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10 Best Practices for Higher Education Marketing

Last Updated on April 6, 2022

About three-quarters of post-secondary institutions across the nation saw a 3.2% drop in student enrollments in 2021, and an overall two-year decline of 7.8% since 2019, according to statistics from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. After the last couple of years, students are more skeptical about the value of a four-year degree. They’re warier of student loans and taking on debt. With undergrad and graduate-level programs seeing such steep declines in applications, now is the time for schools to review and optimize (or radically revamp) their digital marketing strategies and higher education marketing. 

Websites in the educational industry share many of the same best practices as other sites, but they have some specific needs beyond what a typical website provides users. Whether you’re creating a website for the first time or beginning a redesign, here are 10 best practices for higher education marketing and websites that are important to keep in mind. 

 

Higher Education Marketing Best Practices

    1. Prioritize video
    2. Own the search results
    3. Start digital advertising
    4. Create landing pages
    5. Prioritize a mobile-first design
    6. Intentionally craft content
    7. Design the structure of your site
    8. Use live chat software
    9. Use real photography
    10. Keep accessibility top-of-mind

 

#1: Prioritize video 

Make sure your school is prioritizing multiple kinds of video content on your website and different platforms. Between TikTok and YouTube, students spend a huge amount of their day consuming videos. It’s often their preferred medium. Overall, video consumption is skyrocketing: nearly 43% of all global internet users access YouTube monthly, and 77% of Gen Z are watching video content on YouTube

College student watching YouTube and Tik Tok videos on his phone

Landing on a static page is a guaranteed way to increase your website’s bounce rate. Instead, begin to think about how students can interact with your site. Video content should be used liberally throughout your website to complement your written content. Use these videos to help tell your brand story and showcase the culture of your school in an engaging way that words can’t. Some ideas for video content are:

  • Ambient hero loop video(s) on the homepage and other high-traffic pages of your site 
  • “Day in the life” videos
  • Testimonials from alumni
  • “Tell your story” videos from current students
  • “Meet the faculty” videos 
  • Answer the top-searched questions on your site

Virtual event videos

Other ways to incorporate video would be for virtual events, such as campus tours, move-in day, recruiting, admission events, and others. According to a 2020 survey by the Education Advisory Board, 36% of campuses experienced a decline in campus visit requests due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of campus visits and tours continued to drop that year and have not yet reached pre-pandemic levels. In a recent study, 27% of prospective teen students cited YouTube videos as a major influence on where they enrolled. Using either live or recorded video for these “events” allows students to still see your campus life benefits and student/faculty culture, even if they can’t be there in person. 

 

Short-form vs long-form video 

Social media platforms (like Instagram, Facebook, and especially TikTok) have consistently shown higher engagement for videos under 90 seconds. When planning out your video content strategy, keep this in mind and weave shorter, entertaining, “snackable” videos into your queue of planned posts. When you have 90 seconds or less to get your point across (as opposed to 3-4 minutes for a “long-form” video), make sure that the information you cover is quick and punchy. 

Wondering whether to go short-form or long-form? A shorter video is the way to go for attempting to capture shorter attention spans or making the video shareable on social media (advertisements, especially on social media, are almost always short-form). However, if you’re looking to create a piece that gives the user more value, and is more engagement-oriented and evergreen, a long-form video will work better. 

Keep in mind that you can repurpose both short and long-term videos, by taking shorter clips of the entire video and repurposing them on social media or in ads. This way, you’re reaping the benefits of both types of video content for your higher education marketing. 

 

SEO for video

Bet you didn’t know your videos can also help your search engine marketing! 

Keywords and YouTube play a big role in that, so make sure you’re getting your long-form content uploaded to YouTube and also consider taking advantage of YouTube Shorts (or YouTube Ads) for your short-form videos. Curious about how to optimize your videos for SEO? We’ve got you covered with some tips and tricks in this blog post.  

 

#2: Own the search results

Focus heavily on keywords and other tactics for your site to improve search engine marketing (SEM). This means you should be pursuing both free search engine optimization (SEO) strategies and pay-per-click (PPC) search advertising. Free SEO is vital for any solid marketing strategy, but PPC works in symbiosis with SEO.

  • SEO is a long-term strategy that takes dedication and consistency. 
  • PPC will typically yield immediate results and have a very clear ROI.

Digital marketing team brainstorming search keyword phrases for SEO and SEM

Search Engine Optimization

Improving your site’s SEO tactics to help your college or university website content rank higher in organic search results is a must. Organic search is the number one driver of website traffic, particularly in higher education, making it a critical part of your users’ journeys and your marketing strategy. 

An important element that impacts SEO is Featured Snippets. Featured Snippets are short blocks of text or images that appear at the top of Google’s search results in order to quickly answer a searcher’s query or provide additional information without a searcher having to visit a website. This content is automatically pulled from web pages based on structured data on your website. Common types of Featured Snippets include how-tos, definitions, tables, and lists. 

There have also been changes over the last few years in the specific way Google displays higher education search results. Similar to a Featured Snippet, Google now has a “college-version” of its preview pane in search that uses a blend of publicly available data, third-party website data, and content stripped from the institution’s digital properties to attempt to show prospective students all the information they would want during their college search. This impacts your students’ user journey and your organic search result data, so be sure to read up on how to optimize for this feature

Psst, Google has created a way of quantifying a good user experience on the web, called Core Web Vitals, that impacts your site’s SEO score, too. There’s a lot to learn about Core Web Vitals, but at USDP, we’re excited to leverage this new way of assessing site health to help you meet your goals.

Pay-Per-Click

PPC is an effective (but highly competitive within the higher ed industry) form of advertising that allows you to simply pay a fee each time one of your ads is clicked. This helps your college or university to not just solely rely on organic results to drive more traffic to its website or landing pages. The most common types of PPC ads are text ads, display ads, and social media ads.

 

#3: Start digital advertising

If you decide to do paid digital advertising, we recommend first focusing on high-intent searchers before moving “up the funnel” and casting a wider net on display and social. Be sure to use tracking pixels on your site to ensure that conversions are being tracked properly and you’re able to remarket to people who have visited your site in the past. Below are some different types of digital ads for higher ed lead generation.

College student on phone looking at social media

Social ads

Instagram, Facebook, Linkedin, Pinterest, and TikTok are all valid platforms to promote ads on. Make sure to evaluate and take into consideration your specific target audience and typical student age range as you choose which platforms to target. 

LinkedIn is an effective channel to leverage for graduate program campaigns especially. When developing campaigns for your organization, target audiences that work in positions and industries that align with the career outcomes of your academic programs.

Display ads

There are two types of Google Ads: search ads, which appear at the top of Google search results (these are the PPC ads discussed above), and display ads that appear on websites and in YouTube videos. Both types of ads have different formatting, targeting, and bidding options. Google display ads will be more visually appealing than Google search ads, and they have the advantage of being able to set highly specific and effective audience targeting parameters.

There are four different types of Google display ads you can choose from:

  • Text ads
  • Static image ads
  • Rich media ads
  • Video ads

College professor teaching class at higher education program.

Doing great on student recruitment and enrollment, but struggling to find qualified faculty? Glad you asked! Finding new employees can be harder than ever in this digital world so here are some unique ways to recruit employees online using digital advertising.

 

#4: Create landing pages

So, you’ve optimized your SEO strategy, started digital advertising, and you’re getting more traffic to your site. But those site visitors aren’t converting or filling out program interest forms! Not to worry, you may just need some quality landing pages to engage your site visitors at this stage in your marketing funnel

A high-converting landing page performs four critical functions that persuade visitors to convert into customers. 

  • Engages visitors with a clear, attention-grabbing hero with a lead gen form
  • Demonstrates tangible value and benefits to the potential student
  • Establishes unwavering authority in their industry
  • Highlights a simple path to academic and career success

If you could benefit from some one-on-one guidance on how to design landing pages that convert, take the next step, and schedule a time to talk

A large, engaging hero image highlighting KC Robotics' services on their landing page.

#5: Prioritize a mobile-first design

According to the Institute of Business Management, more than 74% of Gen Z says they spend their free time online and roughly 75% most frequently use a smartphone over computers and other devices. This means that your institution’s site should work amazingly well on mobile devices to ensure a great user experience for potential students. (Curious about what else Gen Z wants from a website? Check out this blog post on designing websites for different generations.) 

Some things to consider when designing for mobile-first:

  • Reduce site speed. The average mobile web page takes about 15 seconds to load; however, a large percentage of website visits are abandoned if the site takes over 3 seconds to load. 
  • Think through how to show your navigation menu on mobile devices. If students and parents feel like they’re struggling to find the page they need, they’ll bounce from your site very quickly. 
  • Optimize elements of your site for mobile, especially forms. These are what will get your potential students’ information and interest, so be sure they can use them easily on mobile. 

 

#6: Intentionally craft content

When assessing your higher education marketing efforts, consider the purpose and intent of your content. You need to tell a story with your website content. Clear, concise, relevant content should move the reader to action. Getting in your different audience type’s shoes and thinking like them will help you shape your messaging in a way that will resonate with them. Students, parents, donors, faculty, staff, etc. will all have different information and stories they will need to see on your site to move them to click the right CTA and navigate to the correct part of the site. StoryBrand Certified Guide logo

A fantastic approach to writing marketing copy for your college or university’s website that will appeal to your audience is called StoryBrand. StoryBrand is a proven messaging framework that positions the customer as the “hero” and you as the “trusted guide” who offers a plan of action for solving the customer’s problem, resulting in success. Content that helps – sells. Content that sells – doesn’t. The StoryBrand framework has helped hundreds of organizations clarify their message, invite customers into a compelling story, and grow like never before. Read more here on how to upgrade your website and digital marketing with StoryBrand

Bonus tip: 

Here’s another tactic for your content marketing strategy: repurpose content. Repurposing content is one of the easiest ways to recycle content so that nothing on your website is left stagnant or outdated. When executed properly, repurposed content can save time, prevent writing burnout, and lead to more site traffic

 

#7: Design the structure of your site

You want your site’s design and content to tell a good story. That requires smooth information flow on each page, as well as good overall information architecture

Getting there’s a little harder than you think. 

The first step to designing (or redesigning) a website should be to determine the site information architecture by creating a sitemap. As you do this, remember to keep the user experience in mind front and center by asking yourself: What does my user want? Ensuring that it’s easy for people to find what they need while prioritizing your organization’s goals can be a delicate balance. It may help to talk with your team and brainstorm the different ways a user might flow through your site – or think outside the organizational box with card sorting tests

Digital marketing team planning website information architecture

As you determine the way your site should be put together, remember you’ll be serving parents, faculty, staff, alumni, and the press as well as students. It is possible to speak to multiple target audiences on a website without being confusing – the trick is making sure to delineate “paths” for each target. 

For example, you could create a “career pathway” for students specifically. This “pathway” approach simplifies choices for students by creating deliberate, clear paths on your site for different degrees and academic programs. 

(Pro tip: This type of “career pathway” can be a great place to highlight positive career outcomes for your potential students. Pepper in alumni testimonials and career placement stats, and you’ll be painting a bigger picture of future success for each student who clicks into your site.) 

 

#8: Use live chat software 

Incorporating a proactive live chat feature on your site can help improve conversion rates by providing a quick and easy way for site visitors to clarify anything they may have questions on, without feeling the need to email or call someone directly. Research shows that many of your potential students avoid talking on the phone and find it anxiety-inducing, so consider adapting your customer service features to better connect with them. 

In a technology-heavy era where prospective students are flooded with information overload about potential schools and programs, live chat gives universities a competitive advantage by facilitating human connections between staff and students. Live chat software will also help you connect with potential students even outside of normal working hours as well. 

 

#9: Use real photography

As you plan out content, video, and photography for your site, remember that you’re not just competing with other schools – you’re competing with the whole social media and entertainment world and all the distractions it brings. You want a simple, clean, intuitive design – but it also needs to be a captivating website that stands out from the crowd and the digital noise and distractions. Your potential students are engaging daily with social media influencers who create eye-catching and engaging content and photography, so be sure to invest in high-quality photography that showcases your school’s best features. 

College students walking and talking on campus

A picture really is worth a thousand words. Focus on telling *your* story – wherever possible, use real instructors, real students, real moments of campus life, etc. The more you can show videos and images of real people doing real things on your college or university campus, the more relatable your school will seem. Students consistently choose candid shots of college and university students as the top images they want to see from a college.

Not feasible to have an on-campus photoshoot? Check out this guide on stock imagery dos and don’ts

 

#10: Keep accessibility top-of-mind

Last, but certainly not least important, is accessibility! “Accessibility” simply means availability to every individual regardless of disability, situation, or other factors. If someone cannot use your website because of a disability that affects their hearing, vision, or physical capacities (including advanced age), the site is considered not accessible.

This is a problem. Plus, ignoring web accessibility can cost you – in the loss of potential students who can’t access your site or in the form of lawsuits (the purpose of digital accessibility isn’t simply to avoid litigation though). 

Lawsuits by students with disabilities against colleges and universities since the coronavirus pandemic shifted higher education online have been rising. Digital accessibility lawsuits increased by 17 times for institutions in July and August of 2020 as compared to the first half of the year according to AudioEye, a digital accessibility software company. Both Harvard and MIT have been involved in accessibility lawsuits in recent years.

While having online content can improve the ways that institutions communicate with and educate students, they must also be aware of their compliance obligations when present in a digital world. The two primary federal laws for accessibility you’ll want to keep in mind are Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504”). 

MacBook Pro laptop with example of alt text

Some common accessibility issues for higher ed sites include: 

  • Keyboard issues (certain controls can’t be operated by keyboard alone)
  • Missing or inaccurate alt text
  • Not having captions or descriptions for videos
  • PDFs and other documents that are not ADA compliant
  • Inaccessible forms
  • No controls for dynamic content (play/pause options for videos)

Web accessibility can seem like a lot to take on. You can always opt to start small by making minor changes like adding alt text to images or tweaking color contrast. Web accessibility is yet another way to highlight your school’s ongoing commitment to inclusivity.  

If this has brought light to any issues on your website, it looks like it’s time to make your website ADA compliant. If you need help with your website’s accessibility or would like a free site assessment, give us a call

 

Next Steps

Digital marketing agencies like us can help with implementing these best practices onto your website so the communication to your audience is as clear as possible. Just reach out to get started.

 

Emily Gaston Image Alt

By: Emily Gaston

Emily is an Interactive Designer at USDP.
Ballroom dancing and obstacle mud runs are her jam.