August 26

Finding Unique Identifiers: Marketing Small Colleges


Marketing small colleges with little to no marketing resources can seem an impossible task. But there are ways to success! Discover more in my podcast conversation with Dan Sanchez.

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of working with hundreds of small schools.

Many of them are highly specialized schools with a tight academic focus, like a special field in an industry, religion, or profession.

What do you do when you don’t have a sizeable marketing budget, large staff, or high brand awareness?

Here I want to share with you some of the amazing advice Troy Singer (my co-host) and I heard from Dan Sanchez on The Higher Ed Marketer podcast.

Dan is a B2B digital marketer who currently works as the Director of Audience Growth at SweetFish Media.

Why am I talking to a B2B marketer you ask?

Because Dan launched his digital marketing career by tripling enrollment at a small school called Bethany Global University and growing their marketing team from one person, Dan himself, to about 25 people in a short amount of time.

I don’t have to tell you… but that’s an incredible rate of success for a small institution!

While Dan still helps out his friends in the nonprofit world, he is very focused on building his personal brand and helping his B2B clients produce successful podcasts through SweetFish Media.

In fact, SweetFish is our podcast producer at The Higher Ed Marketer podcast.

They’re doing an amazing job helping us get more conversations with actionable insights like this one out to more education marketers like you.

So let’s dive into some of the best advice I’ve heard on marketing small colleges!

Get laser-focused in your target audience.

If you are marketing small colleges like a Bible school or a specialized trade school, you’re already starting out with a bit of a disadvantage.

Your target market is limited to the interest out there for your program.

This could seem discouraging, but Dan advises that small colleges and universities should lean into that.

When I came on full time, the budget at the time was probably somewhere around 80 to $90,000. I think my advertising budget was $30,000, which just isn’t a big budget for a school. They only had an incoming class the year before that of 44 students. But I also saw an opportunity from the outside. 

They didn’t know it, but they were actually sitting in a really good position. They’re a school that was highly focused on just one degree. They only trained Christian missionaries, and they had a way of doing it that was kind of unique. 

I knew enough from working at other Christian nonprofits that there’s at least a few thousand people that are thinking about becoming an aspiring missionary, and they want to figure out how to get to the mission field. 

I also knew that there’s not really a clear path to get there. How does one become a missionary exactly? Do they go to college? Do they just go to their pastor? What are the steps for that? 

So, I knew there would be a market for it. At the time, they saw [their program] as too limited, and that’s how a lot of small schools feel. “Oh! if only we had more degree programs, we would attract a larger audience!” But I actually feel like it’s the opposite.

Focus on your value proposition.

Something I liked about Dan’s approach at Bethany was the amount of time they put into refining their unique selling proposition, or as Dan called it, their “value proposition.”

While other schools were focusing on geography, Dan opened their campaign scope wide but anchored their messaging on their unique selling proposition.

Instead of focusing regionally, I went nationally because I knew I could attract a very specific kind of person. So, with a small budget, we actually focused first not on branding, or even “large strategy stuff,” we were just trying to craft the right value proposition. We tried to get the right message in front of the right person.

It was a simple strategy. You’re talking one landing page, digital ads, and then just trying to craft the message for the right person. The real “secret sauce.” [The advantage] was that they already had a clear mission and focus for the school. It was easy to tie that focus to the right kind of person who had a very strong need for that kind of thing which wasn’t well represented elsewhere. Not all colleges have it that easy, though. It’s not like it was easy! – but it was a clear path.

Clear, simple strategies are key to marketing small colleges like Bethany Global University.

BGU kept their campaign strategy simple focusing their efforts on getting more people to download their school brochure.

Marketing Ops

Our interview with Dan was so full of practical insights on marketing small colleges, but I just can’t write it all in one post.

So, please do yourself a favor and get all the actionable steps that he lays out on developing attractive content marketing, optimizing your website for search and driving traffic to your site.

But here, I want to land on a concept that might be new for education marketers, marketing operations.

Marketing ops is incredibly important. It’s something we did really well at BGU, and that’s one of the reasons why we were able to get so much done on such a small budget. 

Marketing ops is essentially the evolution of marketing automation. “Marketing automation” was the term a couple of years ago, but because marketing automations has become so big — covering more than just marketing — now, it’s turned into “marketing operations.” 

Marketing operations is how you as a small college marketer can automate tasks and workflows that help prospects move through your enrollment cycle.

In essence, you’re leveraging the power of technology to get more done with fewer staff, letting computers do the work for you.

Good news is, marketing operations software doesn’t have to be cost-prohibitive!

You don’t have to use Populi for your CRM for marketing. So, find a point where you can have a small business CRM that costs way less, but it’s still doable even with a small tiny budget. Small business CRM and marketing automation platforms are actually highly capable of doing very sophisticated marketing campaigns. 

I highly recommend Infusionsoft. It’s fairly robust for how much you pay for it. But even something like Active Campaign can almost do everything Infusionsoft can do and it’s arguably a little easier to use. You can always transfer things over later.

Besides the small business CRM platforms Dan mentioned, I personally recommend you take a look at LeadSquared. It’s got marketing ops built in with the CRM and everything.

The point here isn’t so much in which tool you decide to use, it’s the idea that there are great, economic options for marketing operations out there.

You don’t have to use the massively expensive and complicated tools like Salesforce or Slate to leverage marketing automation.

Even on a small budget, you can have a system that allows you to create workflows, manage marketing campaigns, and track your enrollment process from marketing to admissions.

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 full interview with Dan Sanchez to get even more insights into:

  • Specific Student Targeting
  • Marketing Operations on a Budget
  • Google Adwords for Small Colleges
  • Crafting your Unique Value Proposition

Looking for Enrollment Marketing Content that Works?

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    • 25 enrollment marketing content ideas you might never have considered before
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