortunately, the main parts of a digital strategy have remained stable for a while and are likely to continue to do so, even if the details about how they are implemented change. 

In order to achieve success in a higher ed marketing strategy, you need to do three things well: Create an enrollment-driven website, publish effective content that answers the questions prospective students and influencers are asking, and implement strategies to turn visitors into leads.

Keep reading for an explanation of how each of these areas works.

1st pillar: an enrollment-driven website

The first impression almost all prospective students will have of your college is through your website. In fact, in many cases, it is where they will find out everything upon which their decision to apply or not is based.

Your website is the first and most important marketing asset you have.

The challenge with college websites, however, is that they have several audiences, including potential students, current students, alumni, faculty/staff, and donors. One of the key decisions you need to make concerning your site is who the primary audience is going to be

I would argue that the audience you should prioritize in designing your site is prospective students. As we just noted, your website is the most important point of contact with this group. If your marketing efforts with prospective students aren’t effective, the other groups aren’t going to even be there in the long run.

Once you know who your primary audience is, you can tailor your content to their needs. Why does a prospective student (or their parents, guidance counselor, or other influencers) visit a college website? What questions do they have in mind?

Though the emphases differ a bit depending upon the type of institution and student demographics, there are four big ones to which almost everyone will want to know the answers:

  1. Will I fit in at this school?
  2. Will it help me achieve my goals?
  3. Do they have the major or program I wish to study?
  4. Can I afford to attend?

Your site should quickly and effectively answer these questions and present a persuasive, emotional case for the student to take the next step of engagement (request info, visit, apply, etc.). 

Take some time to audit your current site. Try to see it through the eyes of a prospective student. Does it answer these questions in a clear and compelling way? Does it present information in language that makes sense to someone who has never attended college?

2nd pillar: effective content

Content marketing is a powerful way to build your audience and connect with mission-fit prospects. It’s helpful to think of content in two broad categories: top-of-the-funnel content and mid/bottom-of-the-funnel content.

At the top of the sales funnel are prospective students who haven’t heard of your university yet and may be early in the process of thinking through whether they’ll go to college — and where. 

This audience has general questions like, “What can I do with a bachelor’s degree in computer science?” or “How do I pay for college?” When you create quality, helpful content to answer questions like these, you can attract organic traffic from visitors who are in the broad pool of potential students. 

This kind of content should focus on providing value and take a low-key approach to promoting your particular brand. If the content is successful, it will help new potential students become aware of your school and perhaps prompt them to find out more about it.

The other category of content is created for an audience that is aware of your institution and wants to learn more. Here, your focus is different. Instead of answering broad questions, you’re answering specific ones. 

Now the topics could be, “How does the program in computer science at [your university] uniquely prepare you for a career in software development?” or “What scholarships are available at [your school]?”

It is especially useful at this point to tell stories from current students or alumni.

A good story is often a much more effective way to paint a picture of what your college is like than simply sharing information. It connects with prospects on an emotional level and helps them develop a feel for your culture and values.


What are some kinds of stories you can tell? Look especially for narratives that demonstrate career outcomes (how your alumni have benefitted professionally from their studies), personal transformation (how students have been changed during their years at your college), and the decision process (how current students made the choice to study at your school). 

3rd pillar: lead generation

Once prospective students are aware of your school, the next step in the process is for them to become leads. This just means they have interacted with your content in some way and provided contact information. This is the beginning of a relationship that may eventually lead to enrollment. 

This part is obviously crucial. It is possible to have a decent website and lots of helpful content that attracts organic traffic without making any connections. So you need a carefully-designed strategy for encouraging visitors to become leads. 

How do you do this? One aspect of this that can be overlooked is that you simply need to be intentional about asking. Whenever you have a piece of content (for instance an informational article or a program page), you should always include a clear call to action. 

What do you want the visitor to do? Find out more about a program? Schedule a visit? Get in touch with admissions? Make sure you ask.

Another important part of lead generation strategy is to create lead magnets. Think of something that would be of value to your audience and then offer it in exchange for their contact information. 

There are lots of possibilities here. You could offer a guide, for instance, “How to graduate from college debt-free.” Another possibility is a webinar. You might have a professor in your computer science department talk about the hottest jobs in tech right now and how to be competitive for them.

Finally, many schools also use PPC campaigns or social posting as a way to try to reach an audience. Each of these channels should connect to some kind of clear call to action that has the potential to move someone from being just a visitor to being a lead. 

Putting it all together

Each of these elements is important on its own, but they are designed to work in harmony. Content, advertising, and other strategies for bringing traffic to your site are most effective when your site is carefully crafted to answer your audience’s questions and present them with a clear call to action to take the next step.  

Focus your attention on doing each of these well, and they will enable you to successfully market your school both today and in the years ahead. 

My team helps colleges all over the country put these pillars in place and/or optimize what they already have. If you’d like to have a conversation about how we can help you get to where you need to be, let’s talk

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Featured image by Jacob Lund via Adobe Stock

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The Enrollment Cliff Is Real

Explore strategies for tackling the enrollment cliff and finding mission-fit students with insights from Bart’s book, Chasing Mission Fit.