Given the current situation, it’s not surprising if your marketing campaigns suffer a blow. You may be experiencing decreased digital engagement, fewer website visits, and a drop in applicants. Know that you’re not alone; this has been a difficult time for all marketers. When you begin to analyze your digital marketing campaigns to figure out what’s going wrong and what can be fixed, it’s helpful to remember this bit of wisdom. Pardon our geekiness, but sometimes science fiction shows put it best:

It is entirely possible that there is nothing wrong with your institution’s marketing efforts, even though you’re still not putting up the numbers you thought you would. The higher education market is more competitive than ever before, and current economic factors from the early 21st century going forward are going to tighten the market even more.

However, it’s a good idea to examine your higher education marketing strategy and make sure that it’s aligned with our current reality.


Why Higher Education Marketing is Getting More Difficult

First, let’s briefly review the big challenges facing the higher education market that don’t have anything to do with your actual marketing campaigns:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic
  • Increasing international competition for foreign students
  • Declining population rates in the U.S.
  • Increased availability of online learning options

The global COVID-19 pandemic has left learning institutions with little choice but to convert to remote learning. This hurts the bottom line of larger institutions, which have counted on things like their brand name or campus culture to help sell the whole experience. When you apply to Harvard, you’re not just getting the classroom time but the opportunity to network with other students there. Now that the classroom experience is being filtered through a Zoom teleconference, the appeal of big-name Ivy League schools is lost.

The number of international students coming to the United States has been at an all-time high. That’s good news on the surface, but it also forces universities to compete for those enrollments. Again, an established campus in a geographically teeming area can count on the local family traditions, lifelong brand name exposure, alumni organizations, and simple proximity to bolster its enrollments. Those distinctions are invisible to a student coming in from overseas. They’re more likely to shop for the best value for the dollar.

Demographics-wise, the United States has had declining birth rates for years. Sheer numbers of native students are projected to decline by 15% within the next five years. Part of this is because we are between population waves, a pattern first set by the two world wars at the beginning of the 20th century. The other part is the economic impact of the early 20th century, fraught with recessions, stock market crashes, and now fallout from the pandemic. Currently, the unemployment rate is shooting past 10% and as high as 17%. Unemployment was at 3.5% at the beginning of 2020, the healthiest job market the US had seen in the 21st century. So now, this shock has tightened purse strings all over the country.

Finally, remote learning was already changing the landscape of higher education before there was a pandemic. Since the COIVD-19 pandemic, remote learning has gone from an eventual option to a “sink or swim” ultimatum. Students are rethinking their education plans in response to this new virtual reality. Some are downgrading their expectations to cope with remote learning or enrolling in local college courses; others are put off by the prospect altogether and opting to take the year off altogether.

The take-away from these factors is that colleges are going to be seeing a decline in enrollments no matter what they do. If you’re experiencing shrinking enrollments, don’t panic too much; “a lowering tide is sinking all boats,” to reverse an aphorism.

So, in our new lean and tough higher education marketing world, here are some pointers to address these challenges.


Challenge #1: Students Deferring Enrollment Due to Coronavirus Pandemic

If your school isn’t set up to fully convert to remote learning, or students are reluctant to settle for a Zoom classroom when they wanted the whole experience, there is a third option. The message your university can send is that there is hope for a return to normal, and we can work together to make that happen. It may feel risky, but there will be a return to in-person education.

Some campuses are reopening in the fall of 2020. They are taking a partial approach, with special safety measures in place. Some examples:

The tentative plans include measures to conduct class safely, which includes changes in classroom and dorm policies, providing protective equipment, improved sanitation, tracking student exposure, and efforts to reduce density in both classrooms and campus gathering areas.

If your institution is looking to develop similar plans, releasing that news or even progress towards that goal is a great way to win back those reluctant students. Make sure you communicate your plan and include specific steps. Students want to know that they can safely attend your school; answering their pressing questions is the best way you can qualm their worries.

Regardless, every campus should look towards the day when it can reopen, whatever year that happens. So, there should be an administrative blog or university website page on the plan for reopening at every campus. Beyond your website, make sure you share your plan on social media, email students updates, and publish press releases.


Challenge #2: Declining Engagement with Social Media

Are your digital marketing channels not generating the buzz that they normally do? Have comments and shares dropped? If that’s the case, then it’s likely that you’re not giving your audience the content that they want. Here are a few ideas to invigorate your social media strategy.

  • Be sensitive to the current reality: These are extraordinary times that are challenging everyone, especially your students. Make sure that your communications are sensitive to their fears and challenges. Make sure that your sharing timely updates about changing policies so students know the latest information.
  • Share inspiring content: Now, more than ever, people are seeking uplifting content. They’re worried, stressed, and looking for content that makes them feel good. Consider sharing uplifting stories from past alumni, acts of kindness from your community, or humorous content that helps distract them.
  • Include new voices: your Twitter account shouldn’t just be the Dean tweeting his thoughts. You should incorporate more voices on your social media channels, including the enrollment office, alumni, current students, etc. Consider developing “takeover” campaigns where each week a new student takes over your social media channel and shares their perspective.
  • Listen to your audience: If students reply with concerns about their education plan, surprise everyone, and respond! A social media channel with a human being on the other end who interacts with the audience is many times more engaging than a social media account shoveling pre-fab generic posts out of a Hootsuite hopper.
  • Test alternative media channels: If Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram aren’t getting any nibbles, you might consider alternative social media channels such as LinkedIn, Pinterest, Snapchat, Reddit, or Tumblr. Maybe your target audience has moved to a new digital network. It never hurts to evaluate alternative channels and widen your reach.
  • Update your content plan: If your social media platform is a monotonous drone of updates about yourself, you’ll lose audience interest. Try mixing it up with “just for fun” content, spotlights on different departments in your staff, campus anecdotes, “slice of life” accounts from students and faculty, trivia about your university, and other “snack-size” content marketing. You can have regular features of these different departments going out at the same time per day or week while scheduling relevant news in-between.

If you’re already doing all of the above, there really shouldn’t be any problems with your social media plan. If engagement is dropping off, you might want to measure how much you’re spending on social media marketing campaigns during the peak of the pandemic.


Challenge #3: Poor Follow-through in Student Recruitment

Perhaps your “sales funnel” is catching plenty of interest at the top, but it’s simply not resulting in those recruitment numbers.

One possible issue is that there might be too much friction in your process. This calls for some analytics to figure out where your conversion funnel is “leaking.” Some possible starting points that you can investigate:

  • Your website user experience (UX) sucks: Confusing navigation menus and unclear call-to-actions make it difficult for students to find what they need. Instead, they have to dig through pages to find enrollment forms or contact information. Your website needs to make it as easy as possible for interested students to apply. Consider conducting UX testing to ascertain how accessible your website is.
  • You’re not following through on inquiries: When students submit digital inquiries through website forms or send emails to admissions, do they receive a prompt reply? If not, you might want to invest in marketing automation software or implement a virtual assistant. These tools will help you quickly respond to incoming queries and show prospective students that you want them
  • You’re not targeting your audience effectively: An audit might reveal more interest in your campus from city A than city B or an uptick in interest from one demographic over another. If that is the case, you can re-target your marketing efforts so that you’re reaching the audience that is most likely to convert.

If you’re suffering from poor conversion rates, you need to dig into the problem. You can use tools like  Hotjar and Full Story to collect data and determine where pinch points are. Google Optimize also allows you to conduct a variety of tests so you can create the best user experience possible. Consider reaching out directly to prospects. Through email, online surveys, or cold-calling follow-ups, ask what impedes students from signing up. Listen to their feedback and use it to fix your system, or perhaps you might discover deeper concerns outside of your intake system.

There is, however, one very big issue with student recruitment which has gained headlines in recent months:


Challenge #4: Students are Economically Pinched

A closed campus certainly isn’t offering the full benefits that students normally expect when they sign up. Some undergrads have even taken to suing schools, demanding partial tuition refunds during the COVID-19 pandemic. The difference in value between an in-person and remote learning experience is that steep in some cases.

Your school’s pricing policy is out of marketing’s hands, but what your digital marketing department can do is look into addressing these concerns head-on. This means touting your cost-saving measures for students, wherever they may be.

If your school is on the list for the CARES act to pass funding on as a grant to inconvenienced students, by all means, broadcast this news across every social media channel you have.

Your school should also look into any measures it can take to compensate students for lost access to resources. Could you put your campus library online in Kindle form? Can you reimburse the students’ room and board? Can you set up student study groups over remote teleconferencing? Can you provide virtual access to facilities? Can you still allow limited access to campus facilities on a rotating schedule basis? Perhaps students can sign up for timeslots where they can access resources?

Anything your school can do to soften the economic blow for students and increase the perceived value of a virtual education should be announced through official channels. Get creative with solutions, and more importantly, communicate over social media that you’re aware of the problems and are working to solve them.

But do remember that you’re also competing with institutions like the University of Nebraska, which has opted to eliminate tuition costs entirely for students from low-income families. Naturally, that’s the kind of announcement that can drive a migration wave to Nebraska.


Challenge #5: Students Losing Faith in a College Degree

Even before the COVID-19 crisis hit, student enrollment in higher education was already on a steady decline. This NPR news story from December 2019 sounds so ironic now.

The reason given for declining student numbers previously was a booming, robust economy, fueled by the lowest unemployment rate of the 21st century, as we mentioned here earlier. Now, however, we have reversed into one of the most drastic economies in recent memory.

The comparison in that article is made to the Subprime Housing Recession of 2007. At that time, a flagging economy actually increased enrollment in universities and colleges. The logic went that people who were previously secure in their employment prospects took the occasion to head back to school. The difference now is that campuses are crippled in their ability to take on those same students.

However, many students even in 2019 expressed doubt that a college degree was worth it. There’s a psychological factor at play there: low unemployment means less competition for jobs, so once a student has a paycheck, they figure that that’s good enough. Of course, many of those jobs were in low-paying service industries (and still are), while companies still were short of skilled workers.

Luckily, “psychology” is just where marketing can do some good. Your university’s message should drive hard at the message of the degree-to-career funnel. Keep up a thriving alumni association and make sure everybody who has gained success from your university gets a page in your school’s blog. Seek partnerships with companies that will emphasize targeted career training.

This could call for a new marketing plan for your institution, focusing on the throughput from higher education to a better career. And while we’re talking about careers, there is bound to be a new wave of students interested in STEM and medical careers. There’s nothing like a global crisis to bring out those aspiring scientists, after all.

If your school has classes that speak directly to training the skills it takes to beat a pandemic, this is a great time to put those front and center on your academic calendar. Try treating COVID-19 as a “wake-up call,” a need for action in bringing the bright minds that can solve problems like these together with the opportunities they can use to achieve. We can think of no better motivation.


Closing Thoughts…

With no danger of exaggeration, this is a tough time to be a school! While raw learning in the context of reading textbooks, listening to lectures, and even passing exams can be handled remotely, students are missing out on the full access to campus facilities: libraries, gyms, computer labs, study halls, lounges, and living facilities.

Higher education has a responsibility to transmit a message of hope for a better future. While currently the public mood might be discouraged, the lesson of history is that eventually, the population comes around to rally together. We are obviously not going to simply give up and walk away from modern society. We will have to change and adapt.

Some universities, as we mentioned above, are planning a cautious re-opening of facilities with incorporated safeguards. Others have announced that they’re “virtual campus ready.” Schools like St. Cloud State University have converted completely to an online model. Earlier remote-learning schools like DeVry University are sharing polls of students taken to ask how to make online learning work. The unifying message is that we are finding a way to carry on.

As any learning institution should know, it takes a lot to kill a young person’s spirit and ambition. We are bound to eventually see a reignited passion for changing the world in this generation, and when it comes, universities can position themselves as the pathway to find success in those goals.

This is definitely a time for the education industry to reach out more to the young people of today. In the meantime, even if your digital marketing strategy isn’t scoring the big numbers this year, it’s important to remember that this is a temporary challenge impacting us all. If you need help evaluating your marketing strategy and adapting it to these new challenges, feel free to contact us. We’re here to help you.


Alex Membrillo Cardinal CEO

Alex Membrillo

Founder and CEO

Alex Membrillo is the CEO of Cardinal, a digital marketing agency focused on growing multi location companies. His work as CEO of Cardinal has recently earned him the honor of being selected as a member of the 2018 Top 40 Under 40 list by Georgia State University as well as 2015 and 2016 Top 20 Entrepreneur of metro Atlanta by TiE Atlanta, Atlanta Business Chronicle’s 2016 Small Business Person of the Year,and the Digital Marketer of the Year by Technology Association of Georgia (TAG).