Flexibility coupled with the ability to pivot and dart in multiple new directions at a moment’s notice. That’s the key to being successful as a marketer in the world of higher education. That wasn’t always the case, however.

In years past, college recruiting fairs, phone calls, and physical paper brochures were the tried-and-true methods of attracting students and filling classroom seats. In fact, I still somehow (even after all these years) recall receiving a new piece of literature from a different school virtually on a daily basis as I neared the end of my high school days.

That was the mid to late 90s, and those brochures were essentially my go-to resource for learning which school was the best fit for me. The internet was still in its infancy, and visiting a school’s website just didn’t offer the experience that it does today (that is, if they even had a website).

Fast-forward 20 years (can’t believe it’s been that long!), and things are quite different.

Tactics like brochures and phone calls still have their place, but the dawn of digital has really changed the higher education marketing game. Information is being consumed at alarming speed, and it’s being consumed in a wider variety of ways and places than ever before.

To succeed as a marketer in higher education, it’s critical that you develop an understanding of these new digital trends and millennial content consumption preferences. Create those brochures and plan to attend recruiting fairs, but be sure to pay ample attention to the latest digital trends, or the faculty at your institution will be speaking to empty seats.

Mobile Matters

First and foremost, each piece of digital content you create should be given some level of mobile consideration.

Look around your campus. Turn (slowly) around 360 degrees. Count the number of smartphones, tablets, laptops, and other devices you see. On a busy day, there will likely be too many to count in one single pass.

According to a 2015 Pearson report, 86% of students use their smartphone regularly, and over 50% use a tablet. Laptop usage still hits nearly 90%, but it’s seen a slight decline year-over-year, tapering off at 89% in 2013 and 2014.

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Pearson Student Mobile Device Survey: College Students June 2015

Each one of these devices is a direct access point to your students, as well as prospective students. For this reason, each piece of content (articles, ad creative, graphics, etc.) should be created with mobile in mind.

Social Flexibility

Any strategy that incorporates mobile should also incorporate social media. In fact, any strategy, especially one targeting college students, should incorporate social media. It’s not as simple, however, as creating a Facebook page, setting up your university’s LinkedIn profile and jumping head first into the Twittersphere.

There are lots of considerations that need to be a part of your social media strategy, and flexibility should be first and foremost among them.

In 2008, Facebook was a great place to connect with the college-age audience. Over 40% of users fell within the 18-24 age range. Eight years later, we see the 25-34 demographic taking over.

Social media audience by channel shifts so quickly. It’s Facebook one day and Snapchat the next, and it’ll be something new next month. If you aren’t flexible and paying attention to trends, your audience will get bored and move on to the next channel without you.


Once you’ve figured out what channels your target audience actively uses, it’s time to craft your message so it actually connects. College students are digitally savvy. They see through ads and poorly thought out marketing efforts.

So, if you really want to connect with college students in the digital world, you need to consider the types of content you’re pushing out.

Students are over being bombarded by advertisements about why your university is so great. While there’s certainly a serious need to highlight points like quality of faculty, curriculum, available programs, and other details critical to students’ decision making processes, it’s equally (if not more) important to really immerse them in the story of your institution.

Students want to know that your university offers them opportunities to make a difference in the world and is in line with their values.

To get the right message across, try creating articles about student success, produce some videos about events on campus, or post pictures on social media of students volunteering or receiving awards.

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Students from the MBA class of 2018 at the College of William & Mary’s Raymond A. Mason School of Business participate in a day of volunteer activity.

This type of value added content and storytelling will take the student far beyond the information you present on your website. It will help encourage students to choose your institution over the competition, and it will also create relationships that last long after graduation.

Getting Started

In order to be successful with any of these tactics, you need to lay the groundwork. That starts with understanding your audience.

Take the time to conduct surveys and gather together a few focus groups. These are great opportunities to learn more about students’ digital preferences and uncover trends that can help inform your marketing.

What you learn will help you stay on top of digital trends. The higher education landscape is extremely competitive. Students have more options now than ever before. Being aware of digital trends allows you to create differentiation and convince students that your institution is the best option for them.

Failing to stay on top of digital trends can mean failure as a higher education marketer. Get started by learning as much as you can about the digital habits of your target audience, and craft a digital content strategy that allows you to stay ahead of the curve and consistently aware of digital trends.

The Author

Anthony Gaenzle is the Manager, Digital and Content Strategy at the College of William & Mary’s Mason School of Business. He previously served as Director of Marketing for a global content marketing agency and founded AG Integrated Marketing Strategists, serving in a marketing consulting role. Follow Anthony on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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