Graduate Enrollment Marketing: Unpacking the Biggest Challenges

Image of an academic library

Marketing graduate degree programs is both an art and a science, and we wanted to take a deep look at who is doing this well — and how they’re doing it. To that end, we assembled an expert panel including Julie Gacnik (Creighton University), Marcus Hanscom (Roger Williams University), and Eric Nissen (University of Colorado, Colorado Springs), among others.

In this series of four articles (you’re reading the first), we will ask this panel four questions to help you better understand the changing landscape of graduate enrollment marketing:

  1. What challenges are institutions facing in digital marketing for graduate student recruitment?
  2. How do you ensure your website is strong and effectively tied into other aspects of your digital marketing plan?
  3. What other digital marketing tactics have worked for you?
  4. What non-digital marketing tactics have worked for you?

We invite you to use these brief articles to start critical conversations on your campus.

Additionally, you can explore graduate student recruitment tactics in depth with these same experts at the upcoming Graduate Enrollment Management conference. We hope to see you there!

Here are our panelists’ answers to the first of the four questions.

Q: What challenges are institutions facing in digital marketing?

Sarah Seigle Peatman, Academic Impressions. In today’s day and age, digital marketing is critically important to any graduate recruitment marketing strategy—but with such an array of audiences to target and tactics available to use, it’s not always easy to get it right. What, in your eyes, are some of the newest/most current challenges that institutions are currently having when it comes to figuring out an effective digital marketing strategy for graduate student recruitment?

Julie Gacnik, Creighton University. Many institutions fail to have an integrated digital marketing plan. Individual programs or colleges may have a strategy, but it often fails to be in alignment with the greater university. In addition, we are often seeing multiple vendors supporting initiatives for one university. Challenges that occur when this happens: First, there can be internal competitive bidding for ad positioning, and second, there is a weakness in ad buy.

Programs will benefit from creating an integrated marketing plan as an institution and establishing a best practice in vendor consistency. First, there are economies of scale when approaching vendors with a larger budget. Many vendors offer additional impressions or remnant space for reduced cost or free. The second value add is honestly the largest: an integrated marketing plan eliminates the internal competition for ad positioning. This also allows campus partners to design and serve one ad to target audiences that may be interested in multiple programs, versus multiple ads if each program were approaching this independently.

One of the greatest challenges professionals are having with effective digital marketing is understanding the true demographics of their audiences. Unlike the undergraduate audience, the targeting for graduate populations is specific to individual programs, not to individual colleges. And the targeting is not based on the broader attribute, “graduate.” To target the graduate audience accurately, you need to replicate demographic reporting multiple times. This is a time-consuming process that involves looking at enrollment trends, economic trends, and Google trend data.

Marcus Hanscom, Roger Williams University. I think most institutions don’t know where to start and in many cases lack the expertise and the resources once they’re able to move forward. To build and deploy an effective digital marketing strategy requires something that is scarce for many of us in graduate admissions: time. Most of us are resource lean, so it’s tough to plug in enough time to effectively manage a digital marketing campaign across multiple platforms.

There has been a growing trend of institutions (mine included) outsourcing some of these efforts to ensure that digital marketing campaigns are launched and maintained effectively. For example, consider Google paid search, display, or retargeting: Someone needs to actively monitor ad performance, activate and deactivate keywords, and A/B test ad content to maximize return on investment in these channels. Many of us simply do not have the bandwidth to undertake all of these tasks. Furthermore, digital channels have become so sophisticated that it makes sense to have someone dedicated to these efforts that is versed in each of the major platforms and knows how to effectively optimize campaigns.

Eric Nissen, University of Colorado – Colorado Springs. I think the biggest challenge is realizing you can’t do everything, and that every tactic is going to take money, time and ongoing attention to be effective. With so many places to advertise and market, especially when you include social media, I think marketers can feel like more is always better. It’s not that hard to set up and start campaigns. What is difficult is to accept that you don’t have the resources to be everywhere, and to honestly prioritize what you can handle in an effective way. This planning should include regularly monitoring the effectiveness of the campaign and taking the time to make course corrections along the way. I have seen campaigns initiated that everyone thought were great, only to find out afterwards that nearly all of the generated traffic was “bouncing” immediately off the landing page.

Knowing how you are going to implement, measure, report, and optimize whatever you take on — is often something that gets overlooked in the eagerness to “get the marketing going.”

(Image credit: Photo at the top by Elijah Hail on Unsplash.)