25 Higher Education Marketing Strategies for 2020

In times of the coronavirus, higher education marketers can easily get distracted and lose sight of the fundamentals. Included here are 25 timeless higher education marketing strategies that have generated proven growth in enrollment, endowment and reputation for colleges and universities.


1. Students and faculty, not the institution, are the real heroes of your story
Colleges and universities empower student journeys. Faculty enable students and build institutional reputation.

2. Invest in brand
Know your core promise, values, ideals, distinctions and what you stand for. Articulate your brand value cheerfully irrespective of whether you are a liberal arts college, STEM university, research powered, experiential brand, college of access, online educator or an integrative brand.

3. Speak with one brand voice to all audiences
Strike different notes for each segment of students, faculty, donors and partners.

4. Prove your brand claims
Buyers are smart. Provide proofs in the form of stories, stats and third-party validations.

5. Stand for something unique and let the world know about it
To draw attention you must do something unique. To stand out, here are three things you can do:

  • Become a product innovator in emerging fields of law.
  • Position yourself as a thought-leader in emerging fields of law.
  • Champion a meaningful societal or global cause that is rooted in your institutional core strengths.

Reputation Management

6. Invest in first impressions
Remember you become the story you choose to tell.

  • Tell a better story.
  • Celebrate your star students, alumni and faculty – the kind you want more of.
  • Fortify every touch point – including websites, social media channels, your Wikipedia entry, email signatures, newsletters, tours, information sessions, and all your presentations.
  • Fortify your Google results pages – ensuring the information that appears on search engine results is persuasive and inviting.
  • Make your facilities and grounds beautiful because beauty engenders confidence.

7. Claim your keywords on Google
If you are ranked on US News & World Report, then secure your Google rankings too. Don’t surrender top search rankings for your star programs to lead aggregators and commoditizers.

8. Transform your flagship university publication to a print/digital hybrid publication
Reimagine your print university magazine as a print/digital hybrid publication. Instead of publishing it bimonthly, quarterly, biyearly or annually, consider rolling out stories digitally on a weekly schedule, SEO-optimizing each for search engine rankings and promoting each on social media. You’ll be effectively weaponizing each article based on your schools’ thought leadership, innovation, and intellectual capital. Supplement the digital publication with a leaner, nimbler, annual print publication.

Enrollment & Admissions

9. Think student life cycle
From prospect to current students to alumni and donors. Take the long view.

10. Find students where they hang out
Allocate marketing investments in channels where students roam. Fish where the fish are.

11. Energize influencers, referral networks and reliable feeders
Over time, these wholesale student streams will create a rising tide that’ll relieve pressure from retail recruitment efforts.

12. Abandon ineffective and expensive traditional student search models
Embrace new ones based on right-fit, micro-segments, look-alikes, machine learning, big-data algorithms and affinity groups. Think right-fit, admission pipes and inverted admissions funnels, not traditional admissions funnels.

13. Mobilize and mutually reinforce paid, owned, earned and shared media
Surround and engage your prospects with your brand by leveraging various forms of paid media, high-fidelity content marketing, online PR, and social media to create a comprehensive marketing strategy for your program.

Create hermetically sealed landing pages/microsites for paid media, and open-fields of strong website pages for owned/earned media are the best combination for getting the best out of different strategies.

14. Romance prospects with high-fidelity academic program pages
They are the “money pages” on a website used by value-minded prospects and their families to make their college choices.

15. Pursue right-fit students
Create admission pipes, not funnels. Invert the admissions funnel by marketing the student and alumni heroes to attract like-minded prospects.

16. Check up on inquiry/applications follow up and boots-on-the-ground activities
This trifecta is the holy grail of higher education enrollment success. You take one out, and success will elude your institution.


17. Insist on offering a distinctive portfolio of programs
Foster creation of new programs where you have indisputable competitive advantage. Fight the temptation to start new commodity programs. No one has realized prosperity with boring non-distinct offerings. It’s easier to market and grow enrollment for distinct academic programs.

18. Help name new academic programs
Use competitive offerings and Google keyword search history histograms to inform naming of new academic offerings.


19. Cultivate a culture of giving
Adapt your communications based on the diversity of donors – small donors, intermediate donors and mega-donors. Insist on giving a ton before you ask for something even small in return. Students and families feel that they have given enough already.

20. Create customized marketing
Whether it’s emotionally appealing microsites for capital campaigns, process-oriented annual giving sites, printed appeals for specialty giving, direct action emails, social media campaigns, or personalized videos for mega-donors, create customized marketing materials to support fundraising.

Analytics & Metrics

21. Know industry benchmarks, but forge your own metrics
Create your own path. Perform better than how you did last year. Measure what matters to you, not to others.

22. Combine data and intuition
Embrace data-informed decision making. Measure what matters, watch what you see, see the unseen — but also trust your instinct and gut.


23. Insist on Investing 10% of revenue on marketing
In the world of for-profit schools who invest close to 20% of their revenue on marketing, and the $100 million marketing club of non-profit colleges (Southern New Hampshire, Purdue, Arizona State, University of Maryland and others), underspending on marketing will not yield success.

If you have generous marketing budgets, you’ll be able to set aside some play money to explore new marketing tactics and strategies.

24. Avoid democratic budget allocation
Pick winners. Judge. Allocate budgets equitably, not equally. Allocate pilot budgets for new approaches and tactics.


25. Balance tools, technologies, process and imagination
Adopt automation, but not to replace the essential relationship building work that needs to be done to win hearts and minds of prospects. Imagination, passion and purpose — not process — is what prospects ultimately buy and are buying into.

Remember, it’s all about balance: between profit and purpose, between near and far, and between data and story. At all times, but especially in times of a crisis, I encourage higher education marketers to stay focused on the fundamentals and deploy proven strategies.

If you are seeking higher education marketing agencies to fortify the reputation of your college or university, view our higher education marketing capabilities and consider partnering with us.