In the current competitive climate of higher education, having a cohesive, comprehensive, and diversified marketing approach is essential in digital marketing. While each marketing avenue or strategy has its own unique method of accomplishing client end-goals of student enrollment, brand awareness, lead generation, and market research, it’s the combined effort of all of them working together that fosters the most effective and all-encompassing solution. It is therefore imperative that those involved in higher education marketing understand how all of these components work together and independently to capture prospective students at every stage of the decision making process. Here at Circa Interactive, the overarching divisions of our company that help to accomplish our clients’ goals include Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Pay-per-click (PPC), and Social Media.
How Do They Work Independently?
Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
SEO is a crucial piece of the marketing puzzle, considering that 75% of prospective students start their research on a search engine. With so many competing programs and schools, it’s incredibly important to rank organically for relevant keywords in order to be visible to prospective students who are actively searching for related programs. There are several functions of our company that contribute to our SEO end-goals. The main off-page ones, which I will highlight here, are Digital PR and infographic creation and distribution.
Our goal in digital PR is to establish thought leadership, expand brand awareness, define program differentiators, and build quality backlinks for SEO that influence search rankings. We accomplish this by leveraging the expertise of faculty members and getting them and their respective programs placed in internationally recognized publications as well as in industry-specific verticals. On the other hand, infographics largely contribute to our SEO end-goals by generating backlinks through the creation and distribution of sharable content, which tells important stories within the larger narratives in the media.
Digital PR and infographics aid our SEO and brand recognition efforts by creating trustworthy and reputable backlinks to the programs that we represent, which in turn helps with organic rankings. These media placements also position our programs and professors as thought leaders in the industry, which is critical when trying to grow a brand and program. While PR links tend to be higher in quality, there is a tradeoff for this, which is quantity of links. While having our professors and programs included in nationally recognized publications is extremely valuable on a number of levels, more of our backlinks come through infographic distribution, where we have a broader reach due to our inclusion of smaller media outlets and blogs. Both strategies lend themselves to the same goals but accomplish them in different ways, which is why having both strategies in place is essential to achieving our larger SEO goals.
Pay-per-click (PPC) can be an effective strategy for quickly driving targeted traffic to a website or landing page. This can be accomplished through keyword-based search advertising, display advertising in the Google and Bing Display networks, social media advertising (e.g. Facebook and LinkedIn), and remarketing, where you target prospective students who have already visited your website but have yet to convert. It’s also the most effective method for measuring return-on-investment (ROI). Since it’s easy to analyze and monitor results as you go with PPC, it has the added benefit of being able to adjust strategies according to the success of various channels. While SEO can be a more long-term and involved process, paid search has the ability to immediately get in front of prospective students and begin to generate leads. It’s crucial to have accurate and appealing messaging for PPC, because it could be the first encounter that a prospective student has with a brand or program.
Social media is an important tool for higher education marketing considering that 57% of students will use social media to research universities. Although it’s very difficult to measure ROI on social media marketing, it’s a channel that should be integrated into every marketing strategy in order to have a well-rounded and consistent online presence. It’s also a great place to foster a sense of community and keep current, former, and prospective students engaged and up-to-date on university news.
How Do They Work Together?
While I’ve explained how each of these digital marketing strategies operates independently, it’s just as important to understand how they intersect and why being visible and consistent across all potential touchpoints is essential to converting prospective students and amplifying brand awareness. A prospective student can encounter a brand in many different ways, but marketers will often only focus on the final campaign, search, or ad that the user interacted with to convert. However, as the multi-channel funnels reports in Google Analytics shows, there are typically many other interactions and touchpoints that the prospective student encountered in the process before converting. This further exemplifies the importance of having a diversified marketing approach that allows for interactions and cohesiveness across all potential channels.
One beneficial intersection between strategies is between PPC and digital PR. Since most people are aware when they are being targeted with an ad, PPC can come off as being disingenuous or less credible than organic results, which is why digital PR can be beneficial in adding another layer of credibility to a program. For students who are actively researching a program, seeing a program featured in various reputable publications can be important and, ultimately, help push them along in the admissions funnel.
Social media also plays an important role in building a credible online community for a brand. Since most students will research a program on social media sites like Facebook, having an established community of engaged and interested participants on social media platforms is important in getting prospective students excited and interested about a program. Additionally, there is often a link on Facebook paid ads that will be directed to the program’s Facebook page, so it’s important to have a strong social media presence built up when sending prospective students that way. Social media also has a mutually beneficial relationship with digital PR and infographic distribution because it provides another platform to feature this content on. This not only expands the reach of this content, further positioning the program as a thought leader and content creator, but also provides relevant and interesting content to the audience on social media.
As I’ve illustrated here, ensuring that a program or university is visible to prospective students throughout all possible channels and touchpoints that they may encounter is essential to a comprehensive and optimized marketing strategy. As we have seen, there are many ways that prospective students can search for or come in contact with a brand. A diversified approach accomplishes both short and long term marketing goals while more effectively reaching prospective students throughout various stages in the decision making process.
Caroline brings a wealth of knowledge in communications, marketing, and account management to the Circa Interactive team. Graduating with honors in Business Administration and Marketing from the University of Oregon in 2011, Caroline now plays a key role in Circa Interactive’s digital PR strategy by building long term relationships with internationally recognized media outlets on behalf of our clients.