Split between Thunder Bay and a smaller Orillia campus, Lakehead University combines high-quality post-secondary programs with the beauty of Ontario’s lakes and forests. Despite high awareness, it was not a first-choice university for many Ontario students. Lakehead engaged ED Marketing in late 2022 with an immediate goal of increasing enrolment for the impending enrolment deadline. Afterwards, we continued working with Lakehead across the entire application cycle to increase applications and enrolment rates each year. 

What they said: People have a misconception about our school quality. 

Lakehead was facing a difficult challenge. Research indicated that students and their parents were ruling out the university based on the perceived quality of education. 85 per cent of grade 12 students in Ontario were familiar with Lakehead, but few truly understood the high-quality experience it offered, especially when compared to larger institutions. 

The data showed that Lakehead delivered a high-quality education, resulting in positive outcomes for its students. Lakehead was considered one of Canada’s top 10 undergraduate universities by Macleans and is ranked favourably by Times Higher Education. Both campuses offer small class sizes, top-of-the-line facilities and high-calibre, hands-on training. After finishing their degree, Lakehead graduates were hired more frequently than the provincial average. 

In other words, students were dismissing the university based on incorrect perceptions of the school. 

What we saw: Plenty of proof to engage prospects digitally. 

Lakehead was already positioning itself as a top school suited for “exceptional and unconventional” learners, but applicants needed to know exactly what made it better. Feedback from Lakehead’s past marketing efforts supported this finding and indicated that respondents preferred practical messaging, including statistics. 

Research also showed that those who chose not to apply or enrol at Lakehead commonly cited opinions about the university’s reputation, program quality and the campuses’ distance from home as deciding factors. We knew Lakehead had the evidence needed to overcome two of these misconceptions; the third was something we could turn into a challenge and invitation. 

Approach.

The driving force behind this multi-phase campaign was strategic audience targeting and digital deployment, delivering proof points to those they appealed to most. We would continue to position Lakehead as a place for the independent and adventurous, but that aspirational message would be backed by concrete facts. 

Our team distilled pages of research into a core group of insights, messaging themes and media placements.  

Using this data, we crafted personas that reflected Lakehead’s two largest audiences. The university’s primary audience was high school and mature students, those who were looking to start their post-secondary journey or finish an undergraduate degree somewhere new. The secondary audience was parents, who often influence the post-secondary decisions of their high-school-aged children.  

The data showed that audiences’ geographical location had the greatest impact on their perception of Lakehead. We identified and grouped audience commonalties across Ontario. We then tailored messaging and creative to meet the differing needs of audiences in these geographic regions. 

  • Messaging aimed at Southern Ontario students and parents addressed their unique distance objections. Executions positioned Lakehead students as the adventurous and independent few, brave and resourceful enough to live on their own and learn hands-on, surrounded by nature. Parents were also reminded that Lakehead’s Orillia campus was only 90 minutes outside of the Greater Toronto Area and both Orillia and Thunder Bay were safe, tight-knit communities. 
  • For audiences in Northern Ontario, especially those in Thunder Bay, messaging focused on disproving misconceptions about academic quality. This involved leveraging Lakehead’s high-quality facilities and impressive student-success stats, including a 13:1 student-to-faculty ratio and the fact that over 97 per cent of graduates were hired within two years. 

Separate ads and targeting approaches were also created for audiences with interest in specific undergraduate programs like Psychology or Business. Parents and prospective students that visited the webpage for one of these flagship programs were then retargeted and served ads featuring program-specific imagery and proof points. 

Research also showed that each of Lakehead’s audiences engaged platforms differently. Unlike their parents, many younger audiences didn’t click on ads for more information. This indicated they needed more information in-platform before choosing to visit Lakehead’s website organically. To address this, ads for high school and mature students were primarily served with placements that allowed Lakehead to tell a full story; including TikTok, YouTube Shorts and Meta (including Facebook/Instagram) carousels; and on sites or apps frequented by young students; like Quizlet and Merriam-Webster. 

Digital execution.

Creative executions combined images and videos of real students and classrooms with the point-of-view style often used in destination marketing. This creative approach allowed audiences to see themselves or others like them (or their children) confidently succeeding at Lakehead. 

Transforming deep insights into powerful messaging.
Meta carousel ad.
Transforming deep insights into powerful messaging.
Meta ad.
Transforming deep insights into powerful messaging.
Meta ad (Thunder Bay audiences).

Marketing on TikTok.

According to data, TikTok was one of the most-used platforms for Lakehead’s Gen-Z high school audience and indexed even higher with applicants who reported Lakehead as their first-choice school. ED’s competitor analysis showed that a number of Ontario’s largest educational institutions were also active on the platform. The Lakehead team was open and excited to further incorporate the platform into their marketing strategy.   

Our first phase of TikTok creative leveraged Lakehead’s extensive library of video footage to show classroom learning, campus life and unique landscapes while offering concrete reasons for Lakehead’s strong reputation. 

In our second phase of TikTok creative, ED collaborated directly with Lakehead’s marketing team and a student ambassador. Informed by our recommendations and popular TikTok trends, the student ambassador recorded footage which we then edited into a top-performing ad that looked and sounded like organic TikTok content.  

ED’s team knew that campaign evaluation needed to include more than surface-level stats like clicks, especially when building and tracking interest for the next recruitment season. We consulted with Lakehead to identify high-value website actions, like downloading the viewbook or booking a campus tour, that indicated users would likely submit an application later. Creative executions were then tailored to encourage these actions, which were tracked and used to build a retargeting audience for more personalized messaging. 

Transforming deep insights into powerful messaging.
Transforming deep insights into powerful messaging.
Transforming deep insights into powerful messaging.
Meta carousel ads.

Outcome.

ED’s engagement with Lakehead immediately produced powerful results, increasing enrolment confirmations by more than 8 per cent in early 2023. Our “For the…” campaign continued to elevate messaging and improve engagement while complementing Lakehead’s existing brand language of “Far from Ordinary.” 

8.9% increase in confirmations in 2023. 

Mid-campaign results and additional insights informed new high-performing executions in preparation for the 2024 application deadline. By the end of 2023, audiences had spent 23 per cent more time on the Lakehead website and had significantly higher engagement with meaningful sections of the website. This included up to 97 times more visits to high-value webpages

23% increase in time on site. 

12 x more visits to ‘admission’ pages. 

97 x more visits to ‘apply’ pages.  

By strategically creating and managing high-quality, in-feed ads that fit the platform and users’ expectations, we improved reach and engagement. This was especially true among younger audiences, with Lakehead’s content reaching more than 70 per cent of Ontario grade 11 and 12 students every week on Meta. 

71% of Ontario grade 11 and 12 students reached an average of 2.9 times/week (Meta). 

Our student-ambassador TikTok ad was a powerful example of this, earning an exceptionally high click-through rate and a featured spot on TikTok Creative Center’s list of top-performing ads.  

Click-through rate = top 16% (TikTok’s higher-ed ads). 

Through this multi-media campaign, ED created a flexible framework that was effective across mediums and informational streams yet instantly recognizable as Lakehead’s brand. It also allowed creative executions to effectively leverage Lakehead’s extensive library of media in the future.