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Trends in Digital Marketing for Higher Education

Our recent conversations with clients and friends in the higher education marketplace often turn to numerous questions about the evolving nature of digital marketing. It is a very relevant topic for higher education marketers, who are quickly realizing the importance of engaging with various constituents via multiple communication channels.

And at the start of a new year, our inboxes and social media feeds are full of predictions and prognostications about what trends will take hold in 2016. So we have been reviewing dozens of top-ten lists and annual prediction posts related to digital marketing, looking for trends that are likely to impact private colleges during the year ahead.

The Web is a fluid and ever-changing medium. Scanning the digital horizon, we don’t necessarily foresee game-changing shifts such as those experienced in recent years with the emergence of social media or the rapid adoption of smartphones. Instead, 2016 looks to be an evolutionary year; recent Internet trends will solidify while digital platforms mature. What will emerge is a more powerful, personalized, and sophisticated Web.

User experience moves to the forefront
For many years, innovation in the digital marketing space focused primarily on functionality. Digital marketers focused their efforts on allowing users to complete an increasing number of activities and tasks online. User experience considerations were largely limited to making sure broad best practices were followed and that web interfaces were predictable.

With the maturation of the digital space and greater uniformity of functionality, the focus for digital marketers is shifting to creating delightful, surprising, and unique user experiences. For colleges and universities, the opportunity to stand out in a crowded marketplace no longer depends so much on providing new web features and functionality. The emphasis for 2016 and beyond should be in creating one-of-a-kind digital experiences that match an institution’s unique culture and strengths, providing various target markets and constituents with an opportunity to be engaged.

Mobile supremacy takes hold
For years, web professionals have been touting the importance of mobile. Yet for all the emphasis placed on mobile optimization and responsive design, there was still a belief that while a college’s key audiences—and particularly the prospective students among them—might browse on mobile, they do “serious” research on traditional desktop and laptop computers. Not any more. Recent research by comScore shows that mobile Internet usage in the U.S. now accounts for 60% of time spent online—surpassing traditional computer usage for the first time. Further, 21% of Millennials never use desktop computers, accessing the Internet exclusively from mobile devices.

Given the very real possibility that prospective students may conduct their entire college search on smartphones and/or tablets, colleges must move away from a desktop-centric model to a digital marketing strategy that focuses predominantly on the mobile experience. That means simpler interfaces and flatter designs that render favorably on mobile, and straightforward “tap-friendly” navigation that works seamlessly on smartphones.

Visual content shines
By any measurement, visual content—photography, graphics, and videos—have exploded on the Internet in recent years. To put this growth in perspective, it is estimated that 3.8 trillion photos were taken in all of human history until mid-2011, but 1 trillion were taken in 2015 alone. Many of those images (not to mention videos recorded by 1 billion YouTube users) make their way onto the Internet every day.

As the web has become a more visual medium, content that lacks compelling imagery risks being overlooked. While digital marketers once lamented “ad blindness” they now fear a far more potent and growing trend: “content blindness.” Analytics show that users ignore content that lacks a strong visual component, and that social media algorithms favor content with strong graphical elements.

Unfortunately, photography and video are too often forgotten or largely overlooked by college admissions and marketing teams during the content creation process. Instead of planning for impactful visual content in tandem with copy, photos are selected from the campus-wide library as an afterthought just prior to publishing online. What results is a disconnect and a missed opportunity to boost the impact of digital content. Given the wealth of student stories and the unique power of “place” on every campus, 2016 should be the year that colleges plan, create, and publish visual content that shines.

Digital governance evolves
We’ve come a long way from the days of the lone-wolf “web master” who single-handedly designed, updated, and managed the institutional website. Yet many colleges are stuck in an outmoded approach to digital governance with a cumbersome divide between technology (IT) and content (marketing) that harkens back to the early days of the Web.

Most would agree that digital marketing has surpassed traditional marketing efforts in importance and scope—yet few institutions have scaled their web governance structure accordingly. A single web editor and social media specialist can hardly be expected to navigate the brave new world of digital publishing—yet too many colleges are still trying to get by with a tiny web communications team and uneven support from IT.

In 2016, colleges need to take a long, hard look at how they manage their digital assets. Are they ready to publish high-quality online video and stream events? Do they have a plan for social media that includes paid advertising? Is a content strategy in place that results in timely, fresh web content that can be repurposed across multiple channels? Are they planning for innovative, unique user experiences—or does their web presence look like most of their competitors?

The challenges ahead are numerous, but so too are the opportunities for edupreneurial innovation and evolutionary change in the digital space. Now is the time to get smart and explore intelligent solutions.