Within higher education, digital marketers are lucky, because we have access to professors who are thought leaders on the cutting edge of their respective field. Clearly, professors are incredible resources for their students inside of the classroom, and outside of the classroom, professors function as brand ambassadors for their programs and the larger institution. Of course, marketing teams are aware of a professor’s value in order to attract students, and they build videos and web assets around them to create trust and illustrate value. But when it comes to student generation, are marketers effectively leveraging professors to accomplish larger organizational goals, such as increasing organic rankings, acquiring traffic to their website, and creating new touchpoint? What is clear about higher education digital marketing is that even in 2016, when changes in the SEO and social media industry have forced marketers to rely on the highest quality content, professors are not being leveraged effectively. Here is what they’re missing:
Marketing teams can utilize their professors to acquire more students by leveraging traditional public relations practices for a digital world. This is commonly referred to as digital public relations.
Digital public relations uses the larger media in order build brand awareness, increase the thought leadership for professors and university stakeholders, improve organic rankings, and, ultimately, generate more students. In order to illustrate the importance of digital public relations for higher education digital marketers, I created a list below that focuses on why all higher ed digital marketers should strongly consider incorporating digital public relations into their marketing strategy and budget.
1. Digital Public Relations Influences Search Rankings
Digital public relations is the best way to build the highest quality backlinks, which serve as indicators—or votes—that convince Google your site is relevant, trustworthy, and valuable. These indicators will in turn help to place your university program higher up in the search engine results page (SERP). When you land a backlink from a domain authority of a website that is strong, then that helps to strengthen your own website. (The higher domain authority of a website, the more value for Google.) The larger media landscape is one of the best avenues to land high quality backlinks, because they have incredibly strong websites, and they are constantly looking for content.
By leveraging faculty members, a skilled communications team can build stories around professors and pitch them to the mainstream media as sources. It’s very difficult to acquire a profile in the Wall Street Journal or CNN, but a digital public relations team can pitch professors to take part in a larger conversation. For instance, as the news broke on the controversy between the FBI and Apple over an encrypted phone, a digital public relations team can pitch their professors in criminal justice and computer science to provide expert commentary on the story. Reporters will include quotes from the professor, and the public relations team will ask for a link within the article. To see more about our successes, you can read the following article: Tracking digital public relations with SEO goals.
Byline articles are another way to leverage faculty members to create high quality backlinks. (It’s best to have a team who understands how to pitch articles to publications, and it takes someone with a background in journalism or public relations to land these types of opportunities.) In order to build backlinks at high quality publications, the team will pitch article ideas generated in collaboration with the professor to editors. By collaborating with the professor, the team will send an approved article to the editor, and in the bio information on the site, the professor can add the link. The best communication teams provide ghostwriting services.
Expert commentary and byline articles are essential strategies that digital public relations teams implement to reach the highest quality publications, and by landing a link on these sites, it will help build your site’s domain authority as well as send indicators to Google that your site should be higher in the search results. Students will then find your program organically for your targeted keywords, which creates leads without spending any money.
2. Increase Brand Awareness
Online education is more competitive than ever, and one way that your program can position themselves in front of your targeted audience is by creating media opportunities at publications with large reaches. By leveraging publications that are trusted, you’ll establish your program as being on the cutting edge of their industries. This will send signals to potential students that not only are the program’s professors actively engaged in the research they’re teaching, but show prospective students that they will be a part of the most relevant conversations and receive an education that will propel their careers. This type of publicity can serve as an opportunity for a prospective student to interact with your brand in a unique way.
While many online programs have marketing strategies that focus on creating interactions with potential students through landing pages, social media, and websites, those brand assets might not initially convert the student because of a lack of clout. Brand awareness and trust can be an issue. Digital public relations begins to create interactions with potential students by leveraging vetted organizations in order to build upon their brand. By interacting with prospective students in a natural way, the message will sink in easier, and the brand assets as well as the larger content marketing strategies will only be strengthened.
3. Create a Path for Students
As digital marketers, we’re always trying to imagine the research process of how prospective students come to make a decision about signing up for an online degree program. When a student searches for information about a degree program further along in their decision process, what will they find? Will they simply come across the program’s web assets—or will they find that their program is in the news and that their professors are not just engaging in an academic community, but that they are trying to tell their program’s story to a larger audience?
Digital public relations changes the way that a student researches a degree program by creating a new digital narrative. For instance, a prospective student will benefit by encountering a story about a professor who is quoted in a larger article at the Los Angeles Times, discussing the future of their profession. Perhaps they will remember a professor’s name in the Wired article on the future of 5G technologies. Perhaps students can also come across how a professor is a part of the evolution of digital education and dedicated to creating the optimal environment for students to grow. Or perhaps a prospective student will benefit from seeing a profile highlighting a professor’s advancement in their field based on a new grant. What digital public relations helps with is creating a path, an outline, for students to follow in their research, which illustrates the career options they will have when they graduate.
4. Build Relationships with Professors
One of the thoughts that many stakeholders consider when investing in digital public relations is whether or not a marketing team can handle the complex nature of the academic world. In order to have professors invest their time into a digital public relations strategy, they need to trust the team they are working with and know that they will represent their work in the highest regard. So a digital public relations team working in education must have the ability to understand and translate complex academic topics into something that would make sense for the mainstream media.
It’s essential that digital public relations professionals are experts in the art of turning complex academic jargon into something more informal and journalistic. Often, our team has found that professors have no idea how to change their style, so we help them learn to tell their stories in a way that can attract major media outlets. Our team accomplishes this by staying up-to-date on industry trends, interviewing professors the same way a journalist would engage with them, and doing our homework on a professor’s research and background so we can prove to professors that we can not only represent their university but their own personal brands.
But most importantly, we help professors shape their stories outside of academia, and this often creates great relationships with the team and the professor. They value our hard work and expertise, and when professors see their names or bylines in leading publications, they appreciate the value of a larger marketing strategy. Digital public relations benefits both the program and their professors by supporting their research and academic interests. This helps bridge the gap between the marketing team and the individual stakeholders that make up the program. The more a professor’s work is promoted, the more they become thought leaders in their industry, and they will be sought after by other journalists and editors, leading to the opportunity to create new backlinks and touchpoints.
5. A Long-term Investment
When it comes to deciding how to spend resources in a marketing budget, the fundamental question every stakeholder wants to know is: What is my ROI? With paid search, a stakeholder in an online program can see how their money is being spent in the short term and evaluate their cost-per-lead as well as their cost-per-acquisition and quickly understand whether or not their strategy is working. While this is an essential part of the larger strategy, a diversified marketing approach will take into account how to leverage all available tactics and try to think about ways to maximize the budget spent on paid ads.
Digital public relations is different than paid search in the sense that it is a long-term approach, and it is essentially free advertising. By building up the number of touchpoints potential students have with your brand as well as the number of backlinks from high quality publications, digital public relations helps online university programs increase their organic rankings, and students will naturally find the degree program without paying for keywords or social impressions. It’s a strategy that pays long-term dividends when it is a part of the larger digital strategy, and it’s an worthwhile investment in the long haul.
To learn more about our digital public relations strategy, see our process here: Circa digital public relations
Joseph Lapin M.F.A. is an author, creative director, and journalist, and his writing has been published in the Los Angeles Times, Narratively, Salon, Slate, and more. He is a former adjunct professor at Florida International University, and he has worked on PR campaigns for Ernst & Young, Brentwood Associates, and more.