Sept. 3, 2020
1 year ago

Hot Topics in Higher Education

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Over the past several months, our team has been asked many questions related to marketing, content development, digital execution, lead generation, name availability, and the impact of COVID-19 on everything we do in higher education. We wanted to take some of the most common and pressing questions and ask our internal experts to chime in with their best advice.

This week's questions:

  • How do I get my enrollment creative and comm-flow planning back on track after investing so much of our resources on COVID-19-related efforts and fall 2020 enrollment?
  • How can research and data drive my creative and content decisions?
  • My creative feels somewhat generic and typical, but I don't have the time or budget for a full brand study. How can I do a refresh that makes an impact?
  • Based on lower name purchase availability, I need my Student Search to be more effective now than ever. What can I do to connect better with this limited audience?

Our panel of experts include:

For this installment of expert advice, we’ve focused on content, creative, and the importance of data. 

Question 1: How do I get my enrollment creative and comm-flow planning back on track after investing so much of our resources on COVID-19-related efforts and fall 2020 enrollment?

Ben: It was likely a team effort to manage all of the multifaceted implications of COVID-19 for your campus. Think back (or just look at your current week!) on the countless meetings designed for leaders to imagine scenarios and then develop clear and compelling messaging toward communicating plans to accommodate students amid the pandemic. Transfer those cross-divisional and focused energies toward the incoming class(es) with robust and segmented messaging that’s viewed as seriously as the prevention of the virus. The life of the institution depends on the ongoing recruitment of new students, and that process is largely driven by a relationship through high-quality, comprehensive, multichanneled, and personalized communication.

Kelsey: Leverage the internal resources that you do have. Perform your own “audit” of the outreach done over the last year and ask yourself: Is this segmented enough (personal outreach to parents? Segmented by academic interest? Segmented by geographic location and age? Many schools are starting their outreach as early as freshman year of high school—if you're starting your outgoing communication junior or senior year, you're already behind the eight ball and potentially have already lost them as prospective students!). A few questions to ask yourself and your team:

  • Does your institution provide summer programming during a normal year? Either for middle schoolers or young high schoolers? If you don't have planned outreach to those families after they’ve been on your campus, that’s a huge opportunity that you've missed. Email the parents of those students to show interest back and that you haven't forgotten about their son or daughter's aspirations. 
  • How old are the images used in your creative? Update images so you're showcasing current students doing real things on campus. High school students can see right through stock images—you want to show them what type of experience they'll have if they choose you.
  • Can your current CRM perform a drip campaign? It can make ite 10 times easier to complete a complex communication plan. If it can’t, this is where you need to attain internal support and budget. 

Bethany: Consider what elements of your enrollment creative can be digitized. Multiple email touchpoints accompanied by digital ads and landing pages can be a strategic and targeted way to reach students without the costs and manpower that go into print marketing. Overlay this with a focused and personified campaign theme to create a message that stands out among competitor messaging and connects more powerfully with students.

Question 2: How can research and data drive my creative and content decisions?

Jared: Research can contribute to creative and content both prior to development and once a campaign is ready. For the former, setting up strong audience research allows an understanding of what types of content and creative will land with the people who matter most to your message. In the case of students, understanding their needs, institutional selection criteria, and personality can help formulate solid and segmented strategies. Once content is developed, testing it with a small sample of the target audience prior to going to market will help make sure nothing is lost in translation and that the content developed is acceptable and well liked. This is also a great way to decide between two or three options based on the prospective impact it would have on those you’re trying to connect with.

Ben: Leveraging all the internal data available to you through the CRM is a great place to start. Evaluate source attribution through UTM, aggregate Ping data to discover URL time duration and page counts, consider engagement rates through campaign results (digital, email, CTAs), and carefully measure conversions. From there, external studies will only bolster these efforts. Understanding market position by conducting competitive audits, market perception studies, and program demand is a primary way to demonstrate value and relevance at the same time.

Bethany: When you’ve done the competitive research and perception studies to understand what your competitors are communicating to the market and what the market thinks about you, you can proceed to strategically shape your communications to tell a more authentic and powerful story that, over time, strengthens brand recognition and increases engagement. By knowing what your market thinks of you, you can proactively work to combat any negative perceptions and deepen your story where perception aligns with what’s true and positive. For example, we helped one client combat a negative market perception of being “Exclusive,” “Aloof,” and “Ordinary” by telling stories of the school's bold collaboration with students and community and by presenting the school’s experience as highly invitational, beckoning students into an education that inspires possibility, wonder, and endless discovery in the world.

Question 3: My creative feels somewhat generic and typical, but I don't have the time or budget for a full brand study. How can I do a refresh that makes an impact?

Dave: First, assess. Consider your audiences and what messages may best connect with them through any means at your disposal. This assessment may include hard data such as open rates and click-through rates on emails, time on page in Google Analytics for your landing pages and main website, social engagement indicators as well as qualitative data from focus groups, and learnings gleaned from surveys. Whatever you have or can generate, learn from it. 

Next, segment. Based on your assessment, break your audience into appropriate messaging segments. In the absence of the aforementioned data, minimally segment your audience based on demographics and demonstrated interest. Ideally, if you know anything about your audience's personalities and motivations, segment on that psychometric data. 

Finally, collaborate. Invite campus partners who know your audience segments well to your creative planning sessions to assist in ideation. Connect creative output to the institution’s overall brand narrative for consistency. Ensure that designers, writers, photographers, and asset managers are collaborating rather than working in silos to position for the best possible creative outcomes.

Eric: One great way to set your creative apart is to consider it within the context of your competition. To do that, gather materials from a dozen or so competitors and build an aggregate picture of the messages they’re sending to the market. What are they saying? How are they saying it? What type of imagery are they using? What type of design? Then find a way to make your creative different and exciting. Find a tone that’s distinct among that group. Challenge yourself to push the limits of writing, photography, and design in ways that will stand out in that competitive set. 

Jorie: Let us produce a campaign theme for you! In three weeks, you could have a refreshed verbal and visual aesthetic to grab your audience's attention and re-engage those who might have passed you by earlier. Or, if you have just a bit more time (nine or 10 weeks), we can gain directional data from surveying internal stakeholders about your authentic personality and produce campaign concepts that align. This work also provides a great foundation for a full brand study later on when you might have more time and budget.

Ben: Segment, segment, segment. You need to know your audience and what to say to them in ways that are differentiated based on interests, familiarity, and affinity. This doesn't require a total collateral overhaul, but it does require hard work and investment to craft unique messaging to those populations based on their motivations and attractants. The more carefully segmented and tailored the messages are, the greater likelihood of engagement.

Question 4: Based on lower name purchase availability, I need my Student Search to be more effective now than ever. What can I do to connect better with this limited audience?

Alexa: In absence of lists to purchase, having a solid Search Engine Marketing plan in place should be on the top of your must-do list. This should include both a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) plan as well as a Pay Per Click (PPC) strategy to ensure your institution and program offerings will appear at the top whenever students are actively searching. Don’t forget to layer in Remarketing Lists for Search Ads (RLSA)— Google’s Retargeting for PPC campaigns—to target past visitors of your site, and always include site extension links in your ads. New to Google (coming soon out of beta) are Lead Form Extensions, which will allow prospects to submit inquiries via in-line submission forms vs. navigating to a landing page. We are currently testing this with our whitelisted clients, but this feature should be available to all soon. In the meantime, continue to use campaign-specific landing pages to capture your leads. This is a must in order to capture those badly needed names and to build your pipeline today.

Ben: Remember that your inquiries were always likely to have been the most engaged audience to begin with. Gone are the days of high-volume, front-end funnel prospect list purchases. The predictive value of the large-scale conversions has deteriorated for several reasons (commoditization through lack of differentiation, too much noise through the search machine that students tend to mock). Most importantly is the shift toward an ecosystem mentality. There are so many ports through which students can engage, and thus investing in these efforts (CRM portals, SMS functionality, digital efforts, campaign development) have emerged as potent offsets to the "traditional" search methods.

Kevin: With lower name purchases available for the coming recruitment cycle, schools will need to find alternate options for filling their prospect pools. CollegeXpress is a trusted lead generation option that can help schools find students based on academic achievement, geographic area, intended major, and many more parameters. Another great option is using the power of digital marketing to zero in on these same students and parents to help not only gain brand exposure but also lead generation through the many digital strategies that are available.  

Gary: The first thing you have to do is actually figure out who your audience is. Start by looking at your past few years of enrolled students; look for common traits within those enrolled classes by adding Darts (Carnegie Dartlet psychographic profiles). Darts are based on what we know about your past enrolled classes and the research we do to figure out your brand. This way, we can match your brand to the correct psychographic profile and reach your target audience(s) using digital outreach with pinpoint accuracy, increasing the return of your outreach.

Dave: Combine a layered channel strategy, coordinating email, mailed collateral, 1:1 outreach and recruitment efforts, digital marketing, and landing pages into a cohesive, strategic communications plan. Utilize audience data at your disposal (everything from demographic to psychometric) to build lookalike audiences within your social channels. 

We hope you enjoyed our first Higher Ed Hot Topics Q&A! Have more questions you want our experts to answer? Want to connect with them to chat through ideas? Let us know.

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