Chapter 11 Marketing and Recruitment

In: A Guide to Administering Distance Learning
Adam Schultz
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Rachel Mork
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At the conclusion of this chapter, you will know how to:

  1. Get the support and funding you need to effectively market your program
  2. Identify your prospective student audience
  3. Establish your brand and archetype
  4. Engage with your target audience
  5. Plan and execute changes to your website and marketing strategy
  6. Test, measure, refine, and improve your marketing strategy to get results

1 What Got You Here Isn’t Going to Get You There

Unless your career path included business school, we’re willing to bet the knowledge that got you to this position as Administrator for distance learning was not because of your expertise in marketing, IT, or creative work. Now, you might be expected to plan, direct, and/or execute marketing initiatives on a large scale, often with a limited budget. You may also have been tasked with student recruitment, yet you have no formal training in traditional marketing, internet marketing, or websites.

In order to achieve your goal – to effectively recruit students to your online program – you have to know how to operate and manage an integrated marketing campaign. You may think marketing challenges are too complicated for you to do well or you may think that launching a website and some marketing campaigns is easy. The answer lies somewhere in the middle. No, you do not have to get a degree in marketing to master this. You need specific knowledge and adequate resources to do this well. The key question is: What is the best way to get your program in front of your target students in an increasingly online world? You need your website to act as a sales funnel to engage prospective students in a way that will result in applications.

To make this practical, we have provided examples and samples. We encourage you to take the examples provided in this chapter to your team so they can use them as a springboard for solutions that work for your particular program, department, or institution. Practical examples are useful to help the people working with you know what “good enough” looks like.

Begin by building your team. The vast majority of deans, department heads, and program coordinators tasked with student recruitment need a team if they are to be successful. A successful team consists of a chairperson, a champion, and resource-specific team members. Everyone on the team needs to be informed of and unified in seeking accomplishments of the specific goals that will deliver the desired results. In this section, you will learn what you need to do to recruit, inspire, and operate a successful team.

1.1 Chairperson

Your chairperson is a decision-maker with access to resources. In many cases, this is who you are. In other cases, this is who you tap when you need money, resources, other team members, or approvals from the higher ups or the folks holding the purse-strings. Your chairperson may be a development officer, department head, or a provost, but whatever the title, your chairperson is the person who makes the final call when you need approvals or funding.

To figure out who your chairperson/s is/are, ask yourself: Who has the authority to approve my plans? In most cases, you will have a few people in power from which to choose. Of most importance is the character trait of good judgement. You want to work with a decision-maker that is an open-minded, good listener who prides themselves on making fact-based, data-driven decisions and allows for exploration as you propose and try new marketing strategies that will require trial and error. If possible, avoid any rigid, old school or stuck-in-the-past decisionmakers. You need an ally with access to resources who can make final calls.

1.2 Champion

Your champion has political skills. They know how to network; they are known for getting things done. They connect you with resources, partnerships, and the people who can accomplish your goals. In a nutshell, your champion is resourceful and responsive. They believe in your vision.

What connections do you need? You probably need access to a web developer who can build or improve your website. You need a Pay Per Click (PPC) marketing expert and the funding to support an online marketing campaign. You need someone who will find funding for your project and give you the authority required to test marketing strategies. Your champion is a resourceful person who believes in your mission. They may never actually work for you, but they will get you people, allowances, and resources you need.

1.3 Resource-Specific Implementation Team Members

Next you need to ask yourself the following questions: Who else can join me in this effort? Who can do what? You may have to do several of these tasks yourselves, but you can probably find other people who will share the workload with you.

For starters, you need to know who manages the web presence you use to market your program. Do you have access to web development help? What about online marketing assistance? Do you have a social media channel, and if so, who is maintaining it? What about content writers for your website, social media, and advertising?

You can’t do it all, and you probably only have the internal resources available for a fraction of their time. You may need to look to the private market or interns who will serve your program, or you may need to partner with another department or program to share resources.

Some of the team members you will want to identify include people who have experience with one or more of the following:

  1. IT and supportive structure
  2. Website design and development
  3. Marketing copywriting
  4. Online advertising
  5. Social media
  6. Outreach and community engagement
  7. Partnership development
  8. Print, direct mail and traditional media outreach

Which of these roles can you fulfill? What do you want to invest your time doing? Even if you can do it all, you probably don’t have time to do it all. Reach out to your internal service groups; you may discover you have more support than you realize. You just need to recruit them to your team.

2 Building Your Team

Once you’ve identified who your potential team members are, engage with them. Every university is structured differently, and the climate of your particular institution or the size of your area of influence may dictate the depth and breadth of your team. As you initiate with each team member, you’ll need to keep in mind that each of these people has needs and agendas of their own. Whenever possible, align yourself with their missions. Help them see how helping you will help the university at large. Remind them that the success of a handful of programs can elevate an entire university’s reputation, and a successful marketing strategy, once tested and proven, can be applied to other segments of the institution.

2.1 Team Goals

It is important to evaluate how we think about and define goals. You need to set goals, but just as importantly, you need to be able to measure how successful or unsuccessful you have been in meeting goals. To this end, we suggest you use the SMART goal system. Smart goals are goals that are specific, measurable, actionable, reasonable, and timely. When we talk about goals in this chapter, we are encouraging you to apply those metrics to your goals. An example SMART goal is: We need to recruit x number of people that meet [this criteria] within [this timeframe].1

Your Turn:

  1. Which team members do you currently have? Which team members do you need to recruit?
  2. What SMART goals can you identify right now? Test them against the five SMART metrics.

3 Understanding Prospective Students

Marketing strategies are vastly more effective when you know who your target audience is and the strategy is tailored to that audience. Many universities assume all prospective students are alike; this assumption could not be more wrong. Take a look at your actual student body. You need to base your marketing strategies on the needs and actions of real people. It’s important to figure out the answers to the following questions:

  1. What drives these people?
  2. What do they want?
  3. What would incentivize them to enroll in my program?
  4. What obstacles are in their way?

To get the answers to these questions, you need to ask real questions of real people, and then use those answers to build your personae. Personae are abstract representations of real people. Before I get into the process you need to follow when building your personae, take a look at a few examples from a user target personae we crafted for a community college (see Figure 11.1).

Now compare Susie Beasely and Dionne Simpson to a sample from a user-target personae below that we created for a prestigious business college (see Figure 11.2).

Figure 11.2
Figure 11.2

Example personae for a prestigious business college

When creating your personae, follow this process and ask the following questions:

  1. What students typically enroll in each program?
  2. What do those students want and why?
  3. What attracts those students? What presents as an obstacle to enrollment?
  4. What makes a bad student? Who have you been attracting that you’d rather not? Sometimes knowing what you don’t want will help you determine what kind of student you do want.
  5. Who are you trying to reach that you don’t normally attract? Is it reasonable to try a different tactic, or are you wasting marketing dollars if you market to that sort of student?

If you have the funding or time to interview actual students, do it. You can interview students in calls, questionnaires, or focus groups. Have a base set of questions, but be sure to follow up and dig deep when you get surprising answers.

3.1 Using the Information Gathered Through the Personae Development

Use the information you gathered through interviews, questionnaires, and focus groups to analyze the following assumptions about alumni, students, employers, and both undergraduate and graduate applicants:

  1. What characterizes and differentiates the various types of people in each market? Who are they? What problems are they trying to solve? How can we help them?

  2. For alternate solutions to their problems how do those competitor entities speak to the audience? What brands, messaging, and benefits/tradeoffs accompany these choices?

  3. How does the direct competition succeed and fail in targeting the same groups of people?

While writing the personae, you will discover trends you should pay attention to. For example, does the typical student in one of your primary personae groups work full time and therefore need evening, online, or asynchronous classes?

One of the most profound revelations we have uncovered through the personae process is related to the issues that prevent students from enrolling – especially issues that have nothing to do with competition. These non-competitive barriers turned out to be much more powerful than we ever imagined. Here’s one example that completely transformed a marketing campaign for a state university we’ve worked with for almost a decade.

One of the underperforming programs we were tasked to promote is particularly appealing to people who have been in the military and are looking to transition to civilian careers. The program’s website did not make it clear that students could transfer military experience into college credit. Many of these people assumed that college was not an option for them at all because they could not afford four years of college or they felt they did not qualify for college off their high school record. Once we made it clear on the website that ex-military personnel could get college credit for their service and that this both qualified them for admission and cut their costs, enrollments to the program doubled in the next six months.

You’ll use the information you gather from your personae as the foundation for your marketing strategy. At a minimum, you want a personae work-up of your current student, your ideal student, and a student that isn’t a good fit. Sometimes, the write up of the “not a good fit” personae is the most instructive in identifying opportunities for transformation.

Your Turn (you’ll want to uncover the following):

  1. What is your target student market? Don’t aim to recruit students outside your school’s realistic reach. In other words, if you are the dean of a prestigious law school you need to market a completely different set of factors than you will if you are the director of a community college.
  2. What factors have historically resulted in student enrollment and success? These factors should be front and center in your marketing strategy.
  3. What factors have historically acted as barriers to enrollment? These factors should be addressed and countered.
  4. What advantages do you have over the competition? How can you spotlight these advantages?

You’ll want to revisit these discoveries as you create, deploy, test and redeploy marketing strategies. If something isn’t working with your campaign, it probably comes back to your assumptions made here. After your first year of testing marketing strategies and comparing your actual students to your personae, you will probably need to make adjustments. If you do a good job of targeting these key personae, you should be successful. Your personae is the starting point for everything that follows, so you want to make this as accurate as possible.

4 A Clear & Actionable Strategy

Now that you know who your target personae is, you can set goals as part of a clear and actionable marketing strategy. Go to our adaptation of 20 Brand Archetypes2 developed by Forty Agency (now Crowd Favorite), to determine who you are in relation to your target personae.

4.1 Developing Your Strategy

After you determine your brand archetype, you need to build a set of assumptions (which you will test through your marketing plan) that fills in the following blanks:

In a world of ____________, we are a _____________ that helps

________________ become ________________.

To find the descriptors that belong in those blank spots, you will need to discover the following about your target personae:

  1. What is the world they believe they exist in?
  2. Who do they see themselves as?
  3. Who do they want to become?
  4. How are we to facilitate that transformation?

Then ask yourself:

  1. Who is our competition, both direct and indirect?
  2. Who are you, and who are you not?
  3. Who do you want to be seen as? How do you play a role in their story?

Use these questions to figure out the relationship between you, your audience, and the marketplace in general. It’s important to always see yourself in your audience’s eyes. You need to focus on how the prospective student sees you, and then, how you want to be seen. Brands can be authentic to who you are now, or aspirational to who you want to become. If you go aspirational, be ready to make the organizational changes necessary to fulfill that promise.

Then figure out which archetype you are. Are you a hero? A nurturer? A servant? A scholar? Not who you want to be, but who you are to your student population. Use this to cultivate a brand that your student population needs.

Here’s an example to help you see what this looks like. We worked with a small religious private college. A higher-than-average percentage of their student population consisted of young adults who had been homeschooled, and the college was known for producing graduates who went on to work in servant-oriented professions such as the ministry or teaching. Many of the families that chose to send their freshman to this college were looking for a safe, personal experience more akin to a Christian summer camp than a large state university or an ivy league experience.

For this audience, it was more important for us to be a nurturer than a scholar or an explorer. Their student population needed to know that the school would hold their hand every step of the way to help them find success in a purpose-driven career. We emphasized this role on every page by showcasing their mentorship programs, the high level of professor-to-student engagement and the close-knit community the college was known for. We used language that was personal, comforting, and assuring (see Figure 11.3).

Figure 11.3
Figure 11.3

Example web copy for the nurturer archetype

Your brand story impacts your copy, the images you use, how you tell your story, your messaging and ultimately, your advertising. Tapping into your archetype facilitates the emotional connection and excites students so they want to enroll in your program. If you find your messaging isn’t connecting, you can re-examine it in the light of what your competitors have decided to do as they represent themselves to the same audience. Look to your competitors to see how they show themselves to be an explorer, a scholar, etc. Are they connecting with your prospective students better than you are? Then maybe you’re missing something in messaging. Take a look at the images you’ve been using on your site and in social media. Do they represent your student population? What about the words you’ve used? Are you inspiring them to become who they want to be? Or do you need to change your messaging?

4.2 Your Engagement Strategy

After you’ve decided what you want to say and how you want to say it, you need to figure out how you can get in front of your prospective audience. Common engagement platforms are:

  1. Websites
  2. Online communities
  3. Professional organizations
  4. Schools
  5. Search engine results
  6. Digital advertising
  7. Social media posts
  8. Lists (email addresses, physical addresses)
  9. Print and traditional marketing ads
  10. Organizations
  11. Magazines and online zines

Run an inventory of all the ways you could get in front of these people, asking the following:

  1. Where are they looking?
  2. Which keywords would you like your website included for in search engine results?
  3. What story will you tell?
  4. What facts and data matter to them?
  5. How will you get that message to them and engage them?

Now ask yourself: Which of the following actions will they most likely be interested in taking? Do they want to:

  1. Visit campus?
  2. Tour on campus?
  3. Download courses?
  4. Review curriculum and courses?
  5. Learn about financial aid?
  6. Request information?
  7. Ask a question?
  8. Fill out a contact form?
  9. Explore financial aid options?
  10. Download information?
  11. Start the application process?

Your goal is to build a human relationship that convinces your audience to take the next step. How are you going to get them in the door, and once you do, what are you going to ask them to do? Write out your action goals and ask yourself: How and why are they going to do each step?

Your Turn:

  1. What are your goals?
  2. How will you measure success for each goal?

Apply the SMART goal metrics to those goals. Your evaluation doesn’t need to be fancy, but it needs to be documented so you will definitely know if your efforts worked or did not work.

5 Your Website as the Keystone

Your website is the most powerful tool you have for reaching your target audience. Whenever possible, everything should come through your website. Why? Because your website has tremendously valuable measurement capabilities. Through Google Analytics, you can track almost anything a person does on your site, giving you exceptional insight into what your target audience wants and how to get them to apply to your program.

To get started, find out how much control you have over your website. Are you authorized to add content? Change images? Add features? Access and improve Google Analytics reporting about website traffic? The more you can control your website, the more you can control content, your story, your calls to action, your answers to questions, and your analytics.

Your program pages have to provide answers to essential questions so prospective students feel comfortable applying. Every program microsite, program pages section, or program page needs to be deep enough to sell enrollment in that program. It is challenging to make a single page provide all the information you need.

We’ve had the most success with program microsites. A microsite is a small website focused on delivering information about a program or set of related programs. Microsites are valuable because you can flesh out the answers to prospective students’ questions. You can add and control content and test which pages are being successful and which are not garnering attention. The microsite below promotes several related programs (see Figure 11.4).

Figure 11.4
Figure 11.4

Microsite program overview page

This program’s microsite content clearly ties the programs to specific careers (see Figure 11.5).

Figure 11.5
Figure 11.5

Program microsite career content

The existence of career information on your program pages accomplishes four goals.

  1. It creates compelling justification for enrollment in your program. The correlation between your program and preparation for career advancement is clear.

  2. It gets prospective students to your page because your site shows up in searches for careers-related keywords. A student searching “how to become a GIS data analyst” may find your geospatial information and technology program.

  3. It helps the prospective student feel comfortable with your program. The longer the student spends on your website reading about your program and career options, the more likely they are to feel like your program is the right fit. You become the familiar option. The program that provided helpful information. You become the obvious best choice.

  4. It gives you the keywords on the page that you need in order to run effective Pay Per Click (PPC) ad campaigns. Google considers your ads to be relevant if the page content matches the keywords in your digital ads, and this is your chance to sync those.

We also include Apply pages. On a “How to Apply” page, students can get the answers they need, and applying is simple. You may think your application process is simple, but most of the time it isn’t. Make sure the steps to applying are clearly delineated.

5.1 Another Excellent Option: A Program Section on Your Main Website

If you don’t have the funding to create microsites to promote your programs, program sections (a collection of related pages) on a larger site is an excellent option.

As you can see, each program on this university website has a subsection consisting of several pages nested in one area, in this case, Master’s Degrees. We split access to the most important information into two navigations: the main navigation and the sidebar (see Figure 11.6).

Figure 11.6
Figure 11.6

Example program section on a centralized website

5.2 Main Navigation and Essential Pages

Each tab in the main navigation opens to its own page while keeping the user in that subsection of the website. We have found that the following pages deliver the material prospective students need to engage and enroll:

  1. Program Overview (Program description, eligibility, cost)
  2. Careers
  3. Courses
  4. Faculty
  5. Tuition/Cost
  6. FAQs
  7. About Us
  8. How to Apply
  9. Blog or News

If you click on About Us, for example, you will learn about the program without leaving the other essential information. In addition to Apply and About Us pages, a good FAQs section is invaluable for answering questions, making students feel secure and adding valuable keywords to the page, which in turn improves your Search Engine Optimization (SEO) real estate.

5.3 Bare Minimum: A Deep Page for Each Program

If you absolutely have only one page per program to work with, you can still make improvements that will prove effective. It’s less than ideal, but with creativity you can get the information onto the page. Look into options like accordioning the content, as showcased on this page. When this page first loads, much of the page content is hidden (see Figure 11.7).

Figure 11.7
Figure 11.7

Example web page with content utilizing accordion structure

When you click on an accordion menu link, the content from that section expands. In this case, the link clicked is Online Undergraduate Certificate in Horticultural Science (see Figure 11.8).

Figure 11.8
Figure 11.8

Example web page with accordion partially opened

This page has an accordion nested inside the accordion. Each of the answers to these questions remains hidden until clicked (see Figure 11.9).

Figure 11.9
Figure 11.9

Example web page with accordion open

Check with your IT team or hire an outside developer to help you figure out how to make the information available in a clear, actionable way that is aesthetically pleasing.

5.4 The Essentials: What Every Program Microsite, Section, or Page Needs

How much information do you need to provide for each program? How deep is deep enough? This is what we’ve found to be essential. Each program page, set of pages or microsite needs to, at the very least, provide answers to the following questions:

  1. What material, knowledge, and credentials does the program deliver? What degree, certification, or licensure will I have when I have completed the program?
  2. Am I eligible? What are the eligibility requirements?
  3. How much does the program cost, and what financial aid is available?
  4. What is the time and schedule commitment required to complete this program?
  5. What careers are supported by this program? If I complete this program, what careers will I be qualified to pursue?
  6. What does the curriculum look like? What courses are required and offered?
  7. Who is teaching the courses? Who is the program coordinator? What is their expertise?
  8. How do I apply?
  9. How can I request more information or contact the Program Coordinator?

The answers to these questions should be easily accessible within a click or two and without leaving the program page section of the site.

5.4.1 An Engaging Sidebar

The sidebar is a perfect spot to place your main Calls to Action (CTAs). A picture and contact information builds an electronic relationship, which is the beginning of a real relationship. Remember: choosing a program often boils down to: “Do I feel connected? Will I receive personal attention?”

5.4.2 More about Content

As you design your program microsite, section of a larger site, or page, you will want to re-evaluate your content with an eye on the factors you uncovered during the personae process. Your brand and archetype should dictate your headlines, CTAs, images, video, and tone and voice. Adjust your messaging and images to reflect your brand story archetype and color your language, images, and CTAs with your brand story. The following are examples:


  1. “We’re here for you every step of the way! Apply now!”
  2. Pictures of professors and students working together hand-in-hand.


  1. “Take your life to the next level!”
  2. Images of someone giving an exceptional presentation or getting a high five.


  1. “Make a difference with a degree in X!”
  2. Photos of students helping others with their craft

Once you’ve revised your content, you’ll want to go in and search engine optimize (SEO) it in a way that preserves the voice and story but ensures that the program name is in the first paragraph of the main page (at the bare minimum, in the first paragraph), each page has a unique and highly searchable keyword that ties into any PPC ads you may be running, all images have keyword-rich alt text, and the page meta descriptions are keyword-rich and compelling.

5.4.3 Common Challenges

It’s not unusual for program coordinators to approach me saying they are facing significant limitations. Perhaps the only online presence your program has is a single page on a larger site, or perhaps they do not have access to the analytics metrics about site traffic on a site they do not own. The best solution to this problem is to devote some of your budget to the creation of a microsite that you own and on which you can manage the analytics.

If you are not allowed to create a microsite, then we encourage you to push back hard for influence on the content on the site and access to analytics so you can see what’s happening. If you can’t control your site content and don’t have access to analytics, you’re flying blind. Insist upon control of these two factors. At the very least, maintain a spreadsheet that tracks your engagements and results.

Note: You may need to win over a new champion who can influence a chairperson so you get what you need. Don’t be afraid to be the squeaky wheel. Play the politics to get what you need to know what your successes are so that you can repeat them.

One labor-intensive but worthy workaround is to run marketing to the Pro- gram page. When people do contact you, ask how they found you; keep a log of which outreach, ad, or marketing effort resulted in the contact. Then, at the bare minimum, you have an idea of what is working and what is not.

5.4.4 Analytics: Measure So You Can Manage

Whether you have microsites, program sections, or program pages, you need to use analytics to measure impacts. This means you need to make sure Google Analytics has been set up on your site, and that you can gain access to your analytics dashboard. Talk to someone who knows how to set conversion goals and interpret your analytics. There are other options for analytics, but at Verified Studios, we use Google Analytics because it is robust, flexible, and free.

5.4.5 A Starting Point

On a baseline level, you need to use Google Analytics to measure how many visitors you have to each program (unique and repeat visitors), and which pages visitors spend the most time on and visit the most often. In addition, you need to know how many people perform the following actions:

  1. Click on your Apply button
  2. Fill out your Contact form
  3. Request information or otherwise take action that indicates interest (downloads a PDF)
  4. Visit the Cost or Financial Aid page
  5. Visit the How to Apply page

Google Analytics reports come in many shapes and sizes (see Figure 11.10).

Your Turn:

Do you have the resources to build microsites for your programs or sets of related programs? If not, can you build out program page sections on a main site? Can you at least create a deep program page for each program? What improvements should be made to your program pages? List them and then prioritize the enhancements. What resources will you need to tap in order to improve your program web presence?

Figure 11.10
Figure 11.10
Example goal completion trends report

6 Digital Relationship Management

It’s important to think about the digital relationship you have begun with the prospective student as a vital part of your marketing strategy. This is your chance to pique their interest and invite them to engage with you or take next steps. You will probably never meet this student in person even if they enroll in your program, but you can influence their likelihood of applying from the get-go if you understand how digital relationships work.

6.1 Email

One of the most powerful digital relationship tools you have access to is email. You can leverage this tool through one of three ways: send out cold emails to lists of email addresses you can purchase, set up a responsive email campaign that responds to form fills (contact us and request information buttons on your site), or email newsletters to those who sign up to receive your publication.

6.1.1 Cold Email Campaigns

If you purchase a list of email addresses, you can send cold emails out to what you hope to be your target audience. For low cost, you can purchase email tools you can plug into your gmail and that lets you send out 20 emails at a time and will let you track how many people open your email, click on the links, or respond to you. This is similar to cold call sales.

6.1.2 Responsive Email Campaigns

When a prospective student finally reaches out through filling out a contact us or request information form, you need to be ready. Any initiative taken by a prospective student is incredibly valuable, and many programs leave this up to whoever is set up to receive the contact forms. This person is often a very busy professor or an administrator who is not emotionally invested in replying to the lead. If you don’t have staff available to respond to the inquiry with a phone call, you will want to assign someone to respond with emails. In advance, you will want to write out email templates for each appropriate response so the person responding can quickly and easily provide answers and personal service. One of the most effective ways to turn warm leads into applications is to set up a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) email campaign using an autoresponder. An effective CRM email campaign is set up to send an automatic response about 30 minutes after any form fills come in so the prospective student gets immediate personal attention.

Emails in such a campaign should be written in a casual, personal, and friendly tone, signed by the Program Coordinator, sent from the Program Coordinator’s email address, and tailored to the type of request made. For example, if the student clicked on your “Request Info” button, you should have an email set up that responds, welcomes the prospective student, shares basic information about the program, invites the student to ask more questions, and says that the professor will get back to them with more details soon. That professor should then be notified and added to the email thread so the professor can respond with more details, as if they just didn’t have time at the very moment the first email came in.

These emails are very effective tools to help get you to take the next step. Ask yourself: if they emailed you in week one, what will you send them in week two? Anticipate the needs of prospective students and tailor the emails to those needs. From our experience, they want to hear about program details (example: this program is tailored to working professionals and therefore is flexible), financial aid options (and links to the financial aid office), alumni stories of how the program resulted in career opportunities, and deadline reminders. Test your email campaign’s effectiveness by tracking email opens and clicks and tracking applications initiated through the email campaign.3

6.2 Newsletters

If you feel you have truly interesting, helpful, or exciting news to share on a regular basis, a newsletter is a great way to stay in touch with interested students. Just make sure the information is truly of value, and mail it consistently. Once a month is a pretty good interval; you don’t want to burn out a prospect. Don’t start a newsletter if you aren’t prepared to keep up with it. Put your efforts into a short email drip campaign instead.

Some newsletter topics to consider are financial aid options, alumni success stories that spotlight people who match your personae, research opportunities, faculty accomplishments that might entice a prospective student to want to study with that professor, student accomplishments, helpful tips for applying, and upcoming events.

6.3 Zoom Calls or Webinars

Another way to connect is by providing online sessions through which prospective students can meet faculty and ask questions. Zoom calls and webinars make it possible for students to feel connected and part of the team before they’ve even applied, and that emotional connection is what you’re trying to build. Your possible topics can be the same as the ones listed for newsletters.

Your Turn:

  1. Your goal in all of this is to show prospective students the level of support they can expect from your program. Telling them they will be supported and engaged is one thing; showing them is more powerful and will make your program stand out.
  2. Ask yourself: Which areas of your digital strategy need improvement?
  3. List ideas for improvement and prioritize them.

7 Effective Marketing Campaigns

How do you know if your marketing campaign is effective? Check for the following:

  1. Who is your audience?
  2. Where does your audience search for programs like yours?
  3. What is the hook?
  4. How will you present that hook to your audience once you get in front of them?
  5. What do you think their response will be? (What action do you hope they will take?)
  6. How can you measure your effectiveness? (Clicks, site visits, form fills, attendance to webinars, applications, enrollments?)

On any given campaign, you need to have a hypothesis to test. Every effort you spend time or money on needs to earn its right to be done again. The goal here is to figure out what works for you and your prospective student but there is no silver bullet here, especially since what works for one group may not work for another. What you need to do is put forth hypotheses, test the effectiveness, and track what works and what does not. Then you need to see if you can repeat success. If your hypothesis doesn’t work, you need to drop it and try something new.

8 Digital Advertising & Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Looking for the easiest way to get traffic to your site (and hopefully applications to your program)? The easiest way is paid search advertising. That’s Google ads and Bing ads – online keyword-search ads in general.

8.1 How Does Paid Search Advertising Work?

Paid search marketing is advertising within the sponsored listings of a search engine or a partner site by paying either each time an ad is clicked (pay per click – PPC) or when an ad is displayed.

To understand how this works, it’s important to grasp what a search engine results page (SERP) is. When you search keywords on a search engine (i.e., Google), the search engine delivers a list of website listings (site title, links and meta description) in response to your search. This is a SERP. Most of the listings are organic search results – web pages that the search engine algorithm decided were good matches to your keyword query.

Paid search ads are the ads you see when you search for a keyword term and you see a listing marked “Ad.” They are deliberately styled like the organic search result listings so they will blend in with the organic search results (see Figure 11.11).

Figure 11.11
Figure 11.11

Example Google ads in search results

8.1.1 Display Ads

One form of PPC ad is the display ad. Display ads show up on websites you visit, usually looking like a box or a banner with a call to action.

The example ads shown below pull dynamically from a database of information about careers, salaries, and related academic programs. These ads clearly establish a career-to-program path, making a compelling case for prospective students interested in career advancement (see Figure 11.12).

Figure 11.12

8.1.2 Why Paid Search?

Paid search ads are incredibly helpful for several reasons: they quickly and effectively get traffic to your website, they can increase your website visibility on search engines, improving your organic search traffic (traffic you did not pay for), especially if the content on your site is strategically written to work with PPC ads. Also, paid ads get results much more quickly than changes to your site will deliver. This is because good SEO doesn’t happen overnight. You will have to invest in years of site copy improvements for you to get somewhat similar SEO results as you can get with the combination of SEO optimized web content plus paid ads.

Paid search ads deliver the following advantages: you can get on the first page of Google results immediately, you can reach your target audience quickly and easily, and people who click on paid search ads are likely to be ready to act (comparatively), and you will have access to paid search analytics, which gives you valuable, measurable information.

A lot of people are intimidated by paid search ads, especially if they’ve never used them before. Yes, learning how to use the Google ads console is hard. We understand that you probably don’t have time to teach yourself how to use this tool. However, you probably have access to internal resources who do know how to run PPC ads or you can hire outside contractors to handle this piece of the puzzle for you.

8.2 What Exactly Is SEO and How Does It Work?

How you write your website content matters. It’s not enough to provide a generally good description of your program. You need to think about what keywords your target audience will type into a search engine when looking for your program and then make sure those keywords appear in your web copy. However, you can sound like a robot or destroy your brand voice and tone by dumping a bunch of keywords into your web copy. Instead, you need to write content that is both keyword rich and natural.

This is one of the reasons your program pages must be deep. You need a significant amount of room to provide truly good, compelling content that covers the keywords associated with your program in a professional and readable way. You need good SEO real estate so that you can show Google that you are an authority and deserve to rank high in searches.

Here’s the problem: you are competing with all the other programs just like yours. How many programs like yours exist? 50? 100? 500? Let’s say you are marketing a biology program, and there are 300 other biology programs also vying for that top search engine result page. What have you done on your website to prove to Google that you deserve to be featured in the top dozen search results?

8.2.1 Optimizing Your Program Site or Pages

This is another area where tapping an internal resource or an outside contractor can save you a lot of time and energy. A person with experience in this can quickly put together a list of recommendations that include:

  1. Keywords
  2. A SEO site map
  3. Examples of SEO optimized copy
  4. Meta descriptions and alt text

With a set of SEO recommendations, you can quickly and easily update your site copy and metadata on the back end of each page (see Figure 11.13).

An SEO optimized page features the keywords in the text in a prominent yet natural way. It is augmented by SEO metadata, which is entered on the back end of the site. Search engines use the metadata to understand what the page is about and how this page relates to other pages on the site and on the internet as a whole (see Figure 11.14).

Figure 11.14
Figure 11.14
Example wordpress page back end (SEO optimization)

Metadata analysis is provided by SEO tools (see Figure 11.15).

Figure 11.15
Figure 11.15
Example metadata analysis

8.2.2 An Important Aspect of SEO: Links

One of the most important pieces of SEO that is often neglected is link building. Links from other sites to your pages send a signal to Google that your site is enough of an authority that other people want to link to your site.

Links that end in .edu are especially respected by Google, so you will definitely want to ask your department and related sites to link to your site. Reach out to your partners and ask for links from the following:

  1. Your school and department
  2. Peer departments and programs
  3. Professional organizations and industry partners

The more high-quality links you can get, the better. Show search engines that your content is valued.

8.3 PPC and SEO Together: A Winning Combination

When you optimize your pages to match your paid search ads, you unleash a powerful marketing tool. All of these efforts, when combined, are going to help you get more traffic to your website.

As you explore your options in paid advertising, you’ll discover that keywords vary in value. This is because some keywords are highly searched and some are not; some keywords are easy to rank for (meaning your website will show up on the first page or two of search results), and some are very difficult to rank for. These values are related to how many people are searching for these keywords and how many websites are optimized for those keywords. It’s a competition.

You will discover that some keywords are cheaper but cheaper is not always better. If you can get high quality traffic from a keyword (meaning you attract the attention of your target audience and they take action), you may not need a lot of traffic.

Using analytics, you will be able to calculate your cost per conversion, which is how much site traffic or how many actions (i.e., click on the Apply button) you were able to capture per dollar you spent on paid advertising. This is where your putting forth of hypotheses and testing those ideas is very valuable. With a smart paid search, accompanied by excellent SEO, you can get results and get them quickly.

Your Turn:

  1. Evaluate your PPC and SEO plan.
  2. Is your website or program page optimized for SEO?
  3. Are you still relying on traditional advertising methods instead of digital ads?
  4. Do you have a digital marketing expert on your team that you can tap for advice and direction? If not, how much budget can you put towards hiring a digital marketing consultant?

9 Social Media & PR

Social media has been all the rage for a while now, but here’s some advice you might not have heard: don’t do it if you aren’t going to keep up with it. A social media presence is a relationship, and you don’t want to initiate a conversation and then disappear, nor do you want to leave a prospective student cold because you aren’t investing time into it.

Our advice is to either get an effective strategy set up and someone (good and responsible) to man it, or don’t post at all. This is the same with public relations efforts in general. If you can find partners that are willing to post about your program on their websites, social media channels, and newsletters, that’s great. Just make sure you are ready to reciprocate so you don’t burn any bridges.

Some topics to post about are announcements; awards; celebration of the achievements of your current students, faculty and alumni; research projects; grants; and department level news. Whoever you put in charge of your social media and public relations efforts should be aware of your brand story, messaging, and goals. Make sure they know how to handle tricky current events issues and the university brand. Protect your reputation while networking.

Having trouble figuring out what to write and post about? You can always simply share success stories of your students. After all, their success is your success.

Every semester, follow up with current students and graduates and record their stories. Share these stories on the website, as blog posts and through your newsletter or email campaigns. Alumni success stories give a personal face to your program. If possible, collect pictures and videos of current students and alumni (get permission to share) for this purpose. You’ll want to do this both while they are in your program and immediately after they graduate.

9.1 Print & Outdoor Advertising

While this may be what you are comfortable with, this is the last thing you should do for several reasons. One, both of these advertising methods are pricey, and two, it’s very hard to measure their effectiveness. Before you invest a significant chunk of your budget in print or outdoor advertising (billboards and such), you need to ask yourself if you have evidence this is bringing in new students. Does this match the educational environment? For example, if you are marketing an online program, it only makes sense that your ads are also online. Can you prove a reasonable return on investment?

If you insist on doing direct mail, invest money in good, high quality lists. In general, we recommend you move away from print advertising and invest in digital.

9.2 In Person & Digital Events

In person and digital events (such as webinars) are great ways to build the personal relationship we’ve been talking about, but to make this happen, you’ve got to show up. Put somebody on your team on research duty to identify the following types of events:

  1. High school or college events
  2. Recruiting fairs
  3. Local employer’s activities
  4. Conferences
  5. Large employer or professional organization events
  6. Lunch and learns

Build an events calendar for the year, assign attendees to represent your program, and track the success rate of participation. Was it worth the effort? Stop attending or hosting the events that don’t deliver. As with everything in this plan, you need to test, adjust efforts, and retest until you know what gets the attention of your target audience.

10 Analytics & Forecasting

Analytics might be our favorite piece of the marketing puzzle, perhaps because this is where you get to test the strategies you’ve been working so hard to form as you build your marketing plan. Analytics can be applied to measure a lot of factors, but some are far more important for your causes than others. The following are what we consider to be the most important factors to evaluate every month.

You will want to examine reports on the following categories of data:

  1. What’s bringing people to your website?
  2. What’s happening once they get there?
  3. How successful are your paid ad campaigns?
  4. How successful are your content, social media, and SEO efforts?
  5. How successful are your Calls to Action (CTAs)?
  6. How to use your website to track and see impact from in person events and out-reach based marketing campaigns

As you read the reports, look for clues as to why the numbers are up, down, or stagnant.

10.1 What’s Bringing People to Your Website?

A Sessions by Source report tells you how much of your site traffic is organic (meaning it came from someone typing a keyword into a search engine like Google), paid (CPC, which is your paid search ads), referral (from someone clicking on a link on a different site), or other (such as typing the URL into the browser) (see Figure 11.16).

Figure 11.16
Figure 11.16

Example analytics report: Sessions by source

A Top Keywords report tells you which keywords performed best. These are the top ten keywords that brought people to this program page (see Figure 11.17).

Figure 11.17
Figure 11.17

Example top keywords report

10.2 What’s Happening Once They Get to Your Site?

It’s one thing to know that people are visiting your website. You also need to know what people do once they get there. How does that behavior change over time?

10.2.1 Program Page Traffic Summary

This report tells you how many users visited the site, how many times they visited (sessions), how many pages they went to when on the site (pageviews), and how long they spent on the site (on average) (see Figure 11.18).

Figure 11.18
Figure 11.18
Example traffic report

The Most Visited Pages report tells you exactly which pages were visited by how many people (users), how many times (sessions), and how long they stayed on the page (on average). This information helps you know which pages have the most valuable content on them. You can use a report like this to see what a successful page looks like. Compare your successful pages with your unsuccessful pages to learn how to make all your pages perform well (see Figure 11.19).

Figure 11.19
Figure 11.19
Example most visited pages report

Since return on investment is always a concern, you will want to look at conversion rates and cost per conversions (see Figure 11.20).

Figure 11.20
Figure 11.20
Example PPC careers campaign summary

Social media impact can also be measured (see Figure 11.21).

Figure 11.21
Figure 11.21
Example social media report

10.2.2 Social Traffic

Are people clicking on your Apply button? What about your Contact Us or your Request Info buttons? Sometimes design, placement, or size is an issue. You may want to play around with how and where call-to-action (CTA) buttons appear (see Figure 11.22).

Figure 11.22
Figure 11.22
Example goal completion trends report

This report helps you determine what users are interested in. Did they fill out a contact form? Research financial aid? Download a PDF? This report also shows you where the traffic came from. For example, in May, five people who found the page through organic search (typing a keyword into a search engine like Google and clicking on your page listing) decided to fill out a contact form (see Figure 11.23).

Figure 11.23
Figure 11.23
Example event breakdown report

10.3 Tracking the Impact of In-Person Events

You can also use Google Analytics to track the impact of in-person events and outreach-based marketing campaigns. Google Analytics tracks details of users such as geographic location and IP names. By comparing user activity spikes and user location information, you can deduct the impact of events and outreach.

10.4 Using Analytics to Improve Your Marketing Strategy

The reports we’ve featured in this chapter only scratch the surface of what data you can pull from Google Analytics. Work with someone experienced and have them set up a Data Studio dashboard for you, and you’ll have more than enough material to pull from.

This is how you test the hypotheses you’ve formed and executed. For example, you may find the answers to the following:

  1. Did the addition of careers content drive more traffic to your program pages? Once there, did they ask for information or apply?
  2. Did posting application deadlines create a spike in applications? We’ve often seen applications rise just before, on and right after the application deadline, which is why we encourage you to post them on the site in a prominent location. If your program is on rolling admissions, set a “priority” deadline and you’ll get similar results.
  3. What have you learned about the timeline of a marketing strategy? Did you start marketing soon enough, or will you need to start sooner to get results in the next application cycle?

If you get really good with this, you can even forecast matriculation down to approximate cost and timing.

Your Turn:

  1. Do you have access to site analytics?
  2. Do you have someone on your team who can set up a dashboard for you?
  3. Can they also interpret analytics in a meaningful way?
  4. What metrics will you track? List them now.

11 Conclusion: Optimizing Your Marketing Efforts

Naturally, this chapter only provides a brief overview of the many aspects of higher education recruitment and marketing strategies. However, we hope you now have a good feel for where to begin as you:

  1. Find the support and funding you need to effectively market your program
  2. Identify your prospective student audience
  3. Establish your brand and archetype
  4. Engage with your target audience
  5. Plan and execute changes to your website and marketing strategy
  6. Test, measure, refine, and improve your marketing strategy to get results

You won’t get it all right immediately; no one does. However, by taking the steps outlined in this chapter you can get the ball rolling in the right direction. Act with intention, test your theories, and document successes and failures. Evaluate and adjust your plan accordingly. In time you’ll find success.



If you aren’t familiar with SMART goals and how to use a SMART goal system, visit the Corporate Finance Institute (


Not sure how email campaigns work? Check out an example of an email campaign we designed to further your understanding of this strategy (

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