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How Colleges and Universities Can Recruit Students in a Digital-First World
Mar 08, 2021 • 5 Minute Read
Many higher ed institutions were left wondering how to connect with prospective students and parents after in-person channels became limited in 2020. And the selling points of stately campus grounds, plush dormitories, enticing meal plans, in-person events, and physical classrooms reflected different values once the cultural norm shifted. People still needed degrees, but the traditional reasons students picked your college or university may have changed - especially as to how they'll find and select a school. While in-person events have since gotten their groove back, new doors opened for alternative ways to connect, inform, and recruit higher ed audiences virtually.
In this article, we share how to pivot your marketing initiatives in a more digital-first world, why revamping your website is a must and ways to win on the SEO battlefield.
Shifting Your Higher Ed Marketing Strategy
College recruiters have typically depended on in-person events to recruit students, which may have included recruiting events at high schools, campus tours, and in-person interviews as part of the application process. By now, however, many colleges and universities have realized the value of digital marketing tactics in recruiting students.
In April 2023, we conducted a proprietary study in collaboration with Vanson Bourne, engaging 300 prominent marketing and technology leaders. The primary objective was to delve into the advantages of an optimized digital customer experience (DCX). When marketing and IT leaders in higher ed specifically were asked about the top benefits of an optimized DCX, 52% saw benefits in "increased revenue or conversions" 48% in "improved customer satisfaction", 40% in "increased customer acquisition," and 40% in "revenue from new channels".
Reaching prospective students today means expanding your channels and meeting the younger generation where they are. With 50% of Gen Z using social media over search engines, and 46% using search engines to research and evaluate brands, find pricing, and make decisions on products, this behavior's bound to creep into how they research where they might go to school. Since both networks are strong forces in students' daily lives, taking advantage of social and search engines' utility for marketing can take you leaps and bounds beyond traditional advertising and in-person events.
Let's face it, Gen Z's devices are glued to their hands. Now, college recruitment is more digital than ever and, as a result, college marketing budgets should reflect this reality.
3 Ways to Adjust Your Marketing Strategy
Evaluate Your Digital Marketing Budget
Higher education institutions have mastered the in-person channel. Translating your existing marketing budget from in-person experiences to digital may not yield the same results. Unfortunately, traditional college ads run the risk of getting lost among breaking news updates, discount furniture promotions, and other trending ads. To maximize impact, consider reallocating your marketing budget towards other areas. You can use data-driven insights to adjust your spending accordingly. Analyze your campaign data to stay visible in a crowded market and stand out from competitors.
Go Where the Students Are and Talk Like the Students Talk
Go beyond emails and banner ads (which may target students’ parents) to target students themselves. You’ll find a large proportion of your potential student body on platforms like Instagram or Twitter, but Facebook might be a dead end—only 32% of teens ever used Facebook in 2022, down 39 points from six to seven years prior. Meanwhile, TikTok has been explosive among Gen Z users, which means college marketers urgently need to capitalize on its growth. To effectively utilize different social media platforms, tailor your message and create unique content for each one.
Create Engaging Virtual Experiences
Focus your marketing strategy on enhancing your online presence to attract potential students. Look at your website and events to ensure they're professional and cohesive. First and foremost, your college website should be the centerpiece of your digital strategy. It's your digital front door that determines whether a visitor finds you credible. Your site should include high-quality content and user experiences that are engaging and accessible to attract all walks of life. Second, when hosting a digital recruiting event, the software needs to be accessible, and the presentation needs to be polished. If you want students to visit your website, it should meet modern standards.
Revamping the University Website
Your school's website is the main avenue for prospective students to learn about your institution. It's crucial for universities to prioritize making swift digital enhancements to their website to ensure effective recruitment and engagement.
Over 40% of all web traffic now comes from mobile devices. If your college website isn't mobile-optimized, it should be. Mobile-optimized presents a more user-friendly experience for prospective students and can positively affect your Google search rankings. Even if a student’s college search starts with a phrase as simple as “colleges near me,” you want your institution to show up on the first results page.
Digital natives expect intuitive digital experiences that require an optimized website. For example, your prospects might want to look at your campus map, the list of majors you offer, and how to apply. If your website doesn’t make it easy for visitors to look at those topics directly from your homepage, they might become frustrated and bounce. Generally, it should take three clicks or less from your homepage to get to the most relevant features or topics visitors are looking for.
Simple Ways to Boost Traffic and Conversions
Revamping your website and designing marketing campaigns for new social media channels can be long-term projects, but you need to start converting prospective students now. What are the best ways to start building momentum?
To make progress, start by creating a plan for search engine optimization (SEO). Even small colleges and universities can garner organic search traffic in significant volumes, and capitalizing on an SEO strategy is a great way to generate more awareness.
The first step for college marketers is to understand which pages rank highest and which keywords you’re already ranking for. The next step is understanding why your students flock to these pages and keywords. Do they refer to courses they’re interested in? Scholarships and student aid programs? Acceptance rates?
If you’re not currently ranking for your desired keywords, then you may need to take a step back for reconnaissance. Understand the customer journey within your institution. What's your school known for compared to other colleges and their ranking? This exercise may require a little soul-searching.
Lastly, you need to own a strategic and effective content marketing plan. Optimize existing landing pages and white papers to include strategic keywords. By doing this, you’ll be able to score some quick wins and build your pipeline of potential applicants.
Deliver Optimized Higher Ed Digital Experiences
If you're looking to enhance your digital strategy but don't know where to begin, or want to improve some of the aspects mentioned in this article, send us a note. We can provide our expertise in higher education to help your college or university boost conversions and surpass digital standards by optimizing your website for usability, increasing your visibility, and attracting more prospects. Together, we can ensure a meaningful journey for all your prospective and enrolled students.