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Pre-Marketing Research and Digital Marketing for Higher Ed

Aaron Mahl, PhD

Vice President, Graduate and Online Partnerships

March 24, 2020

The COVID-19 crisis has completely shifted the priorities of higher education, and it will continue to be our focus for quite some time. But prior to the virus emergency gripping the world, I had been talking with campus leaders about digital marketing—something that’s become even more important as we think about how we engage prospective students during this time.

In those conversations, the topics of the enrollment environment and competition come up frequently. Without exception, key institutional leaders know they need to better understand the environment their respective programs live in: Are enrollments up or down across the region/nation? Are jobs growing or contracting? What do employers need from graduates?

Pre-Marketing Research and Digital Marketing
Digital marketing needs to be grounded in solid research or it will underperform at best or fail at worst.

With more institutions/programs seeking to serve a relatively finite set of prospective students, campuses know that they need to know more in order to succeed. What used to be “interesting data” has become critical to reaching goals and fulfilling the mission of the institution. That’s going to be even more critical as we try to assess the impact of COVID-19 and adjust our enrollment approaches in a much more uncertain time for institutions and students.

As campuses return to marketing their programs to prospective students, they will need to have a better understanding of their competition on a program-by-program basis. However, just knowing which programs/institutions you compete against is not enough. You must also know your competition’s formats, concentrations, price, key value propositions, market share, and coverage rates so that you can position your programs successfully. These data also help to establish a baseline of your program’s enrollment and potential.

However, I’ve found that this pre-marketing research is not being done or is given short shrift in an effort to get “into market” with the digital campaign as quickly as possible. Campuses bypass important steps to hit enrollment targets or meet a predetermined start date. In other cases the research phase is overlooked in order to accelerate the launch of a new program. In both cases, even if research is done, it is not shared with the digital marketing team responsible for campaign management and execution. This is the single quickest route to campaigns that are almost certain to under-perform at best, or fail at worst.

Pre-marketing research needs to be thorough and transparent

Our work with schools and programs always begins with gaining an understanding of the environment in which a program will operate and the landscape of institutions and programs with which it will compete. Unlike some of our competitors, we share all that research with our campus clients as part of our commitment to transparency. I always enjoy sharing these data and the appreciation it registers among campus leaders.

What types of pre-marketing research (internal and external) inform your digital marketing campaigns? Do you have a sense of your program’s share of graduates regionally? Nationally? How do external data sources like Emsi and iPEDS, and BLS inform your approach and strategy?

If your campaigns are in need of a refresh or you’re lagging behind your lead generation goals, it may be helpful to assess and analyze how you are using the data as you build out the digital marketing campaigns. We have seen campuses and programs use a better understanding of the enrollment environment, competitive factors, and target audience to drive digital marketing strategies that help them reach their true enrollment potential.

We can do that for you, too. Schedule a time to talk with us. We can discuss your enrollment goals, current strategies, and ways you can put real, transparent research into your digital marketing strategies.

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About the Author

Aaron Mahl, Vice President for Graduate & Online Partnerships

Dr. Aaron Mahl possesses broad knowledge and experience in all areas of enrollment management including recruitment, retention, marketing, and the strategic use of financial aid. He joined RNL in 2013 delivering enrollment management consulting and...

Read more about Aaron's experience and expertise

Reach Aaron by e-mail at Aaron.Mahl@RuffaloNL.com.


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