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Universities are seeking unique strategies to increase their admission numbers--and digital marketing can help drive college enrollment

How to drive college enrollment through digital marketing

Universities are seeking unique strategies to increase their admission numbers--and digital marketing can help drive college enrollment

By Julie Warnecke, CEO, Found Search Marketing September 11th, 2023

Key points:

  • A downward trend in college enrollment means higher-ed marketing teams will have to get creative
  • Increasing digital marketing efforts with targeted campaigns may be key to ensuring reassuring enrollment numbers
  • See related article: When it comes to recruitment, websites are key

College enrollment has been trending downwards since 2020, with undergraduate enrollment 15 percent lower in the fall of 2021 than in the fall of 2010, and 42 percent of this decline occurring during the pandemic. After pandemic-driven declines began to level off last fall, overall undergraduate enrollment did remain stable this year at a 0.2 percent decrease from spring 2022 and is expected to increase by 9 percent between now and 2031. However, graduate-level enrollment continues to decline, with spring 2023 experiencing a 2.2 percent decrease in enrollment compared to 2022.

Additionally, total postsecondary enrollment remains well below pre-pandemic levels, down about 1.09 million students overall and about 1.16 million undergraduates, compared to spring 2020. As a result, universities are seeking unique strategies to increase their admission numbers.

Many colleges have found it beneficial to increase digital marketing efforts during this time, including paid search and paid social, to effectively target the specific audiences they need to reach. With the rise of social media and data-driven targeting in advertising, institutions can successfully reach and engage with college-bound students.

Strategies to increase leads, generate applications, and close the college enrollment gap

1. Capture demand through paid search

Paid search will present the highest ROI when it comes to institutions’ ability to reach a broader audience and drive more qualified leads to their website or enrollment landing page. Paid search platforms allow colleges to target specific demographics, locations, interests, and keywords. By selecting the most relevant keywords, universities can get their message in front of prospective students actively seeking information about educational opportunities and capture high-quality leads for their enrollment teams to explore. 

2. Take a “mobile first” approach

Mobile devices are the most common way prospective students seek information about everything in their lives, including searching for information on educational opportunities. With U.S. teens now spending over seven hours a day on their phones, it’s critical that all components of a mobile campaign translate well on these devices. This includes mobile-friendly landing pages that are designed with a focus on taking the desired action as well as paid ad campaigns written and designed with mobile in mind. Designing everything with a mobile first mindset will help create a more seamless user experience and set your school up for success in the long run.

3. Develop a test-and-learn process

Universities and their marketing teams must continuously test different ad creatives, headlines, and call to actions to determine what resonates best with college-seeking students. Platforms like Google and Facebook provide instant feedback on the campaign’s performance and whether or not it’s resonating.

Take advantage of reporting provided by Google and Facebook, such as click-through-rate (CTR) and cost-per-lead (CPL), to determine where optimization techniques might be needed to improve performance. These metrics can help determine if a message is resonating with your audience and which campaigns are providing high quality leads. Applying an ongoing test-and-learn approach to your digital marketing campaigns can provide quick learnings, allowing you to generate more quality leads at a lower cost.

4. Establish unified marketing

Successful institutions have their in-house marketing, agency and enrollment teams working closely together. For example, the enrollment team may have downstream data useful to the marketing and agency team to tie back into paid search or social campaigns. Depending on each college’s specific strategy, there are benefits to using search, social or even a combination.

For instance, many universities may jump at the opportunity to be on TikTok because it’s the platform where Gen Z spends the most time; however, marketers may obtain mixed results when it comes to generating leads. While TikTok shouldn’t be your main focus for lead generation, it could still be a great way to create awareness with your target audience and deserves a place in your media mix.

Important KPIs

As colleges track leads and success from their digital work, they need to consider how users interact with the interface of the landing page. For example, if the user clicked on the website, how long did they stay on the page? Did they take the desired action on the page? Where in the enrollment process are leads dropping off? Key metrics such as CTR, CPL, cost per application (CPA), cost per enrollment (CPE) and return on ad spend (ROAS) should also be consistently measured throughout the campaign. As marketing teams evaluate their CPL by program, it’s important to understand if it was a high-quality lead generated, as well as which platforms are driving the most number of qualified leads.

Another important component for generating high quality leads is utilizing first-party and CRM (customer relationship management) data. Building custom audiences from CRM data within the organization is a great way for colleges to find prospective students that “look like” existing students. Leveraging first-party data can be a powerful tool to re-engage with potential students, generate additional leads through similar audiences, and ultimately help close the enrollment gap.

Achieving the greatest ROI

Many universities work with multiple agencies, including creative, branding, digital or display-specific agencies. While each partner plays a critical role in the marketing process, working with multiple agencies can make aligning efforts to create a consistent experience across all channels quite challenging. All college enrollment or lead generation campaigns need to be coordinated across the school’s marketing funnel to ensure messaging and brand elements are consistent across all marketing campaigns to achieve the greatest ROI.

University marketing teams must also find alignment on key KPIs and share them with all relevant stakeholders and agencies to accurately determine the campaign’s success. For example, ensuring marketing partners have key dates such as enrollment deadlines and class start dates is essential. This will allow campaigns to launch in time to capture enough leads required to meet college enrollment goals.

Related: 4 things to track in the looming higher-ed enrollment cliff

About the Author:

Julie Warnecke is the Founder and CEO of Found Search Marketing (, an agency specializing in direct-response digital campaign management. Before creating FoundSM, Julie was the fourth employee at Google on the AdWords Ad Operations team from 2001-2006. During her tenure, Julie worked on initiatives such as launching AdWords Select, a new CPC platform that changed the digital landscape forever, and the industry-changing AOL syndication deal, which helped to assist an advertiser support infrastructure.

In 2006, Julie’s passion for helping businesses grow through data-driven and results-oriented advertising sparked a new venture, and she opened Found Search Marketing. With a client retention rate of 95% year after year, Julie and her team at FoundSM have mastered the formula to continuously deliver outstanding results for clients.

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