3 Steps to a Successful Higher Ed Inbound Marketing Strategy
Colleges and universities are embarking on a critical time of year to boost awareness and applications for undergraduate and graduate degrees alike. It’s time to ask yourself if your institution’s content is fresh and accurately reflecting and responding to exactly what your target audience is after. To help you in that assessment, we compiled a few tips to ensure you are working toward a successful inbound marketing plan.
Before we get started, let’s cover what inbound marketing is: essentially it’s about creating content that attracts your audience to your website and speaks to them in an uninterrupted way. The goal is to motivate users to seek you out, as opposed to you finding them. While inbound marketing complements paid and direct marketing strategies well, it warrants its own strategic plan. Here’s how to get started on yours:
1. Analyze data to understand your audience and the content that engages them
Before you drum up various pieces of content for different channels, it is critical to understand exactly who your prospective students are, the purpose for them (or their parents!) being on your website or social media platform, and what will entice them to seek you out. This is when data and analytics are key for identifying your target audience. Get started by working toward creating an audience persona in the following ways:
- Mine your admission enrollment data and CRM for demographics and stats like household income and various interactions like inquiries, visits, webinars, application starts, and class registration to understand commonalities in enrolled or unenrolled students at specific junctures of their journey.
- Analyze trends in your website’s Analytics and Google Search Console reports for online behavioral interests and insights, keywords, and sources of traffic to glean insights on who they are, where they come from, and what keywords drove them there.
- Holistically view your paid campaign report results to see which tactics, creative, and landing pages drove highest levels of engagement, conversions, and more. Consider the insights on not just those who converted, but those who didn’t as well!
- Monitor social media reviews to inform you and stakeholders on what your personas are saying about your school to identify trends that will help you establish who they are, their opinion, and what they are after.
After you’ve mined this data to help shape your target audience persona, you can establish KPIs (key performance indicators) that are on point with realistic actions for your target audience, the channels they are on, and enrollment cycle. Then you can create content that will be most interesting or helpful to them at this juncture of their college search journey. Remember, the content should be positioned as valuable to the reader. The key part of the inbound concept is to provide knowledge to the reader first, then earn the credibility needed to drive users to seek you out and convert when they are ready.
For example, if your goal is to boost transfer events, and you determine transfer students engage most on your website with content focused on student testimonials or experience-related pages, generate blog content that can continue to provide that type of information to potential transfer students. Post the content on your site, and share on relevant social media channels. Set a KPI to measure its effectiveness; in this case it might be anything from a blog subscription or a transfer event registration. A KPI is all about setting up a point of measurement to improve upon and to ensure your content is in line with the goal, as well as what the audience is after.
2. Optimize that content and user experience on your website
An institution’s website is the most valuable marketing asset—it’s where students, parents, and alumni alike are all going to consume information and to take action. This is when it’s vital to optimize your website for greatest visibility from search engines. From information architecture and navigation to site speed and keyword optimization, the health of your website determines whether or not you are present at the exact moment when students seek you out on a search engine. And it doesn’t end there. A positive user experience ensures prospective students get what they want once they’ve arrived and have a pleasant experience once they are there.
In using the transfer blog example above, if your website’s SEO is in optimal shape, the likelihood of your target audience finding that content is greater. And if the user experience on the site is a positive one, including an easy ability to learn more about transfer options, sign up for a transfer event, or subscribe to that blog, the greater the odds are of those KPIs being met.
Consider personalizing your website content as an effective way to reach your audience and influence their experience. There are tools available that allow you to serve specific messages to certain users or personas based on past activity they’ve had on your website or based or how they arrived there. If an audience segment indicates a certain level of intent, personalized content can be used to nurture those audiences to more desired and sought-after content on your website, providing them with a more relevant experience and removing barriers to conversion. For example, with the transfer blog example, if you know a user has arrived on your website and has also engaged with your transfer blog recently, it might be advantageous to serve custom messaging to that user once they get to the homepage of your website, highlighting an upcoming transfer information session. It’s a streamlined call-to-action this user might not otherwise learn about, right from the homepage of your website.
3. Use social media to promote that content beyond search engines
Similar to how a website must be optimized for the greatest visibility and user experience in order to drive success, social media must be optimized as well. Social media properties like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are becoming search engines in and of themselves. With content at the forefront of inbound marketing, social media helps promote it. As you deploy content on your social media channels, consider the following ways to optimize that content:
- Improve search visibility with keyword-rich content: Ensuring the relevant keywords are weaved into your desired content prospects are seeking is the single most critical element in controlling whether the content appears in search. For example, if out-of-state freshman prospects tend to go to your YouTube channel after searching for things like housing and virtual tours, it would be advantageous to generate dorm-life or other campus-related content, focusing on responding to what they are seeking. You’ll want to include those keywords in the titles, descriptions, and scripting of the content too and ensure it lives on both YouTube and your website.
- Ensure social content is accessible: Accessibility of your social properties includes ADA compliance. For example, images and videos all need proper meta titles and descriptions and alt tags to boost the chances of appearing when students are searching for relevant information.
- Continuity and governance between one property to another: For many institutions, optimizing social properties can be a battle. With so many accounts within various areas of the school, having a clear vision of who should maintain what is challenging. This results in a divide of those search results, and an unfriendly user experience if they are confused on which account to go to. Work with someone who can help consult on governance and management of your accounts, which will inevitably benefit the institution as a whole when executed properly.
- Strategic schedule of communication: A communication flow is key to ensuring everyone is on the same marketing deployment schedule in order to boost content across various channels when it makes the most sense to do so. You will also want to ensure you’re linking properly within your accounts, and to external sites, for the most authority and visibility.
- Tracking and data-driven optimization: Don’t forget to track your social posts every step of the way. There are social media monitoring tools that provide you an outlet to listen to what is being shared the most and what is resonating on social media. This will in turn guide you to an improved audience persona and content that people actually want to read.
There is no magic formula or one-size-fits-all for setting up an effective inbound strategy. It’s heavily driven by your institution's unique goals, target audience, and what it is about your school that piques their interest at a given time. And that’s why a data-driven approach to establishing a persona, generating meaningful content, and optimizing your website and social media channels to deploy content are powerful starting points to an effective inbound marketing strategy.
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