A college education is not a pair of shoes. So stop marketing like it.

And a few other uncomfortable observations about the relationship between marketing and enrollment, the budget, and who gets to spend it.

Undergrad Enrollment Marketing Is “Easy”

We argued in a post a while back that higher ed marketers—at least those tasked with growing undergraduate enrollment—have two advantages that make this line of work easier than it could be. Namely:

  1. We can buy very clean, very accurate, very rich data (think PSAT, SAT, ACT, AP, etc.) and use it to market directly to the prospective students we think are most likely to enroll.

  2. We know exactly when prospective undergraduate students are going to make the commitment we’re trying to get them to make—i.e., their buying cycle has a hard end date (graduate and professional/continuing ed students are a whole different kettle of fish, unfortunately).

These are extraordinary advantages—advantages that marketers in other industries would kill for. But just so we’re on the same page, let’s review quickly why that’s the case. 


Marketing Outside Higher Ed Is Hard

Imagine a marketer who works for a running shoe company. Her potential customers are everywhere. All over the world, in fact, from Boston to Bangalore, Chicago to Shanghai. And these customers can decide to buy any type or brand of shoe from just about anywhere—from a million outlets online or from any number of brick and mortar retail locations. To “locate” her audience so that she can start communicating with them and eventually sell to them, our poor shoe marketer has to make a whole bunch of decisions about who her buyer might be (maybe a high school track star, or a high-powered lawyer who runs ultramarathons, or a septuagenarian mall-walker, etc.), how best to reach them (TV, digital, print, etc.), and how much money to spend in the process. 

This type of audience locating is easier now than it used to be thanks to the advent of marketing and advertising technology and social networks that let you pillage demographic data and make best guesses about who might be likely to buy the shoes you’re selling, but it’s still really hard. Our shoe marketer has to be everywhere all the time with both an attention-grabbing brand message (“Just do it.”) and an action-provoking offer (“30% off!) just on the off chance that today is the day one of her potential customers will become an actual customer. 

If you think I’m exaggerating the difficulty and expense of this work, consider that in fiscal 2015, Nike spent about $3 billion on what they call “demand creation”—an umbrella term that covers all their branding and advertising activities, and, of course, their costly endorsement deals with the most famous athletes on the planet. And they’re willing to spend all this effort and money because they understand they have to be everywhere at all times—burrowing into the brains of as many people as possible, laying little brand eggs of familiarity and affinity—because they don’t know who or where their customer is or when or where their customer is going to decide to buy a pair of shoes

If you called up this poor shoe marketer and said to her, “Hey, I have a list of people who are going to buy a pair of shoes exactly like the kind of shoes you sell, and I can tell you exactly when they’re going to buy them—and I have all their contact info—and I’ll sell you this list for 42 cents a name,” she would say to you, with a bloodlusty growl in her voice, “Sell it to me now before I strangle you with this shoelace.”


Seriously, Higher Ed Marketers Have It Easy

Contrast all of the foregoing with the advantages we enrollment marketers have. The data we can buy literally locates our audience for us (by providing physical and digital contact info, test scores, and academic interests, among other things), which means that all we need to do is use historical data about who has previously enrolled to inform our data buys, and, presto, we have a highly targeted  list of students who might want to come to our college, and we can begin outreach immediately and then modify the cadence and content of our messaging as the date of our prospects’ purchase decision nears—and then, when May of their senior year of high school hits, we can stop marketing to them forever. There’s no wasted effort, no wasted money. 

It’s truly a simple case of breathing where the air is. If you’d like to diverge from historical enrollment trends and break into new markets, say across state lines, or you’re trying to bring in a more diverse class, or a more academically accomplished one, you simply need to adjust your name buy accordingly, which is easy to do, because, again it’s all available right there in the data. The “locating” work is literally done for you. It’s…amazing, right? 

You still have to turn prospects into inquiries, sure, and then nurture a student’s interest for a couple years after that, but the top-of-the-funnel-stuff is surprisingly not that complicated


So… What’s The Problem?

Great question! The problem, at least from where we’re sitting (as a company that manages undergraduate enrollment marketing efforts for colleges and universities of all shapes and sizes all over the country), is that, for whatever reason, many higher ed marketing departments seem to not fully understand or appreciate the advantages described above

With alarming frequency, in fact, we hear a story from a university’s enrollment team that goes something like this: “Our president wants us to break into new markets, specifically across state lines. So the marketing department is putting together a plan to do some billboards and digital ads and social media stuff to drum up interest.”

When we gently suggest that it would be easier, cheaper, and more effective to buy some names in the new markets instead of reaching out blindly, our clients in the enrollment office simply say, “Oh, we know, but this is what the marketing team wants to do.”


Wait… Are There Good Reasons Not To Buy Names?

You know, we’ve tried our best to remain as intellectually curious as possible about this entire enterprise, and we’re very open to incorporating new ways of thinking and doing things, but this one truly has us stumped. 

Because even if you ran a truly great conventional marketing campaign—we’re talking top-notch creative, ongoing audience refinement, A/B testing for art and copy, sound data governance—the end goal would still be to collect some identifying data about your prospects when they click through from whatever ad you served them. However, best practices for landing page forms militate against collecting the type of in-depth data your admissions CRM needs (sixteen year olds don’t love to fill out long forms, after all). So, after a costly ad spend, you’ve still got, if you’re lucky, a first name, last name, email address, and maybe grad year and academic interest. But again, this is a fraction of the info you could’ve gotten for 42 cents from the College Board. 


So Buying Names Is The Answer To Everything? 

Absolutely not! The easy availability of purchasable data is, in fact, one of the real double-edged swords of higher ed marketing. Sure, the data absolutely helps schools who have a sound game plan and the resources to execute it. But on the other hand, we’ve seen schools buying literally hundreds of thousands more names than is necessary, and we have to advise them to rein it in because big buys that are poorly executed lead to inflated applicant pools, distracting noise further down the funnel, overworked admissions teams who don’t have the resources to match valuable counselor time with prospective students who were never that interested in the first place, and ultimately, abysmal yield rates. This not only means that money was wasted on the name buy, but that it will also cause real revenue problems when the faulty execution fails to bring in enough students to fund the operating budget. 

A few paragraphs ago, we said this top-of-the-funnel stuff was relatively easy, but keep in mind that it’s also relatively easy to mess up


If A Smart, Well-Executed Name Buy Is The Best Way To Begin The Long Process of Enrolling Students, Why Are Marketing And Enrollment Teams So Disconnected About This? What Gives?

Well, we’ve got a few theories about this:

  1. For starters, there’s a fundamental lack of understanding among college marketing departments about the undergraduate enrollment/admissions process. We see this up close nearly every single day. Marketing teams get so wrapped up mimicking their counterparts in other industries (like the aforementioned shoe marketer), that they fail to see how truly different higher ed is. Enrollment marketing is about sustained, error-free execution over a two- or three-year window. It’s about massive amounts of data and suppression lists and seemingly infinite rows of Excel sheets. Sure, good creative and well-crafted value propositions are important, but success in this line of work is almost entirely about good process, and higher ed marketers frequently do not understand this process.

  2. As is almost always the case, money—and those who manage it—determines what kinds of decisions get made. At many schools, centralized marketing teams own the budget for all marketing activities—including enrollment marketing initiatives. At other schools, enrollment offices get to manage their own budgets. Enrollment teams understand the value of purchasing names, so they purchase them. Folks in centralized marketing offices frequently don’t, so they don’t.

  3. It’s easier, sexier, and more fun to talk about branding and social media campaigns than it is to do the nitty gritty enrollment marketing stuff. At tuition dependent schools, there are lots of ways to spend limited amounts of dedicated marketing dollars—you get told you need to rebrand or overhaul your website or refresh your logo or beef up your social presence—believe me I’ve been there. But before you know it, you’re citing metrics like likes, followers, and views as evidence that you’re doing your job—metrics that, at the end of the day, don’t have much at all to do with the number of deposited students at your institution. The illusion of activity gets substituted for actual activity. And that’s a dangerous game to play at a tuition dependent institution.


So, What’s The Takeaway?

Look, if colleges and universities had the marketing budgets that Nike does, I could maybe get behind foregoing the name buys and the whole direct marketing model in favor of just pummeling massive audiences with really cool, really expensive ads the whole year round for the rest of time. But they don’t, so I can’t.  

So, for starters, the number one goal for enrollment and marketing teams should be to educate each other—about their processes and problems and potential solutions. A little education goes a long way. It’s good for results and for morale.

And second, there needs to be a reckoning with, or some sort of refiguring of, the budget so that your limited dollars go as far as they possibly can. I know these talks can be tough—power comes with holding the purse strings, after all, and it can be hard to give that up. But if you’re fighting for your institution, and if you want to do the best you can to bring in more students, you must start pulling in the same direction, both with your strategy and the dollars required to execute it. 

Joel Anderson is Waybetter's VP of Marketing & Strategy. Higher ed. is all he knows