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Why Marketing Strategy Matters in Higher Education

Colleges and universities are asking students to consider these questions when they deliberate their enrollment choices – bringing brand and marketing to the forefront as administrators strive to appeal to an ever‐increasing and diverse student base. By crafting, presenting, and managing a unified brand message, experience, and environment, institutions can achieve a significant competitive advantage when recruiting and retaining top student talent.

Bringing Business and Branding Together in Higher Education

Institutions are focusing on branding and marketing far more than in previous years. Many have hired marketing professionals from the corporate world and invested significant time and money to create strong institutional brands. After all, the fastest growing US businesses are avid users of social media, employing a range of tools to connect, engage, advertise, and advocate their products and services.  Institutions are applying this market success in their own outreach, recognizing the importance of incorporating social media into their strategic planning and looking ahead to the potential of mobile social commerce. In some cases, this mentality has come to fruition through the development of Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) positions – emphasizing brand creation and marketing campaigns as a core function of the institution. As Northwestern’s CMO reiterates to Ad Age, “There is a growing interest and belief in the importance of defining and articulating your university brand, because it’s important to be differentiating and compelling – not unlike a product in the consumer space.”

These business-driven branding techniques rely on technological advances to interact with today’s primarily millennial student body. The strategies widely adopted within institutional settings include:

  • Responsive website design: Creating intuitive and easy to navigate websites that can be viewed on multiple devices and platforms.
  • Search engine optimization: For institutions that offer niche programs, it is increasingly important to ensure that these programs reside at the top of search engine listings.
  • Use of web analytics: The use of analytics software is increasing as the higher education web ecosystem is becoming increasingly complex, and the amount of material institutions have online is expanding (domains, subdomains, etc.).
  • Strategic social media: While nearly every institution of higher education use some form of social media, it is unclear if many are realizing ROI on simply establishing Facebook or Twitter accounts.
  • Mobile development: Colleges and universities are making greater investments in having a mobile presence, from the institution’s website to the development of mobile-friendly course content.
  • CMS and CRM systems: CRM systems are becoming increasingly important tools to harness “big data” from historical student information and track activity from prospective student outreach.

Changing demographics, the rising costs of higher education, and new market pressures are also significantly impacting how institutions attract new students, as represented in the figure below.

Key Market Trends in Higher Education Marketing, Recruitment, and Technology

Sources: Hanover Research Analysis of Tuition Pricing Strategies, Hanover Research Trends in Higher Education Marketing, Recruitment, and Technology (Download link below), Noir Sur Blanc, McGraw Hill Education, The Lawlor Group


Ensuring a Return on your Institution’s Marketing Investments

The average amount spent on marketing  has increased by over 50% since 2000, ranging upwards of $1,190 per student recruit for the average four-year private institution. While 82% of institutions feel that their marketing efforts have a positive impact on brand visibility, only 56% have attributed increases in both applicant quality and perceived academic reputation to the work of their marketing functions.

Perhaps the largest area of innovation and growth in higher education marketing and branding, as well as in recruitment, is in the online and digital space. Although there is still some doubt that institutions are using technology to its full potential, particularly with social media and other emerging platforms, a recent survey by the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth indicated that nearly 100% of institutions use some form of social media as part of their marketing and overall branding strategy. One in three schools say social media is more efficient than traditional media in reaching their target audience. Debatably of equal importance, social media is less expensive than historically traditional marketing approaches. Investments in this form of emerging media allows institutions to maximize their resources by spending up to 33% less money on printing, 24% less on newspaper ads, and 17% less on radio and TV ads.  The report further determined that 92% of undergraduate admissions officers feel social media is worth the investment they make in it, with 86% planning to increase their institution’s investment in social media in the next year. Reiterating the impact of strategic marketing on institutional success, Lipman Hearne found that heavy investments in interactive/web-based marketing are likely to improve applicant quality and the percentage of alumni who give, while investments in marketing research positively influenced on-campus collaboration.

Marketing Strategy Starts with Knowing Your Market

Despite the widespread adoption of social media and other marketing tools, less than half of the undergraduate admissions officers surveyed by the UMD Center for Market Research have a written social media policy to manage these marketing processes and capture outcomes data.  In addition, 19% reported they did not know if any such media policies even existed at their institution.

Applying research when integrating a brand strategy into strategic planning allows institutions to eliminate this disconnect between policy and action. Ben Didier, Senior Director of Higher Education at Hanover Research, emphasizes the importance of applying research in marketing strategy by stating: “Higher education leaders are increasingly categorizing marketing expenditures as investments with measurable, anticipated returns.  They are pivoting towards a more centralized, integrated brand strategy, where ongoing market research and monitoring play a critical role in optimizing the allocation of finite institutional resources.”

By implementing data-driven market findings, institutions can increase brand awareness and image perception, attract and engage prospective students, and build loyalty amongst their students, parents, staff, faculty, alumni, and donors. A data centric approach to long-term institutional marketing success means:

    • Elevating the performance of your brand to fortify your institution’s presence across the higher education landscape by surveying your network’s levels of brand perception and awareness.
    • Maximizing your message to articulate the value of your degree by understanding the communications concepts that resonate with different student audiences.
    • Validating your marketing spend by measuring brand/campaign performance and calculating applicant-to-student conversion rates.

Rely on the power of your institution’s brand and lead students to remember yoUR name when making their enrollment decision. Learn more about current market trends in higher education marketing, recruitment, and technology by downloading Hanover Research’s free report below.

University of Rochester's Admission Office gets creative with the "Remember oUR Name" rap song
University of Rochester’s Admission Office gets creative with the “Remember oUR Name” rap song


University of North Carolina's One campaign
University of North Carolina’s One campaign
Bond University's recruitment video
Bond University’s Ambition recruitment video
Wheelock College's website
Wheelock College’s website asks “Are You Tough Enough

Are you tough enough? Can education bring your ambition to life? Do you believe in the power of one?




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