An Online Marketing Primer for Higher Education

In an age when higher education students are among our most wired online populace, the people who make the marketing decisions for those institutions are still in need of the most elemental education. At traditional higher education institutions, it’s tough to pitch online media strategy when they’re barely acquainted with the fundamentals of online marketing.

Recent Primary Research Group reports suggest I’m not alone in my frustrations. While 80 percent of American colleges have advertised on radio, only 47 percent use online advertising for marketing. More than twice as many colleges said their volume of direct mail marketing had increased over the past two years than said it had decreased.

Only 17.7 percent of colleges surveyed engage in SEM (define), and only 13.7 percent use any form of paid advertising service from Google. And with the mean annual spending on advertising agencies at $28,800 and the median spending at $5,000, no agency is going to thrive in that environment.

Having serviced more than nine higher education clients, I know firsthand the positive outcome these institutions can have from strategically crafted and professionally executed online marketing plans. Let’s look at some of the initial struggles and insights gained.

Roadblocks and Insights

  • The dean. The Primary Research Group survey indicates a mind shift still has to occur at the decision-making level of higher education institutions, namely by the dean. School deans can be horribly anachronistic or thoroughly modern, which for online marketing usually means the difference between a no-go or go decision. School deans can also change frequently, and with these changes can come total strategic shifts. Since deans like data, providing them with industry statistics and outcomes from related campaigns can aid the case for online marketing decision making.

  • Bureaucracy. Much like a government, higher education institutions have multilayered bureaucracies that can stymie any process. Try to understand the complete hierarchy before crafting the pitch and have all players at the table for Q & A when you present.
  • Business as usual is easier. Only recently has higher education seemed to get the message that it needs to increase marketing where its audience is, namely online. Two obstacles still inhibit this growing interest:
    • Inexperienced staff. Academic marketers may have 10 or more years of experience in marketing the old-school way but little to none in online marketing. Talk about your expertise offsetting their shortcomings and making them look like heroes to their deans.

    • Ignorance, arrogance, and fear. Ironically for places where learning takes center stage, academic institutions’ marketing efforts can be crippled by their lack of knowledge, worry about making mistakes, and self-important attitudes. Sometimes the best solution is for the school to survey its recently enrolled new students and current prospectives about their media consumption habits and, in particular, Internet use.

  • Lack of overarching strategy. Many academic institutions approach the start of each new fiscal year with nary a strategy in sight. If you can assist in the development of this strategy, do it!
  • Brand and school pride. Branding and school pride are really important to higher education institutions, but this can also lead to reluctance to think like Internet users, particularly when it comes to search and keyword phrases. You have to show the specially crafted program names they’ve devised aren’t known to the searcher and therefore can’t be the focus of an effective search campaign. The school has to understand and accept that whatever the market calls this program has to be what the school uses as well.
  • Traditional agencies. Traditional agencies may be engaged by the higher education institution for multiyear contracts, which could have a number of ramifications for the online marketer. It could mean the agency too suffers from the business-as-usual syndrome or the agency has locked up the budget, leaving little room for interactive. Our preferred method is to partner with this agencyand provide a more comprehensive solution for the client.

I predict that with a little education, by 2009 over 80 percent of academic institutions will be committed to online marketing.

Join us for the ClickZ Specifics: Advertising in Social Media seminar on May 21 in New York.

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