Grad Programs Are Positioned to Meet the Digital Marketing Demands of Students

Scott JeffeVice President, Research (Graduate and Online)April 29, 2021
Graduate E-Expectations Preview: image of student holding a smartphone and using a laptop
Our latest research looks at the experiences graduate students have with digital marketing and which marketing and advertising practices graduate enrollment managers find most effective.

Later this spring, RNL will publish two groundbreaking reports focused on graduate education that will provide timely data on what today’s graduate students need from institutions and how institutions are currently going about marketing to and recruiting them. This is the first of a series of blogs that will assess the extent to which current marketing and cultivation practices match prospective student needs.

How students learn about graduate programs

We asked our 1,500 prospective graduate student respondents to identify the advertising sources that they remember seeing or accessing in the earliest stages of their search that had an impact on moving their search to the next stage. Regardless of preferred format, graduate students uniformly indicate that digital resources are most likely to have a positive effect on moving their search forward. Search engines, program search and ranking sites, and social media platforms were all significantly more likely to be selected than the “go to” resources of the past—radio ads, print ads, and even television ads.

Perhaps the most profound change is that 69 percent of respondents identified social media sites as a key provider of early-stage information about programs of interest. As recently as 2018, a similar study conducted by Aslanian Market Research* reported that just 27 percent of graduate students cited search engines as among their awareness raising resources at the early stages of their search process. This dramatic increase is likely a result of the exponential increases among institutions in leveraging social media sites for advertising over the last few years (see below). These data make the soon to be implemented changes to the Apple IOS privacy settings all the more critical for graduate education marketers to figure out quickly.

*Post-Traditional Graduate Students: Insights for Program Development and Marketing, Aslanian/Jeffe, EducationDynamics, 2018.

Sources consulted in early stages of program search
Graduate student data: Sources they used in the graduate program searches.

How institutions are seeking to raise program visibility: data from graduate enrollment managers

Our upcoming biennial report on graduate marketing practices at public and private institutions was designed this year to dovetail with the new survey of prospective graduate students. Our survey included responses from graduate marketing leaders from almost 100 different institutions and asked what strategies/tactics they were using as well as a qualitative assessment of the effectiveness of each strategy or tactic.

Comparing the proportions of institutions leveraging various strategies and tactics with early student search practices indicates an increasing alignment among institutions—and an increasing understanding of what it will take to effectively “connect” with prospects. So we know that institutions are using the strategies and tactics that are most popular with prospective students, but we don’t know the extent to which each is being used (that will be the subject of a future post). Perhaps the most useful aspect of prospective student data is that it can help institutions ensure that allocations in institutional marketing budgets reflect the most prevalent tactics cited by students in learning about programs that interest them at the early stages of their search.

Effectiveness and use of different digital marketing and advertising methods with graduate students
Use and effectiveness of digital marketing and advertising used by graduate enrollment managers.

Divergence between use and effectiveness

For each strategy/tactic, respondents were asked to assess its relative effectiveness. More often than not, there is a considerable gap between use and the proportion that think that it is effective or very effective (the only notable exception being the relatively close percentages for search engine optimization). Some of the widest gaps are among tactics that prospective students cite as their most important resources, so it is important that institutions pay close attention to prospective student search patterns as they reallocate resources. In some cases, institutions may find that a particular strategy doesn’t seem to be effective because they are not dedicating enough time, attention, and resources to it, rather than because it is truly ineffective.

Increased use during the pandemic

Use of paid social media advertising was the strategy that institutions were most likely to increase use of over the last year of the pandemic. Private institutions were significantly more likely to increase use of search engine optimization than public institutions, and public institutions were considerably more likely to invest in organic social media than private institutions. Note that data in the table above includes data from two survey questions, one that asked if sources were used more during the pandemic and one that did not. The “n/a” citations in the table imply that this was not asked, rather than that use of the tactic was not increased.

Data presented in both of these reports make it clear that institutions are ever-more reliant on a sophisticated digital marketing strategy in order to fill their graduate level programs. Connect today with an RNL consultant to assess how well you are doing and what your next steps should likely be.

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About the Author

Scott Jeffe, RNL

Scott Jeffe has worked with more than 200 institutions in 40+ states to apply market data to strategic decisions. With a focus on profiling the demands and preferences of nontraditional (adult, online, etc.) students, Scott...

Read more about Scott's experience and expertise

Reach Scott by e-mail at Scott.Jeffe@RuffaloNL.com.

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