There’s an old saying among marketers: "I know that half of my marketing spend is having an impact—I just don’t know which half."
It is especially difficult to solve this problem in rapidly-shifting terrains like digital marketing. The challenge often confounds enrollment teams facing tough budget tradeoffs. Our Enrollment Services partners ask difficult questions: Should we hire more social media staff? Invest in better website analytics? Buy more digital advertising?
Ensuring all—not just half—of your digital marketing dollars have an impact has never been more complicated or fraught with the risk of costly missteps.
But I have found three simple rules of thumb that can help you make the most of your digital marketing resources.
Rule 1: Balance inbound and outbound marketing
There are two essential parts of a complete digital strategy: Inbound and outbound marketing. You'll need to calibrate your level of investment in each to achieve your unique aims and capabilities.
Inbound efforts rely on students seeking you out online—finding you through search engines, your social media accounts, and your website. If your program already has high-quality website and social media content that effectively communicates your marketing messages, you’ll want to invest in your inbound strategies—including search engine optimization (SEO), search engine marketing (SEM), and website analytics that will draw prospects to your perfected content.
By contrast, outbound efforts proactively claim student attention through channels like email and display advertisements. These outbound efforts should be a first-priority for schools that lack well-developed website or social media identity because email and display advertisements are quicker to implement, less dependent on an extensive content library, and easier to tie back to impact.
The chart below illustrates the immediate rewards of display advertising that can energize recruitment campaigns while longer-term projects like website revision come to fruition.
Rule 2: Look beyond lead generation to list-sourcing
Most of us see digital marketing as a means to generate leads. The most relevant digital techniques use demographic and behavioral data to predict any given individual’s propensity to buy a particular good or service. In everyday life, for example, it might work to help a cobbler figure out who in the general population might be interested in buying his hand-crafted shoes.
But freshman recruitment is different. It starts with a well-defined prospect universe, thanks to the comprehensive, granular student data available via College Board, ACT, and other similar sources. The relevant question for enrollment managers is not "who might potentially be interested?", but rather, "what is the most effective way to engage them?".
List sourcing can help. For those unfamiliar with the term, list sourcing is a set of processes to acquire the names of prospective students from testing agencies and other sources. It identifies when student names will be released, designates data structures for name buys, and drives campaign scheduling.
When you begin your outreach at the top of the funnel, your digital dollars should work to earn a response from the students you've already identified as prospects via carefully executed, strategic list sourcing. As they progress through the funnel, students generate huge amounts of data that can help shed light on their intentions, which can help you channel your marketing spend where it will have the greatest impact.
Rule 3: Narrow focus for greater impact
Students leave a proverbial trail of crumbs as they nibble on your website, digital ads, and the like—a data path that can lead to a comprehensive picture of prospects and the impact of your marketing dollars.
Unfortunately, systems limitations and staffing constraints often stand in the way of the right data elements being reliably collected, cross-referenced, and analyzed.
Enrollment leaders must develop and commit to a smart data-strategy, often scoping their assessments more narrowly than they might like. They must determine the impact of individual interventions instead of trying to compare all elements of their digital outreach simultaneously.
More digital marketing insights
Randomized control trials (RCTs) are a great example of this more targeted approach.
RCTs deliberately withhold a marketing intervention—like display ads—from some subset of a prospect pool. RTCs then compare the response rates of the students who encountered the display ad against those of the students who did not. RTCs are the foundation of the wise selective-targeting that maximizes marketing spend. I have found the RCT approach is relatively easy to execute and it generates rigorous, actionable insights proven to benefit our partner institutions in the past.
I believe these three simple rules of thumb will ensure all—and not just half—of your digital marketing dollars work to find the students you want to serve.