drive enrollment Most savvy marketers know that a well-designed website does not fully translate to an effective online marketing presence. In other words, just because you build it, you’re not guaranteed they will come. You have to utilize other marketing techniques to attract, nurture and convert prospective students into enrolled students.

Relying solely on your main website is a lot like running a single-channel marketing campaign. It ranks high in simplicity but is limited in its ability to move prospects through a decision-making and buying process.

It’s absolutely necessary to have a website with high-quality content that provides a good user experience. But that website is not going to be an effective marketing tool on its own because it mostly serves just the people who already know it’s there.

To get higher return on investment on your website and on your marketing investment as a whole, think about (and use) your [institution name].edu as a hub for your online communications and interactions. Around that buzzing hub should be an interconnected web of content sites, social media properties, paid advertisements and other platforms for your marketing initiatives.

How Does an Interactive Marketing Program Work?

You can use multiple channels to drive prospective students toward applying and enrolling. A robust combination of paid outreach, organic search engine optimization, blogging, tweeting, Facebook and LinkedIn connecting, as well as a series of on and offline events will keep your institution in students’ minds.

Marketers can leverage and scale the reach of their content - while engaging user groups most likely to be interested in applying - by combining and connecting their marketing initiatives. In the traditional sales process, we talk about funneling leads toward conversion by giving them the opportunity to respond to calls to action and consume personalized content. This sales funnel is divided into three major sections - each designed to target students in a different phase of the buying process.

1. Attract prospective students - Out of more than 7,000 institutions in the U.S., stand out online to make your marketing effective

At the beginning of the buying cycle, students don’t really know where they’ll attend college. Many more don’t have a complete list (sometimes greater than six or even 12 colleges) of where they’d like to apply. An impending graduation for a high school senior, or a shift in a non-traditional student's personal life or career path can put your prospects into research mode.This gives you your first opportunity to invite them to check out your institution.

Use paid outreach and inbound marketing practices like blogging to draw attention and direct the right traffic to your site. At this point, messaging should be aligned with the goal of helping students make an informed decision. This means that calls to action and of course the content itself should speak in broad terms about the value of higher education and can provide some helpful knowledge like, “How to figure out the right school for you” or “what college admissions officers are looking for”.

The next layer of engagement will position your institution within a prospective student’s considered set of colleges.

2. Nurture prospective students’ interest - Focus on students’ needs according to where they are in the application process.

Promote content you create that speaks to the value, differentiators and other highlights of your institution or program, as well as comparisons to other schools. This could range from articles about current students, faculty, research, special projects, alumni, student life, your home city, and more.

Now that they have made it this far in the decision-making process, it’s time to make a personal connection with your prospective students. You certainly want to engage them on social media sites, blogs and through targeted email campaigns, but you should also make a personal connection by inviting them to meet the people behind your institution’s brand.

Whether it’s a chat session with a dean or an invitation to take a tour with a current student, you should find a way get them on campus or to meet someone from your campus. This background of experience with your institution will keep you in mind when students go to fill out applications.

3. Convert prospective students - An application is not a conversion or sale. Marketing to prospective students shouldn’t end at the application because the most important step is a commitment to enroll.

The rational, analytical and comparative part of a student’s decision making process is over. It can’t hurt to remind them that your business program is number one or that you offer state-of-the-art facilities, but chances are students already know that.

By the time a student fills out their applications, you can bet that they know a good amount about your institution’s stats. Students at this point should hear about the community they are about to join. An emotional connection to a school is more likely to sway a decision than thinking about which school has the newest library or biggest dorm rooms in the state.

Provide calls to action in marketing communications and invite students to engage in as many ways as possible. Students should feel like they are part of the campus community, and you can promote that feeling through a combination of on and offline initiatives. Offline, try to get students back on campus to meet their classmates, professors and administrators. Some colleges host admission receptions in the cities from where a lot of their incoming class is coming. This is a great way to show students that you are excited to have them and get them excited about coming to your campus.

Online, set up social media properties where your students can go to connect with their peers. A dedicated "Class of 2012" Facebook group or Twitter hashtag monitored for questions is a great way to head-off confusion and provide a forum for incoming students to share the excitement. Personalizing the student experience and helping an accepted student envision him or herself living and learning on your campus is critical to complete the conversion from prospective status to enrolled.

It’s no secret that students today apply to more institutions than ever before. This gives highly qualified students a lot of options when they have to choose just one college experience from a stack of acceptance letters. Your institution's competitive edge lies in the personal connections you’ve been able to make with your applicants.

Let's review

You can see how combining efforts and channels and getting your online marketing efforts out of their silos and linking them together can have a huge impact on your incoming classes and cohorts. That effort can pay off big time because everything you do is scaled to a wider audience that engages prospects wherever and however they seek you out. Of course, it’s necessary to look at your analytics data to determine what’s working well, where you need to devote more time and resources and what could use less.

The buying process in higher education is much longer than for many other products and services. The decision marks an incredibly important step in a student’s life. And a marketing strategy that is sensitive to the financial, personal and educational significance of that decision will be most effective in appealing to prospective students through their extended buying cycle.

This long buying process and the intense nature of the competition for top students precludes higher education institutions from using narrowly-focused marketing campaigns. The best use of your time and money will be a robust, strategic and trackable integrated marketing program, rather than a myopic, single-goal campaign. Marketers in higher education have to engage prospective students from a variety of platforms and develop a marketing programs that turns prospects into applicants and enrolled students.