The higher education sector is in the midst of transformation. Universities and colleges are increasingly moving towards online, distance-learning programs and corporations are in turn increasingly relying on those programs to train their workforces. Simultaneously, economic realities have made the job market more competitive than ever for younger people. More and more of them find themselves living at home, working part-time and taking online courses.
This new landscape presents immense opportunities for the higher education sector. In this post, we’ll share some ideas about how higher-ed institutions can better market themselves online; to ensure they’re connecting with the right prospective students, at the right time in their lives and giving them the right information they need to make an informed decision about their education options.
Landscape: The Job Market & Rapid Adoption of Online Distance Learning
Have you read the Canadian Teacher’s Federation Report on Youth Unemployment and Underemployment in Canada? Just in case you haven’t, let me give you the gist:
- As of 2014, the youth (15-24) unemployment rate in Canada was 13.7%. That number remains virtually unchanged since the financial crisis on 2008 and is 2.3 times the unemployment rate (5.9%) for workers aged 25-55. The gap in employment between those two demographics is the widest it’s been since 1981.
- The Canadian Labour Congress calculates the underemployment rate for youth aged 15 to 24 at 27.7%. That number jumps to 40% for new Canadians and First Peoples (First Nations, Inuit and Métis). The underemployed include interns working for free or for small stipends, and graduates who have gone back to school because they can’t find work but continue to work part time.
- Median wages (adjusted for inflation) among youth aged 15-24 are anywhere between 8%-13% lower than what they were in 1981
This chronic under-representation in the workforce probably explains why the majority of millennials (51%) aged 20-29 now find themselves living in their parents homes (even though 47% are at least partially employed).
Aside from the well-known macroeconomic and sociodemographic factors, much of this unemployment (and underemployment) is blamed on insufficient education and training; especially in the context of our highly competitive job market.
The problem appears to be that while many university
undergraduates exit with a broad understanding of their sectors, and a capacity for critical thinking and leadership, they often don’t possess the specific technical training they need for certain entry-level positions. Conversely, many graduates of colleges and technical schools do have those market-ready skills, but lack the broader strategic skills they need to advance into leadership roles. The result is that many individuals in both groups find themselves underpaid, unfulfilled, and working at the outer-edges of their industries.
The Move to MOOCs and Online Distance-Learning
Okay, how about some encouraging stats? Let’s look at the growth of the online learning sector:
- In 2013 in the USA there were 20,939,293 students enrolled in online, at-a-distance courses
- While the growth rate is slowing, the number of online enrolments continues to increase, year over year, since the early 2000s
- Even while overall enrolment declined, online enrolment increased
- 8% of companies use Massive Online Open Courseware (MOOCs) to train employees and another 7% are considering using them. Uptake is highest in the public sector at 42% (USA)
- The private sector invests billions annually in training programs for employees
The growth of online learning makes pretty intuitive sense given the landscape, doesn’t it? I mean, more and more graduates are finding they’re lacking the exact combination of skills they need to access the careers they want, and more and more millennials are electing to live at home to continue their education while working part-time. It follows then that pursuing more education and certification online would appeal to them. It also follows that employers are under increasing pressure to upgrade the skill-set of their younger employees, as more baby-boomers currently holding senior positions begin to transition into retirement. It’s really good news for academic institutions offering at-a-distance education, but it does also increase the field of potential competitors, since enrollment is no longer so strongly tied to Where, as much as it is to Why? How? and When?
So, if you’re a communications person in a higher-education institution, what can you do to capitalize on this tremendous opportunity?
7 Digital Marketing Solutions for Colleges, Universities and Technical Schools
Choosing a higher-education program is not a trivial decision. It’s not quite as high-consideration as say, buying a home but it’s also far, far from an impulse buy. In many cases, there are multiple-decision-makers involved, as the prospective students’ parents or caregivers may be required to offer financial support to the student. The sales cycle for a prospective student is on the order of months at least. During this time they need to:
- Become aware of your program
- Understand the value-proposition (and benefits) of taking your program
- Understand the admissions requirements, costs, and application process
- After surveying and considering their options, they need to accept that your program is the right fit for them (months)
- Then they have to maintain that acceptance while they secure financing and engage in the application process (more months)
You’ve got to get in front of them with messaging that entices them to research you more. Then you’ve got to maintain top-of-mind awareness while they do their research. Then you’ve got to hold their interest and acceptance while they go through the process. The sales cycle becomes even more complex when targeting the private sector for employee re-training programs. The B2B space is naturally more high-consideration and almost always presents the aforementioned multiple-decision-makers problem, which means you’ve got to make sure you not only have to convince potential recruits (or HR people), but also equip them with the information they need to convince their superiors.
You need an integrated, multi-channel and sustained digital strategy that gets and holds their interest. The good news is, it’s going to centre on a solid, content marketing foundation; and as a higher-education institution, content is something that you have in spades. Further, a lot of your existing market intelligence, customer profiling and offline recruitment activities can absolutely be leveraged to inform your digital strategy.
Step 1 – Create Customer Profiles
You know this already. Any successful marketing strategy begins with an understanding of your audience; their needs, their behaviours (online), the decision-makers they have to convince and their barriers to adoption. Customer profiles give you a roadmap to launch any new customer acquisition campaign. Inevitably, you’re going to learn new things about what resonates with your audiences and what doesn’t as you go, so you’ll pivot your strategy, but you need customer profiles to give you a place to start.
The good thing about the higher-education space is that you’ve got an enormous, data-rich pool of existing customers to extract insight from: your students. There’s surface-level insight you can mine simply by reviewing your enrollment statistics for each program you intend to promote, including: age, education-level, and regional market (where are they coming from or logging-on from, in the case of online classes). We’ll get into how even these most basic insights can inform targeting later in this post.
Diving just a teensy bit below the surface, you’ll find insight about what your customers’ (students) current employment status is. This is an important criteria for messaging and targeting. If you’re offering a graduate program in geopolitics for example, you might want to consider targeting people already employed as interns or junior-staffers in government. You also want to know what their primary languages (mother-tongue) are, so if you’re going after specific foreign or new immigrant markets, you can make sure you’re (literally) speaking their language! It’s also important to understand what these students envision their career paths to be. What professions, after they take your program, do they hope to find themselves in? This is fairly easy insight to gather, through tools like entrance and exit surveys.
Then there’s deeper insight that you can only get by engaging directly with students, alumni and even (if you can find them) people who elected not to attend your program after some consideration and contact. The latter group can perhaps provide the most powerful insight, because they can tell you where your messaging might have went wrong.
To obtain this deeper insight, we recommend using Adele Revella’s Buyer Personas Methodology. It’s largely used in B2B industries but it works for most high-consideration purchase decisions. It’s lightweight, easily scalable, clean, cost-effective and comes with almost no bloat. One of the problems with many qualitative research methodologies is that they return excessively detailed profiles, that then have to be interpreted before implementation. Oftentimes, you don’t really need to know the ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation or political values or personal tastes of a prospective customer; you just need to know what motivated them to start looking for programs of your kind, what are their deal-breakers/deal-makers, what are their barriers to choosing yours (or similar) programs and who do they have to convince to seal-the-deal (decision-makers). You also might want to know what sources of information (websites, publications, influencers) they rely on to inform their decisions.
Revella lays all this out in her 5 Rings of Buying Insight. But the central takeaway from her book is that if you want insight into your customers, just ask them!
While this methodology will give you a sense of what topics and questions your prospective students may be searching for online, you might want to consider also doing some deeper keyword research to develop specific search terms to inform your targeting and search-engine-optimization (SEO).
Finally, as you round out your customer personas, you’ll want to consider correlating those personas with readily available, existing market intelligence on media habits for your particular sociodemographic niches.
Step 2 – Create destinations
Now that you know who your priority prospects are, you need to create online destinations featuring messaging that will instantly resonate with them. The messaging has to help them see themselves in your program. Using your customer personas, you should be able to craft narratives that do just that. They need to see the benefits of your program. The What’s In It For Me? These online destinations need to invite them to take the most reasonable, next action. In marketing parlance that next action is called a conversion. It’s important that you be realistic about the conversions you ask prospects to make. They’re probably not going to jump from seeing a LinkedIn ad right to completing an application, no matter how precisely targeted that ad may be.
No, they’re more likely to want more information, or to be able to speak to someone in admissions, or learn more about the requirements, or understand what kind of employment prospects open up to graduates of your program. They might want to connect with someone who’s taken the program. And they’ll probably want to be able to download some information to share with their decision-makers.
Your strategy needs to be guided by an understanding of how to stagger conversions, so your prospects keep taking the next logical step towards enrollment. We have developed our own framework for this kind of strategy called Who? What? Where?, which you can find here, but there are plenty of different ways to arrive at similar conversion structures. Your framework needs to consider not only what conversions your prospects will be willing to make at each stage of the process, but what channels are appropriate for the types of conversions you’re going after. For example, if your program is 12 months out from opening, maybe the best thing you can do is get them to follow you on Facebook or Twitter. That’s a kind of soft-lead, where your students opt-in to hear from you on a regular basis. Over the course of months this will keep you top-of-mind and allow you to build your case in a sustained way.
Conversion focused destinations might include:
- Your main website, which has been search-engine-optimized (based on your customer personas) to predict some of their search queries
- Conversion-focused landing pages that offer very specific messaging, benefits (possibly case-studies that put a human face on the success some of your graduates experience), newsletter signups, takeaways and next-actions that are finely tuned to the particular audience segments (customer personas) you’re targeting.
- Your Social Media assets, where you’ll balance custom and curated content that is relevant to the audiences your targeting
- FAQ pages that invite prospective students to get answers more about very specific questions they have and even submit their own (incredible for search-engine-optimization as well)
- Forums & Social Media Communities (Facebook, LinkedIn) where prospects can register, ask questions and engage with other students (more on this later)
The point is, you need to develop a mix of destinations to invite prospects to interact with your institution over the course of many months.
Step 3 – Give it away for free (as much as you can)
Content Marketing is the practice of using valuable, useful and interesting information to attract customers to your brand (and convert them over time). This blog post is a content-marketing piece, designed to help attract one of our priority targets (you!) to our brand. For a lot of brands, engaging in content marketing is challenging. They struggle to get approval to devote time or resources to creating things that will just be given away for free.
But you don’t have that problem! Because you’re in higher-education. Creating content is what you do, whether it’s in the form of curricula or research. You might already be doing this, in the form of MOOCs. I think the content opportunities for higher-education are ample and fairly obvious, but just to name a few:
- Free Courseware with full enrollment options for accreditation
- E-learning modules broken into relevant topics
- Bite-size chunks of findings from recent research your institution has undertaken
- Recommended-Reading lists for students, alumni and prospective students
- Exceptional student work
- Curated work from other institutions, the private sector, government, journals, trade-publications and mainstream press if they relate to the fields your program covers
Our only rule for content is to make sure it meets what we call are the Four Es of content marketing. Ask yourself, is it either:
- Educational: will they learn something?
- Entertaining: will it make them feel good?
- Engaging: will it get them talking?
- Edifying: will they see themselves in it?
It’s pretty common-sense, although sometimes it can be difficult for people too close to the brand to recognize what someone who doesn’t know the organization might find interesting.
And remember, someone sharing your content on social media is also a worthwhile conversion: it’s a word-of-mouth endorsement of you from one person to their entire social network. As we’ve observed before, humans are wired to be social, which means a personal endorsement carries more weight than any individual benefit-statistic (“67% of our graduates find..”) or promotion.
Step 4 – Engage on Social Media
So, now you’ve created (and curated) all this awesome content you’ve got tons of material to seed on social media. Get it out there, and invite people to ask questions or engage in some way. Don’t be afraid to be a little provocative, provided you always add “what do you think?” to your posts.
This is going to get you followers, and as mentioned above, those are soft-leads in it for the long-haul. Beyond using social media to promote your brilliant content marketing efforts, you can use it to engage directly:
- Host live Question & Answer chats and consider including a mix of faculty, staff, alumni and students among your responders
- Build open online communities on Facebook, LinkedIn and on Forums that invite students to engage with each other. For a great example of this, take a look at Harvard CS50’s Facebook Page. It’s amazing. They’ve got prospective students engaging with alumni and active students, on real questions relating to the course. Peers are doing the selling for them! It’s no wonder that Harvard’s CS50 is the most popular course among Yale students!
Step 5 – Advertise & Promote
The insight you gleaned while creating your customer profiles is about to pay off big time. Advertising is not expensive, if you target correctly. Remember, you know what your prospects want, need, where they live, what they do, what they do online, and how old they are. Using your existing website analytics and through keyword research you even know what they search for. This intelligence will significantly improve the return-on-investment for your advertising spend. Your opportunities are boundless:
- Facebook allows you to target by age, gender, geography, education level, educational institution (!), a plethora of other sociodemographic considerations, and an infinite-seeming combination of interests that can get very specific, niched and granular (we once found a category called “popup camper” when researching targeting options for an outdoor-apparel brand we were working with… Maybe a little too granular).
- LinkedIn advertising offers many similar targeting options to those on Facebook with the added bonus that you can target by industry and profession (as well as alma matter, field of study, past & current education). I know that makes LinkedIn seem much more attractive than Facebook but do consider that Facebook users spend much much more time on site than LinkedIn users. Because your target audience is students interested in advancing their careers, many of them will be on both networks; which means you can target them in both places, baiting them with different messaging and aiming for different conversions. LinkedIn also allows you to target select companies who may be in industries that collectively invest billions annually in training programs.
- Google AdWords allows you to place contextually relevant messages in front of students who’ve expressed interest in a topic through their search query. Google uses an algorithm to apply what they call a Quality Score to your advertisements. A high quality score means your promotion will be seen by more people and will cost you less per clickthrough to your website. The quality score is (mostly) determined by Google evaluating how well the search term you’re buying matches the content on the destination you’re promoting. This is great news for you seeing as you’re now conducting great content marketing activities as well as developing those conversion-focused landing pages we described above! You’re going to outrank your competitors and satisfy your site visitors, by giving them the information they were so desperately searching for. Heck, they might even link to you on social media or from their own blogs/websites which will improve your SEO (among other things)
- Facebook & Twitter offer excellent advertising programs to help you build followers (rather than just promote individual destinations & conversions). Think of them as lead-generation campaigns.
- All of the aforementioned networks offer Retargeting Programs, which allow you to get in front of people who’ve already interacted with your institution online in some way. That means that they’ve already expressed interest! They’re further down the consideration funnel. Use retargeting to invite them to take the next, reasonable step in your conversion process (and sometimes that means, go back to the same webpage they visited and look at it again, more carefully).
The essential point here is that, there are ample advertising opportunities available to you and they’re not expensive. Sure, selecting the right budget for a multi-channel marketing mix in this universe of opportunity is not always easy, so try to develop a helpful benchmark to guide your spend. We like to start with the Cost-Per-Acquisition (CPA) of each qualified lead (or even each full conversion, i.e. enrollment). What’s a lead worth to you? Now work backwards and figure out what each micro-conversion (site visit, social media share, social media follow, newsletter signup, etc…) is worth to you. If you’re in digital communications and you’re having a hard time figuring out your budget, talk to the event folks down the hall and try to find out what an average trade-show engagement costs and then divide that by the number of qualified leads you typically get at a single event. That’s your benchmark Cost-Per-Lead (CPL).
Step 6 – Connect your real-world recruitment efforts
This one is kind of a no-brainer. You have to close the loop between your offline activities and online activities. Obviously, try to collect email signups at events, but moreover, promote those events using social media and advertising as described above. If you’re hosting an event or attending a trade show in a particular geographic are (especially a more remote one where there few events occur), make sure to promote pre-registration through social media and paid social media advertising.
If key classes in the programs you offer are open to all to audit, or even if you’ve got a special guest lecturer coming in for a talk, make sure you get that out to all the soft and hard you’ve acquired by now. And of course, make sure any signage or print collaterals you produce direct people back to the appropriate online destinations.
Step 7 – Measurement for Continuous Optimization
Learning is a life-long process right? Everything is a work-in-progress right? Well, the learnings you’re going to accrue in the course of your campaign should inform continuous improvement. Look at your analytics as objectively as you can, try to suppress the sunk cost fallacy instinct so you can pivot your strategy away from what isn’t working, and towards what it is. You’re going to discover that certain keywords, content pieces and targeting combinations drive more results than others (which is a good reason to launch with a broad but shallow mix of tactics at intially to see what sticks). You analytics and conversion metrics will allow you to continuously refine your marketing, resulting in lower-costs and better results. Because In Scientia Opportunitas.