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Higher Ed Marketing Is Worth It .... and We Can Prove It

I’ve never met a marketer who would tell you their department is fully funded and adequately staffed. Marketing is just one of those wishy-washy, nebulous concepts that can be extremely difficult to grasp unless you’re involved in the day-to-day work these professionals tackle. In higher education in particular, it’s easy for marketers and communicators to feel slighted, like our work is often overlooked and first on the chopping block when the time comes for difficult budgetary decisions. It’s common to celebrate admissions and development staff during times of high revenue—but institutions tend to forget about the communications pros who plan, create, and deliver key messages for those offices. And that’s a mistake. 

I’m not speaking exclusively from an employee engagement perspective (although you better believe that unappreciated strategists and creative staff suffer a major blow to morale—and that will have an effect on your work environment, as well as your brand). For the purposes of this post, I want to discuss the dollars and cents. The nitty gritty. The bottom line. 

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Colleges and universities nationwide are facing severe budget circumstances, and the pending enrollment “cliff” is only going to exacerbate these problems for the next several years. To further complicate matters, now COVID-19 closures are cutting into institutional budgets, making challenging fiscal years a certainty for most schools in 2020–21. It’s time to get real about the role of marketing and communications departments in our new reality. Yes, we are storytellers. Yes, the work we do is creative and celebratory and focused on students as the unique, remarkable individuals they are—but marketing and communications involves both art and science. It’s about the experience and the impact. And the marketing department is an important revenue-driving entity at any institution. 

So what does that mean for us, the marketers of higher education? 

Girl choosing between two different collegesThe pressure is on. As colleges and universities scramble for their slice of the ever-shrinking prospective student population (and shift to target new audiences), marketers need to produce tangible results. With greater expectations comes a need for greater resourcing—and we need to convince the higher-ups that we’re a worthwhile investment. 

We need to know our numbers. Do you know how much tuition revenue comes back into the institution as a result of your marketing campaigns? How about fundraising dollars? Do you know the average amount of advertising money your school spends to recruit and enroll a single student? Do you know how many prospective student leads your campaigns generate for your admissions counselors? At what rate do those convert to applications and enrollments? If you’re shrugging your shoulders right now, we have some things to talk about. Keep reading!

Be smart. Be flexible. Executing a comprehensive, competitive marketing plan is expensive. That’s not changing anytime soon. At the same time, budgets are limited—so we need to do more of what works and less of what doesn’t work. That means developing systems for measuring the effectiveness of our efforts on a regular basis, assessing results based on data (not assumptions), and making recommendations for shifts in strategy. 

We must communicate our value. As communicators, we tend to be hyper-sensitive about coming off as braggarts. We need to get over that. Talk about your successes; share data with leadership and colleagues. Remember that most non-marketers have no idea what you do with your time every day (and they probably think you’re just tweeting out GIFs 24/7), so you have to demonstrate the impact of your work in simple, clear terms. Marketing and communications is more than the “fun” department; your efforts contribute directly to the fiscal well-being of the institution and its ability to continue transforming students’ lives. It’s okay to remind people what you’re working on and why. 

So … where do we start? 

The easiest way to illustrate this process is to walk through an example, so let’s imagine a scenario: Your college is launching a new bachelor’s degree in business, and you need to create a marketing campaign with the goal of recruiting students for the new program’s upcoming class. While you have some ideas about the kinds of content/platforms/media that may reach your target audience best, your theories are currently unproven. Budget is limited, so you need to be careful about spending money in the right places.

Keep that scenario in mind as we move through the next steps together. 

Four different dashboards showing online conversationStep 1: Make friends with colleagues who own important data

Chat with your admissions department. You’re going to need their help and ongoing support to obtain accurate information about the recruiting funnel. 

To start, ask admissions if they can share or provide you with access to:

  • Your college/university’s average net tuition revenue per student. In other words, how much tuition money your campus receives per student after accounting for scholarships, discounts, etc. If you have different rates for different programs, or for undergraduate versus graduate degrees, be sure you get information for all areas.
  • An ongoing, continually updated list of prospective students who submitted their application. If you can get direct access to the admissions customer relationships management (CRM) system, that may be easiest for everyone—if not, it’s helpful to set up a shared spreadsheet with applicants’ names and email addresses. 
  • An ongoing, continually updated list of registered/enrolled students. Again, if you can find this in a CRM at your convenience, that’s great. If not, a shared spreadsheet will probably be the way to go if your friends in admissions can update it on a regular basis. 

All of this data will become essential later in the process, so it’s best to gather it as soon as you can. 

Step 2: Set up landing pages, forms, and unique URLs

Example of a basic university landing pageIn the case of our new business program scenario, you’ll likely develop loads of supporting content. That may include a webpage, social media posts, ads for print and digital media, blog posts, news releases, direct mail materials—the list could go on and on. So how do you know which of these many tactics works and which flops? 

Tracking is about to become your new best friend. And we do that with landing pages, forms, and unique URLs. 

Start by creating a simple, easily replicable landing page with basic information about the program and key messaging. It’s usually best to host these pages on a subdomain of your institutional website so you don’t clog up the main .edu (for example, if your main institutional website is www.yourcollege.edu, you might ask your web manager to create a subdomain like info.yourcollege.edu or degrees.yourcollege.edu that you can use exclusively for promotional landing pages). You can also use tools like Unbounce and HubSpot to create custom landing pages for your brand. 

However you choose to create landing pages, be sure to adjust your settings so Google and other search engines can’t discover them. You’ll also want to use a form builder that allows integration with your institution’s CRM, as well as hidden fields so you can enter the name of the lead source on the back end.

Remember to set up integrations with your CRM so new leads populate correctly in your admissions team’s system (the process for doing this varies based on the tools you use to build the landing page, your form builder, and your school’s CRM platform—but look into native integrations, as well as tools like Zapier for assistance).

Why do we bother with all of this extra work? 

Because you want every single piece of content or promotion to have its own dedicated inquiry form. We want to know, very specifically, that Sandy Smith submitted an inquiry after clicking on the Instagram ad with that photo of a smiling woman in a suit—and Joey Jones submitted an inquiry after receiving a promotional postcard in the mail. The goal is to tie specific, individual students directly with the lead source that brought them into your recruiting funnel. 

Once you’ve set up your initial landing page, the hardest part is finished. Congratulate yourself! Now, every time you create a new piece of content or promotional material, you can simply duplicate this landing page, make necessary tweaks to copy or imagery, and assign the page to a unique URL (ideally using a UTM code; shoutout to Jackie Vetrano!). Note: For printed items, make it easy for your audience to remember and retype the URL, so consider redirecting the page using a link shortener, either directly from your website (e.g., www.yourcollege.edu/get-a-business-degree) or with a service like Bitly. And don’t forget to change the lead source title each time you duplicate and assign a new URL! 

Two women in a marketing meeting

Step 3: Record, Analyze, and Report

Now that you’ve connected with colleagues in admissions and set up your landing pages/unique URLs, you have a wealth of information being collected at your fingertips. Thanks to your hard work during the setup phase, you now know:

  • The names and email addresses (and any other desired contact information) of every student who submits an inquiry form for your new program.
  • The piece of content they were viewing immediately before submitting that inquiry.
  • Which of those prospective students submitted an application or enrolled as a new student (thanks for the collaboration, admissions friends!).
  • The average net tuition revenue your institution receives per each new student in that program (again, thanks to our pals in admissions).
  • How much money you spent on each piece of content/promotion/advertising.

With all of that data handy, you can make some essential calculations, including: 

  • The total revenue your institution expects to earn as a direct result of your marketing campaigns.
  • The ROI (return on investment) your institution receives for every marketing dollar spent.
  • The average cost (in marketing dollars) of obtaining a lead for your admissions team.
  • The average cost (in marketing dollars) of generating a new student application.
  • The average cost (in marketing dollars) of acquiring a new student enrollment.

That is some valuable, persuasive data to have on hand when you’re making the case for increased department resources! You can also use this information to inform future campaigns and better understand audience behavior. For example, if your Instagram ads consistently have an ROI of -50%, but LinkedIn ads give you an ROI of 500%—you probably want to hit pause on Instagram and go all-in on LinkedIn. 

If you’re just starting out with this type of reporting, don’t worry! Use the first semester or two to collect baseline data. You may be surprised at the insights you discover about your marketing strategy! And of course, I wouldn’t leave you completely high and dry to do all of this on your own the first time.

You can access my campaign tracking spreadsheet template here.

The formulas for calculating budget, ROI, revenue, yield, etc., are set up for you. Just save a copy of the Google Sheets document in your own files and replace the sample info with your campaign data.
Image of Danielle's campaign spreadsheet template

Now what?

The days of "throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks" in higher ed marketing are over. Communications and marketing professionals should serve as strategic partners for our colleagues—providing a bird’s-eye view of data that our friends across campus often don’t see. Knowledge is power, and it’s up to us to provide our institutions with the information necessary to make smart choices. The months and years ahead require wide-ranging perspectives and creative approaches to reaching our key audiences. Marketers are well-equipped to help. 

As colleges and universities struggle with tough budget years, challenging enrollment goals, a new landscape for public perception of higher education, and changing expectations from students, the role of the marketing and communications office is expanding. MarCom staff are practiced as data-informed communicators, putting us in an excellent position to showcase that our work is effective from a mission-driven perspective, but also as a revenue-driver.

We already love what we do as creative professionals, storytellers, community-builders, and upholders of our institutional brands. It’s time to show that passion and pragmatism aren’t mutually exclusive. After all—institutional well-being and supporting student success go hand in hand.


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Subscribe to NewsletterThe post Higher Ed Marketing Is Worth It ... and We Can Prove It originally appeared on Campus Sonar's Brain Waves blog.

Danielle Sewell

Danielle Sewell is a content marketing strategist, specializing in digital media and brand development. She believes in empowering individuals, institutions, and organizations to inspire change by sharing their authentic stories. Her career has included roles as a higher education marketer at not-for-profit institutions, as well as work in academic publishing, private business, and consulting. Danielle holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from Wilkes University and a B.A. in English from the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. Connect with Danielle on LinkedIn, or follow her on Twitter.

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