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3 Key Considerations for Higher Education Marketing in 2021

Read Time: 4 Minutes

By Luke DeMarco, Education Lead

The dust has settled, and the fall semester is over. With education being one of the most affected industries since the start of COVID-19 lockdowns, academic institutions have been placed in a compromised position. With classes going from mainly in-person to completely virtual, not only did colleges around the United States have to completely readjust their entire approach to education, they also needed to heavily focus on the enrollment process.

With national unemployment reaching as high as 14.7% in 2020, Americans have become more conscious about their spending habits and their life decisions than ever before – and this includes prospective college students. Higher education marketers need to be prepared for a competitive and uncertain year ahead, and these three key considerations will inform the strategies that can help schools excel in 2021.

Students Can See Through The Gimmicks

The veil has been lifted for Gen Z students when it comes to many aspects of life. Born between the years 1996-2015, Gen Z has experienced many significant changes in history and society. Usually considered the first generation to be born into a fully technological world, Gen Z has been exposed/immersed in social media and the internet as a whole for their entire lives. This generation has lived and is continuing to live through an existential threat, and with the emergence of COVID-19 and its many socioeconomic, political, and racial implications comes a very socially and politically aware generation of young adults.

With this heightened consciousness and exposure to social movements across social media and TV, the vast majority of the Gen Z population see through the gimmicks portrayed in both politics and business. This trickles down to marketers within academia, whose role is to encourage prospective students to explore their school/program and eventually apply.

Digital marketing teams within academic institutions not only need to make sure that their creatives and other marketing assets are strongly aligned with the students they are targeting; they must also be genuine and authentic in their message. While some Gen Z students may find their way into your application pool based on gimmicky marketing messages, they will be far less likely to stay enrolled in a school, which lowers the lifetime value of these prospects and the overall performance of the school/program’s marketing efforts.

Personas & Storytelling Resonate More With Students

Since Gen Z students have a higher level of awareness towards marketing than previous generations. These students connect more with messages that feel authentic and resonate with them. Two ways academic institutions have found success in their efforts is by creating personas for their campaigns and incorporating storytelling. Personas are defined as a fictional representation of the ideal customer/lead/student. This persona is developed through comprehensive research into a brand’s target audience interests and inclinations.

Storytelling helps prospective students envision themselves experiencing life at the advertiser’s institution: walking through the campus, sitting in a class, doing extracurricular activities with friends, overcoming the academic rigor of college, and more. Essentially, the goal of using storytelling is to introduce a prospective student to a university and make them familiar with how life would be attending it. This is especially salient as Jennifer Aaker, Professor of Marketing at Stanford University, asserted that “stories are remembered up to 22 times more than facts alone.

Academic institutions can leverage these strategies by creating a set of personas that accurately define each archetype of student that enrolls within a university (high school graduate, transfer student, international, etc.) and create a story that strongly captures each persona’s situation and ambitions/goals for attending school. Through this method, schools such as the University of Arizona were able to see success throughout 2020 during lockdowns by always marketing with conviction.

Optimize Every Stage Of Enrollment & Get Creative!

Every school has an application and enrollment process. While the marketing strategy and rollout may vary, marketers must have a comprehensive understanding of each stage in their own processes. COVID-19 lockdowns have forced schools to become very calculated with their budgets and risk, and marketing is no exception.

With the college application process being more competitive than ever, colleges and universities are beginning to look at their offerings at every stage of the application process to see where they can optimize their success, and with what message/collateral. Across every paid media channel, cost-per-click (CPC) is increasing further and further as remote instruction has suddenly dominated the educational landscape.

Additionally, schools that came up with creative solutions and took calculated risks saw the most success relative to their competitors in the same paid media channels. The rationale behind this approach was that if paid media costs are going to dramatically increase, then these schools needed to maximize their ad budgets by making sure that every step of their enrollment process was optimized and differentiated. Therefore, students would be able to strongly identify the school, as well as become eager and decisive about their application/enrollment process with that school.

2020 was a tumultuous year in higher education, and 2021 will start that way as well. However, there are key considerations and strategies to help marketers make the most of their efforts, succeed among the competition, and provide the best educational experience for students.