August 17

Targeted Digital Advertising: Captivating a Small Audience Over a Large Footprint

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by | Aug 17, 2023 | Featured, Strategies, Podcast

Unfortunately, there are few schools out there that successfully use targeted digital advertising.

Despite digital marketing’s evident impact on prospective students, social media managers are still some of the most undersupported members of many higher ed marketing teams. 

Any school administration should be able to clearly see Gen Z’s appetite for digital content, so why do these disconnects continue to happen?

Rose-Hulman's Santhana Naidu describes how they use targeted digital advertising to find mission-fit students across a large marketing footprint. According to Santhana Naidu, VP of Marketing and Communications at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, marketers must first educate their school’s internal audiences. Only then can they focus on telling their stories to external niche audiences.

Santhana shares the success of their social media strategy and why more schools should embrace targeted digital advertising on streaming platforms.

Making Social Media a Priority

In today’s world where everyone hops in and out of social media apps constantly, it is surprising to observe that social media managers, who play a crucial role in higher education marketing teams, often receive inadequate support and resources. 

This lack of support can hinder their ability to effectively engage with the target audience and maximize the potential of social media platforms in reaching and connecting with prospective students.

Santhana and his team are taking a different approach at Rose-Hulman, and they are seeing some great results.

I believe social media strategy, execution, management—all of that has to be one of the top three priorities, if not the top priority for a higher ed marketing team. 

These days, Instagram presence is equally if not more important than even a website for an institution [as it’s often where] students start their search. 

In the past few years, their team has achieved remarkable success by enrolling two out of the three largest classes in the history of the institution.

They’ve been able to achieve this all during a period right after the pandemic. 

Although Rose-Hulman is a very small institution with limited budgets, they’re still doing some amazing things with their enrollment marketing by investing in their social media channels.

The Power of Surprise in Storytelling

Rose-Hulman is a top-ranked college, but it still has a major challenge in attracting mission-fit students. 

With its highly niched offering, Rose-Hulman has to work twice as hard to get the right kind of student who would be interested in what it has for them. 

For some context, Santhana shares a little about the institution.

Rose-Hulman is a nationally recognized private college located in Terre Haute, Indiana. We’re focused exclusively on undergraduate STEM in a residential setting. 

Our campus community has around 2,200 students and their common passion I’d say is STEM.  They come from all over the country and throughout the world. 

Since we serve a niche [market], we can’t rely on a few feeder markets or high schools to meet our enrollment goals. To give you an idea, in the first-year class last fall, we had 602 students that came from 490 high schools who represent 40 states in 18 countries. 

With such a large marketing footprint, how does Rose-Hulman attract mission-fit students?

[Besides making social media marketing a priority], I believe surprise is a powerful marketing tool. If executed well, that element of surprise can change behaviors. 

[We should] focus on the expectations and perceptions people hold about us (our prospective and our current students), and [think of] how we can turn those perceptions around. That’s kind of a guiding principle that we’ve tried to keep in mind when it comes to our marketing efforts overall. 

Applying [that guiding principle] to social media, what expectations and perceptions do people hold when it comes to STEM? 

Oftentimes, people think STEM is not creative. They think people in STEM don’t like to interact with people. [The perception is that] they sit in a dark room and do research and code all day long [because] they don’t like to have fun.

But in reality, I’d argue it’s totally the opposite! And if you don’t believe me, I invite any of you to come to spend a day at Rose-Hulman, or any STEM institution near you. 

We’ve utilized social media to show people that all these misconceptions or misperceptions around STEM are not true. 

[We use] the element of surprise to show them that STEM is a creative field. [Our students are] curious about how things work and how it can be improved. They work hard and play hard. It’s a fun environment to be around. 

So that element of surprise through social media has been very impactful for us. That surprise element plays into people’s emotions and makes people smile. 

We use various forms in social media to get that message across, depending on the intended platform and the audience. 

Targeted Digital Advertising

Another powerful tool that Santhana and his team have put to good use is targeted digital advertising. 

We’ve really used and targeted digital advertising to get to our prospect and inquiry pool and to our alumni. 

What we’ve done is work hand in hand with either our enrollment management team or the alumni office to identify prospects or inquiries who are engaged.

For example, last homecoming we identified alumni that live within driving distance to campus or people that have been to campus for certain activities [and sent them] video ads through OTT on their smart TV’s about our homecoming, inviting them to come to campus. 

Then, we’re able to track engagement from that household and whether they went to our website or not. [If they go to your website,] you can decide whether you want to continue to show the ads. If someone is not engaging, then you can just redirect and take them out of the pool and [send your messaging to] another audience. 

That’s worked out really well [for us]. Traditional media has its place, and it’s all about [having a mix of different channels and mediums]. 

For us, we try to use our budget for traditional media for a highly concentrated population, where we have alumni and a new business community [so they can] see our name out there.

When you get into specifics of recruiting and advancement, we use targeted ads.

By the way, OTT advertising is when you send targeted ads to specific households via streaming services such as Roku and Apple TV.

Putting It All Together

Targeted digital advertising is a great strategy for finding mission-fit students on a tight budget. 

It appears to me that if you are targeting 40 states, your reach is broad, but your audience might be more specific. 

Instead of blanket coverage like in Indianapolis, St. Louis, or Chicago, you could focus on these areas and use targeted ads through this platform. 

Considering your school’s size, this approach could make more sense as it allows you to reach a niche audience and build brand awareness among the right people.

[Targeted digital advertising] goes specifically to people that you want to see [the content] or who have some qualification, rather than buying ads through your local network TV that everyone in that community might see who may have an interest or have no interest at all. 

[That means] it’s cheaper, much more targeted, and very effective.

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 Santhana Naidu to get even more insights into:

  • Using social media to edutain prospective STEM students
  • The cost-benefit of OTT advertising on streaming platforms
  • Educating the campus community on social media strategy


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Featured image via rose-hulman.edu

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