What does a good strategic marketing plan look like?
People often confuse marketing a community college with simple advertising, like putting up billboards and plastering signs on buses. But marketing at its best is about communication. It provides information that facilitates an exchange which benefits both parties, who are in pursuit of a symbiotic set of goods. Excellent marketing conveys that some purchase will deliver a tangible or intangible good that is of true value to particular customers.
Institutions of higher education don’t always think of potential students as customers. Yet, this is exactly the kind of attitude community colleges must adopt if they want to stay open. In the exchange between the college and the student, the student benefits from the attention of dedicated educators, a credential which substantially increases their earning potential, and hopefully an enriching campus experience. The college in turn receives tuition, a positive reputation, and, in the case of sustained alumni giving, a lifetime customer.
As colleges increasingly turn to marketers to address falling enrollment, it’s important to for administrators to understand what a good marketing plan looks like. In this two-part blog series, we will examine the fundamentals of a strategic marketing plan. In this first part we will talk about creating a basic marketing strategy for your community college. In the second, we will talk about college recruitment strategies and what it takes to turn an interested person into an enrolled student.
Know your customer
As we just said, marketing is about honest communication. It’s hard to communicate with someone you don’t know. Who is in the market for a community college education? Each college must answer that question individually, as the students served by community colleges are unique as the schools themselves. For instance, students in rural areas might require a different marketing pitch than those in urban communities. Once you know who prospective students are, you’ll be better able to communicate in a meaningful way.
Don’t miss the forest for the trees
Although it’s important to focus on what makes your prospective students unique, community college students across the country do share some common qualities. For instance, we’ve discovered that non-traditional students between 25-35 respond best to information about how to advance their career. A marketing expert understands these kinds of major trends and data points, but still creates a tailored plan for a specific school.
Conduct some market research
It’s not hard to convince an academic of the value of excellent, peer-reviewed research. Marketers agree. Research is the foundation of informed analysis, strategic planning, and enrollment planning. It’s impossible to really know your customer without it. Funding market research is expensive but yields dividends in vital data. And, a successful enrollment strategy will rely on information about potential consumers, not assumptions.
Does your market match your institutional goals?
Market research will also give you a yardstick by which to measure your institutions long-term goals. Is the market you’ve identified able to provide what you need to grow, or even just remain solvent? Will the number of prospective students in your area grow or shrink over the next ten years? Are prospective students able to handle incremental tuition increases? Are there potential market segments you haven’t tapped? Once you know the answers to questions like these your institution can take steps to address issues and deficiencies.
Do community colleges need a marketing plan tied to the academic calendar?
Non-traditional college students aren’t on the same kind of college admissions timeline as seventeen-year-olds. High school students apply for school at predictable times of the year, usually with the support of teachers and school counselors. In contrast, a non-traditional student may return to school at any point. She might lose her job, have a child start school, or generally feel frustrated with her career. Any of these could send her back to college for a fresh start.
However, just because community colleges can expect applications year-round doesn’t mean that the school doesn’t need to have a fairly clear idea of the size of your incoming class each term. That means reaching students before enrollment deadlines. Plan your largest marketing campaigns accordingly to have maximum impact.
Choosing a marketing method: Print marketing
Print marketing is more expensive, but it’s ideal for reaching many of the students that community colleges want to attract. We’ve talked before about the advantages of print marketing when targeting potential community college students and think it’s important to emphasize what good results a traditional marketing campaign can have. If your budget is tight, you may gravitate towards primarily digital marketing. However, print marketing should remain a key piece of any strategic marketing campaign.
Choosing a marketing method: Digital marketing
Digital marketing also has some distinct advantages over print marketing. You can reach your target consumer without ever paying the cost of postage. You also have more data about how potential customers are responding to your marketing. You can track clicks, page-views, web traffic and collect email addresses and consumer information. All of this makes it easier to measure the success of your marketing going forward. However, digital marketing can’t reach many digitally disadvantaged students, something community colleges should keep in mind.
Moving forward with a marketing plan
Higher education is an intangible good. If after experiencing the service provided a student feels they haven’t made a fair exchange, then the best marketing campaign won’t convince them to stay enrolled. The quickest way to have an unsatisfied customer is by failing to understand what the customer wants, or, after learning what they want, failing to deliver it. The more dissatisfied students leave the school, the worse the school’s reputation and the bleaker it’s financial outlook.
However, the majority of community colleges are good schools full of passionate educators. They simply need help communicating what a good product they are offering. A marketing plan that is based on sound market research, targeted to the right consumers, and relies on effective methods is the only way to do this. That’s where Aperture Content Marketing comes in. We can quickly assemble high-quality customizable content marketing programs to promote your institutions. Contact us today to learn what we can do for you.