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Marketing’s Role in Recruiting

Stand out from the noise and attract the best students.

August 18, 2016
 

We all know that recruiting is a key part of the college admissions process. Colleges and universities develop and launch campaigns designed to attract the most promising soon-to-graduate high school students to their campuses. These campaigns can be as informal as direct mail or as personal as home visits. We attempt to woo the best and the brightest to apply, enroll and, ultimately, graduate from our institutions.

Yet, the higher ed marketplace is more competitive than ever before. The number of students applying to more than seven colleges increased from nine to 28 percent between 1990 and 2012, and those applying to three or more jumped from 61 to 77 percent within the same time period.

How do we stay competitive in this fast-paced world? If institutions want to stand out from the noise and connect with students in smart and targeted ways that will lead to mutual success, it’s imperative that the approach to marketing be informed by sound labor market data and student demographic information, and be anchored by a robust digital campaign that meets students where they are and showcases the features that most appeal to their unique needs and goals.

Developing a recruitment strategy for the digital age

Recruitment strategies in higher education are undergoing a major change, thanks to increasing opportunities for student engagement afforded by social media and other digital communications tools. As a result, college and university marketing/communications offices can, and must, play a significant role in helping the admissions office leverage these tools. Recruiters from the admissions office can gather data about prospective students from vendors such as The College Board and collaborate with their marcom team colleagues to develop strategies for targeting these prospects, using tools that go beyond the traditional direct mail or email. The marcom team can help the admissions recruiters leverage the power of social media—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube—to reach those demographically desirable students and encourage them to apply to and attend an institution.

Institutions may also want to invest even further in recruiting, collaborating with outside organizations to ensure that they’re attracting the most qualified pool of applicants to campus each year. Market research is key to the success of these types of collaborations. The college or university and the outside organization work together to determine where opportunities for growth exist, assess student demand for certain programs, and understand other factors such as market saturation as well as labor market demand in specific fields.

In addition, outside organizations are often poised to collaborate with college and university marketing teams to identify what makes a program or institutional brand unique. Together they cull out the differentiators and strengths and effectively turn that into messaging that will lead to interest from students. This often involves building out robust student personas—understanding what motivates applicants, how they behave and what they prefer, where they live, and their preferences and values. All of these factors help build a psychographic profile that will enable the institution to reach its target audience for a given program.

Attracting Students With Your College or University’s Brand

Even college recruitment teams that have all of this type of knowledge at their disposal and a deep understanding of who their prospective students are face the challenge of how to make their institutions stand out to quality applicants in a veritable sea of higher education options. In many cases, colleges and universities have had to take a step back and reassess their marketing strategies to capture the attention of today’s students. A painfully slow website or an unresponsive social media account might be the difference between University A and University B, for any student—especially one born after 1995. With this in mind, institutions must constantly evolve their websites and other digital platforms and become as social media savvy as the students they want to recruit.

Bradley University, for example, is keenly focused on ensuring that its brand supports student recruitment. Even though admissions and recruitment are in a different reporting line and building on campus, the primary focus in Bradley’s institutional branding efforts is student recruitment. Anytime the university works on branding, the marketing team always asks, “Is this topic relevant to or of potential interest to prospective students and how it might impact recruitment?” As an institution, Bradley is tuition-driven and relies on strong incoming classes, so naturally its branding efforts must be in lock-step with recruitment.

Today’s colleges and universities also have the new opportunity to reach out to potential students through social media in a way that websites, emails and brochures don’t provide. Using Twitter, Facebook and even Instagram, the marcom team can collaborate with the admissions recruitment team to share the culture and personality of the school with prospects. This summer, some innovative schools even turned the Pokémon frenzy into a chance to show off their campuses to prospective students. Harvard University, for example, tweeted out photos of Pokémon posed in front of historical landmarks.

Using an informed mix of email marketing, paid search, SEO, social media and direct response marketing designed to meet showcase their unique traits and meet their individual goals, institutions are able to make informed decisions about how they market to students, much in the same way a company might. Bradley University relies heavily on social media in its recruitment efforts. The university has several staff members dedicated to social media and interacting with prospective students via social media channels. In addition to traditional social media posts, Bradley has an extensive digital advertising portfolio. Many of the campaigns drive prospective students and parents to landing pages that encourage activities such as visiting campus, requesting information and applying for admission (just to name a few). Other campaigns are informational in nature as they create general awareness about the institution or tackle topics such as managing the cost of college.

Smart Marketing: The Key to Successful Recruitment

The goal of a top college or university’s recruitment strategy, whether for online or on-campus programs, is simple: to secure the best applicants—the ones that fit their profile. A large applicant pool can help ensure that they have the opportunity to do just that, and targeted recruiting, based on firm marketing principles, will ensure that that pool consists of students who fit their profile.


Jim Crone is the director of marketing at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. Jon Niebch is the director of marketing for Pearson Embanet. Todd Hitchcock is chief operating officer for Pearson Embanet.

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