Higher Education Marketing is 90% Insanity and 10% Innovation

Posted: December 16, 2021

Often attributed to Einstein, the now-common definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results has been applied to many different fields and situations. Here, I hope to show you how – if the definition holds true – 90% of higher education marketing is insanity. That likely includes what your institution is doing (along with many others).

Higher ed marketing is largely straightforward. Colleges need students. Marketing increases awareness of colleges and, sometimes, is a means of communicating the value of an institution or degree. 

From reactionary to strategic

While college marketing moves from reactionary (“Hey, will you make me a flyer?”) to strategic (“Hey, let’s talk about how many new leads we got for the criminal justice program.”), those in administration often have more questions about the role of marketing. Is it trying to drive admissions outcomes or make nice-looking billboards?

There are many more schools than you might realize that still don’t use a CRM to send consistent, targeted messages to prospective students. If you still don’t have a CRM in place, you’re not alone.

Even the schools that do have a more strategic marketing approach often still don’t reach the holy grail of knowing the ultimate impact of their marketing efforts. Therefore, they keep doing what they’re doing – sometimes even using data to justify it and make a case for doing more of the same. 

If 90% of higher education marketing is insanity, or simply doing the same thing as always and hoping for the best, then what about the 10% who do things differently? What do they do and why?

I am in a unique position in that my experience has allowed me to be on the agency side of higher ed marketing (having worked at multiple university-focused marketing agencies) and on the university side (having worked at multiple universities). Furthermore, on the university side of things, I have had the privilege of working at small, private universities, as well as the largest non-profit, primarily online school in the United States in Southern New Hampshire University. I’ve worked with marketing budgets in the low thousands and marketing budgets of millions per month. I have seen behind the curtains and, in some cases, was the wizard connecting the pieces and analyzing the data. 

For more than a decade, I have worked to increase data literacy, tracking, and usage among higher ed institutions through teaching classes, trainings, workshops, presentations, and working with schools to set up the best data infrastructure.

Working with data is hard. Analyzing data is hard. Making the data actionable with good recommendations is hard. And data silos, politics, and personnel challenges make it even harder. 

Many schools are looking at their enrollment data and wondering how Southern New Hampshire University and other key online players in the space are doing it.

I will tell you what they are doing that is different from what your institution is doing.

The most important metrics you aren’t using

The role of the higher ed marketer is to make a prospective student aware of the institution and guide them towards a conversation with an admissions counselor. The admissions counselor’s job is to turn the prospective student into an actual one. It should be a seamless relationship between marketing and admissions. One picks up where the other leaves off. Because of this, the prospect feels supported and the process feels natural. 

If your institution does not have a seamless admissions process where marketing and admissions work together as partners towards a single objective, then this is where you need to start. 

As President Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” A little friendly rivalry can be useful. Just make sure that marketing and enrollment management are two departments on campus that not only get along – they are hip-to-hip fighting the same war and moving towards the same goal. 

Next, you should be able to see the full journey of a prospective student from the very first touchpoint through inquiry, CRM communications, application, admission, and enrollment. 

Why is this important? This is important because if you’re working towards a goal, but you can never see if you hit the target, then you don’t know whether or how to adjust your approach.

Imagine playing basketball with a blindfold on. While it might still be possible for someone to make a basket while wearing a blindfold, I think we can all agree it becomes much easier without one. If you can see the basket and what happens when you shoot the ball, it is easier to change your approach to make sure you score. 

Data silos are not helpful. Your school may have more data than you know what to do with, but if your systems are not integrated, then you won’t be able to follow the journey and see the final outcome. 

When you can see the downstream impact of marketing efforts on enrollment goals, it is easier to make decisions about which channels are performing better than others. This relatively simple piece is one of the ways that the major online schools are beating out the others. They have a “closed loop” system that allows them to see prospective students at every stage of their journey. Not only that, they can also see which marketing efforts brought the prospect into the admissions pipeline. Over time, after collecting enough data, they can then see which marketing efforts are producing the most amount of enrollments and which efforts are not. 

Imagine being greeted every morning with a fresh report that shows you the exact number of students enrolled for the upcoming term – segmented by marketing channel. Imagine knowing the number of enrollments directly attributed to Facebook advertising or podcast advertising. 

If you know how many enrolled students came from Facebook advertising and you know how much you spent on Facebook, you then have what you need to calculate a new metric: Cost Per Enrolled Student. You can calculate the Cost Per Enrolled Student by marketing channel. 

WARNING: When you begin to get to this level of data, you will quickly find that previous assumptions that were made based on either incomplete data or data based on an earlier funnel stage (inquiry instead of enrollment, for example) were incorrect. You can begin to see some things that looked promising from an inquiry or awareness standpoint, but didn’t lead to full enrollments.

Another key metric that is important to have is student Lifetime Value (LTV). If you know a student’s potential lifetime value, then you know your potential spend threshold. How much can you spend to recruit a student and still stay profitable?

Your Cost Per Enrolled Student should obviously be less than the average Lifetime Value per student. You need to know both numbers to be able to really know if you are on track or need to adjust your marketing approach. 

Finally, once you have the right data connections in place, you can then run predictive models to see how many students you can ultimately expect beyond what you can see today. Furthermore, media mix modeling can help you see which combination of marketing channels will most effectively lead to the outcomes you desire. 

Join the innovative 10%

If you want to catch up with the big dogs like SNHU, ASU Online, and others, you have to up your game and get smarter with your data and the way you make decisions. 

Lucky for you, because we at VisionPoint have spent the last several years creating a new product offering, Enrollment Drive, that does exactly that.

Within six weeks, we can:

  • Connect your data silos in a way that allows you to see which marketing channels are producing the best results downstream.
  • See which marketing channels are bringing the most amount of enrolled students.
  • See the likelihood of each prospective student to enroll.
  • See which marketing channels work together best to bring in new prospects who go on to enroll. 

There is greater competition now for fewer students. Some schools will win and some will lose. We want to help you succeed. Join the innovative 10% and finally stop doing the same thing 90% of schools are doing, hoping for new results.

Say “no” to insanity.

Josh Dodson, VisionPoint’s Vice President of Innovation, has spent his entire career helping higher ed institutions innovate their enrollment marketing strategies. Contact us to set up a call to discuss how we can help you stay competitive with the right data. We’re on a mission to help higher ed institutions succeed.