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Student learning virtually from laptop surrounded by books and backpack ?>
Student learning virtually from laptop surrounded by books and backpack

How Higher Education Marketers Can Adjust to the New Normal

Like so many industries, the higher education space has been turned on its head since the beginning of COVID-19. Where colleges and universities once relied on highlighting in-person facilities and offerings, they must now find ways to market their services to a world that’s increasingly virtual or online.

But COVID-19 isn’t the only factor to blame for changes in higher ed. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, undergraduate enrollment had declined for eight consecutive years pre-pandemic.

Luckily, as the higher education space has evolved, so too have the tools available to marketers. For colleges and universities to mitigate enrollment declines and effectively market their new virtual and online programs, marketers will need to update their strategies and expand into channels like programmatic, CTV, and emerging social platforms.

Read on to learn how marketers can secure wins for higher ed institutions in this new era.

What’s Changed in Higher Education?

Enrollment Declines

The steady decrease in higher education enrollment rates is fueled by multiple factors. Competition from alternative and online training programs, such as tech bootcamps, counts for one. However, perhaps even more impactful is a public that seems increasingly skeptical about the benefits of a college education. A 2019 Gallup poll found that the only 51 percent of Americans consider college “very important,” down from 70 percent in 2013.

Then, when COVID-19 hit and universities and colleges were forced to send students home and adjust to virtual education methods, many students (and parents) were left wondering if their tuition bills were worth an education provided over Zoom.

Online and Virtual Offerings

Of course, the virtual learning offerings of 2020 were quite different from the more sophisticated programs of today, which colleges and universities now thoughtfully plan to engage users in virtual and online environments. Going forward, higher education brands must embrace—and invest in—the digital future. As a 2020 Harvard Business Review article put it:

“This moment is likely to be remembered as a critical turning point between the ‘time before,’ when analog on-campus degree-focused learning was the default, to the ‘time after,’ when digital, online, career-focused learning became the fulcrum of competition between institutions.”

How Can Higher Education Marketers Adjust to a Changing Landscape?

So, how can marketers succeed in this tumultuous time for higher education? In short, by leaning into the changes. Marketing to the virtual world, testing and learning on new platforms, and segmenting and targeting will be key.

Market to the Virtual World

Online and virtual learning are quickly becoming the new normal. Just as institutions have pivoted to educating remotely, marketers need to pivot their strategies to reach online learners where they are.

Virtual events are a great way to show key audiences that your higher education brand knows how to do digital. They also open your marketing strategy to international audiences—and what’s better than getting thousands of additional eyes on your offerings?

Open houses, campus visits, and accepted student days can be pivotal in the student decision-making process, and there are plenty of ways to get creative in terms of making them accessible for those who prefer to stay remote (check out Harvard’s Virtual Tour for inspiration!)

To successfully market a virtual event, experts recommend tapping into co-branding opportunities. If your university is organizing a virtual Q&A with select engineering staff, try leveraging those staff members’ connections. For example, a professor who’s on the board of the Society of Women Engineers might be able to get that group involved with promoting the event.

Test and Learn on New Platforms

Historically, the higher education marketing model has leaned on advertising to general audiences on network and cable TV. Yet the audiences colleges and universities want enrolling in their programs—namely, Gen Z—don’t engage with TV in the same way as past generations. According to Deloitte’s 2021 Digital Media Trends survey, only 10% of Zoomers said watching TV or movies was their favorite entertainment pastime. Instead, Gen Zers are more likely to be playing video games, listening to music, browsing the internet, and engaging with social media. Higher education advertisers would be wise to redirect some of their media budgets toward these channels in order to reach prospective students.

Speaking of social media, Facebook threw higher ed marketers for a loop in 2021 when it removed the option to target users under the age of 18 based on their interests and activities. Still, marketing on Facebook isn’t a bust—its algorithm is highly effective at targeting people who are likely to take a desired action, even if relying on that algorithm removes a significant amount of marketer oversight.

At the same time, Facebook isn’t what it used to be—it’s seen a steady decline in use for prospective students aged 12 to 17. Even more, Facebook and Instagram are established social platforms that can be oversaturated with advertising.

When leveraging platforms like these, influencer marketing is a smart way to distinguish your brand. According to eMarketer, influencers are particularly influential to Gen Zers and millennials. Higher education brands have a unique opportunity to work with micro- and nano-influencers (think students, alumni, and staff) who are typically perceived as more authentic than celebrity influencers, and can help build brand trust as a result.

In addition to refining strategies on established social platforms, marketers should branch out into new channels. Channels like Snapchat and TikTok (two of the most popular social networks with Gen Z), and audio streaming (which more than half of Gen Z report using on a daily basis), are great ways to reach younger demographics in places where they spend a lot of their free time. Marketers can then utilize CTV (of which 80% of the US population from 25 to 54 are regular users) to connect with older demographics whose kids will soon be thinking about their post-high school plans.

Segment and Target

When marketing to the virtual world, there may be no better tool in the advertising toolchest than programmatic.

Programmatic advertising gives media buyers an easy way to tailor messaging across unique audience segments and tactics. By leveraging automated higher education programmatic advertising campaigns, higher education marketers can make sure they are serving the right messages to the right audiences, at the right time, and while they’re in the right frame of mind.

With the ability to put custom messaging in front of audiences with different interests and priorities— “traditional undergraduates” and “prospective transfers,” for example—marketers can use their budgets more efficiently while collecting knowledge about what moves the needle with different consumers. On a more tactical level, marketers can customize their creative to retarget audiences, reach people with unique interest targeting, or even connect with people who are physically close to a school’s campus.

First-party data also presents a big opportunity for higher education advertising. For example, leveraging a DMP solution enables marketers to gather advanced audience insights about visitors to a learning institution’s website. Marketers can then use those insights for look-a-like modeling, further expanding their target segments based on the attributes they find.

Key Growth Audiences in Higher Education

While it’s important to collect your own insights about target audiences, general audience research can still help you get a head start. By analyzing data from MRI Market-by-Market 2021 and TeenMark, Basis Technologies’ Research & Insights group identified five key growth audiences within higher education:

1. Parents of Teenagers

  • Adults 35-54 years of age
  • Men and women
  • Favorite platforms are Twitter, Spotify, and Instagram
  • Like to connect with brands through social media

2. College Students

  • Adults 18-24 years of age
  • Majority women
  • Favorite platforms are Spotify, Instagram, and Hulu
  • Want to succeed in their chosen profession

3. Potential Adult Learners

  • Adults 18-34 years of age
  • Men and women
  • Favorite platforms are Hulu, Instagram, and mobile apps
  • Want to advance their careers

4. Potential Grad Students

  • Adults 21-54
  • Majority women
  • Favorite platforms are CTV/OTT, Spotify, Facebook
  • Expect brands to support social causes

5. High School Student College Intenders

  • Teenagers 15-18 years of age
  • Majority women
  • Favorite platforms are mobile apps, TikTok, and Snapchat
  • Expect brands to support social causes

All five of these growth segments are heavy digital media users and spend more hours online than the average U.S. adult. They also generally come from diverse and multicultural households and, as such, tend to prefer advertisements that feature people who they can relate to. Across all audience segments, it’s more important than ever for colleges and universities to feature people of diverse identities and backgrounds in their media.

Looking Ahead: Preparing Our Advertising for the Cookieless Future

Despite the upheaval, it’s an exciting time for marketers who want to lead higher education brands into the digital-first future and help transform perceptions around what higher education can be.

As higher education adjusts to a new normal, so too is the advertising landscape itself forging a new path—namely, one without third-party cookies, which have historically helped marketers to target audiences.

Instead of relying upon third-party cookies, marketers will need to put systems in place that target audiences without compromising consumer privacy. For an in-depth guide to how marketers should prepare for the cookieless future, check out Beyond Third-Party Cookies: Your Guide to Overcoming the Identity Crisis.

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