Higher Education Marketing

Five realizations of marketing in higher education

(Mike Lefler, Sr. Director of Strategic Communication at Doane College, is a guest blogger this week providing his personal experience with marketing in higher education)

I may be oversimplifying this, but as a marketer, your responsibility is to know your product, know your target audience and create a bridge between the two. But in higher education, that simple notion is compounded by speaking to several different audiences (traditional students, adult learners, parents, teachers, etc.) that are all looking for different things in a school that features many different selling points.

When I came to Doane College to strategically direct marketing and communications, I had backgrounds in athletic media relations and marketing in the non-profit and health care sectors. Fields that I felt had a fairly clear sales pitch and more defined audiences. The complex nature of college recruitment and selling a small college in an extremely competitive environment was an eye-opening experience to say the least. Below are the five things I have realized in the past six months about marketing in higher education:

Recognize that your school is not for everyone – The million-dollar question: What do students want? This is a question we should be asking ourselves each and every day. The trouble is there is no one thing that we can sell that will attract the number of students we’re looking for.  We’ve come to find that some students look for location or campus community, others for college size or academic reputation while many will refer to a parent, guidance counselor or teacher to lend them advice.  This creates a challenge for the college marketer.

Here at Doane, we recognize we are not going to be the exact fit for each person out there. We as marketers can’t change that. We also realize that, if prospects are given the appropriate information in a manner that stands out, we can be a fit for more people than are now enrolled at our school. What we can do is build our identity and tell our story – what we’re the best at, who can succeed here, what people say about their experiences – in as clear a way as possible to make sure that people are hearing it and giving us real consideration for what we have to offer.

Expand your avenues strategically – Gone are the days of purchasing one ad in the local newspaper and everyone in a 20-mile radius seeing it.  You need to consider things like mobile compatibility, search engine optimization, social media, inbound marketing, online advertising and email blasts.  Prospective students gather their information in numerous ways, so you need to be diverse and stand out in your approach.

The trouble is that big oak tree in the middle of campus isn’t a money tree.  You need to be strategic about which avenues you pursue because funds are limited in the world of small-college marketing. You’ve got to find innovative ways to reach your audiences with succinct messages while being as targeted as possible. Build a following through social media, promote your website until you’re blue in the face, utilize email to the fullest extent, capitalize on good PR and publish enough content through blogs and a news feed to get you noticed outside of your campus walls.  Most importantly, tell your strengths right up front and be as colorful as possible so you stand out from that stack of letters from colleges across the country.

It’s OUR brand – When we launched our new brand on Dec. 2, I had people approach me saying, “I love your new brand.”  I immediately correct them and let them know that this is our brand. This is not something that is just going to live through marketing endeavors. If we are to create a recognizable brand, this needs to be something that lives and breathes through each and every student, faculty member, staff person and alum. A brand is only as strong as the people that live it.  When you are a college, that brand needs to become who you are or it’s not perceived as believable by those on the outside looking in. And it’s everyone’s responsibility for marketing, not just the department that has that title outside its door.

Align your goals with other departments –When marketing a college or university, your ultimate goal is not only to have your brand seen by as many targeted people as possible, but also to help other departments accomplish their goals. Let’s take for example our admissions office. Here at Doane, if our admissions office is not hitting its enrollment goals, this will also be a reflection on how effective our marketing is. Yes, this puts our goals partly in the hands of other departments, but it also brings us together with others as one team and gets us all on the same page. We need to step back, take a look at the big picture of what is going to make us successful and align ourselves with others whom we support to gauge our successes or failures.

To academia, marketing is low-hanging fruit for criticism – Anyone who has worked in marketing for any length of time has stories of “Suzy in accounting who thinks that, because she saw a great commercial while watching The Bachelor last night, she is now an expert in advertising.” In academia, where faculty and students are taught to question everything, the notion is magnified. To them, marketing may seem like a gimmick or trivial in nature with no real science behind it. They want to see immediate proof that the billboard up in the middle of town is translating directly into students in our classrooms.

The answer to this is to justify everything. Make them feel like they are part of the process (which they are to some extent). Let them know what you’re doing every step of the way and why. You’ll get your share of resistance, but by trusting in your marketing experience, training and sticking to your strategy, you’ll get where you need to be.

(Thank you Mike for your guest post!  Joel)

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2 thoughts on “Five realizations of marketing in higher education

  1. This is a very interesting post. I really like what you said about ‘your school isn’t for everyone’. I think that’s a very valuable lesson because universities try to attract many different students with a large variety of passions and tastes. That sometimes can dilute a brand and create very generic messages that don’t satisfy anyone.

    • Antonio, my apologies for the delay in acknowledging your comment. Correct, my school isn’t for everyone. While my job is enrollment, I seek a strong balance with attracting and enrolling students who fit our mission. Joel

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