Why is Program-Specific Higher Ed Digital Marketing Critical?

Posted: February 4, 2020

Under pressure, the higher education industry needs any kind of advantage it can get to generate leads that become enrolled, paying students. Especially in the graduate program space, enrollment goals have never been so important to schools as the declining college enrollment rate of the last decade continues. With unemployment rates at a historical low, there are fewer people seeking graduate degrees than ever before.

Understanding your audience’s motivations and behaviors is the first step to attracting prospective graduate students, and leveraging digital marketing is the channel to reach them. In this article, we will break down the common research paths prospective graduate students tend to follow, and the critical program-specific digital marketing strategies to intercept and build a relationship that drives applications.

The Path of the Prospective Student

Deciding to continue with higher education is a big decision for many, and it doesn’t get any easier the older you get. Oftentimes, a combination of the location, prestige, program offerings and tuition are factored into a graduate student’s decision on where to attend, but in what order? Especially at the onset of the consideration phase, research has shown that there are typically two paths prospective graduate students follow when initiating a search around higher education opportunities:

  1. One path is to research the schools they know. Pulling from brand recognition, students tend to first research the schools that come to mind due to geography, past ties, or marketing. It’s very hard to sway a prospective student away from the schools in which they have unaided awareness of and consideration for. Prospective students typically narrow down their consideration list from there, and very rarely add to their list of known schools.
  2. Another path prospective students take is to research universities or colleges based on the degree or program area in which they want to study. Research has shown that over half of all searchers start by looking at the degree or program level, which for marketers, is very promising. This provides the opportunity to reach new people and pull them in on the strength of your program, even if they have never heard of your school before.

With over half of the in-market prospective graduate student base relying on research around their program or degree to lead them to the right school, this poses a huge opportunity for higher ed marketers. Alongside awareness-based marketing, program-specific marketing can put your school in front of the maximum number of prospective students, increasing the likelihood of hitting your enrollment goals.

With brand awareness being a common line item in higher ed digital marketers’ budgets, we find program-specific marketing is still emerging, creating a niche for the universities and colleges that broach it. Now that you know how your audience behaves, it’s time to reach them through digital marketing.

Why Program-Specific Digital Marketing is a (Complex) Must-have

More influential than admissions counselors or friends and family, the majority of prospective students (86% of them to be exact) relied on “digital” as an important resource in the decision-making process.

While this statistic alone is encouraging for the higher education world, it’s important to note that the challenge of the digital world is that the journey is not linear from school consideration to enrollment decision. Prospective students make progress at different rates when you consider that:

  • 54% of students still at the beginning of the research process have remained there for 7+ months
  • 34% are starting to apply and/or enroll after spending less than 6 months researching
  • 7% have already started classes after less than 4 months of researching

And, prospective students may also have a remarkably wide digital berth in a short amount of time. As a case study example, a single mother seeking a business degree had 3,000+ digital touchpoints over the span of 45 days, ranging from EDU-related searches, to school site visits, to financial and job-related sites, to online videos, to social site visits.

In other words, the digital landscape is huge, with a staggered waiting room, and it’s up to marketers to know who the audience is, what the steps of the enrollment journey look like, and how to tailor the marketing messages to attract prospects at the right moment in hopes of converting them into leads, and eventually into students. First, you need to know exactly who these prospects are.

1. Identify your target audience

This is the most important step in the marketing strategy. You need to know who you are talking to before you say a word.

Since there are many unique programs under the graduate umbrella, there may be many different types of prospective students you are trying to reach, including:

  • Full-time vs. Part-time students
  • Online, classroom, vs. blended studies
  • Professional, Continuing Education, Summer, and/or other specialized program students
  • Prospective students that may be unsure of what they want to study (although less common in the graduate space)

All these audiences have very individual motivations, varying behaviors, and unique goals for seeking out a higher education institution/program. These differences drive the questions and challenges they need to overcome, making the information each seeks different than the next person. For example, an adult student seeking an undergraduate degree later in life will have a different mindset and “wish list” than an adult who is looking to up-skill within their industry.

Marketers must get inside these prospects’ minds, understand the programs they are applying to, and how to deliver the messaging that proves that these prospective students have come to the right place for the perfect-fit program and that they don’t need to look any further.

2. Apply a program-specific messaging strategy to the enrollment funnel

Even across the different prospective student niches, the enrollment funnel is largely universal. However, the messaging needs to be specifically tailored to the niche target audience defined above and applied throughout the three-tiered funnel outlined below. This is the only way that your program-specific prospects will see or hear you. We’ll uncover more about specific digital marketing tools shortly, but right now we’ll include a short list of platforms that are effective for each stage, starting with the first step in the enrollment funnel.

  • Lead generation (awareness, consideration, decision, inquire/visit/engage)
    • What should guide your messaging in this stage: In lead generation, prospects are becoming aware (starting their school search and getting familiar with areas of study/offerings, likely for the first time) and are considering schools (getting to know who you are and what programs you offer) in order to compile a short-list of potential schools to apply to, to which they may provide their contact information and begin to engage directly. You need to convince them that your school and specific programs are worthy of transitioning from consideration into action.
    • Digital marketing toolkit: SEM, SEO, Social media, Content Marketing, Display, Video, Remarketing, CRO
  • Lead nurturing (nurture leads, apply, admit)
    • What should guide your messaging in this stage: In lead nurturing, prospects will decide to apply to your school or choose not to apply to your school. Through program-specific touchpoints, you need to convince them why they should apply by promoting how your program differs from other schools and more closely aligns with their needs.
    • Digital marketing toolkit: Remarketing on social media, Display, Video, Custom Audiences on social media, CRO, Content/Inbound
  • Yield nurturing (nurture admitted students, enroll)
    • What should guide your messaging in this stage: In yield nurturing, the prospects have been accepted to your school, and it’s now up to them if they want to enroll in your program. You need to convince them that your specific program is best for their needs and they should enroll.
    • Digital marketing toolkit: Remarketing on social media, Display, Video, Custom Audiences on social media, CRO, Content/Inbound

3. Create a program-specific digital marketing engine to reach your audience

Earlier, you identified your audience and the messages that resonate with them throughout the enrollment funnel specific to their program of interest. In order to get this message in front of the right audience, you need to build the marketing engine that aims to convert prospects into leads and ultimately into enrolled students.

Your digital marketing mix should strive to get your message in front of the right people, at the right place, at the right time. In working to achieve the prospect/lead/student conversion, here are some primary strategies/tools to consider using to get there.

  • Create an effective website. Building an effective website means creating a place for your prospects to engage with and learn about your institution and programs.
    • Organize your navigation into logical and simple buckets of information and integrate subpages in a hierarchical manner that starts broadly and then drills into more specific topics as a visitor digs deeper into the site content.
    • Use multi-media to convey your message and drive engagement (videos, images, lists, etc.).
    • Create a persistent call-to-action—for example “Request more information” or “Apply now”—that is visible and accessible no matter where you are on the site.
    • Perform a technical SEO site audit as a foundation, invest in keyword research and apply on-page SEO as a foundation to ensuring your website can be found.
  • Develop Content Hubs for each program to drive organic traffic and increase awareness. A Content Hub is essentially the center of a honeycomb, with one hub page and multiple spoke pages, diving deep into one core topic on the hub page with links to relevant subtopic pages to cover all related content. This in-depth information cluster is powerful and critical for boosting search engine visibility.
    • Focus your content hubs on your program areas. Have one hub and spoke model for each program or degree you would like to attract prospective students to
    • Answer the What, Why, Who, Where, and How questions in the spoke pages to directly address the questions your prospects have about each program
  • Promote your program-specific content through paid media to amplify and reach targeted audiences. There are many ways to promote your school/programs in the digital world, and the ideal mix should correspond directly to your specific goals. However, here are some effective promotional tools that are commonly used for higher education digital marketing to consider incorporating into your own strategy.
    • Paid Search: Program-specific searches on Google are likely the first step of the prospective student, and visibility for those searches should be a big part of lead generation.
      • 56% of students research programs/degrees first
      • 42% of students started researching specific schools first
    • Google Custom Intent Audiences: This form of display advertising helps target users that are actively researching specific degree programs. The marketer can provide Google with relevant keywords and/or related URLS (including competitive programs) to target users based on their web and app behavior.
    • Remarketing: Reaching people who have already visited your website, this brings your most qualified prospects back to you for possible conversion, like information and application requests. Use a diverse mix of remarketing channels to maximize reach including display, video and social advertising.
    • Social Media: Platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn offer impressive targeting options and ad formats to specifically reach prospects and boost marketing effectiveness throughout the enrollment funnel.
      • Facebook Custom Audiences, Facebook Lookalike Audiences, and Facebook Lead Ads are all powerful tools for higher education marketers.
      • LinkedIn Sponsored Content, LinkedIn Text Ads, and LinkedIn Lead Ads are all very effective.
    • Video
      • YouTube Custom Intent targeted video: Similar to Google Custom Intent Audiences, YouTube can serve up a video ad to the users who are searching for your program keywords or have visited related URLs.

Program-specific Digital Marketing has the Power to Convert Leads into Students

With a flat or declining college enrollment rate to contend with over the last decade, higher education institutions are under added pressure to boost enrollment yield in a crowded market. This enrollment is not linear, and it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. In order to drive higher education enrollment, marketers first must generate leads. In order to bring leads, marketers must take a program-specific approach by knowing who their audience is, what message would resonate with them, and where they will look for that information depending on where in the graduate enrollment funnel they are. It’s the combination of these three factors that helps create the conversion magic, bridging the path between prospects to leads and finally into enrolled students.

About VONT Performance Digital Marketing

At VONT we believe that change is the only constant in the digital world – and that excites us. When tools and environments are constantly changing, new opportunities to help our clients achieve success are constantly arising. Each new advertising technology, social platform, or design approach allows us to improve on the results we achieve for our clients.

We believe in this idea of continual fine-tuning so much that we named our company VONT, which means to achieve exponential improvement in incremental steps. It is our core belief, and the reason why we are not simply a web design company or simply a digital advertising agency, but rather a long-term, single source partner providing a comprehensive array of web development and digital marketing capabilities for a variety of areas including strategies and tactics for higher education digital marketing.

In short, we’re here so that our clients achieve success in the ever-changing digital world. If you’d like to learn more about VONT and the work we’ve done with our higher education clients, visit our Work page. Or, if you have a question, either leave us a comment below, or contact us. We’ll get right back to you!




“Unpacking the Student Decision Journey in Higher Education,” a Google Ipsos Research report in February 2017