ORLANDO – A booming economy has helped bring the nation’s unemployment rate below 4% and has made it easier than it’s been in years for Americans to find jobs. The struggle often comes from employers who can’t fill job openings in some fields, rather than serious challenges for workers.
But as 2018 draws to a close and a new year is about to begin, it’s clear that one other industry is starting to feel the pinch of a strong economy: higher education.
It’s a trend that community colleges have seen on and off for decades: when the economy is strong and unemployment is low, enrollment declines as prospective students opt for jobs rather than classrooms.
The question now is whether institutions of higher learning may have another rough year in 2019, when a healthy economy luring away students clashes with possible federal cuts to higher education funding.
Earlier this year, new numbers from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center showed that undergrad enrollment in the U.S. was down for the sixth straight year, and the trend was happening across the board in higher education.
It’s ironic that colleges tend to get nervous during a healthy economic boom, but the truth is more working adults seek out jobs instead. This year, enrollment of adult learners over the age of 24 has dropped by more than 1.5 million since 2011.
So what are colleges and universities to do? Higher education is a fiercely competitive field, and in order to maintain an edge and advantage, institutions need the savviest marketing techniques available today.
Forget about billboards and newspaper and magazine ads. Today, university marketers have their strongest options for improving their school’s outreach through digital marketing strategies. Some colleges already have moved in this direction, by revamping their website, adding new and stronger content, or investing in social media and search engine optimization as necessary tools for reaching students.
But a new year is about to begin. What are the top emerging digital strategies for 2019?
Top Digital Marketing Strategies for Higher Education
First, make sure you’re creating a digital brand. Today, students are researching colleges online, including on their smartphones. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to ensure they find you where they’re searching.
Higher Education marketing is all about branding, and what’s unique about your different departments, whether it’s business or the arts or sports, need to be easily accessible on digital devices. A digital-first approach also can enhance your brand identity through colors, icons, and visual language.
Second, let your past success stories speak for you. Get videotaped testimony from current students or alumni, talking about what they love about the college and how it’s helped them succeed. Create video testimony and post it on your website. Let the students who have successfully graduated from your institution help sell your brand. Because a successful brand should be associated with quality education — and alumni success.
Another tool students have come to expect today from online sites is Chat bots. If you can respond quickly to students who are interested in your college, you’re more likely to maintain their interest. That’s why a growing number of universities are now using web chat to instantly communicate with students. Using chat platforms like Drift lets a college provide an automatic response to any inquiries before the chat goes to a live person.
Think about Apps as well. It’s not enough today to simply have a mobile-friendly website. A growing number of universities are designing their own apps to provide further assistance to people using their site on a mobile device, offering features not available on a site better designed for laptops. Doing so could prove to be highly beneficial, since research indicates that smart phone users today have an average of 26 apps on their phone.
If you don’t have one already, start a blog, which can help generate a lot of traffic for your site. Blogs remain a powerful marketing tool for universities. Write about your institution, your departments, new faculty, and even consider guest posts as well. It doesn’t have to be a written article. Videos are higher effective content today in the YouTube era. Videos can often be far more effective than written words, and videos can significantly enhance higher education marketing efforts.
What Role Does Social Media Play Today?
It’s been estimated that up to 88% of Americans ages 18-29 use social media, which is why so many colleges and universities are turning to social channels to market themselves to prospective students. But not all social media strategies work the same way, or produce the same results.
Some creative ways to boost your social media efforts include:
1. Highlighting alumni who have been successful after graduating, and have a story to tell about that. This helps demonstrate that higher education is a smart investment that pays off in the long run, and it can help attract new students.
2. Put current students and faculty out front. What interesting projects are students taking part in? What innovative work is being done in the classrooms? Who is new to the teaching staff? If your college has reason to be proud of your students or professors, show off their achievements. Make them the Social Media Ambassadors for your school.
3. Offer pictorial views of your campus. Show students what your campus and buildings are like, what activities go on there, what student life is like. That’s a great thing to be showcasing on social media, considering that the environment on your campus will be a major factor for a lot of students trying to decide where they want to spend the next four years.
4. Don’t forget your Hashtags. Dedicated Hashtags can help universities build their social media brand, and a large percentage of millennials respond to them. Hashtags are also great for promoting your individual departments, upcoming events, new courses, etc.
5. Consider creating a social media directory for your college or university’s social media accounts, including for individual departments. It’s a great way to allow students to check out what’s happening in their specific department or area of study.
6. Create interest groups on Facebook for alumni, student clubs, individual departments, and even for parents. Allow specific interests to share their concerns and excitement about what’s happening on campus.
7. Invest in Live Streaming as a tool, using Facebook Live, Instagram Stories, and Video Chat for Snapchat to reach students and connect with them. You have plenty of options about to be live streaming: Q&A sessions, live coverage of sports events and social gatherings, etc.. This is a great way to establishment a relationship with prospective students.
As 2018 comes to a close and the nation’s booming economy shows few signs of slowing down, universities can’t rely on marketing themselves the same way they have in the past. Even those institutions not experiencing a serious slowdown in enrollment numbers need innovative higher education marketing strategies to keep ahead of the competition.
Today, digital marketing enables universities to create web content designed specifically for the needs of a specific individual. For example, email marketing remains a highly effective tool today because it can help your college gather information from those interested in attending your school, and that data can be analyzed to help determine how best to design your content.
It’s important today for colleges and universities to be data driven, which helps make your website fully optimized for conversions. It’s important to build content with the persona of those receiving your emails in mind.
Marketing is no longer about executing the same strategy year after year — not when so many exciting new tools are available.
Now is the time for all higher education marketing departments to start making a plan for the new year.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Of Cats And Wolves.” Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.