What Not-for-Profit University Marketers Can Learn From Their For-Profit Counterparts

Having recently met up with several higher education marketers at events across the country, I felt compelled to write about the common topics that are top of mind for these marketers, and the opportunities that come with them.

Institutions of higher education (for those of you who aren’t following it) are under siege. While the Harvard and MITs of the world may feel less threatened right now, other schools, whose academic value proposition and brands are not as well established, are competing more than ever before for both students and tuition dollars.

There are a few key trends that impact higher education, which the marketers I’ve spoken with feel are presenting as major challenges:

1) Establishing Value

Some are questioning the relevance and value of traditionally liberal arts institutions because of the high debt and potentially low job prospects that students incur. As a result, colleges and universities are under continued pressure to prove that an education from their institution will result in career success (either directly, or in the student’s ability to pursue further education).

2) Combatting Heightened Competition

Online education is changing the ways schools educate. Many schools are finding that they are competing with either fully online programs or schools who were traditionally in one area of the country, but are now establishing small satellite campuses in areas rich with their target students. Geography and distance are no longer as much of a competitive buffer when it comes to delineating prospective student pools.

3) Evolving with Marketing Trends

While all marketers were aware of many of the “new” ways to market to their audience, many noted that their administration were steeped in the “old ways” and unwilling to invest in or approve some of the marketing methods they’d like to test. Over time, this can leave higher education marketers behind when it comes to enhanced marketing methods, and can alienate the institution since they’re not communicating on newer channels where they’ll find their prospective students.

4) Attracting Adult Learners

The demographics of prospective student audiences is broadening from the traditional 18-22 year olds. While these traditional students are still looking for on-campus education, the dramatic increase in tuition, room and board expenses has created a large market of students who get their degrees later in life. These adult learners have different needs, including flexible and part-time programs, that change the marketing message and value proposition.


So, given these forces, what do higher education marketers need to get right in order to compete in this changing world?

The for-profit online educational institutions have led the way in adoption of new marketing methods and tools, which is not surprising, given that their “business” is online and ROI based. This both demands and allows a great focus on marketing and measurements. While some of the methods may not be appropriate for other colleges and universities, there are a few key lessons that all schools can incorporate for marketing success.

1)  Know Your Students

Higher education marketers need to keep up with their prospective student’s path to purchase. New technology is becoming available and adopted by younger people at light speed. Marketers need to keep up with their prospective students and understand how they will likely find out about, evaluate, and select the schools to apply to. These will require use of the latest tools and an up-to-date knowledge of the emotional and rational motivators and concerns of their prospective students.

Ideally, knowledge of student preferences and needs will help marketers get the right message to the right target. Plus, often direct student feedback can often help “sell” upper management on your marketing.

2)    Differentiate Your School

One of the things that we most often find from students is that colleges and universities fail to differentiate themselves. While some colleges and universities may seem similar, each college should look to present their brand voice (including the voices of their students) so that prospective students get a feel for the school.  Remember that there are many more colleges in each students’ selection pool – and making the “cut” to request information is a key step in your enrollment success.

3)    Listen to your Students

Prospective students read many things into your marketing that you may or may not intend. In my line of work at WEVO, we’ve found that images, headlines and the absence or presence of student examples (and what those examples are) all give them an impression of the school.

Note: My company, WEVO, helps universities understand how their prospective students view their landing pages and websites, and what areas they can improve to make it better for their audience.

4) Be Agile

One of the things that traditional colleges and universities lead with is their history and reputation. While this is great to prove credibility and gravitas to prospective students, it can lead to stagnation in ways that schools market. All schools need to become “agile” (just like start-ups) opening up to new methods of communications and engagement with their students. It’s important to understand that what worked in the past is not necessarily still effective.

The beauty of agile marketing is that you can try out many different approaches: landing page, communications methods, etc. and measure results in order to select the optimal program for your school.

While audiences are often different online vs. traditional campus based school, the recommendations above transcend the type of school or student.  They are core practices that every higher education marketer should be employing.  

How have you been responding to the above challenges?