5 Steps to Disrupt Current Higher Education Marketing Practices

higher ed marketing 2017

Every University system across the world is facing a huge challenge of identifying and engaging the right candidates for their higher education programs, work that would ensure that they are eventually building a great community of students for themselves.

A large part of this responsibility lies in the hands of marketing and admission teams across these Universities/programs, who are ill-equipped to handle the dynamically changing candidate engagement behavior and they have no intention to build the required strengths & frameworks to solve this challenge.

The current practices of higher education marketing can be described through the following pointers:

1. Modelled on B2C marketing & designed based on historical data (of responses from the previous year)

2. Product life cycle based design wherein at the core of all decisions lie the “product launch” which in this case is the “launch of the new batch”

3. Incorrect measurability definitions disallowing best practices and interventions in critical success factors

In my discussions and debates with numerous stake holders across Universities (both domestic and foreign), the discussions have always had a common theme controlling the outcomes – “maintain status quo and avoid disruptions”.

It’s highly debatable if University departments really attract top talent available across the talent pool passing out each year. “Higher Education Marketing” isn’t really a badge of honor that would provide equitable work benefits, perks etc that the best talent expect today after seeing the brilliant culture and work designs across numerous internet startups and other innovative companies.

Universities, therefore, may not always attract the best of marketing talent who are working towards figuring out larger solutions to problems that are plaguing higher ed marketing, and so most of the teams I have studied have a great way to prove operational efficiency each year to survive.

Some prevalent operational efficiency based statements that I keep on hearing all the time are:
– show me the “target demographics” in “this” channel
– show me the performance of last year, channel wise, so we can decide to allocate money this year
– compare what my competition is doing, replicate
– work back from our “deadlines” and plan the media buy

I sure that you are wondering why such practices are still prevalent across such a system even until today. Take, for example, the logic behind the “allocation of money based on last years results”. This action alone assumes that candidate behavior (when compared to a student this year to his brother/sister next year) will remain unchanged. That is not true. At the pace of which candidates are being exposed to intuitive designs that follow access to the broadband internet across the globe, behaviors are changing every 1-2 months.

Higher ed marketing teams have somehow gotten lost in this rat-race of getting returns from “marketing” activities following marketing models that have already become irrelevant, and sadly no one has an answer.

To disrupt this system, I propose the following structure:

1. Re-define everything from scratch:
One will need to answer the question – “what defines the critical success factors for higher education marketing work?”

This is very simple and it’s not “marketing”. The answer is “student recruitment”. “Marketing” definitions lead to wrong designs and outcomes for higher education teams, assuming that there is a “product” and its corresponding “market” defined by a standard set of demographics.

This definition will help me in deducting what’s the most important thing I would need to achieve-
Enrollments = d/dx(Application) = d/dx(Enquiries) = d/dx(?)

This larger object can be called as – goodwill, reputation, or even augmented-demand, and will be at the core of all designs for higher education marketing in a given year. Another definition that needs to change is that of a candidate’s decision-making process. For Higher education, a candidate uses the multi-channel attribution system, wherein the candidate engages with the brand across multiple channels with a probability of taking an action from any of the given channels at any point in time. This simple truth throws the current systems of marketing returns measurements out of the window, for our University teams.

The final part of re-defining deals with how higher education marketing teams will allocate budgets each year. I propose a “zero-based” concept that does away with the current historical data backed allocation of money. University teams will have to be super efficient in using actionable data intelligence to figure out the multi-channel mix and allocations each year.

2. Change the design of higher education marketing plan from “product life cycle” to “Applicants life cycle” base:
Marketing definitions, as stated above, will lead to “product” based plans and interventions designed for a certain timeline that correlates with the product’s life cycle stages. This ignores all that’s important for student recruitment, and reduces chances of required engagement between the candidate and the brand.

The Applicants life cycle, which can be broken down into 4 stages – Research, Prep, Applications, Admit – should be at the core of the higher education marketing plan each year. There is, however, a catch to this cycle, wherein different types of candidates have a different timeline for this cycle (fresh grads have longer cycles, whereas work e- candidates have shorter ones), but nevertheless the cycle is always followed.

Successful higher education marketing work involves a great deal of integration for each of these phases, trying to “increase” the amount of time candidates spend under the brand’s umbrella in each of these stages.

How to get the integration right? Define your own HEM work in corresponding stages – Discovery, Networking, Conversation, Conversions– which will seamlessly integrate into the applicant’s life cycle. Each of these stages will enable the candidate (with whichever timeline of his/her lifecycle) to discover your brand in the best possible way while researching or preparing, network with you or your team and be a part of your micro-community, have the most critical conversations by getting access to the right people, and then finally converting for your program through any of the available options.

So it may look something like this:

Research >> Discovery

Prep >> Networking

Applications >> Conversations

Admit >> Conversions

3. Create your own micro-community and build the required internal systems to nourish the community:
A lot of Universities misunderstand this as an alumni and current students community. I am not talking about those. This micro-community needs to be built through the work of HEM and it’s meant for applicants who have discovered you through various engagement systems. The HEM team will need to know the basic of building such communities, that start from intuitive and iterative discovery products, leading to conversations which then lead to information silos. These information silos then become a place for further discussions and community building.
Successful brands and products have their own successful communities and some of the best “marketing” returns cannot be realized without the support of such communities. Communities act as a radar for all your activities in the domain, and integrations with your core plan will result in improved “engagement” and time spent by each candidate who discovers your brand in his/her own life cycle.

4. Define Measurability and stick to it:
Answer these for me if you are an HEM practitioner:
a) How much CTR is good for your recruitment efforts, and what’s the best amount of “banner impressions” to buy?
b) How much “viewership” and “readership” will be good for you in a particular country?
c) What is the right time for Partner A to be more productive than Partner B in providing you more inquiries/demand?
d) Is 5% budget allocation in digital less, more, or perfect for your strategy this year?
e) Does your “agency” come with an expertise in higher education marketing frameworks or it’s interested in replicating other marketing plans for you (example – A% in adwords, B% in outdoors, C% in Edu fairs, etc)? How is your plan different than that of others?

I have always been awed by some of the smartest men/women sitting at the end of the campaign and measuring channel wise responses trying to figure out what worked on that specific channel, conveniently forgetting that candidates do not make the final decision because they engaged and took action in a singular channel. The rationalization process, to the bosses, however, is done each year to save jobs and maintain operational efficiencies.

You would yourself be amazed on the amount of wastage that goes around in the domain – money, resources, time, energy. If you don’t want to waste the next year again doing 2% better than this year, then you ought to measure marketing channels before you decide to include them in the mix/design.

A good question to start with would be – “How much time with the “defined” Intent does my candidate spend on this particular channel?”. This question itself would eliminate half the channels for you right away.

5. Restructure your current team
You don’t need people with operational efficiencies. If you are scared that relationships and contacts would be compromised, then design a system that takes care of these threats. The biggest threat that you have today is becoming obsolete and losing revenue. You would have to let a majority of your staff go if they are unwilling to top grade their skill sets and become relevant in changing times. Fire the agencies that do not reflect your enrollment objectives and are in this for merely 30% commission and possess no insights. Build the efficiencies and strengths that you would need for design, measurability, BIG data usage, communications, community building, etc. I am sure that many wouldn’t have such qualities of strength with their current teams.

To summarize, the major changes and disruptions that you would need to bring into your HEM practices would start from the definitions, the core framework, integrations of life cycles, measurability and the team that consists of diverse qualities/strengths that were probably never linked to higher education marketing.



More QS Insights

Sign up for industry insights

Receive the latest insights, expertise and commentary on the topics which matter most in higher education, straight to your inbox.

Sign up