Enrollment growth tactics have run the gamut from adding lazy rivers to getting the president to make personal calls to prospective students. Luxury dorms, tuition resets, and of course, the comfort of what seems tried and true, search lists, have been college favorites. And yet, even with all of these creative and let’s face it, expensive approaches, colleges still struggle to meet enrollment goals.

On the other hand, one key tool that could cost far less yet generate stronger results, digital marketing, tends to go overlooked.

We talk with colleges every day. So, we know that college marketing teams are stretched thin. We know they are pulled in many directions, often required to focus more on internal communications than on enrollment marketing. We know that general marketing teams don’t have the time to specialize in things like social-media marketing, search-engine optimization or pay-per-click advertising. We know how much colleges trust search lists, and that setting them aside would seem like too much of an abrupt change, too great a risk.

Even so, we encourage colleges to do what they can to increase their digital marketing efforts however possible.

Said Notre Dame College’s President Emeritus, Andrew Roth, in an EvoLLLution.com article:

“The most common recruitment error is not top-of-the-funnel misspent funds. The error is not buying the wrong leads, although that happens often enough. The recruiting error occurs inside the funnel.”

We agree.

Let’s look at the funnel.

Traditional college marketing has depended on search lists, and those lists were meant to drive top-of-funnel awareness. For decades, higher ed had little competition. The size of the prospective higher ed student pool outnumbered college enrollment goals, and the burden of matching a college to a student was mostly on the student.

But the number of high school graduates has been decreasing, while the number of schools has increased. After all, most colleges now have to compete with any college that offers similar online programming. And the impact? The traditional, top-of-funnel approach is no longer delivering.


Traditional marketing approach


Progressive Approach – Focused on Consideration

In response, some colleges have begun to switch focus. Forgotten or ignored by many colleges are prospective students who are already aware of the school. Whereas prospective students used to leap from awareness to enrollment after little more than a campus visit, prospective students today are taking their time.

Today’s prospects are carefully weighing their options. They are studying cost and how they’ll finance their educations. They are considering practical realities, such as which programs are likely to result in stable job opportunities later. And many are forgoing their top choices of college in order to pursue less expensive ones. We call this the consideration phase.

Colleges that nurture their relationships with prospects who are in the consideration phase are having greater success in meeting enrollment goals. An added benefit is that they are more likely to enroll “right-fit” students. These goals are achieved through knitting the college’s marketing and admissions teams to create a multi-layered approach.

On the marketing side, every message sent also creates an opportunity to listen and learn more about your prospects. When these insights are shared with the admissions side, staff can be better prepared to respond to prospects with the information they seek.

Progressive marketing approach

Digital marketing usually includes a multi-layered approach that blends a school’s website with online advertising—in support of how people search for information online (aka Google searches). It does require a custom approach, however (so far, there is no universal template). That said, getting started is the hardest part. But, once you’ve begun, you’ll have analytics to begin informing your next steps, and, through a series of analytics, adjustments and re-evaluations, your marketers will strengthen their campaigns.

Types of Digital Marketing:

  • Paid Search (PPC)
  • Social Media Ads
  • Display/Retargeting
  • Website Strategy
  • Referral Strategy
  • Search Engine Optimization
  • Conversion Rate Optimization

There are a number of benefits to using digital marketing, but here are our top three:

  1. It fits your Gen Z and Millennial audience.

Your audience is online. Meet them there.

  1. It strengthens your potential to build relationships.

Roth, in the EvoLLLution article, also emphasized the importance of listening, problem-solving and relationship-building with regard to recruitment. If there is any kind of marketing that allows for in-the-moment two-way engagement, it is digital marketing.

Through digital marketing, prospective students can reach out to YOU and let you know they’re interested in your school. In fact, they do this any time they search for an academic program that matches your offerings. Are you listening? Are you responding?

In this scenario, being responsive means checking your website’s analytics and optimizing the most-visited areas. And it can also mean that you are running a marketing campaign focused on strategic search terms, such as “RN to BSN.”

Another layer of listening might be in how quickly you respond to a student who completes a request-for-information form on your website. And here we’d underscore that digital marketing can be a great tool for setting the stage for your admissions team to do what they do best: engage in friendly, welcoming conversation that encourages the prospect to continue to the next step in the admissions process.


Traditional and progressive marketing approaches compared

  1. It allows you to mine valuable analytics

Once you begin checking your digital marketing dashboards, it can be tempting to look at them several times a day. Why? For one, they are constantly changing. You can see, in real time, how well your campaigns are doing—and that can be rewarding. If something seems to be underperforming, you have the opportunity to adjust almost immediately. For insights into the top ten dashboards you need to grow enrollment see our previous article.

Hiding in Plain Sight

The consideration phase of the funnel is where you have the greatest chance of finding your future enrollees. Prospective students today are looking for colleges that are on the digital platforms they use. They expect to be able to shop for a college online through Google searches and social media—and that’s where you should look for them, too. The more engaged your college is with these mediums, the more likely you are to rise to the top of your right-fit prospects’ choices.