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The digital future of higher education
Dorota Berg - 18 July 2023 - 15 min read
Get ahead with the right university marketing strategy
It is a real art to keep up with all the changes that influence higher education. The rapid development of digital media, evolving career trends and new technologies that can impact the professional world overnight are just some of the factors that universities now have to take into account. Many institutions therefore find it challenging to balance their messaging across different channels, choose the right marketing strategy and deliver content that is sought after.
We believe that delivering a solid communication strategy that is aligned with trends and the audience’s expectations is one of the most important success factors. As an agency that has worked on various projects in the education sector, we have therefore decided to share some useful tips for creating an effective higher education marketing strategy.
Redefining higher education
Traditionally, families aspired to send their children to renowned universities. After enrolling on a university course and several years of hard work, students would go on to get a degree. The knowledge they acquired and the teaching quality they received at a university was believed to have a huge influence on their future career and on other opportunities that would lead to high living standards.
This no longer seems to be the prevailing belief. Today’s candidates – many of whom are Gen Z – have a new way of thinking about their future. An academic degree isn’t necessarily the key to their dream career. According to a survey conducted at the beginning of 2022, only 51 % of Gen Z were likely to consider a four-year degree. One of the reasons for this is that young people are more eager to combine education with work – they want to invest in skills rather than degrees and get hands-on experience as early as possible.
What does this mean for universities? Today, the higher education landscape is much more complex than in previous decades. Let’s look at some of the common trends:
Universities and other institutions have become more flexible and digitised. Thanks to digital platforms, students from all over the world can participate in their programmes – including on a remote basis.
Lifelong learning has become a global trend, fueled by the dynamic technological development of many industries: this has pushed the boundaries of studying and created a demand for new fields of study and more contemporary course offerings. These new courses are typically well promoted to attract new candidates and stand out from competitors.
In recent years, the emergence of new fields has led to a demand for new roles. Only the most innovative and flexible institutions will be able to successfully deliver courses that will allow students to secure trailblazing jobs like prompt engineer (AI) or human-machine interface designer. Because of the way the professional world is changing, universities need to develop their course offering and are finding new areas to compete in.
Candidates tend to belong to Gen Z. They are digital natives with mobile-first consumption habits when it comes to information. To communicate with them successfully, universities need to apply smart digital strategies, create high quality content and make use of channels like social media.
There are other candidates as well, ones who are aiming to complement their education or change their career path. MBAs and other types of postgraduate studies are a popular choice for mature candidates. As a result, establishments have to adopt a tailor-made approach to reach a diverse audience.
As previously mentioned, higher education institutions are constantly being challenged by many different establishments that offer short and practical courses. As a result, the educational landscape has become richer, more diverse and harder to succeed in. Universities need to prove their worth in a much more competitive environment, which means their brand image needs to be stronger than ever before. Higher education marketing strategies play a huge role in achieving that.
All these trends have made higher education marketing strategies much more complicated. Attracting candidates and staying at the top of league tables requires a wide range of methods. These can cost a lot; however, there are also more affordable solutions. Let’s look at some examples of what can be done, especially on the digital front.
A marketing strategy for higher education – the digital approach
Higher education institutions can be great places for marketers to leverage digital media and explore the power of imagination. When communicating with different age groups and global, diverse audiences, you can tap into your creative potential and apply it to digital spaces.
First, it is worth starting with a thorough overview of your institution’s current situation.
- Are there any activities that need immediate attention?
- How is your communication strategy spread across different channels?
- Is your messaging consistent and regular?
By summarising your findings, you’ll be able to draw conclusions that will later determine the direction you’ll take. Don’t just settle for one channel or content type. For example, we typically think of social media formats as being great for short-form content, but they can also be used to your institution's advantage to help promote long-form content. Articles or blog posts will be helpful to prospective students as they explore the advantages of different course offerings or compare courses. Once you have produced this content, you can maximise its impact by sharing it on social media.
There are many solutions. We will therefore highlight some of the channels that deserve your attention and give you some initial tips to optimise your communication materials.
Do you have a high-quality, accessible and mobile-friendly website?
A website is often the first touch point for your audience. It is where potential candidates will form their first impression of your institution. As surveys have shown, as many as 98% of Gen Z own a smartphone and use it as their primary “window to the world.” Taking this into consideration, you will probably want to make your organisation come across as modern and attractive, especially when viewed on a small screen. A mobile-first digital strategy is going to be the most effective.
Are you present on social media?
Social is a commonly used communication channel, especially by Gen Z. It is therefore a great tool for appearing in front of your target group on a daily basis. To do that successfully you need high-quality, well-designed promotional materials like videos, photos and infographics. Think of social media as a distribution channel for content such as blog posts or events. It’s a great solution for brand promotion and image building. You might consider using social media platforms like TikTok to get even closer to a young target group. Use it to showcase campus life, highlight unique programmes, and to promote your community, initiatives and values. It’s a great way to spread the word, support your team and develop your own communication style. Creating a social media strategy will help your university stay on top of its game.
Do you have intuitive, interactive and easy-to-use informational materials?
Printed catalogues may no longer be the go-to source of information for your target group. Information such as course descriptions, accommodation details, admission requirements and key deadlines are crucial for your readers. This kind of information also needs to be updated in order to remain relevant and reliable. This type of content can be put online, in the form of a digital catalogue or an interactive guide. Think of making information easily available to those who access it from a smartphone and simple to manage from a publisher’s perspective. When it comes to higher education marketing it is extremely important to be both innovative and reliable.
Do you have an easy-to-use application system and learning platform?
All candidate forms, submission pages and digital tools for applicants should be highly inclusive, safe and functional. The same goes for the platforms used by students to learn and exchange knowledge. Well-thought-out UX, UI and other advanced web solutions bring safety and high usability. Remember to make these kinds of experiences mobile-friendly.
There are many other aspects of your digital presence that can be taken into account. But let’s pause here, so you can ask yourself a few important questions:
- Are you currently marketing your institution enough via digital channels?
- In the world dominated by digital media, do you make good use of modern tools and platforms to achieve your digital potential?
- Do you produce attractive content so as to build a strong online presence for your university and its brand?
- Is your audience's user experience good or bad? Are your digital platforms useful, safe and accessible?
By answering these questions you and your team can establish a very thorough assessment of your current marketing activities. Next, you can define your organisation’s strengths, spot opportunities as well as identifying any potential risks and pain points.
Now, look at all the areas that need immediate improvement and start a new journey towards an optimised online presence.
Higher education marketing strategies that work for the digital age
Getting a university degree – an investment with lifelong consequences
While applying for university, candidates are faced with one of the most important and consequential decisions of their lives. Their decision will shape their future career. It will dictate the type of environments they end up in and the type of experiences they have. When making this decision, candidates have expectations and plans, but also fears and moments of discouragement. Is it going to be worth it? Am I good enough to qualify for the programme? Am I going to be able to complete the course? Last but not least – is the financial investment going to pay off?
Ideally, you should address all those questions in your communication materials. The sooner you quell their doubts the better. You should be able to build a positive image, offer engaging activities and promote your university through a long term marketing strategy that is executed in a modern way.
Digital content that’s aligned with your university’s marketing strategy
When you’ve decided about the most crucial elements of your strategy, it’s time to produce content. With content production come some important questions:
- What should you talk about?
- Which areas do you want to promote?
- In what way do you want to promote them?
- When, where and how often?
The answer will depend highly on the type of organisation you represent. The brand values and messaging should be reflected in all the content you generate. Strong brands deliver consequent, reliable, authentic and impactful communication materials. It starts with elements like logos, fonts and colours. This may seem basic, but many organisations tend to overlook these key elements. When did you last look at your brand assets? Is your branding consistent across all your communication channels? Do you have easily transferable, simple-to-use files to include on your website or to share with your partners? Don’t underestimate the role strong branding can play in higher education marketing.
Here are some examples of easy-to-apply solutions that may be useful to you:
Show off – wax lyrical about the successes of your students and alumni. Show the fruits of their labour. Be fast – update your social media with stories and facts, and make these visible to everyone.
Highlight your institution’s modern offering – showcase courses and programmes in a fresh, exciting way. Keep your copy snappy, informative and easy to understand. Keep up with trends and your audience’s preferences.
Highlight the successes of the teachers, professors and other members of your institution. Build a good reputation: express your appreciation, showcase achievements, present certificates and awards.
Promote new courses and opportunities for postgraduate studies. Highlight the options that are available for lifelong learners. Give examples and arguments that illustrate why your offer will best fit their needs.
Keep in touch – nurture relationships and take care of your existing contacts. For example, do you encourage alumni to boost their careers with relevant educational opportunities? Do you send newsletters or encourage them to explore new possibilities? Are you growing your contact database for future marketing activities? This kind of relationship management is an important part of every strategy, especially in higher education marketing.
A digital communication strategy – a marketer’s route to success
Just as maps are key to reaching a destination, it’s important to have a well-defined plan when it comes to marketing. It’s also important to adjust your plan to the resources and possibilities you have. In higher education marketing, the choice of communication channels and activities needs to be well analysed. Whatever limitations you may have – be it budget constraints or a small team – you need to make the most of the possibilities and resources available to you.
The route you may want to take while planning your communication:
Step 1: Get to know your audience well. Analyse their needs and the situation they’re in.
Step 2: Draw up a plan of how you want to answer their questions, address their needs and encourage them to take action. This will be your strategy.
Step 3: Think about what content you need to create in order to complete this strategy. Next: act. Produce what’s needed and distribute it wisely.
After you’ve made a list of required tasks, you may want to focus on the materials and content you need the most. Some ideas that may work for your organisation:
A digital catalogue of courses and educational programmes
There are a great variety of online publishing platforms that offer interactive digital experiences tailored to the needs of digital natives. You shouldn’t just consider text-based content. Think about sharing inspirational stories and testimonials (those concerning alumni, students, teachers etc.) using photography, video or infographics and other content formats. It will make your content much more engaging and build strong relationships with your audiences. You could, for example, market a course by focusing on an alum’s career story using several different formats and getting creative with storytelling. There are many ways to go about it.
An easy-to-use website and forms
Your university’s application platform should be equipped with intuitive forms and modern functionalities. The UX and UI of your website and application system will play a crucial role in the success of both students and candidates. This may not only influence their experience, but also help reduce any errors that may occur during processes such as registration, teacher-student communication or assignment submissions. This is especially important when there are multiple actions to complete, tight deadlines and other specific rules to follow.
Continuous, high-quality storytelling
Foster ongoing communication. As mentioned above, keep telling your university’s story and regularly present your audiences with high-quality materials. Explore different formats such as video, photography and articles. For example, interviews with university staff can help to convey the right image of your institution, as they are conversational and reader-friendly. With the use of the right key words and phrases, you can increase your chances of attracting valuable visitors to your website (thanks to SEO, whereby you optimise your content for search engines). There are multiple digital marketing techniques which you may find useful, including online advertising and analytics.
The power of branding
Make sure your branding is up to date and being used in the right way, so you can include it in the content you produce and in projects with partners. Higher education marketing has to strike the right balance between tradition and the wants and desires of contemporary audiences. Creating a strong brand is crucial when building awareness amongst your target groups.
Additionally, harness the power of live streaming. Relevant activities or events can be shared on your social media channels or through other platforms in real time. For example, you can help students and alumni open the door to their dream jobs by live streaming at events such as job fairs. Virtual job fairs, online conferences with industry leaders or webinars for students or candidates are all great ideas worth exploring and… live streaming from.
There are many ways to succeed. Great ideas supported by high quality digital content are the way to go. Give this approach a try!
Make your university stand out with an outstanding strategy
We hope our short overview will inspire you to work on your organisation’s marketing strategy and to use digital channels in your communication methods. Because higher education marketing needs to balance traditional values with a modern approach, we encourage you to contact us for any sort of support, advice or inspiration: We offer strategic workshops, including ones with a focus on digital solutions (like Design Sprints).
- We provide our clients with creative concept creation, design, branding and other services.
- Our digital team specialises in digital environments, including the development of websites and apps. The team can also make existing environments more user-friendly, efficient and accessible.
- Our team can also help with content production, including high-quality video and photography. We have our own studios and offer hybrid photoshoots that use a remote client direction model.
- We can help you share your story in the best way possible for your brand. Contact us if you have any questions – we’ll be happy to help.