Higher Education

10 Winning Higher Education Marketing Strategies for 2020

Leilani Bruce
Published on May 29, 2019

10 Winning Higher Education Marketing Strategies for 2020

Just two decades ago, higher education marketing was remarkably different. Recruitment campaigns had a one-size-fits-all mentality, relying on glossy viewbooks with a single perspective. But times have certainly changed when it comes to university marketing strategies!

Today, colleges and universities must adopt a different marketing approach to compete – one that’s authentic and personalized.

No more one size fits all. 

To help you make the transition, we’ll share the ten must-haves for a successful higher education marketing strategy in 2020. First, you’ll start with the four foundations:

  1. Clarify your unique brand
  2. Develop a search engine optimization plan
  3. Build a great website experience
  4. Identify key performance indicators

Then, you’ll build on the six core higher education marketing tactics needed to reach today’s students:

  1. Help students find you through informative blogs
  2. Share relatable student stories through video
  3. Create real conversations on social media
  4. Get specific with your PPC advertising
  5. Build relationships with personalized emails
  6. Answer student questions with chatbots and apps

Our goal for today’s blog is to help you fill in the missing pieces, so your university can reap the benefits of a comprehensive digital marketing plan. As you read, take note of any areas you could add or strengthen. Think about how our ideas might complement what you’re already doing.

Let’s get started!

Table of Contents
4 Higher Education Marketing Strategy Foundations
6 Higher Education Marketing Strategy Tactics

4 Higher Education Marketing Strategy Foundations

Before we dive into the tactics, let’s talk about how to build the four foundations. By spending time on these tasks first, you’ll make sure your message is clear, that it reaches the right audience, and be able to see if your strategy is working.

1. Clarify Your Unique Brand

You’re probably well aware that it’s tough to stand out in today’s competitive higher education landscape. Students are bombarded with messages that all begin to sound the same.

In fact, Gallup reports in a recent study,

“The mission, purpose or vision statements of more than 50 higher education institutions share striking similarities, regardless of institution size, public or private status, land-grant status or religious affiliation, or for-profit or not-for-profit status.”

So, before you do anything else, it’s time to strengthen your university’s brand. We recommend:

  • Running a brand perception study – By gathering opinions from a variety of stakeholders, you’ll have a realistic picture of what your school represents. After all, a brand is a promise. You don’t want to promote an image that students will quickly see as fake when they step on campus.
  • Creating potential student personas – Personas help you understand each type of student, so you can create messages that matter to them. They should identify students’ unique goals, challenges, perspectives, and concerns. This clarifies how to position your brand, what outreach methods to use, and many other branding decisions.
  • Identifying your truly unique features – Be sure to research other schools with similar programs to make sure you’re not playing up the same “unique” features. Just remember – no other university can imitate your history, surrounding environment, one-of-a-kind faculty, and the stories of your students and alumni. Focus on these and your university marketing strategies will be more genuine.

University website branding

Gettysburg College’s signature line “Do great work,” developed out of extensive conversations with members of every college constituency. In an article for Inside Higher Ed, their marketing director noted, “Because it emerged from within, our brand is rooted in our core values. And it represents both our reality and our aspiration.”

2. Develop a Search Engine Optimization Plan

Colleges are starting to forego expensive direct mail lists in favor of search engine optimization. And that’s a smart move. Capture Higher Ed reports that even for small schools, there’s significant organic search traffic by students. When you do SEO the right way, your ideal students will find you.

Even if you’ve done keyword research before, compare your assumptions against the data you’ve gathered from your student personas. What are the keywords and phrases students might type into Google as they research their college decision? Are they different than what you’ve been trying to rank for? We suggest:

  • Identifying the keywords you want to rank for - To narrow down your list, you’ll want to consider the search volume of the term, its competitiveness, and if your college wants to prioritize a certain program or a specific kind of student.
  • Evaluating what keywords you’re currently ranking for - If you’re already ranking well for certain keywords, try to reverse engineer what’s working.
  • Developing a content plan to naturally use the keywords in helpful resources - The best way to rank for specific keywords is to produce useful resources, which will naturally incorporate the words students are searching. We’ll talk about that more in the next section on tactics.

higher education marketing

Google Keyword Planner is a free tool that generates keyword ideas, helps you see how often terms are searched, and provides the level of competition per term. In other words, it tells you how many other people are using ads to try and rank for these terms.

3. Build a Great Website Experience

College websites are notoriously maze-like because they need to share a huge amount of information with many different audiences. But if you don’t offer a great website experience, it can affect your search engine visibility and turn off potential students. Even if your university isn’t ready for a total website redesign, here are the must-dos for a solid foundation.

  • Implement a responsive design - With Google’s transition to “mobile-first indexing,” if your website doesn’t display correctly on any device, it will have a lower priority in the search engine results. Plus, with the overwhelming usage of mobile phones for everyday activities, a hard-to-read website is a sure way to lose a visitor.
  • Revisit your navigation - We recommend conducting a usability test with current and prospective students. For example, provide a list of tasks and see how easily they can find what they need and complete the task. Even informal feedback is helpful to identify problems that may not be obvious to the marketing team.
  • Make sure your site is fast - There’s nothing worse than a site that’s slow, doesn’t load, or crashes. This sends a signal to Google that their users won’t have a good experience. And it’s a red flag to students seeking technology-focused institutions.

College website

Southern Virginia University’s website redesign is a great example of what colleges need to compete for today’s student. Their revamp included a new content management system, updated navigation, modernized design, faster speed, and improved search engine optimization.

4. Stay on Track with Key Performance Indicators

One of the major benefits of digital marketing is that you can see the results of your efforts, often in real-time, and make course corrections with every campaign and tactic. We recommend creating key performance indicators (KPIs) in a dashboard, so you can regularly evaluate how your plan is doing. Here are a few important ones:

  • Student Acquisition Cost - According to a survey by higher education consultant Ruffalo Noel Levitz, the median cost for recruiting a single student is $536 for public institutions and $2,357 for private. By keeping this number front and center, and benchmarking against your peers, you can measure the overall effectiveness of your marketing plan.
  • Website Analytics - Google Analytics offers every statistic imaginable, but your goal is to focus on the ones that matter. At a minimum, track total website visitors, where they’re coming from, and length of their visit.
  • Conversion Rate - Conversion rates measure the percentage of users who take the desired action. For example, how many students completed the “request for information” form compared to those who visited the page. You’ll also want to track conversion rates for any paid advertising or email marketing. Each platform has analytics that you can add to your overall dashboard.

Google Analytics

By monitoring the statistics in Google Analytics, universities can see the results of their digital marketing efforts in real-time - and make continuous improvements to get the best return on investment.

6 Higher Education Marketing Strategy Tactics

With your four foundations in place, let’s shift to marketing tactics that work in today’s digitally-connected culture. Since you likely have some of these already in place, we’ve focused on ways you can improve what you’re already doing, to get a better return on your digital marketing investment.

You’ll notice that many of these tactics focus on creating content. Content can support your higher education marketing strategy by:

  • Improving Your Search Visibility
  • Capturing More Student Leads
  • Building Relationships
  • Enhancing Your Reputation

We’ll touch on each of these benefits as we go through the six tactics.

1. Help Students Find Your College with Informative Blogs

Many universities create blog posts that are more like press releases. They focus on awards, alumni donations, or notable faculty joining the school. But this is a missed opportunity. As we noted above, your potential students are doing a lot of online research before they select a school. By writing blogs that offer helpful information about your programs, you can guide them along their decision-making process. And by naturally incorporating relevant keywords, they’ll be more likely to find you.

College blog

Our client Everglades University uses their blog to answer common questions prospective students have about career paths from their program offerings. This will naturally draw the right students to their website.

2. Share Relatable Student Stories Through Video

When it comes to marketing strategies for universities, most educational institutions invest in formal recruitment videos. This is definitely a worthy marketing tool. However, the American Marketing Association points out,

Marketers are under pressure to make their institutions shine, but keep in mind that videos that are too polished may not be as appealing to your audience as a genuine, authentic delivery.

Consider how you might incorporate shorter, more casual videos for different social media platforms. They won’t need the big-budget and they’ll come across as more relatable for students. For example, on the Hashtag Higher Ed podcast, Temple University shared that some of their greatest successes in video marketing came from simple, user-generated content. They have students vlogging about their day once a week on YouTube.

Student User Generated Video

Temple University has several students who offer a glimpse of their daily life by vlogging on YouTube. Video marketing doesn’t have to be big budget to create a big impact. It’s about being relatable.

3. Create Real Conversations on Social Media

When four in five students report that social media conversations have influenced their enrollment decisions, you know social media is no longer a “nice to have” tool. It’s a critical part of the higher education marketing plan.

Many higher education institutions know there’s a great opportunity but aren’t sure how to harness it. So, how do you take advantage of social media’s unique power? It’s time to shift your thinking. Social media isn’t a one-way advertising tool. Today’s students can spot a slick advertising campaign from a mile away. Make your university’s social media authentic and transparent. In other words, offer a way to engage in conversations with your current students, faculty, and staff.

Today’s students can spot a slick advertising campaign from a mile away. Make your university’s social media authentic and transparent. Offer a way to engage in conversations with your current students, faculty, and staff. Click To Tweet

With this in mind, try a different approach:

  • Try a student account takeover - Allow current students to organically share aspects of their daily lives through photos or video, as described at Temple University above.
  • Encourage user-generated content - Identify a fun, relatable hashtag and encourage your university community to post photos using the hashtag. This will expand your reach and demonstrate a positive aspect of your school.
  • Assign a social media monitor - Don’t just post and walk away! Assign a staff member to monitor your social media accounts so you can respond quickly to student questions or just positively reply to their feedback.
  • Use social media listening tools - Tools like Hootsuite or Buffer allow you to listen for mentions of your university on all accounts (not just your own) and then respond - whether it’s an alumni donation or a student just getting accepted to your university. Keep the conversation going and take advantage of golden opportunities to create a connection.

Overall, as you share content on social media, it’s important to create a brand personality for your institution that’s reflected in your entire social media presence. Consistency is important in this space, so your voice should be recognizable and always represent how you want your institution to be perceived.

Higher Education Marketing

Social media must be interactive and personalized to engage today’s students and alumnus. On its annual Purdue Day of Giving, Purdue University uses social listening to identify donors and then responds personally to anyone who mentions their donation on social media.

4. Get Specific with Your Pay Per Click (PPC) Advertising

Many universities have begun using Pay Per Click (PPC) advertising as a supplement to search engine optimization because it offers the allure of faster student lead generation. However, if it’s not done correctly, it can be an expensive strategy. The key to a great PPC campaign is targeting. To get the best results, you need to know:

  • Who you’re targeting - Pull out your student personas and use them to create compelling visuals and text that will capture their attention.
  • What you’re advertising - If you have a limited budget, being specific about certain degrees or programs is better than a general ad about your university.
  • Where you’re advertising - There are more options than ever for PPC - it’s not just Google Ads anymore. Think about where your target audience hangs out and invest your advertising dollars there.
  • What keywords you’re using - Using your personas and keyword research, make sure you’ve selected a keyword commonly searched by your audience that shows their intention to act. For example, “choosing a nursing program” versus “nursing program.”
  • Where you’re sending them - You got a click, now what? Make sure you have a compelling landing page that provides relevant, helpful information and a path toward their next step.

PPC Advertising can be tremendously effective, but there is a learning curve. If your university needs quick results, it might be smart to hire a digital marketing agency to get your strategy on track without risking your budget.

higher education marketing

To get the best return on investment for your PPC ad, it needs to be targeted. A great PPC ad for a university is on the right platform to reach your audience, has the right visuals and text draw their attention, and there’s a clear next step.

5. Build Relationships with Personalized Emails

Email marketing is often overlooked as just a way to send announcements and reminders, but as you’ve probably noticed, there’s a theme here. Make it personalized!

People who opt into your email are usually the most invested candidates or alumnus. You need to capitalize on this open invitation. Not to inundate them with generic information, but to guide them through their decision-making process with emails that feel like they’re written just to one person. By using email marketing tools like MailChimp, you can segment your different audiences into lists to make your communications specific to their concerns and questions. For example, prospects, applicants, undergraduates, graduates, alumnus, etc.

Once you’ve created the emails, you can set up an automated series designed for each audience. This will save time for your marketing team without losing a sense of personalization. However, it’s important to make sure there’s a clear call to action. Also, the recipient should be able to reply to any of the emails and receive a response promptly from the right staff.

higher education marketing

Making even small personalizations in your emails, like the student’s name in this parent’s university fundraising campaign, makes a big difference in creating a long-lasting relationship.

6. Answer Student Questions with Chatbots and Apps

Have you ever read through a long FAQ page, just to find out the answer you’re seeking isn’t there? Chatbots offer a better alternative. Referred to as “conversational marketing,” students simply type (or speak) their question and the bot draws from its resources to provide a specific answer. Chatbots can be integrated into apps like Facebook Messenger or directly through your website using companies like Virtual Spirits.

Another way to engage students is through apps. A great example is Georgia State University’s Pounce, which integrates its incoming student data with the tasks they have to complete by certain dates. Students receive personalized guidance through prompts and reminders on their phone.

Both chatbots and apps are growing in popularity as a higher education marketing tactic. They’re ideal for potential students during the complex application process. Universities can provide immediate support without the institution having to invest in more staffing resources. It also signals to students that your university is forward-thinking and open to new technologies.

Higher education chatbots

By using chatbot services like Virtual Spirits, universities can provide immediate answers for students at any time of day, on their terms.


Corporate stuffiness is out and authentic content is in! A successful higher education marketing strategy focuses on building a genuine connection and responding quickly. Your various audiences should feel important and invested in their relationship with your institution. If your marketing team needs help graduating to an effective higher education marketing strategy for 2020, Pacific54 can help. Contact us for a consultation.


6 Responses to “10 Winning Higher Education Marketing Strategies for 2020”

  • J.J. Anderson says:

    Social media is vital for reaching potential students (based on my understanding of marketing), especially as that’s the way potential recruits learn about and investigate higher education opportunities. If you don’t have a savvy social media marketing campaign, you’re already a few steps behind other colleges. I think your discussion of using videos is a keen observation too. A short video can really grab someone’s attention who is thinking of attending school, directing them to your school’s website.

  • Mandy Robinson says:

    I have been working really hard on seo. I think it is more important than people realize.

  • Kyle A. says:

    Good observation about keeping out corporate stuffiness. I don’t think students want to go to a school that looks conservative. Like any marketing campaign, you have to know your audience to maximize your results.

  • Selena F. says:

    I think a brand perception survey is exactly what my marketing team needs. We have been really off without services lately and nothing seems to be changing. Getting input from fresh minds would be amazing!

  • Jennifer T. says:

    I totally agree that social media presence affects students decisions to join certain universities. It definitely influenced my decision!

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