Facing heated competition and a shrinking pool of potential students, higher education institutions are differentiating themselves by crafting compelling educational offerings and investing in marketing to attract the latest generation of college students. To reach the greatest number of potential students, institutions should ensure that they are maximizing their owned media—particularly their websites.
A college or university’s website represents the primary mode of digital communication with potential applicants; approximately 80% of high school juniors and seniors rank an institution’s website as the most influential resource when researching schools. These students seek out institutions’ websites for information on their academic offerings and rankings, cost of enrollment and scholarship opportunities, and resources on enrollment and the application process. It is crucial for schools to understand the information prospective students value most highly and clearly promote it on their websites. If students cannot find the cost of college or detailed information on offerings, for example, they may leave the website prematurely and end their consideration of the school.
To maximize their web presence and attract potential students, institutions should create content for each stage of the application cycle, demonstrate their value on each page of their websites, optimize their sites for mobile use, and incorporate search engine optimization (SEO) tactics to improve their rankings in search engines. By following these tips, schools can improve prospective student engagement with their institution by driving organic traffic to the content prospective students value most and connecting prospective students with content that will encourage them to stay, learn more, and hopefully apply.
Create Content for Each Stage of the Application Cycle
A student’s use of an institution’s website shifts throughout the application process. The student journey to search for and apply to a school can be broken down into three phases: researching and applying, making decisions, and committing.
In the “researching and applying” stage, students are seeking broader information about the school, such as its academic and institutional rankings, statistics on career/graduate school outcomes, and pictures of campus; marketers can create videos about their academic programs and post-graduation outcomes. Prospective students are also drawn to images of a campus more so than to photos of current students; marketers should ensure that their homepages and admissions pages include attractive images of campus.
In the “making decisions” phase, students are seeking a more in-depth look at life on campus, like school news and events, major/program rankings, and profiles of professors. Students are seeking information on what the academic offerings, student life, and professors are like, making it important to list this information prominently on new student pages. The “committing” phase builds on this interest into life on campus as students look for profiles of students and alumni. Use your prospective student pages as a place for students to imagine their college experience and create new student pages for those who have committed so they can be inspired by profiles of current and former students.
Demonstrate Institutional Value
Given the increasing cost of higher education, students and parents are strongly interested in measuring the value of attending an institution. When asked to comment on the sustainability of their tuition pricing models, 85% of institutions reported feeling “concerned,” “very concerned,” or “extremely concerned,” demonstrating an overwhelming consensus that while schools address their tuition challenges, they must also effectively represent the value of their institutions.
Institutions can demonstrate their value by creating content demonstrating the return on investment from attending the school, like career/graduate school outcomes and narratives demonstrating alumni success. High school seniors report that job placement, alumni and student testimonials, and graduate school placement are the most important indicators of an institution’s value; marketers should be sure to include this information on their webpages for prospective students. In addition, marketers can reference the chart below of the website content that students find most valuable for demonstrating institutional value to ensure that these factors are included on their websites.
Be Mobile Ready
More high school students own a mobile phone than a laptop, with the majority accessing college sites from their mobile devices. Approximately 70% of students have looked at a college website on a mobile device, with many using them to complete forms or even fill out their college applications. To meet this overwhelming need for mobile-optimized content, institutions should ensure that their sites and any forms are easily accessible for mobile use.
In addition, schools should consider incorporating text messaging into their recruitment efforts. Students are much more receptive to receiving text messages from campuses, with 77% of high school students indicating interest in receiving school communications by text. Text messaging received the second-highest communications effectiveness rating by four-year private institutions but was only used by 61% of these institutions, showcasing this as an emerging trend that deserves focus from marketers. Institutions can use text messaging to share information about their programs and curriculum, invite students to campus and schedule tours or calls with staff, respond immediately to questions or requests, and connect prospective students with current students for personal conversations about campus life.
Optimize Your Website for Search Engines
Search engines have become the dominant method for finding college websites; 67% of students using search engines like Google when crafting their lists of potential schools. Many institutions have stuck to their traditional marketing tactics, believing that students will find them, and that SEO requires more work than reward. With the first four results from search engines resulting in 40% of all clicks, it is crucial for schools to do all that they can to optimize their websites for higher search engine results. Institutions can follow these SEO tips to promote their online presence:
- Publish relevant content: Quality content is the number one driver of search engine rankings, improving a site’s authority and relevance. Identify keywords and phrases that students are likely to search for that could bring them to the webpage; for example, “nursing degrees in Washington” for medical schools in that state. Incorporate these keywords into the page’s title, link, and body text; search engines will identify these and promote the page for those who search for the keyword.
- Update content regularly: Search engines best respond to regularly updated content, which demonstrates a site’s relevance.
- Incorporate metadata and alt-tags: Schools’ web teams should incorporate the chosen keywords into the backend of a webpage, including them in the metadata for the page’s title, description, and image descriptions known as alt-tags.