Three Thresholds for Higher Ed Marketing

More than a third of admissions directors at private nonprofit colleges and universities are dissatisfied with their institution’s marketing strategy for admissions, according to Inside Higher Ed’s annual survey. Only half are satisfied with their institution’s social media strategy for admissions. While the survey did not ask for the reasons, outreach efforts to prospective students generally must function on three different levels:

  • Awareness—The first threshold is making sure students know the institution exists. When wider name brand recognition is the goal, a paid media strategy can be the surest way to increase awareness—such as with digital advertising, billboards, event sponsorships, banners in public spaces, etc.
  • Familiarity—To get a student from “I’ve heard of it” to “I know some things about it,” marketing efforts should focus on communicating the institution’s value proposition with an owned media strategy that uses its own channels—such as the website, e-communications, and printed materials.
  • Favorability—An earned media strategy can be the most effective way of spreading a favorable opinion of the institution, since word of mouth either offline (verbally) or online (such as via social media) is a top influencer for prospective students.

Ideally, a marketing campaign would include all three components (paid, owned, and earned media) to operate concurrently on multiple levels. And in his Brandsphere infographic, Brian Solis (who has authored numerous books and spoken around the world about these subjects), adds shared and promoted media types as further opportunities to engage students and influencers. He points out that by “using a transmedia approach, the brand story can connect with consumers differently across each medium, creating a deeper, more enriching experience.”


Survey of Admissions Directors

89% of respondents from private nonprofit institutions believe higher ed needs to do a better job explaining the value of earning a degree. (Inside Higher Ed)

Favorability Factors

Specific majors offered, location, financial aid, and job prospects all rate higher than college prestige in students’ decision of where to enroll. (Chegg)

Word-of-Mouth Marketing

“Talk triggers,” whether spontaneous or planned, are the key to encouraging influencers to advocate for an institution in social media. (Jay Baer)



Lawlor Recommends

Formulaic marketing solutions are not a good fit for information-gathering behaviors within the stealth marketplace of prospective students. Determining how best to increase awareness, familiarity, and favorability depends on recognizing which media channels specific audiences are using during which parts of their process of learning about a college or university—and then providing relevant, persuasive content via different types of media across those channels. Instead of thinking of a funnel, it is market smart to envision a matrix.