In the last several years, higher education in the U.S. has faced declining graduate program enrollment. Our work provides strong evidence for educational institutions to go digital-first, purposefully connecting with prospective students with the right message, at the right time and on the right device. Through engaging with the right fit prospective students in personally relevant ways, Georgia State University's Robinson College of Business deployed the Smarter Marketing and Recruitment Playbook and drove the following extraordinary results, with speed, in a single recruiting cycle:
The Robinson College of Business (RCB) at GSU has been recognized for its academic and professional excellence, with programs designed to provide students with business education and applied learning opportunities through immersive experiences in industry. Despite this, RCB took a significant hit with a 4.4% decline in submitted applications and a 16.6% decline in enrollment from Fall 2016 to Fall 2017. Our team identified that higher quality and quantity of applications created at the top of the application funnel is the solution that will lead to a higher number of applications submitted, resulting in a higher number of accepted and enrolled students. To achieve this ambitious goal without any budgetary increase, the team needed to do things differently.
While digital marketing is common practice for firms across many industries, it has not been applied as significantly, in an integrated and holistic manner, to the marketing of educational institutions. Reflecting the ever-changing digital world we live in as well as the popularity of digital media among RCB’s target audience, we implemented a shift away from traditional media advertising. RCB’s marketing strategy for Fall 2018 necessitated a data-driven approach towards the graduate enrollment process. The key was to optimize resource allocation by continually measuring, monitoring, and responding to key in-market performance metrics at each stage of the application funnel, resulting in a digital-first marketing strategy that was data-driven and measurable, enabled timely responses, and led to a wider and greater impact than the prior strategy reliant on traditional media. By optimally reallocating resources from traditional to digital media, RCB managed to achieve growth in its performance metrics at every stage of the application funnel with no change in marketing budget, yielding significant implications for the RCB brand over time, given the long-established relationship between performance metrics and brand equity.
Drawing from experiences with students, program directors were able to describe their target audiences and the marketing team developed target personas for gradudate programs. These target personas were all actively involved on social media platforms, and it was necessary to engage with them on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.
Our digital-first marketing strategy can be broken down into a four-stage process, taking aim on optimizing Awareness and Interest, Consideration and Intent, Inquire and Engage, and Application and Enrollment. Overall, RCB’s marketing plan for graduate programs ran from January 2018 to August 2018, launching 251 campaigns, and deploying 1,979 advertisements across 7 digital channels. The integrated marketing strategy was data-driven and digitally focused, centering on prospective students and their needs. The success of RCB’s digital-first marketing strategy for Fall 2018 was evident in the 28% increase in enrollment over Fall 2017. Additionally, there were improvements across all the stages of the application funnel for Fall 2018 over Fall 2017. Overall, RCB’s digital-first marketing strategy offered greater marketing efficiencies, enabling the team to achieve better results with the same marketing budget as the previous year. It also facilitated better customization of messaging content and medium as well as quicker responses to the needs of prospective students.
The future of the education sector lies in adopting a digital-first approach to marketing strategy and staying focused on this goal. Educational institutions need to be results- oriented, data-driven, and skewed towards digital media in order to enhance their effectiveness and efficiency. Second, the digital journey of a prospective student begins well before they visit the website of the educational institution. Educational institutions need to communicate and engage with their prospective students off-domain before they can be persuaded to visit the websites. However, it is also essential that digital media be integrated with traditional media, to complement and maximize the value of the overall marketing strategy, as digital media enables the tracking and measurement of various elements and stages of the marketing strategy where traditional media falls short. Finally, while digital and traditional media can help educational institutions reach out to a wider audience, personal interactions are crucial in driving performance outcomes, indicating that educational institutions need to employ a sense-and- respond approach towards marketing strategy by identifying and focusing attention on key leverage points.
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