Effective Marketing in an Age of Intense Competition
Traditionally, colleges used a similar mix of marketing tools and techniques to attract new students. The typical approach included: a high-quality set of recruitment brochures on select programs of study; a college catalog that was attractive and easy to navigate; a local community reputation fostered by years of publicity; a group of sought-after academic programs with distinctive reputations in a select few areas; accreditations; and active and loyal alumni bases.
The traditional approach will not be successful today. Fewer traditional age students are committed to college. Competition for adult learners is fierce, both from online and traditional institutions. The Internet has disrupted the perceived value and use of traditional college print materials and mailings.
It is in the best interests for colleges to recruit students that they know from their experiences and data will likely demonstrate post-graduation success. Today’s marketing is affected dramatically by analytics and algorithms predicting success for various approaches. In higher education, the analytics tell us that successful graduates are better donors, aid in marketing the institution, believe the time and money invested was worthwhile, and would recommend the institution to others. It all adds up to better attraction, easier recruitment expenditures, and strong retention to graduation.
What does a successful marketing program look like today?
Most important to a successful program is perceived responsiveness to the high expectations and limited financial resources of college students, whether traditional age or adults. First, both populations are looking for near-guarantees of a sufficient return on their investments of time and money. They not only want to learn and grow but also expect an assured path to a meaningful and financially attractive career. This means that colleges and universities need to clearly demonstrate integrity in their recruitment processes.
A second element of an effective marketing program involves reliability. Reliability means that one cannot use success stories of select alumni as one’s major recruitment approach. Students want to be assured that almost everyone who graduates from a particular institution has post-graduation success. They are not interested in averages. They want to know that the college or university can communicate with documentation that more than 90 percent of its graduates are satisfied with their degree programs and find post-graduation employment successfully.
A third element of an effective marketing program in an age of intense competition involves the concept of documented results. What is the evidence the college or university has about alumni success after graduation and after the fifth year of graduation? What are alumni earning? What are alumni saying are the benefits of attending their college or university? Why would they recommend the institution? What are employers saying about the graduates of the university or college? In other words, colleges and universities must commit themselves to serious research on the outcomes of their degree programs and support services. They must know what works and what they must invest further in to have success. Without data and time series information, their recruitment credibility will remain suspect. Potential students will defer their decision to go to college or will select another institution.
Approaching a more successful marketing program
Visibility must be foremost in an effective marketing program. Depending on the institution and its likely student market, that will include most of the following elements: local business connections; strong alumni ambassador programs; an attractive campus website that is easy to navigate; effective use of social media; and, possibly, select use of billboards, radio, and television in the local market.
Beyond visibility, there must be a distinctive and compelling brand identity justified by data and imaging of the campus. What are the distinctive promises an institution can provide relative to select academic programs, stellar athletic programs and facilities, campus life benefits, diversity of students enrolled, and effectiveness of academic support programs?
Often underestimated is the importance of communicating effectively the quality and effectiveness of academic support programs that students use on campus. More and more students come to college underprepared or in need of services in personal counseling, alternative testing, tutoring in subject matter, remedial coursework, and aid in dealing with physical limitations or psychological/mental problems. What does the college or university offer and how effective are those offerings in ensuring college adjustment and graduation?
Another critical element of successful marketing is the building of alliances with local employers to provide internships, field experiences, service learning, and career shadowing opportunities as early as the sophomore year of study.
Given the importance of retention to graduation for revenue streams and institutional reputation, colleges and universities need to use concepts of market segmentation to develop their targeted recruitment program. Colleges and universities should only recruit students with a very high potential to succeed to graduation and in employment following graduation. They will be the most effective spokespersons relative to the brand identity of the institution.
Since visibility is important to an effective marketing program, institutions should find ways to promote their most talented faculty and their research and teaching within local media outlets and through community public forums.
Although many institutions seek many accreditations and promote their national or regional rankings, these pursuits should be limited for both financial reasons and market clarity reasons. If one cannot be ranked in the top 20 institutions regionally or nationally, pursuit of a rankings achievement is likely to waste institutional resources. Having accreditation for numerous academic programs can constrain curriculum flexibility and increase costs for all students.
No marketing program can be successful without addressing financial aid and scholarship programs. One must assure the recruitment of top athletes and top academic scholars to the institution while minimizing excessive post-graduation debt for its targeted student body.
Finally, in today’s marketplace with high expectations of students and families, investments in a campus visibility program are critical if the school provides a residential experience. Effective and timely campus investments in housing, recreation, and dining are vital to all residential colleges and universities today.
Today’s marketplace demands a more systematic and deeper personal relational approach to recruiting and retaining students, both traditional and adult, to your institution.
Henry W. Smorynski is a leadership fellow at Midland University (Fremont, Neb.).