As we waltz in to 2024, there are several key trends that continue to keep marketers in the higher education industry tossing and turning. From the rise of internal marketing to the power of social media engagement, universities and colleges are facing new challenges and opportunities in reaching their target demographics of students and donors.
Let’s take a look at these key trends, and insights on how to navigate the changing landscape of higher education marketing for a successful future (and more shut-eye).
Engaging audiences on social media.
The digital landscape is a terrain that never stands still, especially for universities aiming to maintain a relevant and engaging social media presence. One of the key challenges lies in the platforms themselves, which are constantly evolving. What was effective yesterday might not hold the same impact today. This is why universities – despite often having robust and dynamic social media teams – find themselves grappling with the pace of change.
From (what used to be) Twitter and TikTok, to legacy networks like Facebook and emerging ones like Threads (remember Threads? Anyone?), each platform has its unique ecosystem and user expectations. This requires a specialized approach tailored to each platform, moving away from a one-size-fits-all strategy. Universities, therefore, need to shift from a broad-spectrum approach to a more nuanced, platform-specific strategy.
The days of blasting the same content across all platforms are over. Instead, the focus should be on understanding each platform’s unique features and user behaviour. This specialized approach can be a challenge for universities, whose structures often thrive on continuity and familiar routines.
Real-time, relevant agile content always wins.
The solution: real-time, relevant agile content always wins. For more on how to shift to an agile content strategy, check out this article on our parent company’s site.
Universities are intellectual hubs where discussions and meetings are as common as lectures and research papers. However, this culture often leads to consultation fatigue, where too many meetings hinder rather than help the decision-making process.
The key to effective consultation in universities lies in efficiency – ensuring that meetings are purposeful, and include the right stakeholders. This approach helps in avoiding redundancy and ensures that influential voices are heard and accounted for in the decision-making process. Consultation fatigue can be a significant barrier to innovative marketing strategies, and managing it efficiently is critical.
In higher education, the ladder of approval has many, many, (one more) many rungs. It obviously can cause massive bottlenecks to time-sensitive projects and also drain morale. As a higher ed. marketer, you have deadlines you need to hit. Maybe you’re working on an enrolment campaign or maybe a donor-focused ask, it needs to see the light of day before a certain date and the longer it gets pushed back, the more harm it does to your results.
How do you mitigate? Find efficiencies. Talk to colleagues, and look for ways to combine consultative efforts so you’re not each going back to the same people, asking the same things, at the same time. And if you’re engaging partners in that initiative, make sure they play nice in the sandbox – inviting any third parties you’re working with on concurrent initiatives, as well as your internal team into the process. Speaking of which…
Getting the most out of your internal marketing team.
Most times when higher education clients come to us, they already have an internal marketing team in place. Our role is often to work on a flagship initiative like a recruitment campaign or an institutional brand, while their team focuses on the day-to-day output of marketing materials. But often, the execution of the brand rests with the internal team. And if they haven’t been engaged in the external work in a meaningful way, it’s impossible to get them excited and championing it after the fact.
When we’re in final negotiations for a higher education engagement, this is often the deal breaker question put to us: how will you involve our internal team and ensure they have a meaningful stake in the work they’ll be expected to bring forward?
We’ve written on this topic before, but the ‘secret’ is bringing them in early and often. Get their input on what’s working and what isn’t with the current marketing expression. Involve them in consultation so their colleagues and peers see them as drivers of the initiative. Have them involved in review of the strategy and the exploration – especially with respect to how the implementation might be affected by a given creative direction. And make sure you consider and reflect how their feedback throughout this has been implemented.
This continues to be a struggle for schools. And it’s not surprising – a lot of schools are the same – they have a collection of outstanding faculty, noteworthy alumni, standout courses, innovative approaches… but so does every other school. And when you lead with that list, you’re relegating your school to being compared to others’ lists (and being evaluated on something entirely subjective and ultimately not ownable).
When universities and colleges come to us, they’re usually looking for help to mine for (and then stand for) something unique and ownable. Whether they know what that something is or not, we help them hone in on something they can own in the market that sets them apart – and helps contextualize their laundry list of great offerings/people.
Instead of just considering what you tell people, think about how you tell it. From a third-party perspective, higher ed. marketing can all seem like one big wave of the same static fuzz. That’s why you need to be different in how you communicate. Everything from your tone of voice to your colour palette influences how people perceive you against other schools. And if you want to stand out in the crowd you’ll have to look and sound at least a little different than the rest of the bunch.
In addition to highlighting unique qualities, it is essential for higher education marketers to continuously evaluate and refine their brand identity. This includes keeping a pulse on the latest industry trends and adapting marketing strategies accordingly. By staying current and ahead of the curve, marketers can ensure that their institution remains relevant and appealing in a rapidly evolving higher education landscape.
The enrolment cliff: keeping up with changing student demographics.
We saved the ‘best’ for last. Let’s travel back in time, shall we?
The year is 2008. Barack Obama is historically sworn in as President. The Pussycat Dolls are reigning over radio waves. Everyone is wearing shutter shades and putting giant metal gauges in their ear lobes.
And, of course, a massive financial crisis causes worldwide disruption to millions of lives. This leads to birth rates being historically low.
Now, this part isn’t breaking news. Fast forward 16 years later, and higher ed. marketers and the industry have been bracing for a historically low matriculation class in 2025/26. But two things they weren’t anticipating are really starting to make things interesting.
The first being a global pandemic and the impact that it’s had on learners’ ability to learn remotely – and their expectation of the quality of education they’re receiving remotely.
The second: the influx of competition. From online learning alternatives, to the uptake of micro credentials, to the lines between college and university offerings starting the blur: how people are accessing post-secondary education has changed drastically.
Not to mention an entirely new career option for young people. Ask a kid what they want to be when they grow up today and they’ll say “influencer.” What happened to “firefighter” or “nurse” or “veterinarian”? But now we’re dating ourselves…
The thing we were most worried about has been compounded by the things we could’ve never anticipated.
Isn’t it fun to be in marketing?! We’re kidding – breathe. Here’s the bottom line.
The lesson for marketers: more than ever before, your university needs to consider what your audiences are asking for and expecting. And with fewer people making up those audiences (and more competitors for those audiences) – you need to make every marketing effort count.
With these five crucial concerns on your radar, you’re ready to face 2024 and all the marketing hurdles that will come with it. As you aim to unite your team, crush deadlines and garner acclaim for your institution, keep in mind that your role is undeniably important. It’s your job to bring the stories swirling around the halls of your university or college to life. And to use those stories with the next generation of great minds.
Did we miss any marketing priorities that are top of mind for you and your marketing team? Drop us a line through our contact form and let us know.