Sep 12 2023
Clare McKinley

School’s In: The New Rules for Successful Higher Education Marketing


Like so many industries, the higher education space has been turned on its head over the past few years. While online learning is no longer the necessity it was at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the continued increase in demand for online education programs is undeniable.

However, COVID-19 wasn’t the only impetus for changes in higher ed. Not only had undergraduate enrollment declined for eight consecutive years pre-pandemic, but colleges and universities must now prepare for an undergraduate enrollment cliff that will begin in 2025.

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 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 decrease in higher education enrollment rates is fueled by multiple factors. In a recent survey, US adults ranked the price of tuition, family responsibilities, and work conflicts as their top three reasons for not enrolling in higher ed. Competition from alternative and online training programs, such as tech bootcamps, is another big factor.

Perhaps even more impactful, however, is the rise in public skepticism over the benefits of higher education. A 2022 poll found that only 49 percent of Americans think the economic benefits of a college education outweigh the costs. And in another survey, nearly half of US parents said they’d prefer their children pursue alternative postsecondary options, even if there were no barriers to getting a bachelor’s degree.

Online and Virtual Offerings

While the trend of enrollment declines in higher ed is a long-term one, the rise of online and virtual offerings has come on fast and furious in the past several years. Investment in education technologies that support virtual and online learning is growing, and innovations from digital education start-ups are putting additional pressure on traditional institutions to up the sophistication and quality of their own online offerings. Put simply, the online education market is rapidly expanding, creating a significant amount of competition for colleges and universities to keep up with and making it all the more important to differentiate themselves with their marketing.

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 participate in these experiences online (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 media in the same way as past generations. Instead of tuning into linear TV, Gen Zers are more likely to watch content on a connected TV, play video games, listen to music, browse the internet, and engage 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, let’s talk Meta for a moment. While the platform no longer offers advertisers the option to target users under 18 based on their interests and activities, 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, as influencers are particularly effective with 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 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-Simmons and TeenMark, Basis Technologies’ Research & Insights group has 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 CTV/OTT
  • Ambitious but impulsive

3. Potential Adult Learners

  • Adults 18-44 years of age
  • Men and women
  • Favorite platforms are Hulu, Instagram, and mobile apps
  • Want to advance their careers

4. Potential Grad Students

  • Adults 25-44
  • Majority women
  • Favorite platforms are are podcasts, Spotify, Instagram
  • 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
  • Feel stress about the college admission process

All five of these growth segments are heavy digital media users and spend more hours online than the average US 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.

Wrapping Up:  Higher Education Marketing and Advertising

Despite the upheaval, this is 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.

To demonstrate that leadership with digital campaign success, advertisers should prioritize marketing to the virtual world, testing and learning on new platforms, and the strategic use of segmenting and targeting tools. These three approaches alone will set any higher education marketer up to be valedictorian of their team.

Higher ed marketers face unique challenges that demand unique solutions. BasisEducation brings all those solutions together to help empower marketers at colleges and universities, with features like:

  • Over 170 inventory and data integrations to help marketers connect with high-intent audiences
  • High-intent learner targeting so you can tailor campaigns across unique audiences and tactics
  • Omnichannel activation to help marketers reach those audiences wherever they’re spending time
  • Robust reporting capabilities to help higher ed teams easily assess campaign data and make smarter business decisions as a result.

Connect with us to find out how BasisEducation can help your team.

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