3 smart marketing strategies to boost student engagement and retention
co-founder and chief operations officer, senior consultant and partner, Circa Interactive, Bluestocking Education
Follow these strategies to engage today's tech-savvy, mission-focused target audience
There’s a problem that every institution faces, no matter its level of size or ranking: keeping students engaged, excited, and, most importantly, enrolled.
As increasing competition crowds the higher education marketplace, two questions continue to plague enrollment management personnel: How do we capture the attention of our target audience, and how do we keep prospective students engaged throughout the admission and enrollment process?
These questions are something that all institutions must consider, especially in today’s rapidly changing academic landscape. Many institutions also face the same challenges when responding to these questions: decreasing budgets and a lack of internal resources.
There’s no doubt that these challenges are frustrating, but there are strategies you can implement today to start making an impact. Through years of experience working with a broad spectrum of degree programs, we’ve identified three scalable strategies that boost engagement and keep admitted students excited about their education.
1. Define your story and find unique ways to share it
One of the most critical components of your marketing strategy is defining your story and finding unique ways to share it. That doesn’t mean spewing facts about the institution’s long history on your Facebook page. It means effectively communicating the institution’s mission, vision, and culture in a way that connects with both prospective and current students. Is your institution working toward social change? Does it have a strong foundation in researching cures for currently incurable diseases? Institutions can tap these powerful, mission-driven sentiments to energize a prospective student’s true motivations and foster engagement.
Past generations used to be lured by an institution’s status and history, but the tides are turning. Big promises and generic advertising no longer motivate mission-driven consumers. Most traditional enrollment marketing efforts are no longer effective, and simply being on social media won’t provide you the results you seek.
Just as consumers are shifting toward companies that stand for something, prospective and current students want to know their institutions are socially minded and working toward making the world a better place. Younger generations, especially millennials, are turning to degree programs and institutions that are authentic and purposeful. We’re increasingly seeing this shift in demand, no matter the size or rank of the institution or degree.
How do you apply mission-based marketing into higher ed marketing and admissions? By turning your email nurture campaigns into powerful storytelling platforms. Email nurture campaigns are nothing new, but most institutions’ campaigns miss a valuable opportunity to interact with and engage prospective students by sharing the institution’s mission and culture through the work it is doing.
Many times, after students are admitted, email becomes a means to communicate dates, contacts, and other transactional information messages. These details are important, but they overlook the opportunity to continue telling your institution’s story and get prospects excited about your mission and their futures. Keeping the nurture campaigns going through the life of the student is a meaningful way to keep students engaged and make them feel a part of the institutional community.
One way to share your message is through faculty profile pieces. Arizona State University provides a great example of this. It publishes engaging profiles on all incoming faculty members. The profiles connect students to new faculty and get students thinking about what their own educational futures hold.
Whatever your organization’s story is, find it, and broadcast it far and wide.
2. Leverage the power of automation
“Defining my story? Writing faculty profiles?” These initiatives may seem like a lot of work, but they don’t have to be. When spreading your story and engaging students, leverage the power of automation. Many institutions are not incorporating automation into their marketing strategies, putting them at a disadvantage.
Technology has made society less patient, and that applies to prospective students as well. Speed to lead, or prioritizing quick contact with new prospects, isn’t just for retail businesses; it is also an important higher ed enrollment tactic. Prospective students want all the information at their fingertips, and if they have questions, they don’t want to wait for answers.
How quickly are you able to answer prospective students’ inquiries about the institution and specific programs? If you don’t provide answers almost instantaneously, you could be losing out on high-quality candidates who make fast-paced decisions. Using Facebook chatbots or other automated technologies to respond instantly to prospective students’ questions and to nurture leads before they explore your competition is important to keeping them engaged during the recruiting process.
Is your institution relying heavily on making outbound phone calls for marketing? This approach simply isn’t effective anymore. Prospective students aren’t picking up the phone. In fact, the majority of homes in the United States no longer have landlines. Even if you can get cell phone numbers, the chances that prospects will answer a call from an unknown caller are low. Prospective students have migrated to the digital landscape, and employing automation and other alternative communication methods can help give you a competitive advantage. It’ll also save your department on overhead costs, and you can better use those funds elsewhere.
Be sure that you are approaching students in the right way. With the changing demographics in higher education institutions, it’s important to adapt. Enrollment and engagement marketing strategies that used to work, such as making dozens of daily phone calls to prospective students, just won’t yield results in today’s tech-savvy climate.
3. Build credibility and increase visibility through digital public relations (PR)
One of your strongest—and least expensive—marketing tools is your PR. Using digital media to produce your PR is equally important. By leveraging PR in your digital marketing efforts, you can build credibility and increase visibility for a fraction of the cost. What’s most exciting about digital PR is you’ll also build highly valuable backlinks, which will increase your search engine visibility on Google and other major search engines. This will enable you to generate high-quality website traffic and do so cost-effectively.
The good news is that you don’t have to rely on media outlets in order to facilitate a successful digital PR campaign. A great digital PR campaign is as simple as getting your faculty members involved. After all, their efforts form the foundation of the product that students are buying. Involve the faculty in every step of your marketing efforts, particularly in the early stages. This not only allows students to take a peek into the minds of faculty members, but it also puts faces to your expertise areas and adds a personal touch.
When Tulane University recently launched its online Master of Social Work (MSW), we involved the dean and key faculty members in the brand positioning exercises, as well as our initial outreach campaigns. In doing so, we were able to more effectively tell the story of the program, understand how to position it in a highly competitive online MSW market, and leverage the expertise of the MSW program’s world-renowned faculty in order to help the program increase its search engine visibility and generate national brand exposure.
Faculty involvement shouldn’t stop after a student enrolls. Your faculty is the lifeblood of your institution, and you need to continuously highlight its successes. Sharing faculty achievements with prospective students helps build credibility, and sharing them with current students provides an additional touch point to build relationships.
It’s important to remember that prospective students, and consumers in general, are exposed to thousands of advertising messages per day, so to stand out, institutions must think like any other major brand vying for a target audience’s attention. Today’s consumers are buying stories, not products. By sharing faculty success stories with your prospective and matriculated students, you are deepening the relationship and fostering a sense of loyalty that can lead to increased engagement and retention rates.
Shrinking budgets, increasing competition, and enrollment and retention challenges are nothing new in higher ed—and they are certainly not going away. What are you doing to address these issues? Bringing your marketing strategies up to speed to accommodate a tech-savvy, mission-focused target audience is one way to start.