Higher Ed Branding and Marketing: Part 2:

To Whom Are You Marketing? One Size Fits All Doesn't Work

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Higher Ed Branding and Marketing: Part 2: To Whom Are You Marketing? One Size Fits All Doesn't Work

There have been significant changes to Higher Ed Branding and Marketing in the last few decades. Institutions of higher education started considering the importance of marketing about 45 years ago. However, many of today’s college and university leaders still struggle with how to effectively market their institution and its programs. Part of this issue is tied to a diverse student population that means that a one-size-fits-all approach to marketing no longer works (if it ever truly did).

Higher education leaders began embracing marketing in 1972 after A.R. Krachenberg published the watershed article, “Bringing the Concept of Marketing to Higher Education.” His paper suggested that higher education institutions generally failed at marketing, didn’t know how to conduct market research, hadn’t developed brands and didn’t integrate communications efforts into academic departments.

While most universities and colleges today do have a marketing and communications staff, many still struggle to successfully differentiate themselves from their many competitors. This comes at an inopportune time when higher education is facing a storm of criticism from a variety of stakeholders as well concerns about the cost of getting a degree. In addition, the pool of potential students is no longer made up of teenagers. Many nontraditional students are entering higher education in an effort to retool their skills so they can succeed in a fast-changing global economy. Therefore, it’s important to develop more refined ways to market and brand through a differentiated approach.

Higher Ed Branding and Marketing to Millennials

Teenagers today offer a unique challenge for higher education marketers. Rice University offers this list of characteristics based on Millennials Go To College:

  • Have always been treated as special and important.
  • Sheltered by their parents.
  • Confident and goal-oriented.
  • Team-oriented instead of individualists.
  • Achievement based on hard work.
  • Pressured because of their tightly structured childhood.
  • Conventional in their respect for authority.

Hanover Research reports that institutions of higher education are seeking strategic ways to engage the millennial generation. These strategies include:

  • Striving for authenticity when branding.
  • Increasingly focused campaigns. Mass marketing has no appeal for millennials. Instead, many colleges and universities are shifting to micro-targeted and segmented campaigns that take advantage of digital technology.
  • Addressing college affordability directly. More so than previous generations, millennials are concerned about student loan debt and want to make sure that college is affordable.

Millennials have a constantly changing language and a culture that is difficult to penetrate. This group tends to embrace fast-moving trends, making them difficult to pin down. Furthermore, they are very aware of when brands are trying to sell them on a product or service; they don’t like the “hard sell” method.  According to a Forbes column by Steve Olenski, brands “will need a smart and robust content strategy in place to speak to Millennials on a more personal level about what their brand stands for and how that aligns with this consumer’s values, culture, and lifestyle.” Millennials also tend to embrace brands that are focused on improving the world.

This demographic group actually responds more positively to collaborating and sharing. Not surprisingly, millennials are tech-savvy and tied to their mobile devices. They often use social media reviews as their gauge for the trustworthiness of a brand. “They want to know from others that the brand they trust is worth their loyalty,” wrote Christina Baldassarre in a 2017 guest column for Entrepreneur. Thus, collaborating with bloggers who are influential with Millennials can burnish a higher education brand. Peer-generated content also is often successful in engaging Millennials.

Connecting Millennials with mentors as part of the institution’s recruitment and retention strategy also can pay dividends in branding a university. This approach helps provide students with personalized guidance and coaching, both of which are prized by Millennials.

Marketing to Non-Traditional Students

According to Aslanian Research, 75 percent of college students in the United States are considered post-traditional students, thus making them the new majority in American higher education undergraduate study.  These students are any age; they are not full-time day residential who live on campuses (or within 1 mile of campus).  The age demographic is changing – only 31 percent of post-traditional students are younger than 25 years old.

Many of these students are older adults who have seen their jobs disappear. Some students may be military veterans who recently have been discharged. Post-traditional students also can include adults who have been busy with child-rearing or caregiving duties as well as older adults who are retired and have time to explore their interests more deeply.

Many of these students prefer to enroll in a public four-year institution or a public community or technical college. They often don’t need a lot of convincing; Aslanian Market Research reports that 52 percent of these students inquire at or apply to only 1 institution. They also make fast decisions about where they will enroll with approximately 40 percent deciding in four weeks or less. With that said, many of these students are employed full-time, thus requiring non-traditional delivery systems such as distance education and evening classes.

This group uses five areas to select an institution of higher education – cost, convenience, flexibility, time to completion, and advising. Marketing approaches that seem to work in reaching these students include:

  • Creating a targeted web experience and content.
  • Using highly targeted digital outreach to increase awareness and inquiry about the institution. These advertisements on Facebook or in specific apps that these individuals often use.
  • Nurturing of prospects.
  • Targeting students who live close to the institution.
  • Focusing efforts on recruiting these students to enroll for the fall semester.
  • Working with employers.
  • Emphasizing convenience and flexibility.

Within this outreach, additional micro-targeting can help institutions market effectively to specific groups, such as military veterans or professionals who have recently been laid off.

In this time of information overload, it’s critical for institutions of higher education to develop a strong brand and then find ways to break through the noise. Targeted efforts can help leaders effectively reach the various diverse groups of potential students who are the lifeblood of higher education institutions. In case you missed it, check out our last post Higher Ed Branding and Marketing Part 1.

Learn more about how The Change Leader helps colleges and universities with their branding, marketing, and positioning.

Sources for This Post:

Aslanian, C.B. (2017). Post-Traditional College Students: Attracting and Serving the New Majority. Aslanian Market Research.

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