2018 Q2 Front & Center

Front & Center


Back in 2016, full-service digital agency Primacy asked marketing professionals a simple question: If you had an unlimited marketing budget, what would you do with it? Twenty-one percent of respondents said they would invest their money in emerging technologies, with virtual reality being a prime example. A new overall marketing strategy and total rebrand ranked high as well.

So, with marketing automation and cutting-edge digital technologies being at the forefront of most marketers’ minds, where do you start?

Since every college or university is different, your approach needs to fit your needs. For Clemson University, it’s about project management and content management systems. “With the rise of content marketing, there needs to be greater emphasis on strategy and process to ensure the right content is being created,” says Christine Green, the school’s executive director of university marketing, university relations.

On the other hand, good old-fashioned analytics and SEO can take a front seat, says Jonathan Potts, VP, public relations and marketing at Robert Morris University (RMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “SEO, of course, changes all the time, as Google and other search engines fine-tune their algorithms,” he says. “You need to measure where your web traffic is coming from, where it is going on your site, and how long users are staying there. Even voice assistants like Siri and Alexa are grounded in conventional search engines.”

No matter your university’s size or demographic, you must align with the most critical channels of engagement for your prospective students. Social media channels are an obvious go-to and also can offer a glimpse into student life at a given school.

“Instagram and texting are becoming important channels, and our website is, ultimately, one of the most important places where we want to convert visitors to inquiries and applications,” Potts says. “Our big project this year, still underway, is a major overhaul of our website.”

The new RMU website will focus almost exclusively on prospective students, and will be much more simplified and designed to elicit contact to and from prospective students.

Prospective students have ideas, images and opportunities hurled at them constantly, so finding a unique way to connect can be a challenge.

Potts advises that colleges and universities be unafraid to look at some of the ways consumer brands connect with their customers, particularly the experiences they offer. Consider how they package their information, engage with high-quality email newsletters, and deliver a highly customized experience. “

I don’t think [the engagement] is any different with prospective students,” he says. “It’s even more important when you are deciding where to spend the next four years of your life.”

Clemson has a unique social media presence with content created to answer prospects’ questions about academic life on campus. That’s why Green’s team uses video to tell an academic journey story and show off the campus.

“Texting has already taken off, but I think the challenge is for admissions officers to figure out when, how and how often to communicate via text with prospective students,” says Potts, who points to a challenge that RMU faces of whether to use punctuation in texts.

Young people often don’t, but middle- aged people often do.

In terms of resource deployment, Potts says more time is spent on Instagram and Snapchat, and less on Facebook. “Everyone already figured out years ago that Facebook was trending older,” he says, “but the ability to target so finely on Facebook is alluring.”

In an online world, do physical campus visits or printed collateral pieces still play roles? They do, according to Potts. “Visits are still the most critical part of the process,” Potts says. “Students who visit convert at a high rate. And, while we live in a digital world, quality print stands out.”

The trick to print is that it must look entirely different from everything else. It needs to pop when a student pulls it from his mailbox or when seen on a recruiting table at a college fair.

RMU has begun sending letters from successful alumni, welcoming students to the program into which they’ve been accepted. “It’s a personal touch, and it reminds incoming students that their degree can have a big payoff,” Potts says.

Green agrees that campus visits continue to play a large role. Most of Clemson’s calls to action involve attracting students to take the university’s campus tour.

To be sure, thinking outside the box when delivering the message and philosophy of a university or college is paramount. Dr. Chris Howard, president of RMU, has hit the jackpot with his “acceptance letter video.” Howard filmed the entire process of visiting a prospective student’s home and personally delivering his school acceptance letter. The idea, which came about through a conversation he had with a RMU alumnus, has taken off on social media.

“It’s generated great engagement on our social media channels, particularly Facebook and LinkedIn,” says Potts, who adds that the school will definitely use the acceptance letter video idea as a tool in the future, possibly when scholarships are awarded. “Imagine the president showing up at your door and surprising you with the news that you just received a full-tuition academic scholarship. Those are the moments that make you want to work in higher education.”


“Students who visit convert at a high rate. And, while we live in a digital world, quality print stands out.”

— Jonathan Potts, VP, Public Relations & Marketing
Robert Morris University, Pennsylvania

3 Big Things to Note


For example, take mail. Chambers says mail arrives based on student demographics and ranges from oversized postcards to full-fledged catalogs—all well produced. “Most schools are doing a great job of tracking and personalizing content based on the family’s clicks and online activity through technology like Technolutions Slate,” Chambers says, adding that he was impressed by how acceptances, rejections and waitlists were handled for his own children who have applied to colleges. “It felt very techy and modern.”

Chambers says awareness of the following emerging technologies and trends is important for higher education marketers:

Regarding the application process, Chambers says artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language processing are producing intelligent chatbots that can be built to answer questions and establish relationships. The kids know about bots and can put up with “Hi this is Eric, what questions do you have?” But parents will need to be told it’s a bot. This can be done on a website, but text is even more powerful for kids, he says.

“With the dehumanization of the early stages of college recruiting, we’ll see an increase in human outreach to the best recruits via account- based marketing principles,” Chambers says. “ABM is primarily a B2B approach in enterprise- level sales, but with college education carrying price tags upwards of $280,000 for four years of undergrad, selling a college resembles B2B more than before.” ABM allows a marketer to engage deeper with individuals within specific accounts or in the case of education, high schools or communities.

A number of schools showed up on Chambers’ son’s list at the last minute without any obvious prompting from mailers or research. He traced it back to peer influence, which meant future schools will need to tap into consumer peer influencer trends.

In the end, most human behavior comes from other humans. Time and money will be spent getting peers to talk about how they selected schools based on decision processes that are introduced and influenced by the schools. The schools that use technology to increase the amount of human contact between admissions humans and student humans will find it easier to fill their dorms.