For students, attending a higher education institution is about many things. Getting to know your own self, meeting interesting people, pursuing new hobbies, acquiring new skills, changing your career or even your entire life.
For those involved in managing a higher education institution, apart from helping to shape the next generation to achieve great things and conducting ground-breaking research, it’s just like any other business. To grow, it needs to attract, engage, and retain its customers, i.e. the students.
It’s not an easy task, especially at times of high economic uncertainty, when even graduating from a top school doesn’t guarantee you landing a profitable job. But it’s not necessarily a losing game.
Higher education institutions, e-learning platforms, and other businesses involved in personal development, can still meet their objective and attract, engage, and retain students long after they’ve graduated. They just need to get more creative in their marketing efforts. Let’s take a look at how adding marketing automation to the mix can help you meet your marketing department’s goals.
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Step 1. Attract
One of the key business objectives for any higher education institution is to attract as many quality prospects as possible. By quality prospects, I mean potential students who are genuinely interested in acquiring new skills and developing their career, and who are ready to make the effort to achieve their goals.
So how can you find such quality prospects online? Here are several tactics you should start with:
- Build a landing page for each specific course (e.g. International Business Management BSc) or at least the department (e.g. Business School), listing all the key benefits of joining them and a sign-up form that lets you collect the information about your prospects.
- Run targeted ads using Facebook to find prospects who match your criteria (e.g. age, location, people who like specific pages or have checked in at a given location) and direct them to your landing page (either the general page for undergraduates, a specific department, or a particular course).
- Run targeted ads using Facebook Lookalike audiences to find prospects who are similar to those who have already signed up for your courses or have done so in the past.
- Run retargeting display ads to try to win back prospective students who visited your website. Make the ads unique, to match the pages they’ve visited and showed interest in.
- Partner up with websites used by future students to seek information about their career development and schools. These can be ranking sites, local forums and news pages, career development centers, or simply high-schools and colleges. Present your prospectus on their site in a sponsored article, through an email newsletter, or organize an offline event where students can ask questions.
- Use content marketing – run an online magazine, a newspaper, a free newsletter, vlogs, or simply a blog talking about things that matter to students and are happening in the world surrounding them. You can also organize offline and online meet-ups, where former alumni or well-known people can tell their stories and present the value of higher education through personal experiences.
- Offer free online courses – both through your own website or platforms such as edX or Coursera. This way you’ll provide value to those who can’t afford higher education and give a taste of it to those who are considering signing up to a school.
- Add social sharing features to your site and email communication. Try involving your current students and prospects to become advocates for your institution.
Of course, there’s plenty more you should be doing. Attending offline events, organizing open days at your school, presenting your school to students across the globe, partnering up with businesses to start scholarship and internship programs, offline display advertising, and much, much more.
When doing so, consider the way your future students are going through the decision-making process. Look at how your competitors present their offer to students. Perhaps instead of simply listing all the courses, you should draw up a career path they can follow, showing them exactly what it takes to e.g. become a developer.
At the same time, make registration as easy as possible. Unclutter your pages, speed up the load time, and improve the accessibility on mobile phones. Be on the social media platforms your future students are using and follow the latest trends – not just in terms of how you promote your institution, but also what you’re teaching. Having an up-to-date, relevant syllabus is key in most industries, especially IT and digital marketing.
Step 2. Engage
Once you’ve managed to get students to sign up – be it for a specific course or just to receive communication about your offer – you need to engage them. Of course, engaging current and prospective students won’t be the same – after all, the goal you’ll want to achieve for those audiences is different – so I’ll split these two situations up.
How to engage prospective students
Before prospects enroll in your course, they first need to be convinced that the value they’ll receive is worth their time and money. They need to be sold on the idea of studying – which isn’t only about the fun of learning new things, but also about doing the actual work. Getting someone to enroll, often pay, and then do the hard work – that’s the tricky part.
So what can you do to engage prospects who’ve made the first step towards pursuing higher education?
Here are a few ideas:
- Run an onboarding email campaign. It should guide them through the life on your campus, experiences they’ll gain, friends they’ll make, projects they’ll work on – overall the ins and outs of studying. To make it more trustworthy, let your current and former students speak for you: share their opinions, stories, and perspective, their reasons for choosing that particular school, and how it’s affected their lives.
- Use different channels and content formats. Students are different and so is the way they consume information. Take this into consideration and share the information about your offer using web push notifications, social media, and email, videos, online documents, podcasts, or shareable and inspiring photos.
- Let your students speak for you. I’ve already mentioned this in the first point, but this should be a general rule. You can make your social media and blog popular, by sharing your students’ stories. Let them be in charge of some of your communication. Let them take photos, record videos, post stories on Instagram, and show what life is like studying at your school, from their perspective.
- Build a connection and open up for feedback. To get to know your prospects better, you’ll need to speak to them and observe how they react to your communication. Consider adding an easy way to get in touch with you through email, phone, social media, or even a live chat. This is especially important if your prospective students are located across the globe and calling in may be expensive or troublesome. Ask and answer questions; this way you’ll be able to help your audience right when they need it. And they’ll know whether they’ll make the right choice by joining your program.
- Reach out. You know exactly who visited your site, signed up to receive your emails, and read your prospectus – why not ask them for an opinion? This will give you yet another chance to clear their doubts and learn more about their concerns. Use this feedback to improve how you communicate. Update your FAQ page, the landing pages describing the course, and your onboarding email communication.
- Reactivate if they seem to be falling out of your funnel. If your onboarding communication wasn’t enough to convince them to enroll, that’s not a problem. Use retargeting campaigns, either through Google AdWords, Facebook, LinkedIn, email, or SMS – and present your offer at a later time. Signing up for a course isn’t a decision you can make overnight. Let them take their time, nurture them to gain their interest, and in the event of lowered engagement, run a retargeting campaign.
When employing the above-mentioned tactics, always remember to use tagging and scoring. With the information gathered through this process, you should be able to split your prospects into segments (e.g. based on the course, department, field of interest, or level of engagement in communication) and personalize your communication to deliver more relevant and valuable content. This way your conversion rates and consequently your sign-up rates will be higher!
How to engage current students
Your current students are the ones who’ve successfully enrolled to the course and have stayed that way for some time. It’s a good situation to be in, but it’s not the end of the race. You’ll want to keep them engaged and active, i.e. so that they’ll return to you, they’ll study, develop, and maybe eventually become advocates for your brand.
Here’s what you can do to achieve this goal:
- Run an onboarding campaign. Just like with prospective students, it’s worth running an onboarding email campaign to start the relationship off on the right foot. Prepare your students for the course so they’ll benefit from it as much as possible and enjoy it at the same time. Help them quickly become emotionally attached to your school and other fellow students, so that they’ll want to belong there and keep coming back to the classes.
- Provide help. The beginnings might be difficult. Getting around the campus, the e-learning platform, or the online research database might cause some frustration and concerns. Help your students out and guide them through the most important areas, so that they’ll never get stuck. Use email campaigns (both behavior-triggered and regular autoresponders), onboarding messages in your panel, or live chat to provide the help when it’s needed.
Send announcements and invitations. Organizing a meet-up, workshops, or launching a new course? Let your students know and show them how to enroll. Send an email invitation and guide them to your landing page, or the area in the dashboard that lets them sign up for the event.
- Provide reminders and last-chance calls. Sometimes you’ll have to give it more than one try, to get your students to sign up for the class. That’s why you should set up your marketing automation workflows to send automatic reminders to those who haven’t signed up yet. Tell them it’s their last chance to enroll, gain value, and get closer to achieving their goals.
- Send behavior-triggered messages. If you’ve set up your marketing automation and platform right, you should be able to observe the actions your students are taking. Whether they’re signing up to classes, attending them, or submitting their assignments, you should be able to respond timely. Engage them and stay alert so that you’ll be able to congratulate them on their effort or motivate to make an extra effort.
- Send recommendations. Consider what your students may be interested in, based on what courses they’ve taken or what grades they scored in their individual assignments. Also look at what other fellow students have done and found valuable in the past. Gather all this information and send your students recommendations that will motivate them to enroll to new courses or engage with your brand more.
- Ask for opinions and use them as social proof in your communication. Just like with prospective students, you should value the feedback you can get from your current and former students. Ask them to rate your school, the facilities, the resources, and individual courses. The feedback you collect can help you build a better service and the social proof can be used to make your communication more convincing.
- Build a community. Some students are there just for the certificate. Others are there for everything – the people, the experience, the community. But the community doesn’t form itself, you have to light the first match. Do so by connecting your audience with other current and former students. Lower the distance between the faculty and those who seek professional advice from them. Show your students that graduation is just the beginning and that there are benefits of staying in touch, years after receiving the diploma. Invite former alumni to join the conversation, create the culture of giving back to the community that has enabled them to gain professional education.You can do so by starting a blog or forum. Publish interesting stories, spark the discussion, and send automated emails to gather feedback from others who might be interested in the dialogue. Like I mentioned earlier, remember to use different content formats. Easy-to-digest videos might be best for engaging your audience, but long-form articles might be better for SEO, which in turn can help you attract sponsors and businesses who’d like to cooperate with you.
Start engaging your students right at the beginning and until the very end. If you do it right, the next point, i.e. retention, won’t be much of a challenge.
Step 3. Retain
Last but not least, your goal should be to retain your students. You want them to stay with you for as long as possible, whether as students enrolling for new courses, or alumni who keep visiting your site, join the conversation, and maybe even help fund the studies for future students.
Here’s how you can retain your students better:
- Ask for feedback and follow up on it. Just like I’ve mentioned before. Gaining feedback is crucial to running a successful higher education institution. You don’t want to run courses for the sake of it, you want students to enjoy and benefit from them. If you don’t know how they liked them, how can you improve your educational offer?Send email surveys automatically after your students finish the course or hand in their assignments. Upon receiving the feedback, be sure to follow up and ask further questions about what went well and what should be improved. If all goes well, you’ll get valuable information and will be able to ask your students to recommend the course to others who might be interested in it.
- Send recommendations. Again, this applies to students who’ve just finished your course or have done so a few years ago. Recommend courses that are relevant to your audience. Whether it’s an elementary course or an MBA program, make sure that your offer is relevant and that the benefits portrayed are applicable to the given target group.
- Use content marketing. A blog, vlogs, photos, and stories from your university or students are likely to interest even those who left your campus some time ago. Include alumni in your newsletters and update them on what’s new on your campus. Perhaps information about a party won’t interest them, but an interesting story about a Nobel prize winner who graduated from the same school might just work.
Send announcements and updates. Plenty of things are happening each day, some of them more remarkable than others. Share updates with your audience – about a new course that just started, a newly-opened department, or a breakthrough in an important research that your students and faculty have been conducting.
- Bring the good memories back. One tactic that can work well towards engaging your audience is to remind them of the great experiences they’ve had while pursuing education at your school. Follow up on those events, for example, a year or five years after they’ve graduated.To make your communication more effective, personalize it using the data that you have about them, e.g. their name, course they attended, their class photo, or the date of the graduation. If you do it right, you’ll see that the response rate for this campaign will turn out great!
- Organize meet-ups and reunions. Most students form small groups of friends they see every now and then. Others may not manage to do so, especially if they’re attending an online course.You can help them out, engage with them, and make sure they stay in the community by organizing offline and online meet-ups. If you have a fair amount of international students, try organizing them in different locations or informing them ahead of time. Make invitations, reminders, and follow-ups after the event has taken place part of your automation workflow, and make your events a success.
- Ask for updates and donations. It’s important to gather information about your former students on a regular basis. Be it for statistical reasons or to get them to help you make the courses more interesting. Whatever the reason, you can do this, e.g. through an annual survey sent via email or direct mail.While you’re at it, be sure to ask your alumni to donate towards your institution. After all, they’ve benefited from it too, which means convincing them to help other students to fund their studies shouldn’t be a great challenge. Their help can come in many forms, so think about it too, if you want your conversion rate for this tactic to be high.
As you can see there are many, many ways to attract, engage, and retain students. Which tactics you’ll use will depend on the type of school you’re running – whether it’s a traditional university or an e-learning platform. Although the methods you’ll use will vary, the end goal and the rationale behind your strategy will remain the same. You’ll want your students to develop, achieve their goals, and while doing so – build a lasting relationship with your school.