It is no secret that higher education is more competitive than ever. The most competitive institutions frantically try to climb over one another to be the first to connect with a potential student. And it isn’t just the for-profits either. Many non-profit institutions are beefing up their advertising budgets and marketing departments in order to hold onto their corner of the market. Some non-profits are dedicating more than 20 percent of their annual revenues to drive their message to the masses.
The force behind these changes is the ever-growing expectations of the student. Students want a program that is customized to fit their needs. Thanks to growing competition, they are often able to find it. With massive open online courses (MOOCs) entering the picture at a rapid pace, the need to customize the experience from website visit to graduation will skyrocket in the next decade.
The increasing variety of approaches to learning, combined with the vast array of student preferences, means institutions will need to respond with programmatic solutions and new services. However, it is crucial for students to clearly understand how these options align with their unique situations. Effective marketing will provide this, and for many non-profit institutions, this reality will mean a drastic overhaul of their current operations. Some of the changes will include:
1. “Post-click” personalization
Any highly competitive institution is likely using Constituent Relationship Management technology to send personalized communication to those with inquiries. Unfortunately, this personalization doesn’t often go beyond the level of program of interest. But we now have web analytics available to determine and anticipate the needs of prospective students before they even fill out the inquiry form. This means a shift from post-inquiry personalization to post-click personalization. Beyond this, we must anticipate our relevant audiences and align communication with their behavior before they even reach our website. Once they reach the website, that experience needs to be customized to the extent that it adjusts to their needs.
2. Real-time, data-informed decision making
The days of monthly reviews of campaign results to determine marketing resource allocation are over. Moving forward, marketing departments must have the technology and expertise in place to harness the data captured and pivot ongoing activities based on solid data analysis. This requires sophisticated technology, air-tight integration between systems, constant data analysis and reporting and activity-based logic that automatically adjusts the shopping experience as the prospective student advances through the process of researching the institution. Marketing departments must expand their analytical capabilities and align these functions with outreach and admissions activities.
3. Mobile-ready marketing
Postcards, viewbooks and mailings in general are going the way of the print newspaper. Marketers have to plan their communications to play nicely with mobile devices. This is true today, but heading into the future, it will be essential. Rather than viewing mobile as a nice-to-have feature for certain communication, marketers will need to develop all interactive elements to be fully functional on a variety of mobile devices throughout both the shopping and enrollment experiences.
4. Marketing through graduation
As completion rates and return on educational investment become more transparent, the separation between pre-enrollment communication and the post-enrollment student experience must be eliminated. Valuable data captured prior to enrollment can help drive relevant communication and services to students as they work to completion. On the flip side, student data has the potential to guide marketing decisions in a variety of ways. Systems, processes and staff will need to align effectively to produce information that can be utilized throughout the cycle. Marketing to the point of enrollment will need to shift to marketing to the point of graduation.
5. Know what you don’t know
Sometimes the higher education mentality of being steeped in tradition can carry into our marketing and related technology management. The result is a foundation of outdated practices and systems unable to support the agility that current marketing practices require. Moving forward, staying competitive will require an ability to quickly implement and pivot new approaches to outreach and communications. Rather than building upon an existing infrastructure that may have limited versatility, it is important that institutions look to marketing and technology solution providers with focused expertise to develop a framework of technology and an understanding of current best practices in their respective areas. This way, schools don’t start from scratch with new initiatives and end up implementing when it is simply too late. Some of the most important areas to avoid “do-it-yourself” approaches include marketing communication systems, website development and mobile content creation. However, the gaps are unique for every institution and should be handled as such.
The bottom line for the future of higher education marketing is: the utilization of data down to a granular level is vital. It is through the application of data to ongoing decision making that we are able to truly listen to our future and current students and respond to their needs. While these approaches may be new to higher education, they have been practiced and optimized by other industries for years. It is important that institutions look to the expertise of outside industries to hone their ability to execute more sophisticated approaches to marketing that will ultimately provide a more relevant, cohesive and informative experience for the future student. The result will be success both for the institution and the student.
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