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Marketing Higher Ed Requires a Higher Understanding

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When it comes to marketing higher education, many institutions are focused on telling prospects as much of the facts as possible, informing them on the history, the faculty, the programs, etc. But in order to develop messaging and content that will tap the right emotional levers to drive engagement and action, you need both an understanding of your audience needs as well as a clear and compelling articulation of why your brand should matter to them. These two pieces—audience insights and your brand’s foundational purpose—are critical to differentiating your higher ed institution amidst an increasingly crowded market.

Our VP of Agency Growth and Higher Education Practice Lead, Melissa Koehler, sat down recently to share some insights and strategies for higher ed marketing based on Forge’s deep experience in the industry.

Where’s a good place to start?

Any good marketing strategy starts with an understanding of your audience, mapping their journey towards a purchase decision, and understanding how to reach them with the right message at the right time along that journey. Higher education is a much more complex journey than many others because it is such a huge and meaningful life decision—and an expensive one. The stakes are very high. So, diving in and understanding your audience is a critical key first step in higher education marketing.

Forge has built a strong capability around research and strategy, but we approach it a bit differently than many others. Larger research initiatives like a brand study that may be done annually or every couple of years are certainly important. But what’s even more important is to look for opportunities to do research that provides a deeper understanding of your individual audiences on an ongoing basis. Especially when you are marketing so many different kinds of higher education programs. You need a deep understanding of the real drivers for those audiences, so that you can craft marketing messages that will resonate with them, in the channels where they are most receptive to consuming the information.

How important is customer experience to a prospective student?

Creating a strong and consistent experience of the brand is really important for keeping consumers engaged. Iconic brands like Apple and Uber provide a frictionless customer experience, which has set the bar incredibly high for consumer expectations. Consumers now expect any brand they interact with to be frictionless and easy to do business with. This area of customer experience and frictionless-ness is definitely an area where Higher Ed can look to improve and differentiate their brands. Some institutions are paving the way in this area by creating new roles focused on championing the overall customer experience across all brand touchpoints.

Ok, brand experience is important… what about lead generation?

It’s often challenging to convince leadership within higher education that there is a need for upper funnel marketing and branding, that it’s something worthy of investment and necessary to achieve enrollment goals. We need to first build trust in marketing through campaigns with more directly measurable return on investment.

Before we did a brand level awareness campaign for the Isenberg School of Management, we developed program-level marketing campaigns to drive leads at the bottom of the funnel. We could directly tie those efforts to generating revenue within those programs. Once we exhausted the pool of hand-raisers, we were able to convince leadership of the importance of adding an additional layer of awareness to fill the top of the funnel.

Where does social media come in?

88% of 18-to-29- year-olds use social media in some form. That number actually seems low to me; nearly everyone is on social media. So yes, it’s certainly important to leverage social channels. Not just in terms of social advertising / pushing out messages from the university, but also leveraging the stories of the students, student ambassadors, alumni stories. It has to be authentic. It has to be genuine. It has to come from people that the audience trusts.

We had great success with a campaign for Johnson & Wales University where we leveraged social media influencers on YouTube. We identified YouTube micro-celebrities that were familiar to the students in each of the four markets for JWU (Providence, RI, Charlotte, NC, Denver, CO, and North Miami, FL). We had them each come to campus and do a campus tour, a day in the life with a student, and create a video for their followers. It was incredible to see the recognition that the students who met the influencer on campus had. It certainly resonated with the audiences and gave JWU another channel through which to get in front of prospective students. You can read more about this campaign in our JWU case study.


What’s the Forge difference?

There’s a lot of organizational complexity and nuance within higher ed institutions. The importance of getting buy-in from key internal stakeholders can’t be understated. Working with an agency that has deep experience in working with higher ed clients will certainly help higher education brands be successful. It’s not just about, “here’s our process and here’s the way that we’re going to get it done.” It’s really about partnering and understanding the landscape of their business and the stakeholders within it. You have to be flexible, collaborative, and meet stakeholders where they are in order to successfully sell-in and execute a great marketing idea. Because a great idea won’t ever see the light of day if you don’t know how to navigate the internal hurdles to be able to sell it through. You have to incorporate the right people, at the right time, at the right stage in the process. Forge knows how to partner with our clients to get things done in higher ed.

Want to talk with Melissa about your higher education branding/marketing needs? Get in touch with her at [email protected].

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