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A guide to higher ed marketing

August 20, 2013

Disclaimer: I work at an institution of higher education. All opinions below are mine. 

Higher ed is a considered, highly involved purchase. The ‘decision’ to go somewhere isn’t something people, families, students, administrators or colleges take lightly.  Nor should they. For all purchases (especially considered purchases), there is a thing called a sales funnel.

It looks like this.  Triangle

At the top are people vaguely aware of the school (or brand). At the bottom are people who attend the school (or buy the product.)

A school or brand needs X people at the top of the funnel to get Y people at the bottom. The process of moving them through the funnel is called the sales cycle. The things that move people through this are tours (virtual and real-life) and other messages.

For example, a considered purchase might need 100,000 people in the funnel to get one sale. Marketing and PR would get people in the funnel. In the case of Higher Ed, high school visits, PR and some marketing might be utilized. A place like the University of Phoenix might use mostly marketing and PR.

At this point, things get different in higher education. Both sides need to be involved in the decision, so the funnel needs to be filled with the right students – but fundamentally,  the funnel applies. This is basic business school stuff.

However, another importance difference is this:

Double triangle

This is the reverse funnel, the one where a graduate comes out and we work hard to keep them engaged. Some stay engaged, but many more flutter out to the edges.

Okay – at this point it is important to make an important point

With higher ed, one can’t really change brands down the road. Yes, people can go to grad school, but they don’t get another undergrad. This is it, forever it will be a part of their brand. When a person makes it through the top funnel, they start on the reverse funnel the day they graduate.

Draw a circle where the two points meet. That is the place where the school and the person have a mutually beneficial relationship. Four years at the school, a few years after the school. At our school, we’re working on the 10 year plan, wherein a student is engaged in the school for 6 years after they graduate.

Outside of the proposed circle is where the brand has to work to engage the person. Note: if a brand could ever figure out the numbers, they would know the size of the circle. Good brands or schools will have a bigger circle.

At the top of the triangle, that involves postcards, viewbooks, high school visits, e-mails and other forms of marketing.

At the bottom of the second triangle, the tactics are social media, the Alumni Magazines, Reunion, and events in the city.

All of these tactics are designed to create an engaged student.

Where Social media really matters. 

In the past, this wasn’t really relevant. Before the internet and social media, these two triangles made no sense. A student was passed from admissions to the deans then to alumni affairs. Indeed, with the exception of loyalty programs, not many brands cared about people after purchase.

Now though, social media can make the circle bigger at both ends. Social media can engage the prospective student and the recent alumni. When planned correctly, it can expand the circle, which basically results in a bigger funnel (a larger circle means less effort on down the funnel, so more can be placed at the top of both.

So there you have it. What do you think? Does this make sense?

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