The era of branding in higher education is quickly coming to an end. Investing in a strong brand narrative was a critical first step, but branding alone won't fill classrooms.
Colleges and universities still face serious challenges. In many areas of the country, population levels continue to plummet while costs continue to soar. The debate still rages on whether a higher education degree is even worth the cost, and the space has gone into competitive overdrive with more and more battling for less and less.
Higher education marketers must now focus on strategies and tactics that will drive quality leads.
To accomplish this, colleges and universities will need to step up their media planning and buying efforts. There are, however, two speed bumps many will face.
Most institutions don't have the in-house experience needed to execute successful campaigns.
In-house media efforts have historically centered on top-of-the-funnel activities like TV, billboards and airport advertising.
These aren't bad efforts - they just aren't the right efforts. Let's be honest, these channels are meant for alumni or senior leadership. If it's students you are after, outdoor advertising won't drive enrollments.
Branding agencies aren't good at lead generation
You know the branding agency that helped develop your brand narrative? I'm sorry to say they are not going to be much help when it comes to lead generation. Oh sure, it will be in their list of capabilities - but it's just not in their skill set.
To deliver students, colleges and universities need to work with firms that have a track record at driving and converting quality candidates.
So now that we understand the obstacles to overcome, below are suggestions for selecting the right firm.
The 4 things to consider in selecting a firm
Finding the right firm to increase student enrollment is not as daunting as it may seem. For starters, there are fewer agencies out there really doing this kind of work. And two, it's a lot less subjective versus selecting an agency to handle branding efforts. You either have the experience or you don't.
That said, you still need to put in time and effort to find the firm that is going to be right for your institution. To help, I've pulled together my thoughts on what to look for in a partner. Additionally, I've included thoughts on what your college or university can do to get the most out of the relationship.
1. Start with their history
A firm that claims to have experience in the space should have case studies that walk the talk. If they don't, move on to the next firm.
2. Media chops + digital expertise
Understanding the media landscape is critical. The right firm must know paid search, paid social, SEO, CRO, retargeting and geotargeting.
But having experience in media is just the ante into the game. The firm you select must also understand the other elements of the digital world such as web design, programming and the ability to connect .edu sites to back-end lead management systems.
Why is this critical?
Finding leads is one thing, converting leads is another. It takes two different skill sets - and both are needed.
3. Marketing automation
Today, communication happens across multiple channels. Prospects are connecting with you on your website, across your social media channels and by email. To try and keep up manually is outdated, ineffective and simply won't work. Hitch your wagon to a firm that understands how to automate your marketing.
4. Key milestones along the way
The ultimate KPIs in a lead gen campaign, of course, will be the number of qualified applications and enrollments.
But what are the metrics to let you know you are on the right track?
Your agency should be able to provide those before the campaign launches and update your team as the campaign rolls out as to what's working and where adjustments need to be made.
Four points for higher ed marketers
A successful campaign needs two committed partners. To maximize your investment and create an efficient working relationship, here are four points higher ed marketers should take into account.
1. Know your budget
Too often, clients will ask agencies to develop plans targeting a budget level that has no chance of getting approval. Instead of playing what-if scenarios, it's best to be completely realistic on the dollar amount you can spend.
Be open and transparent and ask for the best approach given the parameters. To ask for a $500,000 plan knowing your budget is closer to $150,000 is wasting a lot of time and ultimately your money.
2. Know your timing
Higher ed runs in cycles. Fall targets applications. Late winter and spring for yield campaigns. It's the same every year.
Given this, higher ed marketers need to work upfront to secure sign off on spending levels, approval of creative assets, etc., long before the campaign is ready to start. Often this upfront planning isn't completed, which means you're missing out on potential students.
Think about it this way, each day that goes by is a lost opportunity that you will not be able to make up.
3. Brand and lead generation - it's like ebony and ivory
A successful lead gen campaign must combine some level of spending geared at the top end of the funnel.
These efforts help build awareness and create points of differentiation for your institution. However, as a campaign begins to roll out and the numbers start coming in, clients tend to focus on only those channels driving the most clicks - like paid search.
Search performs well because it works in tandem with the brand-level messaging. A successful campaign must strike the right balance between both, and the agency you select should know how to reach that balance.
4. Finally, only design the landing page if you have the expertise
Budgets in higher ed are tight but assigning someone from your team to build the landing page to save a few dollars is putting the entire campaign in jeopardy.
Unless your team has a proven track record of building pages that deliver results, I recommend you find the money to have your firm do the work.
Your landing page is the key moment of truth. And the best creative, or the most highly targeted media won’t work if your prospects get to the page and can’t figure out what to do, where to go or is turned off by all the info you are requesting.
Leave it to the ones that can show you what works. Landing pages are a big overlooked topic – one that I’ll be talking more about them in follow up post.
Last element: Like the firm you select
Chemistry is a huge part of this equation. You are going to be spending a lot of time with your agency – you need to be able to connect with them on a human level.
A coworker of mine called it the "beer test." Can you imagine yourself having a beer (or substitute beer for the beverage of your choice) with the other person?
Listen to your gut. If you can see it happening, you're good to go. If you can't - I'm sorry, but you need to move on. You'll be better in the long run.
This post was written in August 2019. Since then, I have seen a flood of RFPs from institutions looking for agencies that handle media buying. The lead generation wave is cresting!