Digital marketing in the world of higher education is as competitive as ever and doesn’t look to be easing up anytime soon.  It’s becoming increasingly difficult for the small to mid-sized colleges and universities to compete, leaving many responsible for generating website traffic, improving rankings, and generating leads with few options.  It’s no easy task to produce results while keeping costs low, especially when some CPCs are costing higher ed marketers upwards of $50 or more(!)
To make matters worse, our friends at Google aren’t making things any easier as they continue their quest to favor larger brands, making it even more difficult to leverage organic search for traffic and lead generation.
With often limited budgets and a lack of brand awareness, how can the lesser-known regional colleges and universities compete in the online education space?  Below we’ll take a look at a few tactics and strategies you can take advantage of today to gain a competitive edge and give your degree program a fighting chance in the digital marketing space.

Focus on your faculty

For the smaller colleges and universities who don’t benefit from strong name recognition or national rankings, your biggest asset to distinguish you from your competition may lie in your faculty.  Lets face it, everyone is 100% online, everyone has the latest and greatest online learning platform.  Most value-propositions in the online higher ed space are overused and becoming commonplace across the board.  Even the smallest of schools and programs have faculty doing amazing things in their respective fields.
To capitalize on this, make your faculty part of your marketing strategy and leverage their knowledge and industry influence to increase the visibility of your degree program(s).  Learn what they specialize in, what projects they’re working on, and what’s hot in the industry.  Use their knowledge and influence to produce content (byline articles, infographics, white papers, case studies, for example), generate media placements and links, and keep perspective students engaged on social media.

Leverage Paid Social Media

With near knife-like precision paid social media, including Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, offers higher ed marketers the ability to carve out highly targeted audiences and deliver content designed to engage and convert.  Paid social media not only allows you to more effectively target audiences, but it’s also significantly cheaper in terms of average cost-per-click and offers advertisers the ability to reach a large number of individuals than keyword-based search.

Adwords CPC vs Facebook CPC (Targeting RN-BSN students)

Targeting RN-BSN Students
Adwords CPC Facebook CPC
$71.37 $0.79

While paid social media is a great option for many, there are also a couple things to consider before jumping in head first:

  • Higher Education paid social must be updated regularly – considering the fact that the most effective paid social ads appear in user’s feeds, ads must not only be engaging but also fresh.  We’ve found that ads tire quicker than other traditional PPC channels so be prepared to make regular tweaks to your ad images, ad content, and calls-to-action.
  • You’ll want to utilize segment-specific landing pages for paid social, so be sure you have the resources and budget to produce a few landing page variations.

With less competition, more effective targeting, and cheaper CPCs paid social is definitely an area higher ed marketers should explore.

Become a Thought Leader

Thought leadership is a powerful tool in many facets of digital marketing.  As a Forbes article notes, thought leadership can greatly augment your success in SEO, PR, social media, and content marketing.  As higher ed marketers we are lucky enough work amongst thought leaders on a daily basis and should leverage these individuals to increase the success of our digital marketing efforts.
Blogging is a great platform to leverage thought leadership and can drive immediate results from an SEO perspective.  Most degree programs are overlooking this opportunity, and with the simple addition of an internal blog page to publish posts created by faculty, key staff, and current/former students, you can drive additional web traffic, expand your reach, and establish key individuals in your department as the go-to sources for industry-related content.  To be effective, however, you must first gain the cooperation of your faculty (which can be difficult!) and ensure you can stick to a consistent publishing schedule with posts two or more times per week.
Guest posting is also a great way to help establish thought leadership and by guest posting I don’t mean the low-quality SEO type guest posts, but rather the high-quality, industry-specific websites and publications that your perspective students may frequent.  Guest posting will not only help further establish your faculty as thought leaders but will also generate a link back to your program’s website driving traffic and benefiting SEO efforts.

The quick version:

Digital marketing in higher education is highly competitive and for some degree programs, quite expensive.  It’s becoming increasingly difficult for the smaller, relatively unknown colleges and universities to compete in the digital space where CPCs can exceed $50 and the bigger brands are favored.  While there are a few different options the smaller institutions can leverage, consider these strategies to give yourself a fighting chance to capture a piece of the pie:

  • Focus on Your Faculty – make your faculty part of your marketing strategy and leverage their knowledge and industry influence to increase the visibility of your degree program(s)
  • Leverage Paid Social Media – less competition, more effective targeting, and cheaper CPCs paid social is definitely an area higher ed marketers should explore
  • Become a Thought Leader- we work with thought leaders on a daily basis, so exploit their knowledge through blogging and guest blogging to benefit SEO, PR, social media, and content efforts.
Are you a small university struggling to compete?  Give us a shout, we’re here to help.

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