Lifelong Learning & The Future of Higher Education Marketing

Lifelong Learning & The Future of Higher Education Marketing

It’s only fitting that topics like “jobs” and “hiring” were key discussion points at the LinkedIn Higher Education Connect conference this year in New York. It wouldn’t be a LinkedIn event without professional headshot opportunities and experts to provide advice on your personal profile.


The way in which those topics were discussed as it relates to the current, and future, state of higher education, however, forced my jaw to drop on more than one occasion. After a day filled with engaging speakers (and breathtaking views of the city), I left Spring Studios in Manhattan with one consistent thought: Institutions that don’t research their target audiences will see a rapid decrease in marketing ROI.

Here are five quotes that I still can’t get out of my head following the event:

“The end in mind isn’t a degree, it’s the outcome.” – Michelle Weise, Ph.D, SVP, Workforce Strategies, Strada Education Network; Chief Innovation Officer, Strada Institute for the Future of Work

Michelle kicked off the event with one of the most informational and data-driven presentations I have seen at a higher education event. The GIF of The Rock standing up and applauding? That appeared on the conference hashtag more than a few times when Michelle began dropping quotes and stats to start the morning.

When we begin website redesign or digital marketing projects with a partner, we conduct focus groups with the target audiences. The audiences range from traditional undergraduate prospects to adult learners getting an additional degree or certificate. This quote from Michelle sums up every focus group we conduct. When we ask about the most important elements of an institution’s brand, the overwhelming response is: “What can I do with my degree?”

The traditional undergraduate marketing campaign used to be focused on the “student experience” and “campus life.” High school juniors and seniors are now savvy shoppers and want to know what a degree is going to cost, what career they will have and how much they will make after graduation. Beautiful campus photos and a robust athletic department can still be a part of your brand messaging, but it’s not about the stereotypical experience anymore. Outcome stories drive inquiries.

“Alumni relations is becoming more important to the core academic mission.” – Elizabeth Hagan, Associate Dean, Global Marketing, Duke University

If prospective students want outcome stories, who better to tell your story than alumni? Elizabeth is spot-on when talking about breaking down the communication wall (I won’t use the term silo anymore, I won’t use the term silo anymore) between marketing/admissions and alumni relations on campus.

Institutions across the country struggle with collecting actionable alumni data and outcome content. Creating a detailed content strategy plan for your campus that works across multiple channels (website, digital advertising, admissions pieces, etc.) needs to include some type of partnership with your alumni engagement office. Your target audiences are begging for that content. Give it to them!

“Why are students hiring education in their lives?” – Michelle Weise

This jawbreaker nearly sent me to the emergency room. All of us in higher education marketing and admissions realize that student recruitment is transactional. We discuss tuition, funding models, resets and financial aid every single day. But we shy away from taking that same mindset into a message strategy.

Michelle’s comment is blunt but accurate. The majority of prospective students (both traditional and non-traditional) are hiring education to provide a service. That service is a set of skills in preparation for a degree. Yet, some institutions spend a large amount of budget dollars on crafting messages that encompass the “experience” instead of the “result.” Should higher education flip on its head and treat every degree like a purchase on Amazon? Of course not. But, realizing that institutions are being “hired” (or fired) by students makes it a lot easier to craft an effective message.

“If a student feels like they are being marketed to, we aren’t doing our jobs as marketers.” – Amanda Karr, Executive Director, Student Recruitment, Pepperdine University, Graziadio School of Business

Bravo, Amanda. Again, the presenters at this LinkedIn event did a great job of pulling best practices from outside of higher education and applying them to today’s prospective student.

Prospects can see straight through weak marketing efforts in today’s environment because they are marketed to CONSTANTLY. Personalized marketing, Amanda said, needs to be more than just “dear Amanda” in an email heading and calling it a day.

We have an infinite amount of data sources to see how a prospect is browsing a website, what interests and topics they search for online, and a million other ways to build a detailed persona. If a student is interested in Program X at your institution and they receive information on Program Y (or the same brand message over and over), that prospect is looking elsewhere.

According to today’s student, a mature marketing approach equals a mature institution, which equals a better outcome.

“We need to rethink education as a one-and-done experience.” – Michelle Weise

Simply put, some of your best prospective students are current students.

Graduate programs have been practicing this model for years. If an institution offers a medical degree, why wouldn’t you target the pre-med majors on your campus? This model has shifted all the way to the traditional undergraduate level.

Michelle provided a variety of statistics about how many jobs certain age groups will cycle through in the next 50 years. That number is on the rise. Countless institutions are targeting recent graduates and young professionals with career advancement degrees, certificates, badges, etc. The days of a student progressing through post-secondary education on a narrow path are over.

Today’s student is one of consistent learning with an inconsistent end game. Higher education marketers can’t think of commencement as the end of the student journey. Those students need to stay in your funnel as prospective students.

Shaping the Future of Higher Education Marketing

These were just five of the many impactful lessons I took away from the LinkedIn Higher Education Connect event. Changes are happening everyday in our market and audience priorities are constantly shifting. We will be diving into each of these areas of opportunity further during the Converge 2019 CMO Experience in Atlanta next February. I hope to see you there.

Aaron Blau
Aaron Blau
October 9, 2018