As a higher education marketer, you’ve got a big job. 

It includes:

  • Supporting recruitment (getting qualified people interested in the first place)
  • Building your brand (making a case for why applicants should choose them)
  • Driving enrollment (and helping to keep them there)

But for universities, accomplishing these goals can be challenging for a myriad of reasons: lagging technological infrastructures, bureaucratic and often fragmented internal structures, and limited resources—among other things.

These big-picture problems feed into the three specific issues all digital marketers are faced with, but can be especially difficult for higher ed marketers:

1) Making better use of the data they capture

2) Differentiating from the competition, and

3) Improving engagement with their users.

To get a better understanding of how these challenges impact their roles, particularly as it relates to digital marketing responsibilities, we talked to some higher education marketers. 

We’ve also identified potential solutions to address these challenges to create personalized, targeted campaigns, tell your university story, and drive prospective applicants to apply and enroll, using your website as the hub.

Challenge 1: Better capturing, understanding, and leveraging your data

In order to drive recruitment, it’s important you have a strong understanding of your users. Who are they? What are their motivations? Why do they keep coming back? That way, you can create targeted campaigns, that leverage personalization and meet prospective students where they’re at in the process, speak to their needs, and identify candidates that might be a good fit.

In the academic world, that can be particularly challenging for a few reasons.

Universities are playing catch up technologically

Many university marketing departments aren’t accustomed to analyzing large quantities of data. For a while, universities distanced themselves from the idea of having “marketing” or “sales” departments in favor of less “dirty” words. 

“There can be resistance for universities to think of themselves as a business,” said Rhiannon Clifton, former Director of Strategic Program & Outreach for the College of Media at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

As cultural and technological advances proved useful, many have caught up, slowly embracing new strategies and hiring marketers the way companies do. But many are still catching up.

Departments and teams operate in silos

In addition, there are still challenges with how universities capture and analyze data. It’s often still done in silos because of how universities are structured. 

“In most cases, admissions operate separately from the departments. Unlike at corporations, everyone isn’t necessarily marching in one direction. That can create a disconnect where departments sometimes don’t feel like they’re getting what they need,” said Clifton. 

This disconnect makes it challenging to align with other departments on goals and objectives.

Resources aren’t always available

And although universities have started to approach their marketing strategies more like corporations, their resources and budgets don’t quite measure up yet. And according to Ruffalo Noel Levitz’s 2018 Report, the cost of recruiting a single undergrad student at a public institution is $536 and $2,357 for a private one.

char comparing the cost of recruiting between private and public institutions
via RNL’s 2018 2018 Cost of Recruiting an Undergraduate Student Report

With limited resources, declining applicant rates, and increased competition, it’s tough to reach the amount of students universities need. This puts more pressure on marketing teams to be more efficient and effective with their budgets, and to capture accurate data for campaigns. 

“Tracking is big,” said Andrew Wise, Marketing Strategist at The University of Chicago Graham School. “We’re trying to pay attention to what students do, how they do it, and when. It’s important we can run campaigns and attribute actions to the things we do. It impacts enrollment, management, and how our teams work.”

Given these obstacles, how can you better understand your prospective students needs, align on what really matters, and create effective campaigns to reach more of the right people?

Define and segment your target audiences

Everything starts with your audience.

Capturing data on current and prospective students that visit your site is one way to better understand them.

“We use Adobe Analytics for tracking interactions. We look at vanity metrics like time spent on the website, and clarity metrics like form starts and completions for things like info sessions,” said Sheldon Gray, Senior Director of Digital, Marketing at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

As you’re gathering data, consider creating segments so you can better personalize your communications with students. According to Campaign Monitor, marketers have noted a 760% increase in revenue from segmented campaigns.

“We try to capture people higher in the funnel, especially their first time interactions with our programs. There could be someone interested and not exactly sure what program best fits with what they want to do. We’re looking to get their email addresses and sort of do demand-generation work from there,” said Wise.

In addition, with dynamic content sections you can alter the web experience of a student based on their behavior and interactions on your site.

For example, a prospective grad student early in the process might be served related content about financing options or pre-requisites through email marketing. Whereas a candidate identified to be closer to applying might be shown content about an upcoming open house or an application checklist.

The marketing trend of personalizing content for users can lead to higher engagement for site visitors.

“We look at engagement, too. For example, with video content, how often are they watching, how long did they watch, pause, etc.,” said Gray.

Ultimately, you’ll need to ensure you have the technological infrastructure to support these efforts, but it’s well worth the investment.

Get alignment on KPIs across department teams

Academic institutions can be complex and bureaucratic. 

You probably weren’t hired to disrupt the structure of the university and how it operates, but in order to get things done, you want everyone moving in the same direction.

Successful higher ed marketing teams create ways to get everyone aligned.

“Coordination has been vital. We have monthly marketing coordination meetings with central marketing and the directors across each department. We’ve worked to put things in place to make sure we’re aligned upfront,” said Gray.

Although they don’t happen everyday, a website update or redesign project is a good inflection point for a reset. And, as part of the process, you can conduct stakeholder interviews to align priorities.

group of people having a conversation in a conference room

Stakeholder interviews are a series of guided conversations with key team members to talk about the goals, challenges, opportunities, and success metrics of a project—for individual teams and the university as a whole. 

When we redesigned Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music’s website, we conducted 10+ interviews with faculty and staff to define clear goals and objectives for their site. Not only was it valuable for redesigning the site, but it helped unite their team around a common purpose.

Extend the reach of impactful initiatives online

Although students are glued to their mobile devices, the fact that more than three in four millennials (78%) would rather spend money on an experience than buying something desirable speaks for itself. It’s also easier to track registrations, get prospects into your CRM, and form deeper connections at in-person events.

“Big activations matter more. We’re able to attract engagement afterward. At our admitted students day, the most meaningful follow-ups had to do with professors. Not only have they been admitted, but now they’ve maybe made a connection with a well-renowned scientist,” said Misha Harrison, Director, Creative Service and Brand Management at The University of Arizona.

Arizona's admitted students day video that says 'admitted student day
Arizona’s admitted students day landing page

If you’re looking to attract students from all over the world, big activations are effective, but they can be expensive and difficult to scale. 

Leveraging digital properties and marketing tools to bring live activations to people that maybe can’t (but would love to) attend them live is a great way to extend their reach.

“What does a virtual tour look like? What are you interested in? How can we engage in the cultural conversation you’re having? How can we be a part of your every day?” said Harrison.

For example, a student at Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music cited a specific professor as the reason for choosing the school. Featuring that professor in content on the site helped inform that decision.

four musicology faculty members at northwestern's bienen school of music

By sparking conversations with live events, continuing them on your site, and expanding them with social media marketing, you can incentivize your student body to engage with you and broaden the reach of your marketing efforts.

Challenge 2: Differentiating your university from the competition

In order to differentiate your university, you need a cohesive online presence and compelling message to share with your wide range of potential applicants. You want to position your university as a compelling alternative to the options students have today—from trade schools to online education. Not to mention the various other audiences you’re considering—from alumni to parents to university partners.

You know that trying to speak to everyone often means you’re not speaking to anyone. This makes it nearly impossible to differentiate.

But getting out a cohesive message isn’t something you can sit and do alone. It requires a team effort, thoughtful coordination, a thoughtful communication strategy that make it challenging to execute.

Marketing units have competing priorities

The structure of university department teams can create challenges in getting cohesive messages out. Typically, larger institutions have decentralized marketing departments. This allows them to operate somewhat independently, but it can lead to inconsistent messaging from the wider university, disjointed user experiences on your websites, and even a duplication of resources.

Coordination between teams can be difficult

Even universities with centralized marketing departments still have to navigate the coordination of multiple team efforts. Different units have different audiences and thus different messages to send or issues to address. It requires a well orchestrated dance between department teams.

Diverse ranges of audiences and messages

And of course, there’s your audience to consider. 

Universities have so much to offer, which makes for a wide range of target audiences, programs, and messages to communicate. If users have to hunt for information, the chances they disengage are stronger. When you have so many messages to get out, putting them all in the right places can be challenging.

“Take Advertising for example. We worked to let people know it was even a major. Students didn’t know it was an option,” said Clifton.

So, how can you get departments on the same page, organize web properties to help users find relevant content, and tell a cohesive story?

Create cohesive messaging between your main university site and individual colleges and schools

Your website is central to shaping the impression of your university before students interact with you in person. If your main university website and other college or departmental sites have disjointed experiences, it can frustrate and confuse users, leaving a bad impression. 

You want to create synergy between your main university website and related colleges, but it’s not always easy to execute. That’s often because disconnected website communications can be a reflection of disconnected internal communications.

northwestern's main website and music school website

But, working to instill changes in how they collaborate has been working well for both Harrison and Gray’s respective teams.

“Information disseminates outward and not downward. We’ve found we’re able to collaborate at a deeper level that way. Our digital group meets twice a month and has built our web structure as it is,” said Harrison.

Getting on the same page also streamlines communication efforts and eliminates wasted efforts (and marketing spend).

“Given central marketing creates campaigns for the broad university, we want to be conscious of things we have in the marketplace to ensure we aren’t oversaturating our messaging or duplicating efforts,” says Gray.

Working in tandem with department leads to more efficient, effective communications that don’t work against each other and keep things moving.

“We have shared ownership for everything. We’ve had more buy-in than we’ve ever had in the history of the university. It’s credited to a lot of hand-raising, time and energy, and guiding and steering—but never dictating,” said Harrison.

All in all, these coordinated efforts helps teams align on important messages and campaigns, while ensuring the needs of individual groups don’t get lost.

But, most importantly, this benefits your end user. Presenting a more holistic and cohesive message in your marketing campaigns, helps potential students see themselves as part of the bigger university picture regardless of which specific college they belong to.

Implement a design system that’s accessible to the whole university

Some universities have brand style guidelines to make sure certain elements are used properly. That can be helpful, but universities are notorious for sometimes having thousands of websites and millions of pages. 

A design system is one way to add an extra layer of thought to your brand guidelines.

According to InVision, a design system is “a collection of reusable components, guided by clear standards, that can be assembled together to build any number of applications.” 

atlassian design system categories
via Atlassian

They add structure, standardization, and documentation that add clarity for teams. It helps build a seamless user experience, look and feel, while giving them the flexibility they need to create things for individual campaigns.

For you, it’s about creating an environment that blends autonomy and cohesion for department teams. In doing so, users can explore your entire suite of web properties as part of a unified experience.

“People come to academia because they’re mission-driven and want autonomy. We’ve built a coalition of the willing combined with whatever budget we could pull together to make a shared effort to contribute to our goals,” said Harrison.

Refine your content strategy to help users find what they’re looking for

University websites are treasure troves of information. But—for users—it can be hard to find what they’re looking for because there’s so much content and so many different audiences—faculty, staff, students, partners, donors, and the general public—some with very different priorities.  

“We want our site to speak to a number of different audiences—from people exploring our university to those ready to apply. It’s a coordinated effort to tell the story across all the different departments,” said Gray.

Refine your content strategy to better organize resources for your various audiences, instead of a repository of information to help users find what they’re looking for.

Challenge 3: Improving student engagement with your university 

Higher education enrollment dropped for the eighth straight year. And according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, since 2012, on average, just 58% of students completed a degree 6 years later.

With the increase in cost for higher education institutions, competition for student attention, and alternatives to traditional education, universities are struggling to enroll and retain students.

Issues like the continued rise of stealth applicants make it hard to establish deeper connections with students as they evade CRMs before submitting and application. This makes it difficult to predict or anticipate enrollment numbers.

Some universities have started to address these issues, while others are lagging behind.

Lagging tech infrastructure

Many universities don’t have the resources or know how to combat these common— yet complex—problems. And, even for those that do, getting a technology infrastructure in place to identify and track stealth applicants (for instance) takes time, resources, and coordination. 

“I feel like we’re a little ahead of the curve when it comes to resources. Similar universities are on par, but ultimately it’s a matter of making sure we have the right infrastructure in place,” said Gray.

And, once the infrastructure is in place, you’ll then have to begin  strategizing toward solving the problem.

Prospective students with information (and responsibility) overload

Whether they’re a high school student researching future schools, or an administrative assistant working full-time, prospective students are genuinely busy, distracted people like you and me. They’re overwhelmed with school, work, relationships, (their smartphone) and everyday life.

girl looking at laptop biting her pencil
Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Universities are competing for their attention. And once you capture it, nurturing it is essential to getting them into your university and getting them across the stage.

Difficulty connecting with students in meaningful ways

We know that creating richer, more intimate experiences makes you a more favorable choice. But, it’s expensive to reach a lot of students in a way that genuinely connects.

Universities need to find new ways to reach more of the right applicants and speak to them in ways that will stick, and encourage them to apply.

And once they’re on your campus, retention is becoming increasingly important.

Between lagging technology infrastructure, wavering attention spans, and the bar being raised on what students want, it’s an uphill battle.

How can you can help reinforce a positive experience with your university and engage students in ways that make a difference?

Integrate your systems to effectively test new ideas

Universities sometimes struggle to install technology infrastructure designed to help teams collaborate on campaigns and learn about their users.

Ensuring your systems are talking to one another improves your ability to analyze the data holistically and act on insights you gather.

Often, having the resources to make this a reality plays a part, but sometimes it’s getting your teams talking, that gets the ball rolling. 

“Right now, in addition to leadership investment, we’re taking a similar approach to our initial brand launch to build our tech stack. We’re getting buy-in from around the university, establishing ways to measure our efforts, and ultimately working to build the technology infrastructure to serve the needs of the entire institution,” said Harrison.

When everyone is aligned on what you’re trying to do, it’s much easier to gain support, get the necessary resources to integrate systems, and start capturing the right data to produce more effective campaigns.

Build a site architecture that’s designed to convert users

Student enrollment is down.

Some data shows higher education has some of the lowest average conversion rates (2.6%) across industries. If fewer students are applying to universities to begin with, it’s even more important to capture potentially interested prospects.

chart displaying average lead-generation conversion rates by industry
Photo via Unbounce

One way to improve conversions is to improve your navigation structure. For most university websites, there are three primary navigation types: content-based navigation, audience-based navigation, and utility-based navigation.

There’s no one-size-fits-all format, but a more thoughtfully designed navigation is a winning strategy for improved conversions. It will help your primary audiences find what they’re looking for.

Create relevant content for students before and after they get on campus

Feeling of fit” is one of the seven key decision segments on the minds of college students when choosing a university. Creating meaningful connections with students makes them more likely to apply, enroll, and ultimately stay with your university.

But many students often don’t know about all the things their university has to offer—even after they arrive (I know I didn’t).

Universities used to rely on brochures, ads, campus tours, alumni magazines and more to tell their story and give students information about campus life and what they had to offer. 

But now marketers can help create that feeling with relevant (and personalized) content.

For example, Goshen College’s “What should I major in?” quiz is a helpful, shareable piece of content that both empathizes with their student experience and provides value.

goshen college article with headline, 'what should i major in?
Photo via Goshen College

“It’s about making a deeper connection. We’re trying to build the relationship between digital and social and connect all of these experiences. Marketing isn’t a dirty word. It’s there to help you tell your story,” said Harrison. 

And telling that story with your students at the center makes for a more engaged group of students during their university journey.


As a higher education marketer, you have a lot of challenges. And, working through them is no small feat. Aligning teams, getting cross-departmental buy-in, and wrangling resources requires a significant lift from a lot of people.

But when done well, your teams will be better equipped to leverage data, differentiate from other universities, and form stronger relationships with current and prospective students—and ultimately, recruit, enroll, and retain more students. 

Your website can be at the center of your higher education marketing strategy. 

Want to learn how to improve student retention with your website?