Doing marketing and PR within higher education is among the most complicated jobs imaginable. I tell my former colleagues working in consumer or corporate positions that it’s a lot like 10,000 of your customers living together in your company’s building and their parents live around the corner.
The crisis and contingency planning in university PR alone eats up the best of us. The worst-case scenario in my former corporate PR jobs was that the stock price drops a few points. The worst-case scenario in university PR is enacting the active shooter plan and figuring out who calls the FBI, when to reach out to parents and staying behind to deal with CNN while everyone else is evacuated. I used to think the only difference was the stock options.
The recruitment marketing side of things aren’t that dire, but it’s no less daunting from a channel and content perspective. Your target audience is a teenager living a busy high school life while planning an adult life and career. Their influencers are parents, friends, guidance counselors and aspirational people (real and fictional) in the world at large – experienced through countless media platforms. Factor in the 12 to 18 month sales cycle during the prospect’s most formative years and you have a job wrapped in a riddle.
Thirty years ago when I was 16, universities had to coordinate two primary media: print and broadcast. Within those there was owned (school collateral sent snail mail), earned (media placements) and probably TV advertising. (If you were lucky your school had a Division 1 team and got on national TV once in a while.)
Today, the recruitment marketing funnel looks like this with the many touch points and channels across the top.
Assuming you can master each of these channels, getting your content to look and feel the same in a print catalog, your web site, paid promotion on Facebook, search on Google, email marketing and signage during an event is no small feat. Success is a function of organizational design and having a centralized department directing all of these channels and the content that flows through them.
The fly in the ointment for many universities is mobile – the most important medium of this generation of high school students. According to Chegg 81% of todays teens have visited a college web site for admissions information using a mobile device. Unfortunately, according to Noel Levitz, only about half of colleges have a responsive web site.
Imagine if only half of all college admissions buildings had a door.
Clearly, there are huge gaps and inefficiencies in this marketing model and it shines some light on why 4-year private colleges spend a median of $2,433 to recruit a single student – that’s $4.8 million for a freshman class of 2,000 students. This fall, 18.1 million new undergraduate students arrived on campuses in the United States.
Do the math.
Integrating all of these channels with an emphasis on mobile can drive these costs down, streamline processes and avoid the dreaded 15th email to the same prospect from three different departments at the same university. But getting your story coordinated internally is just part of it. Mapping it to the new careers-first logic being applied to college research is the last and most important mile.
Not too long ago we went to college to figure it all out. You marketed a school as a place to be because it was enough to get there to find yourself and come out as a “college man.” Now, students go through college. It is a means to a vocational end for the affluent, middle class and lower class. The wealthy want to stay that way and the rest of us want a bigger piece of the action so the search begins with a career path and ends with the educational solution that gets them there.
Leaning into this vocational positioning for most universities is hugely problematic. It goes against generations of selling the self-realization destination and social status that comes with college. And, more practically, staying on the high ground above the University of Phoenix. The good news is all of these new channels for reaching prospective students (mobile, search marketing, social media) are perfect platforms to engage in the discussion about career outcomes. It just takes planning and execution against a single strategy.
Channel coordination and consistent positioning is something every business and organization faces as it grows. Universities should know this better than anyone. Because many of their schools actually teach those lessons of integrated marketing communications within their degree programs every day.
No university in the world grants degrees in silo-based marketing, but plenty of them practice it.
– Jose Mallabo