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February 15

Harnessing Change To Achieve Sustainable Enrollment Marketing


“The only thing that is constant in this world is change.”

That old saying has always been true, but the rate of change that we are experiencing today is truly unprecedented.  In the digital world, the tools that are available to reach our audiences seem to increase daily.  How can we keep up?

In my conversation with Tony Fraga, Marketing Strategist and CEO at Direct Development, we both reminisced about our experiences with these changes and the impact they have had on our higher ed marketing strategies.  Our discussion then settled on the importance of sustainability:  Resisting the urge to try every new thing, and instead perfecting those tools that reach our target audience the best.

The Rise of AI

Everybody these days is talking about the incredible advancements in AI technology.  Tony started our conversation by relating a recent shift in how he views and uses AI:

There is a shift going on with AI that is essentially different than just adding AI into what you’re doing. All of the tools that we use [will have] generative AI…baked into them in ways that are just going to become normal, like driving.  

I had been thinking about AI as another tool: ‘Here’s another thing, and I [have] to learn this tool in order to get good.’ [But] AI is not like that. This is not another tool. [It is] not something we’re going to master. It’s just going to change the way we move our fingers…and it will be baked into all the tech that we use. It will just be normal.

I don’t need our company to become experts in another tool. This is more about changing our approach to how we talk to each other, and…how we communicate, and how we partner with schools.

From Expertise To Experimentation

As service providers to higher ed marketers, Tony and I have both seen a shift away from the felt need to get on specific marketing bandwagons to finding more flexible and adaptable approaches to reach target audiences. He explained that shift this way:

I would say [that] 20 years ago… higher ed marketing was predominantly individual tactical solutions.  You would hire specialists, or chase after individual tactics. There was a lot of chasing, there was a lot of, ‘get on the next thing and do it well.’ And, you hired an expert. It was very expertise driven.

[In] the last 10 years, it’s shifted. Higher ed marketing is not so much [about] ‘expertise.’ I think schools have gotten more sophisticated and understanding, and now it’s much more multifaceted. Now it’s about the mix; now it’s more about partnerships that are relationships, and sets of services that need to be highly gooey, highly changeable. Today, as an agency, we’re…less being hired for a fixed set of deliverables. What I tell my clients…and …my team…is, ‘We’re partnering with schools for our fingers and our brains, not for a specific asset that they’re buying.’

There’s so much changing in the landscape today. I would argue we’ve traded ‘expertise’ for ‘experimentation.’ Another way I say this is, ‘Guys, if your job title [is] a name tag and [is] like a trophy for you, throw that in the trash, and instead put on a lab coat.’  We’re experimenters. And what you’re hiring, if you’re a school and you’re looking for a vendor, is their nimbleness…their ability to quickly adapt and change and experiment on the fly.

“Marketing” -V- “Communicating”

Hearing Tony describe the changes he’s seen in the last 20 years reminded me of some of the ways I have also seen the whole language of higher ed marketing change:

I remember…when I was first getting into higher ed [marketing], if I slipped during a meeting and used the word, ‘customer,’ or used the word, ‘sales,’ or used a word that had something to do with business…it was like a pile on!  ‘Oh, we are not like that! How dare you use that kind of terminology!’  They didn’t like to call it ‘Marketing.’ It was…’University Communications.’ [I]t sat underneath the Advancement Office, because…that’s where the alumni magazine was done…view books were done there… There really wasn’t a marketing strategy as much as there was just some…collateral that was created in university communications.

But I think that higher ed’s finally gotten over that. And I think that’s a good thing, because I think that starts to get the marketing team to actually do the things that are going to be making the difference, that are going to be moving the ball down the field.  And I think that’s part of what’s also happened in the mix of all this… I think higher ed has matured enough to recognize that marketing needs to have a seat at the C-suite table.

Tony wholeheartedly agreed with me:

We’re more comfortable with that language today.  Parents are ‘shopping’ for college for their children. A working professional is ‘shopping’ for a graduate degree. That’s the convergence we’re seeing today, where ‘enrollment management’ was a circle on the left, and ‘marketing communications for the university’ was a circle on the right, and they overlapped a little, but not as much. Today, those circles overlap a lot more, and we talk a lot about the discipline of ‘enrollment marketing.’  That term is more common today than it was 10 years ago, by far.

A Megaphone? Or A Magnet?

With so many new tools becoming available all the time, higher ed marketing departments can easily adopt a “whack-a-mole” mentality, endlessly trying every new thing that pops up and hoping that it will make their voice be heard by the greatest number of people.  This mindset, however, does not lead to a sustainable marketing strategy.

This is how Tony illustrated the problem:

‘Not Sustainable’ is…a school that is…advertising on Google paid search and display ads…on YouTube…on Facebook and Instagram…and on LinkedIn.  They’re throwing in lots of ads…and they’re spending a lot of money.  [But] they’re only tracking those ads down to impressions and clicks and leads… They’re not connecting those ads down to enrolled students…  How many of those ads…ended up [in] an open house or an information session? Because they’re not tracking that better, they’re not able to make smarter decisions. So what they’re doing is unsustainable.

Here’s the catch: They’re not willing to stop spending that money. They’re afraid, because they don’t have the information. They’re…committed to these huge contracts with an ad vendor who’s spending a lot of their money… They don’t know how many of their ads are actually leading to real [enrollments]… They’re left to just vanity metrics.

If you’re doing ad campaigns, and you’re only tracking [those] top-funnel vanity metrics, I would say that’s not sustainable… Large amounts of your budget will be going to things that aren’t actually producing bottom-funnel impact.

Finances are just one of many reasons why a school may not be able to sustain a particular marketing campaign.  That is why it is important to find what works, and perfect it.  This will require some real creativity.  It may, as Tony advised, also require some tough choices:

I’m not a huge fan of ‘Omni-channel,’…because what it impresses upon people is this:  ‘We, as an institution, have to be all things, to all people, in all places.’  The truth is, unless you have a massive budget, most schools can’t afford to do that.  I would argue [that] you actually don’t even need to, even if you could afford it.  You would just be wasting, and communicating with a whole bunch of non-qualified, not-good-fit students.

Let’s switch that narrative. What if we started with an approach of [identifying] the people who you’re looking for, and [finding] ways to laser-go after those? That’s…really how the whole marketing industry has changed, from the…past “batch and blast method,” to, now, you can be so much more targeted. There’s so many more cool things you can do today. And if you…put the right steps in order, you don’t have to do these kinds of broad, ‘drop a bomb from a helicopter,’  and see how much…impact it has.

We’re not just talking about ‘marketing tactics that work really well.’ We’re talking about working with your team, in your situation, in your reality with your school, and setting up an enrollment marketing plan that…you can actually pull off. So often it’s more about knowing where you’re not going to play as opposed to trying to play in all spaces.

Using SEO To Your Advantage

A simple, effective, and very sustainable tool that any school of any size can use is giving attention to organic search and SEO.  But even this needs to be done correctly. Tony shared with us the results of some research he recently conducted:

Schools are essentially either flat or slowly growing in the number of keywords they rank for, but the traffic they’re getting from those keywords is going down. And what that means is that the average institution is ranking for more of the wrong keywords. And so they’re not winning the SEO battle. 

A simple way schools can look at this is [to] take your name out of the search.  Take your acronym, take all your on-brand SEO, and put that aside…  Only look at off-brand search terms that people would type in Google… [Use] program specific, or school specific, or topic or field specific terms…that prospects interested in going to college…might type without your name, and look at where you rank.

If you work on that, you don’t have to spend huge budgets on buying your audience and paid advertising, because you earn it, and it sticks. So, yes, it takes work to move the needle there, but that work pays dividends in the long run.

Discover more when you listen to the podcast!

Like all of our blog post reviews of The Higher Ed Marketer podcasts, there’s so much more to learn in the podcasts themselves.

Listen to our interview with Tony Fraga to get even more insights into:

  • Decades of change in the higher ed landscape (4:32)
  • Moving marketing out of advancement and into enrollment (10:54)
  • Having a sustainable and long-term strategy (18:40)
  • Moving marketing from a catch-all to a tailored approach (29:00)

Looking for Enrollment Marketing Content that Works?

You’re in luck! We’ve curated 25 awesome ideas inspired by top higher ed institutions across the country and put them in one handy guide: 25 Ideas for Great Admissions Content. 25 Ideas for Great Admissions Content In this popular resource from Caylor Solutions, you’ll get…

    • 25 enrollment marketing content ideas you might never have considered before
    • Guidance on how to use each one for best results
    • Brief discussion on why they work to help you sell these ideas to your team

Get inspired.
Get enrollment results.
Get 25 Ideas for Great Admissions Content.
Download your copy today!

Featured image via directdevelopment.com

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