For colleges and universities trying to stand out against a sea of other higher education options, reaching prospective students can be tough. With so many choices out there, how do you attract those right-fit students who you know will thrive in your educational programs but might not know what you have to offer?
It used to be that prospective students would visit your school and you could show them around campus and answer their questions face to face. But with 36% of four-year colleges seeing a decline in on-campus visits recently, many schools have had to get creative with their outreach.
This is mostly because students are researching their options online before they choose which campuses to consider — and if your college or university website isn’t set up to attract searchers on the web and explain why they should consider your campus, you’re severely limiting your reach.
With inbound marketing, you’re able to open your institution up to a wider range of students who might have otherwise never found you. In fact, according to HubSpot, schools that use inbound marketing report seven times the ROI reported by schools that don’t.
Perhaps you’ve heard that inbound marketing is effective — and maybe you’ve even tried blogging and creating marketing videos. But there’s more you can do.
Here at IMPACT, we’ve taught hundreds of organizations how to grow with inbound marketing, and we know what steps you need to take to do inbound right. In this article, we’ll teach you everything you need to know about how to use inbound marketing to become a top contender among your competitors, including:
What inbound marketing is and why it’s helpful for higher education.
How to build an inbound marketing strategy that attracts prospective students.
How to use search engine optimization (SEO) for your inbound marketing strategy.
Here’s what to know.
Free Guide: The Ultimate Inbound Marketing Strategy Playbook 2022
What inbound marketing is and why it’s helpful for higher education
Inbound marketing is a digital marketing strategy that has replaced traditional outbound marketing tactics that are no longer as effective as they used to be.
Where traditional (or “outbound”) marketing methods relied on mediums such as billboards, cold calls, ad campaigns, and emails that interrupt people’s day-to-day lives, inbound marketing strategies rely on search rankings and online methods to make it easier for online searchers to find and come to you.
This shift in strategy is a response to the way people search for products and find solutions to their problems, which they now do mostly online.
The inbound marketing methodology allows you to create content that is meant to perform well on a Google search, allowing you to be found by prospective students at each phase of their consideration process.
If you’re able to do inbound marketing right, when students search for relevant questions to what your college or university offers (such as “art colleges in New York” or “best colleges for accounting”), your content will land high in search results to help them, thereby introducing them to your school and programs.
Inbound marketing as part of the buyer’s journey for higher education
To create more effective content, you want to align what you’re creating with your prospects’ buyer’s journey. This is the natural process a buyer goes through when moving toward a purchase.
Here’s how the buyer’s journey works for your students and their families when searching for colleges and universities online:
Awareness stage: Your prospective students have a problem they want to solve (Which school should I go to?), so they search for possible solutions.
Consideration stage: Prospects have researched schools and know which they want to consider. They are researching all the differences between their options (pros, cons, costs, location, etc.).
Decision stage: Prospects have narrowed down their options and must decide which one to choose.
An effective inbound marketing program for your college or university will position your school as an option in the early stages of the buyer’s journey. It will then educate prospective students on the benefits of attending your school, all while building trust in your institution throughout the process.
What inbound marketing content should you include at different parts of the buyer’s journey?
If you were to further break down the buyer’s journey and dig deeper into the details of where your prospective students are at each stage, it would resemble a funnel. This is because you’ll have lots of potential students interested at the awareness stage (at the top of the funnel), but fewer and fewer will make it through to the end stages.
Early on, blog articles and social media posts are effective for building awareness. As students move closer to making a decision, viewbooks, webinars, and interviews will be helpful. Make sure you have a strategy for each stage of the funnel/buyer’s journey.
Identify your ideal buyer personas
When you create inbound marketing content for higher education, it shouldn’t be aimed at just anyone. It needs to be geared toward your best-fit students or “buyer personas.”
Instead of creating broad target markets to base your marketing efforts on, here’s how to base your buyer profiles on real people for more accurate results:
1. Talk to the people in your organization who interact with prospective customers daily, such as your admissions team.
2. Ask yourself these questions based on real students:
What issues, problems, and questions did they come to you with before they decided to call your school their alma mater?
How were you able to solve/answer these questions?
Why were they satisfied or unsatisfied?
In addition, pay attention to what prospective students ask during the early stages of the admissions process. Keep track of every question they have and listen to how they’re feeling. You will see patterns emerge. Use these patterns to narrow in on your right-fit students (your personas) and to refine and make them more effective.
Creating effective buyer personas for your business really is as simple as listening. You can pay for fancy buyer persona research and demographic data, but trusting what you hear directly from students is just as effective.
Create inbound marketing content to attract prospective students
Now that you know the different stages to create content for and how to craft your buyer personas, let’s take a look at how to create content your prospective students and their families will find useful.
Write blog articles
First, one of the most important things you can do with your content is build trust with prospective students. Have your admissions team keep track of all the student questions they hear, and then answer them as thoroughly and honestly as possible, one blog article per question.
Students are likely asking questions such as:
What are common challenges for freshmen at your school?
What’s the difference between your undergraduate and graduate programs?
What are the best art schools in this state?
What is the admissions process like?
Students are filled with questions, so there should be plenty to go on here. Be prepared to share any information that will help relevant students find you and learn how to navigate your processes, whether about admissions, choosing classes, cost, programs, or anything else.
We also recommend writing about core blog topics we call The Big 5. These are topics our buyers ask often, and they include:
1. Pricing and cost articles: When students search for information about your school online, one of the first things they need to know before they sign on is “How much does your school cost?” Not only do you want to be sure your pricing is easily accessible, but you also want to explain the different ways their tuition and fees could go up or down, depending on the student packages your campus offers.
2. “Problems” content: Although we wish everything we offered our students was perfect, that’s never the case. By addressing the elephant in the room, you’re building trust that your school is ahead of what your students may struggle with or need. Answer potential questions you hear most, and be sure to include solutions, which might include topics such as:
What happens if our child falls short academically?
What should you do if you get a roommate you don’t like?
How do students handle homesickness?
Note: some of these topics are specific to your campus, some are more general to the college experience.
This content helps educate students on how to deal with some of the scarier aspects of going to your school, while also showing how they can overcome these obstacles. It makes families realize that at your school their kids are in good hands.
3. Versus and comparisons: Once students and families have chosen a few schools, they’ll want to compare all their options — including the similarities and differences between your school and others and the programs you offer. Explain these similarities and differences so your prospective students have all the information they need to make their decision easier.
What's the difference between and English and comparative lit major?
How do in-state and out-of-state tuition costs stack up?
4. Reviews: Students and their families want to read reviews of your school’s offerings, and also between your school and its competition. You don’t have to go into too much detail about your competitors, but you should provide students with options and establish yourself as the authoritative voice above all.
5. "Best of" lists: College is an exciting time in anyone's life. This means you're selling an experience, not just an education. "Best of" type content can help prospective students get all they can out of their experience. "Best spots to study on campus" or "Freshman year bucket list" are topics that would help your audience start to see themselves on campus, enjoying the experiences that go along with enrollment.
For more information on how to create content using these topics, watch our free course How to Write “The Big 5”. Also, set up an appointment to talk to an advisor here at IMPACT, and we can answer any questions you have.
Develop a video marketing strategy
Video is one of the best ways to connect with modern buyers, including prospective students. In The Visual Sale by Vidyard’s Tyler Lessar and IMPACT Principal Marcus Sheridan, we learn that Loyola University drove a record-breaking yield by using video to break the news to students that they’d been accepted.
They did this by sending each student a video that started with someone holding a sign with their name on it.
These videos received more than 15,000 views from almost 12,000 people and generated over 4,000 online reviews. By creating these videos and using the student’s name in the thumbnail, it helped create an instant connection to the school.
Here are a few of the most effective videos you can use that are outlined in the book:
1. Create an 80% video that answers the top questions your recruiters get asked in most of their meetings, which saves your staff from having to explain the answers over and over again and shortened their sales cycle.
2. Create bio videos for your admission staff’s email signatures so students can see their friendly faces and get to know who they are and what they love about their job.
3. A campus fit video that explains which students your campus is a good and bad fit for.
4. Landing page videos that explain what you’ll do with the information you collect when students and their families fill out forms on your website.
5. Cost and pricing videos that explain your tuition and fees, and all the ways families can add services or save money with scholarships, grants, work study, etc.
6. Student journey videos that serve as a testimonial for how students have gone through your admissions process and are enjoying your school.
7. “Claims we make” videos that feature your staff and school and prove your school is what you say it is (e.g., friendly, inclusive, diverse, cutting-edge — whatever your claims are, show them).
These are just a few ways your university can use video to make prospective students’ experience working with you more personalized and human.
How to use search engine optimization to help your inbound marketing efforts succeed
While answering your prospective students’ most pressing questions will help you rank for important keywords without giving too much thought to the technical aspect of SEO, it’s important to understand how to use search engines to drive traffic too.
Here are some of the SEO best practices that will help.
1. Develop content based on target keyword research
As you develop your content strategy, SEO tools like Semrush, Surfer SEO, and Ahrefs can help you zero in on what your ideal target keywords should be.
Your keyword planning tools are set up to help you align your content with what your searchers are looking for.
2. Use effective titles and meta descriptions
Well-constructed titles do two important things:
1. Includes the primary keyword you’re trying to rank for.
2. Makes people want to click or read the content.
If your content gets indexed by search engines and ends up ranking but doesn’t get clicks, Google will deprecate it in favor of articles that do get clicked.
Your description tag is designed to act as the block of text that shows up after the page’s title in SERPS (search engine results pages). This is the text that explains what information that content provides.
3. Optimize all images
You want your pages to load as quickly as possible, so make sure your image’s file sizes are as small as they can be.
You want to link whenever it’s appropriate, but always include a few links to relevant pieces of content with strong SEO. Google crawls every page and wants to see that you are linking to content related to the article that you’re writing.
Inbound marketing has grown to be one of the best ways to help people unfamiliar with your school find, learn about, and fall in love with it. And the best part is you don’t have to wait for outside experts to help you. You can start today.