Skip to Content
Main Content

Hiker Looking Out Over Mountains

Alex Boston

Alex Boston

Digital Strategist

Alex blends his academic background in creative writing with rigorous data analysis to conceptualize, create, and assess digital content for Northwoods clients. He’s particularly experienced serving higher education clients, having worked with many public and private universities as an agency partner. Before joining our team, he was lead digital content strategist at the University of Iowa. As digital strategist, he applies more than 10 years of digital marketing experience to serving clients across a wide range of industries.

Digital Marketing Trends in Higher Education

August 29, 2022 | Alex Boston, Digital Strategist

6 Minute Read

American colleges and universities, especially publicly funded institutions, are resilient. Many of the best-known have survived since the 19th century. They’ve weathered dramatic economic swings and vast culture shifts as competing institutions sprang up around them. The story of higher education in America is a story of long-term expansion.

That appears to be changing.

According to the IPEDS database, the number of public four-year universities shrank 2.3% from 2019-2021, with community colleges down 2.7%. For-profit colleges and smaller liberal arts institutions have faced enrollment losses and closures for some time. Decreasing birth rates are shrinking the recruitment pool. The 2008 recession and falling tax support for public schools have put higher education out of the reach of many. These downward trends show no signs of changing anytime soon.  

As higher education compresses, even at the highest levels, it’s more important than ever for recruiters to reach prospective students where they live: online. A well-considered digital marketing strategy – one that reaches new student markets – can make all the difference in recruitment.

Top Trends in Digital Marketing for Higher Education

Personalization

Shaping content to suit the audience is fundamental to any marketing campaign. But modern digital marketing can go further. A growing number of brands are building websites that automatically adjust content to suit each individual visitor’s needs and interests.

Let’s say someone visits your website and views admissions information. Highly personalized websites will flag that visitor as a prospective student. On the next visit, that prospective student would see only content related to admissions and other recruitment info.

This level of personalization is still rare in higher education. It’s an expensive strategy to employ for every prospective student. But many schools have integrated personalization into later stages of the admissions process. They deliver custom web pages and even print materials with each student’s name ad personally relevant content.

Image from Bryant University's website shows calls to action buttons that switch languages based on IP address.

Bryant University’s calls to action automatically switch the button language to Chinese when accessed by IP addresses in China. Image credit: Oho Interactive

“Personalization” has become a buzzword in digital marketing due to possible correlation with higher conversion rates. Does it affect student enrollment decisions? That remains to be seen.

Influencer Marketing

“Influencers” got their name for a reason. For younger generations, prominent social media personalities play major roles in purchasing decisions, college included.

A few of your current students might have been able to build large social media followings. Even students who engage in social media casually can be helpful in spreading the word about what it’s like to attend your school.

In recent years, many colleges and universities have partnered with influencers from within the campus community to promote their schools. Both management and cost have been minimal for the most successful of these programs. The school will offer, say, free tickets to campus events to creators who agree to share content about those events with their audiences.

A student with a large following on YouTube, for example, might create and post a video about an athletic event. Marketers might encourage influencers to talk about their overall experience at the school. Such videos can reach a large, targeted audience with little investment.

Still image from a video that shows a female college student.

Videos such as this one can reach large, engaged groups of prospective students where they’re searching.

Compensation can cause skeptics to question authenticity, even if the compensation is merely swag and tickets. Transparency can head that off. If schools and creators are frank about their relationship and schools refrain from censorship, the content can look, feel, and be genuine. (Pro hint: Find partners who are already genuinely enthusiastic about your institution.)

Social media, with its high-definition media sharing and timely content, offers a unique opportunity to higher education, not all of it involving student recruitment. Facebook skews older, which makes it effective for engaging with alumni. TikTok and Snapchat, with their vast teen audience, are perfect for showcasing your campus and student events. Choosing the right channel can make all the difference in reaching particular audiences.

Simplicity and Authenticity

Younger demographics harbor deep suspicions of advertising, large institutions, and corporations. Marketers should note that students currently applying to college were born at the beginning of two wars. They watched loved ones struggle financially during the 2008 recession, saw the most divisive election in modern history, and have now attended high school during a pandemic. Their distrust is understandable.

Honesty goes a long way with them, especially with students considering college. Today’s prospective students want straightforward descriptions of what they’ll get on campus. Avoid wordy, fluffy messaging about the institution’s greatness.

They don’t care about the school’s accolades; they care about what those accolades mean for them. What’s  the day-to-day experience? What’s the dorm room like? What will it feel like to be on campus?

Higher-ed marketers are getting at this by sourcing user-generated content from social media. These schools invite their social media followers to submit images and video on a specific topic related to the institution or that highlight their time on campus. The marketing team curates these contributions into galleries and videos. The results feel more natural and honest than professionally created ad campaigns.

This University of Florida video ad captures the moment students are accepted to the school.

Students who grew up with social media recognize and respond to this organic, hands-off aesthetic. Current students whose work appears in this informal sort of marketing tend to feel more connected to the school, part of something bigger; prospective students see honest portrayals of life on campus.

Short-Form Video and YouTube Advertising

Most Americans encounter somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000 advertisements each day. Today’s students have grown up bombarded by advertisements and messaging.

YouTube’s short-form advertising formats – the six-second format, notably – attempt to address this fatigue by keeping things brief. Whether they’re successful at breaking through or just add more noise is a separate question.

That said, brands have done some compelling things with just six seconds. Creating a quick, punchy message or story can be a helpful exercise in brevity, tightening marketers’ focus on the most direct ways to reach the audience. Remember, the goal isn’t to summarize your entire university in six seconds. A short-form video ad is effective if it captures the audience’s interest and makes them want to learn more. Try picking a single selling point or message as the ad’s focus. When you’re trying to reach an oversaturated audience, every word counts.

Digital marketing teams in higher education have come to rely on video for a wide range of purposes. That trend is likely to continue. Short-form testimonials and videos highlighting your community are a great, relatively inexpensive way to shape impressions early in the recruitment process.

You can also re-cut videos to different lengths that suit YouTube’s advertising options. The six- and 15-second lengths are the most common formats. Your audience will thank you for keeping things brief.

Need help with your higher education digital strategy or digital marketing efforts? Contact our expert team!