higher education content marketing game

How to Raise Your Content Marketing Game

higher-education-content-marketing-gameHigher education marketers face an interesting dilemma – in many scenarios, the person who writes the check won’t ever use their services.

The buyer’s journey is replaced by the student journey, says Jonah Deaver of Vertical Measures, who has worked with more than 200 universities in the past six years.

That’s why it’s critical to engage with prospective students starting from the awareness stage. “Prospective students are trying to level out emotions that range from fear, doubt, excitement, overwhelmed, motivated, and inspired. They are navigating a lot,” Jonah says. “Marketers should provide them with good information so that along the journey the students will think, ‘That X University is really helpful, I like them, and will listen to them going forward.’ This sets the stage for making a more impactful brand impression at the consideration/decision stages.”

Good content along student journey sets stage for high impact at decision time. @VerticalMeasures #highered Click To Tweet

Jonah’s insight mirrors results of the biannual CASE Educational Communications and Marketing Trends Survey. Prospective students (84%) are cited as the top priority audience by marketers who were asked to pick their top three audiences. Prospects are significantly ahead of alumni (53%), donors (43%), and parents (37%). Further down the priority audience list are current students, faculty and staff, community members, general public and media, governing boards, legislators, and athletic fans.

84% prospective students are cited as top priority audience by marketers asked to pick top 3 via @CASEAdvance Click To Tweet

“Advancing our institutions must start with enrollment, and end with engagement and philanthropy,” as Theresa Flannery, vice president for communication at American University, says in the CASE report.

Obstacles and solutions

Simon A. Thalmann administers the Michigan-based Kellogg Community College’s primary social media channels, blog, and website content. He says the challenge is great in marketing to students – whether it’s a community college or four-year institution.

“In marketing meetings, we regularly bring up that it’s much easier to sell a candy bar or $10 T-shirt to someone via a Facebook ad that requires one or two clicks than it is to sell a $6,000 education,” Simon explains.

Inadequate budgeting (63%) and staffing (78%) continue to rank as top barriers to overall success in higher education marketing, according to CASE research. But when limited to identify their biggest challenges in just the past year, “strategic focus” was one of the most-mentioned topics. And when they shared their concerns on the challenges in the next five years, “keeping up with trends in profession and audience expectations,” was the most frequently cited challenge and three times greater a concern than just two years ago in the CASE study.

Inadequate budgeting & staffing rank as top barriers to overall success via @CASEAdvance. #highereducation Click To Tweet

HOW TO DO IT: Document a content marketing strategy to ensure that staff is operating from the same page and budget resources are focused on what matters most – and what’s realistic – to achieve the institution’s goals.

Chris Hornak, CEO of BlogHands.com, raises a challenge higher education marketers face that many B2B and B2C marketers face as well – compliance and approval. A higher education institution often has so many fingers in the pie that it’s difficult to get sign-off or to expedite the publication of a newsworthy or trending piece of content.

HOW TO DO IT: Create a centralized and standardized process that receives buy-in from the key stakeholders.

College rankings for academics, affordability, social scene, program studies, etc., are well known and often used by prospective students and their families. But higher education marketers shouldn’t throw up their hands if they don’t make a particular list.

“Not every institution can be top of the rankings; it becomes ever more important to showcase uniqueness, niche specialties, and ultimate values. Good content marketing has the power to achieve this by showcasing real-life experience, which offers a study-abroad directory of over 28,000 schools.” says Gina Jones, account manager at StudyDestinatons.com

HOW TO DO IT: Bring experiences to life through video and photo. As Gina says, “If a picture speaks a thousand words, then video a million, and good content marketing using these, the hole in one.”

Jonah says a good place to look for content ideas is from the staff who interacts with prospective students. “Your admissions staff is a great example of this. They are fielding questions or concerns from prospects – this likely means other prospects share the same ones. Content could be built around helping to answer their questions,” he says.

Incorporate current students and alumni into your content too, which is particularly helpful in the final stages of the prospective student’s decision-making journey. “Their testimonials can be a powerful part of your content marketing message,” Jonah says.

Testimonials can be a powerful part of the #highereducation #contentmarketing message via @VerticalMeasures. Click To Tweet

Kellogg Community College has significant opportunity in this area. As Simon explains, “We have tens of thousands of local students and alumni that we can utilize as familiar faces to feed photo, video, and text testimonials.”

KCC Stories is centered on this concept (and Kellogg’s uses #KCCStory to keep it alive in social media):

KCC Story

More examples and inspiration

Harvard University’s Division of Continuing Education listened to the staff and administrators who speak with students on a regular basis to identify pain points for students, says Kate Neuens, a marketing analyst who previously worked in the division.

By asking questions, the marketers learned that students attend continuing education because they are looking to change careers, and getting ready for interviews is a big part of this transition. The marketing team worked with the Office of Career Services to create a video and blog post – How to Ace an Interview. Hosted on YouTube, the video – an evergreen piece of content – has garnered almost 1 million views in four years.

Chris Hornak of BlogHands.com offers these two examples to illustrate how higher education can use content for different purposes:

  • A prospective student-focused blog hosted on the admissions site that tackles many topics that pop up in the “buyer” journey, from atmospheric to the practical – University of Illinois

University of Illinois

  • A blog demonstrating the faculty and staff’s expertise in the school’s subject matter – positioning them as experts and thought leaders – Harvard Medical School


Jason Acidre, co-founder and CEO of Xight interactive, says delivering information using different content experiences is critical.

Delivering information using different content experiences is critical, says @jasonacidre. #highereducation Click To Tweet

There is a huge potential, he says, in using data visualizations, videos, and interactive content – along with text-rich documents. Xight’s client, Credit Loan, uses multiple formats on its blog – from a full-blown guide to detailed colorful infographic:

Credit Loan

The George Washington University is another great example – offering a quick-loading, interactive virtual tour of its campus in Washington, D.C.

George Washington University



The examples and advice on higher education marketing in this blog mirror the national trends. As the CASE study reports, “A large majority indicated that not only social media channels and mobile websites had occupied more of their time, but video production, digital recruitment communications, and other digital collateral had each become more prominent activities. By contrast, print and direct mail showed the largest decreases.”

Interestingly, CASE research also indicates that more than nine in 10 marketers in higher education use website and social media visits/activities as a metric of success – that’s more than any other measurement of marketing effectiveness.

But the key to success really isn’t the transmission mode. Ultimately, it’s creating comprehensive, unified content that reaches and resonates enough with prospective students to turn them into incoming freshmen or transfer students.

Go on your own hands-on, higher education content marketing journey with Jonah Deaver and Mike Huber of Vertical Measures. They will lead the higher education lab on Sept. 8 at Content Marketing World. Use the code BLOG100 to save an additional $100.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

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