The number of students enrolled at universities in the UK has been steadily rising since 2012 — the year in which enrolments dipped following the controversial tuition fee cap rise. Between 2012 and 2020, first degree student enrolment numbers jumped by 33%.
Half of all school leavers now go to university. And it’s not just student numbers on the rise. There are also now more universities than ever before, with 168 UK universities in operation. 90 of these unis are featured in the current QS World University Rankings.
Competition to grab prospective student attention is greater than ever. That’s why unis, especially those that can’t rely on Russell Group status (or Ivy League in the US), must run effective marketing campaigns to attract new students.
Making the most of your marketing budget is essential for boosting student enrolment numbers efficiently. Identify where your money is best spent, then ensure your strategy in these areas is as effective as possible to maximise your marketing budget.
In this article, you’ll discover:
- Why digital marketing is a challenge for universities
- Which marketing platforms are most effective for student recruitment
- Nine of the best digital marketing strategies for improving enrolment efficiency.
University of Kent: Using Paid Media to Exceed Enrolment Targets
The University of Kent wanted to increase clearing applications by 10% for their 2017 intake. Partnering with Arke Agency, they used paid social and search campaigns to drive 40% more clicks and 165% more impressions to their university website. These campaigns helped them exceed their 10% application target.
Pay-per-click (PPC) advertising is one of the best digital marketing strategies for universities when implemented and monitored well, especially for less well known higher education institutions like the University of Kent. If you don’t have PPC expertise in-house, consider partnering with an agency or PPC strategist. They can help you get the best results from your ad spend.
Why Marketing Is a Challenge for Universities
Marketing is the key to boosting enrolments for smaller unis. But for your higher education marketing to be effective, you must understand your audience. This includes their ambitions, challenges, interests, and concerns.
The main challenge for universities is that their website must target several different audiences at once, including:
- Prospective undergraduates
- Prospective postgraduates
- Current students
- Faculty and potential faculty.
Each group has different needs. And there are further nuances within each sector or subject. Someone planning to study Art History is likely to have different ambitions and challenges to a potential Pharmacy student. Your digital marketing strategy must accommodate these differences.
But brand consistency is also important. Brand builds trust, and helps your audience understand whether your university is right for them, regardless of whether they’re considering enrolling as a student or applying for a job. So you must establish your overall tone and messaging first, then refine this for individual groups on specific pages of your site.
Here’s a short guide to creating brand voice and tone:
Building University Audience Personas
With your brand tone in place, create audience personas to shape your messaging for each unique audience.
An audience persona is a representation of your ideal customer. University personas are often school leavers and college students, although other groups (such as parents and undergrads) need to be considered, too. Your audience persona should include information like:
- Demographics — including age, gender, and location
- Goals — what do they want to achieve?
- Challenges — what problems do they face?
- Habits — what do they do regularly?
- Needs — what do they need to feel safe and happy?
Interviews are a good way to build out your audience persona. Look at your happiest, most successful students, and find out who they are and what makes them tick. Learn more about how to create a buyer persona in this video:
With personas in place, you can target each audience on your higher education website and social media platforms.
The Most Effective Marketing Platforms for Universities
Here are the five most effective marketing platforms universities can leverage to target and boost enrolments among their ideal audience.
- Google Search
Unlike social platforms, Google Search engages with people who are actively searching for what you offer. So this is potentially the best way to reach high-intent prospective students, and get your website in front of them.
This video-based social media platform is extremely popular with young people, with people aged 18-24 making up more than 41% of users. So TikTok is a great place to reach prospective undergraduates.
39% of Snapchat users are aged 18-24. Just over 21% of users are 17 or under. So this is another great platform for reaching high school students and even some prospective postgraduates. Like TikTok and Instagram, Snapchat is a highly visual platform, so invest in eye-catching ads for the best engagement.
Instagram has a slightly older audience than Snapchat and TikTok. More than 61% of users are aged 18-34, and less than 10% are 17 or under. So if you’re planning to use Instagram, make sure your ads are highly targeted to the audience you’re likely to encounter.
LinkedIn is a social platform geared towards professionals. It’s a good place to find potential postgraduates who already have some work experience, and are considering investing in further education.
9 Best Marketing Strategies for Universities
Now you’ve created audience personas, and you know which platforms are best for student recruitment, you can create or update your university marketing strategy. Here are nine of the best marketing strategies for universities to boost enrolments.
1. Optimise Your Website
All your paid campaigns link back to your website. So your site must be fast, easy to navigate, and consistent in its messaging. As marketing strategist Adam Erhart says:
Driving more traffic, more clicks, and more people to your website or landing page doesn’t mean a thing if all they do once they get there is take a quick look around, come to the conclusion that what you have is not for them, then disappear, never to be seen again. Yet, sadly, this is what most pages and sites do: scare people away.
To avoid this, make sure your messaging and branding appeals to your target audience. UCLAN, for example, uses messaging that immediately speaks to the innermost ambitions and concerns of its potential students, such as changing the world and making friends:
Navigation is also important. Create different areas in your site for each of your audience personas, and use chatbots to guide site visitors in the right direction. The University of Wolverhampton makes navigation easy for different personas with two simple dropdown menus. They ask a) who you are, and b) what you’re looking for:
If you’re paying to send potential students to your website via search and social ads, make sure your website converts them to applicants with great design, powerful messaging, and easy navigation.
2. Protect Your Ad Budget
The recent rise in online learning has led to an increase in bot-driven university applications, especially via PPC campaigns. These fake applicants won’t become students, but they still cost you money. So it’s important to weed this invalid traffic out before it reaches your site.
Lunio’s 2021 click fraud report found education had the highest levels of ad fraud of all industries. This was partly due to the rise of virtual learning throughout the pandemic. But many universities are still experiencing a high volume of spam form submissions and fake traffic.
Minimise spam and maximise real student enrolments by reducing click fraud in your paid campaigns. Lunio is designed to remove invalid users before they click your ads, so only real users can reach your website.
This is the best way to quickly and effectively improve real enrolment numbers and reduce wasted ad spend. Find out more about how Lunio works
3. Build PPC Landing Pages for Different Faculties and Courses
Landing pages for your ads should be highly optimised for individual faculties, courses, and prospective students.
Marketing agency CEO and YouTuber Tim Cameron-Kitchen believes low-quality landing pages can waste a significant proportion of your ad spend:
In my experience, most marketers who are driving paid traffic are wasting between 15 and 50% of that traffic driving it to bad landing pages. A bad landing page is one that doesn’t convert as much traffic as it should, or converts the wrong type of traffic.
Create synergy between your ads and landing pages. Bid on keywords that are highly relevant to specific audiences. For example, “pharmacy degree uk”, or “art history degree london”. This will help you reach people who are actively looking for what you offer. Then make sure your landing pages are highly targeted for these people, too.
Here’s how to ensure your landing pages are as effective as possible:
- State your value proposition — what do you offer that’s unique to your university
- Use one call-to-action — direct your reader to take a single decisive action
- Focus on the benefits — how you can help students achieve goals and overcome challenges
- Include social proof — alumni testimonials should be highly targeted (for example, include a quote from a maths student for a maths landing page).
4. Invite User Generated Content, Including Social Posts and Blogs
Get more social proof by asking current students to write blogs and articles for your website. These feed your SEO strategy, and help prospective students find answers to the questions they’re asking.
Here are some sample student-written blog titles:
- 5 Things I Wish I’d Known Before Moving Into Halls
- 10 Student Strategies for Managing Your Uni Workload
- 10 Things I Learnt From Studying Abroad.
As a marketing team, getting students involved in content production is a great way to generate content more efficiently. Students get something for their portfolio, and you can include these posts in paid and sponsored promotions across social media.
5. Make Use of Video Marketing
Video marketing is one of the biggest higher education marketing trends in 2023. And thanks to the growing popularity of TikTok and Instagram Reels, prospective students are increasingly used to lo-fi video content. So you don’t need to spend thousands on high-production value content for your video marketing campaigns.
Embed videos on your website and your PPC landing pages. Use video extensively in your social media campaigns, particularly on visual platforms like Instagram and TikTok.
Many students are good at creating videos, so tap into these skills and ask them to produce video content you can share on your official social media platforms. Check out the example below from students at the University of Manchester:
6. Create Content to Showcase Alumni Success Stories
Alumni success stories are the ultimate social proof. They demonstrate that you can help students become successful and achieve their goals. So capturing and sharing these stories will attract prospective students.
Try to focus on alumni success stories where they’ve made great use of their degree. Even better, pick alumni who’ve stayed in your local area after graduation. This shows it’s a great place to live as well as study.
Video is the ideal format for success stories. Videos are shareable and engaging, and you can easily sponsor them to reach a wider audience on social media.
7. Run Paid Campaigns to Promote Open Days
Open days allow you to interact with the most engaged and committed potential students. Converting open day attendees to enrolments can give your numbers a massive boost. So assigning a large chunk of your budget to drive people to attend open days can broaden your prospective student pool.
Create content specifically to promote your open days. Use video ads, search ads, and paid social, and direct users to specific open day landing pages.
For maximum effectiveness, consider adding an incentive for attending an open day (such as some uni merch or a swag bag) and mention this in your ads and landing pages.
8. Use Infographics to Present Uni Research
75% of all information processed in the human brain is from visual stimuli. That’s why infographics are a great way to present original research. Using visuals helps audiences better process and retrieve the information, so they’re more likely to remember your brand.
In addition, infographics are highly shareable, helping to increase brand awareness across platforms. Ask your design team to create on-brand infographics for your research. Check out the example below from Georgia State University summarising key stats about their research funding:
9. Run Interactive Webinars
Give prospective students the opportunity to ask questions and learn about your university via webinar sessions. Webinars require less commitment than attending an open day, but more than simply visiting your website. So it’s a good way to gauge applicant interest and nudge potential students through the enrollment journey.
Make your webinar snappy and super engaging. Choose a variety of speakers and contributors to keep people interested. If possible, run targeted webinars for each school or faculty so students can get highly relevant information.
Improve Paid Campaigns to Compete in a Growing Higher Education Marketplace
Universities who want to compete in today’s crowded marketplace must use digital marketing effectively to attract potential students. But to make the most of your marketing budget, your campaigns should be highly targeted, and your paid ads must be protected from invalid traffic.