College recruitment is a battleground for colleges and universities. Competition to attract and retain top students from around the world has created a crowded decision process for students and families. With rising tuition costs, massive open online courses (MOOCs) and speculation about the value of college degrees, colleges and universities are working hard to innovate curricula and create positive connections with prospective students. Out of all the valuable marketing tools at a college’s disposal, one tactic is often undervalued: search engine marketing.
When I chose to attend Boston University (back when we read books on paper), I researched a handful of other schools through pamphlets and on campus visits, looked at rankings and program offerings, and talked to alumni about their experiences. It was exhaustive and time consuming. Today, digital natives (or the i-Generation) can learn nearly all they need to know about a school in less than an hour of online research. Even more compelling, they form strong opinions that will be validated or debunked through their in-person visits…
Here are three important ways that search marketing impacts the recruitment and enrollment process for colleges and universities:
1. It’s a Branding Opportunity
If a college is not pushing out relevant content about student life, rankings status, and specific program offerings through a variety of channels that include university blogs and social media channels, they may be unintentionally foregoing the opportunity to be included in the consideration set of prospective students. It’s also important to make sure that the information showing first in search results sheds a positive light, since it is one of the first points of contact with the brand and is formative in shaping a student and parent opinions. While not every topic is important, colleges should identify key leadership areas and establish a coordinated content marketing campaign for organic search, while bolstering ‘white space areas’ that have low rankings in search engines with a paid search marketing campaign (paid ads for key topics to ensure page one placement). The quality of what people find through search also leaves an impression. Is your site optimized for mobile viewing (the devices of choice for i-Gen)? Is your school’s brand anthem clearly articulated? Is it reinforced by what students are saying in social channels (another highly indexed content area for search)? As you can see below, BU is well optimized for their communications program, but has been trumped by an Anchorman 2 PR stunt by both BC and Emerson. Touché Ron Burgundy, Touché.
2. Marketing Specific Programs or School Characteristics
Even if Student A already has a short list of schools, he/she are likely validating that short list and exploring other options, and the types of searches Student A will perform range from location based (“Boston area colleges”) to quality based (“Best Ranked Colleges for Computer Engineering”) to highly program specific (“Nanotechnology courses”). While not every program or characteristic of a school should be optimized for search or advertised via paid SEM/PPC, there are many programs that are likely the top drivers of interest and applications for any given school. SEO is particularly important when launching a new program where little information exists on the web. Here a paid search campaign can help ensure the program appears in the results for students who are searching and allows you to capture this valuable search traffic. Did you know Google estimates there are 240 annual searches by people in the U.S. looking for “Nanotechnology courses”?
3. It’s a Lead Generation Opportunity
Once you have a successful content marketing program and have identified the areas of most interest to prospective students (which, due to your hard work in content marketing, also shows up in organic and paid search), you can then begin to create gated, content-rich digital “packets” of information in the form of either PDF downloads, dynamic content pages featuring a variety of types of media, or even digital course information booklets. The “gated” part means someone must fill out a lead capture form that asks for simple contact data in order to view the information. If the value of the content is perceived as greater than the “cost” (providing name and contact information), then this process works well. By capturing information on prospective students, you can begin to nurture those warm leads by sending additional information or inviting students to on-campus and other live or digital events.
Whether you are launching a new academic program, trying to boost applications and enrollment to an existing program or working to raise the profile of your college or university, search engine marketing is an important piece of the content marketing and engagement puzzle.
By: Tom Ryan
VP, Director of Integrated Marketing and Creative