The New Realities of Graduate Student Recruitment

Why the future of recruiting students for graduate programs is all about focus

One look across LinkedIn presents a good snapshot of how quickly communications have been commodified for graduate student recruitment. Innovation and distinction may be happening in the delivery of courses or in the classroom themselves, but not in terms of positioning online graduate programs.

The trouble with positioning — both inside and outside of higher ed — is that it can be quickly copied. How often do you see “flexible” and “affordable” as a proposition? It’s hard to imagine that no matter how well priced your online MBA is, someone else can’t come along and offer it at a lower price point.

In most categories, each player “owns” the category benefits. It’s entirely possible that online graduate degree programs incur this same market characteristic. What this means is that positioning has become a graduate program’s competitive advantage. But to get there, we must take a step back from the usual tactics-as-digital-strategy perspective and refocus on the basic tenets of strategy.

With proper strategy — an understanding of the market, who you are targeting and how you’ll position your program — higher education marketers can begin to carve out distinction in the market and increase consideration among prospective students.

Below, we’ll explore why this increasingly competitive and uncertain world requires a renewed focus on strategy as well as three things to focus on when planning your next recruitment campaign.

Strategy, Revisited

To quote one of the more prolific authors on marketing strategy, Michael Porter, “the essence of strategy is defining how a company is unique and how it will deliver a distinctive mix of value. Strategy is about aligning every activity to create an offering that cannot easily be emulated by competitors.”

In a sense, strategy is about what you choose not to do as much as it is about what you choose to do — more or less a series of trade-offs. To paraphrase Porter, the more focused your strategy is — applying strict scrutiny to a few key decisions — the more likely differentiation will evolve.

So this is our call-to-arms, if you will. As you revamp or start planning your next recruitment cycles, return to the basics of strategy. The new marketing realities for higher education marketing demand it.

Graduate Student Recruitment: New Marketing Realities

Messaging parody aside, recruiting students for graduate programs using digital marketing has become increasingly competitive as well as more expensive. Higher education marketers must be more attune to the limitations of most budgets and how those limitations should impact strategic decisions.

In terms of cost, average cost-per-clicks can be approximately $20 to $30 for many of the popular online graduate degree programs. LinkedIn CPMs can hover around $30 and geotargeting can average around $10 to $15 on social media channels. In terms of competition, primarily online institutions saw online graduate enrollment fall 13.6% (education and business degrees taking the biggest enrollment hits). And while graduate enrollment rose slightly (fall 2021), enrollment rates and graduate degree alternatives may skew the number a bit. “Proximity-to-institution” also fell slightly, with two-thirds of online grad students reporting they would only consider online degrees from schools within 50 miles. Talk about the market constricting.

Why Graduate Student Recruitment Campaigns Fail

Poorly Allocated Budget

The reality is that none of us have an unlimited budget. While reach and frequency rarely make it into many digital advertising conversations, in a high-involvement category frequency is huge. How much you have to spend and how big your target audience is plays a role in how impactful your messaging can be. What’s more impactful, reaching one person once per month for six months or one person once per week for six months?

Lack of Defined Targeting

Similarly, with the same limited resources, we cannot target everyone. Not only should segmentation help identify probable targets, if done correctly it should identify what segment will be the most responsive. For example, which segment has a higher propensity to be interested in an online MBA: a young professional with no kids in a marketing role or a 35 to 44 year-old parent working at a nonprofit? Strategic focus makes answering this question easy.

More Metrics than Focus

This isn’t so much about identifying the most important metrics, but to identify the most important KPIs that align to those objectives. Higher education marketing isn’t exactly e-commerce, yet what we track often isn’t impactful to moving the needle. The more we focus on the natural ebb and flow of click-through rates, the less we lose sight of the incremental effects of our digital marketing. Attributing inquiries to each campaign is important — but if that isn’t the dominant behavior for most prospective grad students, looking at holistic incremental gains over the course of your marketing efforts provide a much better view of your efforts.

Where Strategy Brings Focus

Focus on a ‘Hero’ or “Halo’

As is most often the case, there isn’t enough budget to realistically market all of your online graduate programs. A good market orientation and segmentation approach should help to identify flagship programs (i.e. heroes). For example, the promotion of your M. Ed may increase awareness of your Ed. D., or the other way around. Another way to look at a hero program is to identify the program that you feel has this highest propensity to attract those currently in-market. With enough resources dedicated to your “hero,” you can quickly see a return-on-investment and use any new funds generated for other programs. Identifying profit drivers earlier makes it much easier to focus your efforts.

A similar strategy is to use the halo effects of brands. The single strongest predictor of higher click-through rates and lower cost-per-acquisition is a strong brand. Depending on the strength of your institution or the departmental brand (think Darden School of Business), when budgets command it, take advantage of the strength of your strongest brand. This is the rising-tides-raises-all-ships marketing analogy. A heavily concentrated “brand campaign” can be more effective than a stretched-too-thin budget for multiple program campaigns.

Focus on a Core Target Market

It’s imperative that we must also focus on the targets that will make the biggest difference. Referring back to Porter’s quote, the actions we opt not to take is just as important as what we ultimately do. Once you’ve established which programs you will move forward with, identify the core markets that you can adequately invest in. If your state is primarily a net export state, it makes more sense to invest your budget in-state. The same goes for segmenting your audiences. Starting with 25–34 year-olds is great but if you can’t reach your audience at least once 1–2 per week, you’ve stretched your budget — and segment — too thin.

Focus on 1 Message

It can be tempting to tell the world about all the benefits of your program. Access to faculty, world-class labs and program rankings are all valuable but the more you try to pack into your ads, the less likely they are to be memorable or retained (most display ads get 250 milliseconds of your audience’s attention).

The same can be said when it comes to branding. Outside of your logo, focus on 1–2 design assets to use across marketing activities. Remaining distinct — from a design perspective — can be just as effective as being differentiated.

Combined, the focus of messaging and design makes it easier for you to build familiarity and memory structures that improve processing. If you are advertising for multiple programs, find a way to communicate the same benefit but dramatized differently or create slight variations in design. Repetition naturally creates mind share and the meaning and message anchored to your ads creates a position.

When I talk to clients, I define digital strategy as “where to play and how to win” — a line borrowed from Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works. It’s a quick reference to bring to life the steps needed before we even touch ad creative – the process to look at people, presence and then we focus on ad platforms.

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