3 Ways Digital is Changing Higher Ed Marketing

Bethany Arwa, Digital Marketing Strategist

Today’s college students are a wide and diverse group, and they are changing the way we think about higher ed marketing. Student expectations continue to evolve in this age of digitally savvy consumers who expect personalized, connected experiences. Gen Z students expect an immersive, technology focused school where email is no longer the standard form of communication. Non-traditional students, who account for 40% of all college students, seek tools that make college more accessible. Recruitment, retention, and life-long engagement are part of the complete higher ed student lifecycle. Our team at R2i has identified holistic digital strategies and the right integrated marketing platforms that higher education marketers can utilize to achieve their goals. 

Audience Relevance

People aren’t viewing college the same way that they have in the past. Economic pressures, coupled with increasing college tuitions, have led to doubt in the value and quality of higher education. This decline in public support has led to a growing number of would-be students opting to join the workforce or seek alternative education options. To reverse this trend, universities need to demonstrate a connection between the educational experience and student’s lives after graduation—putting a business emphasis on developing relevant, quality content that students can relate to across each phase of their decision-making journey.

To increase audience relevance, more and more marketers are turning to influencer marketing. When done right, influencer marketing can increase awareness, improve perception, and generate ongoing engagement. Higher ed marketers can leverage this tactic by finding potential influencers like alumni and socially-savvy students to produce and promote engaging and relatable content. Employing a diverse mix of influencers helps address a variety of student concerns, showcases campus lifestyle, and highlights the hardships and successes of people just like them.

Recruitment and Retention

To improve enrollment objectives, it’s imperative that colleges reach students with information during the moments that matter.

The rise of non-traditional students will force colleges to think outside the box and use technology to deliver a comprehensive student experience.
- Marian Cavalcanti, VP of User Experience at Ellucian


When it comes to recruitment and retention, two of the biggest digital trends are mobile apps and augmented reality. These technologies allow prospective and enrolled students to see and interactively experience campus lifestyle at a moment’s notice. Having a one-stop-shop for information, enhanced communication, and self-guided tours will soon become critical tools for recruiting, integrating, and retaining students.

A great example of this is in practice is The University of Washington, who has developed a branded augmented reality app to allow guided tour groups and current students to explore their new science building under construction in order to build excitement around university growth.

The Brand Experience

Rather than looking at colleges as a whole, students are increasingly searching for specific higher ed programs that meet their unique interests. The problem is, as more social media pages, microsites, and landing pages are created by program directors and department heads to respond to this need, the more disconnected a college’s digital identity becomes. Marketers need to ensure that these points of engagement have a cohesive narrative with the overall university branding, so students receive a holistic view of the student experience.

While creating a more robust digital presence can seem like daunting task, there are steps marketers can take to initiate the conversation. Content and digital audits give senior management and administrators a sense of how fractured the brand has become. Focus groups and surveys with current and potential students provide marketing and admission departments a sense of brand perception and awareness. Finally, data analyses give marketers the opportunity to identify different target audiences and develop unique messaging strategies for each audience segment.

By unifying and consolidating a college’s digital presence, marketers will be able to use CRM technology more effectively, collect and analyze data more efficiently, create content that is more personalized and audience-centric, and give students the experience they expect.

Today is tomorrow for higher education, and colleges need to adapt to societal changes and digital advances to be competitive. Developing a strategic, digital agenda will enable colleges to create the personalized experiences necessary for recruitment and retention of today’s declining student population.

About the author: Bethany Arwa

Bethany Arwa is a digital marketing strategist who brings her 10 years of digital and traditional marketing experience to the R2integrated strategy team. Bethany enjoys researching marketing trends, studying group behavior, and learning new ways to enhance customer experiences. Bethany brings a unique perspective to understanding customer motivations and pain points, and she is always looking for ways to gain deeper insights into how people engage with the digital world. Outside of work, Bethany is a food enthusiast who is a terrible at cooking, an organizer of outrageous company activities, and an avid sci-fi fan.

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