An Open Letter to College Marketing Directors

Note: The following guest post comes to us courtesy of Steve Fireng, CEO of PlattForm. He has more than 25 years of experience in the education industry covering admissions, financial aid, Group President for Career Education Corporation, and CEO and President of Embanet Compass Knowledge Group (now Pearson Embanet).
Dear College Marketing Director:

First let me say, I feel your pain. Your job has never been harder.

For the last 25 years, I’ve watched higher education undergo a vast transformation with the rise of career education, specialized institutions, distance and online learning. But we are also hearing more complaints about rising tuition and the relevance of a college education in an era of stagnant family income. Students, parents and policymakers are paying close scrutiny to their investment in higher education and questioning their return on this investment. They want to know that it is going to pay off with a degree and more importantly, job opportunities.

A generation ago, the college search/application business was pretty linear. Students talked to their high school counselors, friends, and family members and sent away for brochures. Then they typed up their college essays and sent in their applications. But with the advent of the internet and social media, that process has gone the way of the typewriter.

To succeed in this changing environment, colleges and universities have to recognize the importance of differentiation, of having and communicating the clear value. Over the next several years, the strength of marketing and brand presence could be the difference between survival and growth. It is time for universities to stake their position, clearly define their value, and own their marketplace – showcase how they’re above the competition. If they don’t, they risk failure. As a Harvard Business School professor’s dire prediction states, as many as half of the more than 4,000 universities and colleges in the U.S. may fail in the next 15 years.

Scores of colleges and universities are spending precious dollars on marketing efforts that don’t produce their intended results. The challenge of reaching students and parents on multiple devices, across multiple channels with multiple vendors has many schools scrambling to figure out how best to spend their marketing dollars. But while the multi-channel marketing mix required to reach today’s fragmented customer base has changed dramatically, there are still some marketing basics that should be followed:

Understand your market. According to research, only 15 percent of today’s college students fit the traditional model: 18-22 year olds, attending college full-time and living on campus. The fastest growing student segment in higher education is the “over 25” population. Many of these adult learners are returning to school for job training in order to stay competitive in today’s employment landscape which is increasingly STEM focused. In order to attract this growing market segment, higher education institutions need to offer flexible class options, online/distance learning opportunities, the ability to transfer credits, as well as update/add courses, majors, and curriculums that will prepare students with the highest level of 21st century skill sets to match the demands of the global job marketplace.

Be consistent. Don’t disaggregate your brand. Prospective students are reading and learning about your college or university in lots of different places. Your challenge is to deliver a consistent message, a consistent look and feel, and a consistent appeal at each stop on their journey. If your marketing team is not talking to your creative department and they are not working with your social media group, your messages and your brand will get disaggregated. If that happens, you will likely waste valuable marketing dollars.

Have a well-defined value proposition. Prospective students are looking for the education they want at a cost they can afford. Helping them find what they are looking for by providing options on how to keep tuition at an acceptable and affordable price-point turns prospects into students.

Use data to make informed decisions. The days of making decisions based on surveys and a “gut feeling” are over. We are in an industry where everything can, and should be tracked and analyzed to turn insights and measurements into buying decisions. Knowing more about your students will give you a competitive edge. The questions you need to ask yourselves are “how much do I know about my students, how do they behave, where can I find them and what message is needed to attract them?” Don’t ignore the data. You must utilize these tools to stay ahead of the competition.

Move with your market. Today’s tech-savvy students are just as likely to use their mobile and tablet devices to aid their college search process as a traditional computer. According to research, 68 percent of students said they have viewed a college website on their mobile device and 73 percent of students would download campus-specific applications for schools on their target lists. Investing in a comprehensive digital marketing campaign with content and images designed for “small screen” communications and ensuring those are consistent with print materials is crucial to delivering marketing messages with big value.

Be creative and authentic. Prospective students want to know about your school and how it can help them reach their goals so they can easily envision themselves enrolling. Creative, authentic messages and images can help answer their questions and communicate your school’s unique attributes and values across marketing channels. Develop content that answers prospective students’ questions, with messages and creative that engages and moves them through the enrollment process.

To compete effectively in today’s highly competitive environment, higher education institutions must adopt a marketing model similar to those used by companies in other sectors. Unless you are an “ivy” or high-profile, competitive school, relying on brand name recognition for meeting enrollment goals is a likely non-starter.

No question, marketing directors face challenging circumstances. As a marketing professional with a quarter century of experience, I’ve seen a lot of change and yes, in many ways, your job has never been harder. But today’s technologies are providing new opportunities for smart, cost-effective brand strategies. From where I sit, enrollment marketing presents exciting new possibilities. Never before have we had the intelligence to understand marketing performance in such a holistic way. And we can use that information to provide value to prospective students – not just noise.


Steve Fireng


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