Steps to building a winning online presence for your university

The majority of students now research universities online, so this is a vital component of marketing. David Riley lays out the foundations of building a strong online presence

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13 Apr 2023
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In higher education marketing, the timeless adage “change is the only constant” holds true. The internet and associated technologies have sparked dramatic changes in the marketing landscape in the past couple of decades. By leveraging online channels, institutions can market themselves directly to global audiences, collect valuable data on user behaviour and use this data to create more personalised campaigns.

The vast majority – 86 per cent – of high-school students rely on college websites in their search processes, according to Ruffalo Noel Levitz, and 89 per cent use search engines such as Google to research colleges and universities, according to EAB data. Meeting your audience where they are is a fundamental marketing principle, so marketing a university online is now vital if you are to attract and retain students. This non-exhaustive list of five key strategies provides a starting point for effective online marketing:

1. Understand the target audience. In the case of universities, this is likely to be secondary school graduates, transfer students and adult learners. Each of these groups has different needs and expectations to be taken into account in marketing strategies. Secondary school graduates, for example, might be interested in the social aspects of university life, while transfer students could be more focused on academic programmes and career opportunities. Adult learners, on the other hand, could be interested in the flexibility and convenience of evening classes or online learning.

It is important not to make assumptions. Universities should collect quantitative and qualitative data on their target audiences by analysing existing market research or commissioning new research, through outreach with local schools and one-on-one conversations in-person and via email, and through online monitoring with keyword research tools and social media listening. Although paid social media management and search platforms such as Sprout Social and SEMRush will provide the most sophisticated results, universities can also garner useful information on target audiences via organic (non-paid) means. Using the social media search functions or the free version of keyword research platforms will offer valuable insights. Once you have built some understanding of the target audiences, you can start to develop online marketing strategies.

Crucially, learning about audience needs doesn’t end when a prospect is enrolled as a student. At the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus, we gather data on prospects, but also execute a “Student Communications Survey” and a “Graduate Tracey Survey” to get feedback from active students and graduates about their university experiences. These surveys, disseminated through email and social media, enable us to address evolving needs and expectations of students to boost retention and success.

2. Consistent branding. Establish a strong and consistent brand identity across all online channels including the university website, social media accounts, email campaigns and digital advertising. Brand consistency creates a cohesive and memorable image of your institution, which improves brand recognition and recall among prospective students. Universities can support a consistent online brand by developing a digital brand manual that outlines the university’s visual identity, tone of voice, messaging and design elements specific to online platforms.

Ensure that all departments and staff members involved in creating and managing online content are familiar with the digital brand manual and adhere to its guidelines. This might involve training and workshops, and regular reminders about the importance of maintaining brand consistency through internal communication channels. Often, a carrot-and-stick approach is necessary for effective brand compliance. In most institutions, the marketing and communications office is the “designated university authority” on brand guidelines. This department can identify staff or departments who contravene brand policy and bring them into compliance. To boost buy-in from staff, university marketing departments can periodically highlight individuals or departments that have demonstrated best practice within the brand guidelines. This can be done via internal newsletters, emails and the university intranet.

Other ways to improve brand consistency include using a centralised team or process for creating and approving digital content and designing standardised templates and formats for common digital assets, such as website pages, social media posts and digital advertisements.

3. Be authentic and transparent in your messaging. Prospective students value honesty and genuine connections. A key strategy we’ve used to ensure authenticity in marketing is prominently featuring students who share their experiences. Capturing students’ unfiltered feedback on their positive experiences sends a powerful message. Ensure the material represents diverse students so audiences can see themselves represented. In 2021 our marketing and communications department and our external agency partner won a prestigious ADDY award for our Game Changers campaign, which featured a diverse group of students who reflected on the importance of their university education and the ways in which it assisted them in contributing to the betterment of their local and national communities.

4. Regular analysis and optimisation. Continuously analyse the performance of online marketing efforts and be prepared to adapt and optimise strategies based on the data. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to data analysis and optimisation. Universities must ensure online marketing plans are crafted in service of their wider strategic goals and create benchmarks that assess the plans’ progress in assisting them to attain these goals.

For example, a major strategic goal of a university might be to establish authority and industry expertise in a particular field. Online strategies that support this can include profiling relevant faculty members and their research twice a month via the university’s LinkedIn page and publishing a white paper on the topic, which can be referenced and linked to monthly university blog posts. Benchmarks for success might include the level of engagement through LinkedIn and the number of white paper downloads. Over time, changes can be made to the length and frequency of blog and social posts and the results of these changes measured to optimise performance.

5. Stay updated on industry trends Keep up with trends and best practices in digital marketing, higher education and your target audience. By staying informed, you can anticipate changes and adapt your strategies accordingly. The marketing and recruitment teams of your university should have sight of industry developments in areas such as search engine optimisation (SEO), content marketing, social media marketing, pay-per-click (PPC) advertising and email marketing.

As institutions embrace the winds of change, they must adapt and evolve their strategies to appeal to prospective students. It is through this continued evolution that universities can not only survive but also thrive in the digital age, attracting and inspiring the next generation of scholars and leaders.

David Riley is digital marketing lead at The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus.

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