Non-traditional students mean the end of traditional higher education marketing campaigns. But personas are more important than ever.
For digital marketers, few categories are as challenging and rewarding as higher education, particularly when it comes to driving enrollment. From messaging and creative to channel selection, reaching and connecting with qualified prospective students is difficult — and that’s to say nothing of actually getting them to apply. College admissions and marketing departments face significant obstacles on multiple fronts. To name just a few:
- Cost — College is expensive. Add to that an economy still in recovery, and higher education marketers face a steeper climb than ever before.
- Multiple Stakeholders — For more traditional, high school-age undergraduate prospects, parents and even high school faculty and staff present a critical challenge and opportunity for higher ed marketers looking to reach decision influencers.
- Decision Cycle — Choosing where to go to college is one of the most important decisions a person makes in his or her life. That basic fact, along with the large investment (or, as is often the reality, incurred debt) and the influence of the other stakeholders mentioned above, means that enrollment campaigns must be designed for the long-haul.
- Competition — The higher education market is extremely competitive. In addition to long-standing competition among established institutions, today’s higher education landscape is increasingly crowded with new players in online education, including Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).
The Biggest Challenge in Higher Education Marketing
None of these should come as any surprise to anyone working in college admissions or marketing. But the biggest challenge to driving new student enrollment isn’t anywhere on that list. It’s actually far more simple — and important — than any of those: it’s the students themselves.
Do you remember yourself in college? Don’t worry — you don’t have to share your answer with the group (though feel free to share a favorite memory in the comments). In any case, chances are the “you” in college isn’t the same “you” you are today. In fact, I would hope not. That’s kind of the point of college. We learn. We grow. We change.
The fact is, the nation’s colleges have never been at a loss for individualism, but today’s applicants are more non-traditional than ever before. They’re single mothers and fathers, laid-off assembly line workers, aspiring artists and established musicians. Business owners and burnouts. Gay, straight, black, Hispanic and white. Urban and rural. Most are on Facebook. Some are on Twitter. Facing economic uncertainty and social immobility, many are returning for a 2nd degree. Many are coming back to finish what they started. It’s never been harder to define your ideal applicant.
You Need Personas
See what I mean? If it seems harder to run a new student enrollment campaign today, that’s because it is. And the primary reason is because the “new student” you used to look for doesn’t exist any more, and the campaign-in-a-box you used to run no longer speaks to its replacements. It’s ok. In many ways, the hyper-segmented nature of today’s applicant pool means you can actually run a more sophisticated campaign and drive more highly qualified applications — and a better ROI — than ever before. But you need to know who you’re talking to. You need to develop personas. Here are 4 tips to help you get started:
1. Define — Don’t overgeneralize your personas. Be specific. Developing separate personas for segments like “Prospective Undergraduate Student – Interest: Theatre” and “Prospective Undergraduate Student – Interest: Accounting” takes more time, but will allow you to create and manage a far more targeted, relevant campaign. And don’t forget other stakeholders: developing personas for other groups like “Parents” and “High School Faculty / Staff” can be very helpful in creating content that speaks to relevant influencers.
2. Listen — Content marketing is the present and future of higher education enrollment campaigns, but in order to develop quality content you need to know your audiences – their values, motivations, aspirations, fears etc. Start with market research. Conduct focus groups. Monitor and engage on social media. Talk with students — those who applied, those who accepted, and especially those who either didn’t apply or turned down an admissions offer.
3. Analyze — Today’s applicants are increasingly mobile, multi-channel and even multi-screen. In addition to personal attributes, your personas should take into account your audiences’ technology usage and media preferences. Dig into your analytics, too. Look at your click-through and conversion rates and determine which types of prospective students (e.g. by demographic, program interest, etc.) respond to which types of content and where.
4. Adapt — Regardless of whether or not your institution’s online marketing is managed in-house or managed in partnership with an agency, enrollment campaign strategy should never be recycled — and personas need to be revisited frequently and updated when appropriate. Higher education and digital marketing are both evolving too quickly for a “set it and forget it” approach.
Ready to learn more about the challenges and opportunities in higher education marketing today? Download our free whitepaper, “Best Laid Plans: Marketing & Strategy for Higher Education Institutions” or give us a call. We’d love to learn more about your goals for driving new student enrollment and see how we might be able to help.