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How to Create a Marketing Strategy for Student Recruitment

Shane Kehl

When you look back to the last 365 days, you were likely either playing whac-a-mole or chess. 

A whac-a-mole enrollment marketer spent the last year reacting to all of the things that popped up on any given day and immediately tackling that task to get it off their plate. 

While checking off an item on your to-do list feels good, it was likely not the best use of your time and resources. 

An enrollment marketer who was playing chess mapped out their year with big rocks they wanted to get accomplished and didn’t let mundane daily tasks distract them from their larger goals. 

If you weren’t a chess player this last year — or don’t even know how to play enrollment marketing chess — you’re going to want to keep reading! 

Which pieces are on the student recruitment chessboard?

Let’s go from most important on down and detail what these pieces really mean for your recruitment strategy. At the end of each section, we’ll also link to a more detailed post that goes even further into the nitty-gritty of each tactic so you can create an effective marketing strategy for student recruitment.

The King: The Website

The king in chess is the most important piece. Without it…you lose the game. And your higher education institution’s website is just as critical.

Your college website is typically the first place you’re interacting with prospective students—it plays a key role in their decision-making process. And in a world where in-person campus visits are scarce, your college website has to pack a powerful punch. 

According to one study of 10,000 incoming high school seniors in the summer of 2020, 85% percent of students said they relied more heavily on college websites for information in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and about 39% said that they had discussed their options less with their counselors.

85% percent of students said they relied more heavily on college websites for information in light of the COVID-19 pandemic

Prospects are counting on your website (now more than ever) to 1) deliver a seamless experience where they can quickly find all of the information they need, 2) give them a sense of the campus culture and student experience, and 3) offer a painless way for them to request additional details and get in touch with questions.

The reality is college websites aren’t going the way of paper viewbooks anytime soon. While many enrollment marketers may lack total control of their site, there are plenty of elements that they can implement or advocate for. 

We scoured the internet to find some of the best college websites, so you wouldn’t have to. These are some of the components we saw over and over again: 

  1. A short Request More Information form 
  2. Blog posts with relevant keywords and call-to-actions
  3. Effective and creative web design 
  4. Powerful program pages
  5. A robust site search engine 

If you want to see examples of these components in action, check out our blog post, What the Best College Websites Have That Yours (Likely) Doesn’t.  

The Queen: Premium Content Resources (eBooks)

The queen is a versatile piece that can cover a lot of ground in a variety of directions — your premium content should mimic the strength and flexibility of the Queen. 

When it comes to education marketing, you have a unique opportunity to promote your school or program with an eBook, a type of premium content, that helps nurture prospective students into leads and applicants.

Premium content is long-form, comprehensive, and delves into one overarching topic in an effort to attract, engage, and convert your prospective students. It appeals to the pain points and interests of your target audience. An eBook is more than a program guide, a brochure, or a one-pager. It’s a valuable, compelling, educational digital resource that’s gated behind a form, so you can capture prospective student data as part of your enrollment marketing efforts.

Why are eBooks so essential for your content strategy? First, including eBooks in your education marketing plan is a surefire way to build brand awareness, loyalty, and thought leadership. The more you can keep prospects engaged with your content, the more likely that your value as a brand goes up from your reader’s perspective. 

Second, eBooks are a valuable lead generation tool. A lot of conversion opportunities for schools are action-focused: request more information, RSVP for an info session, apply now, schedule a meeting with an admissions counselor, etc. Ebooks are an excellent secondary content offer that influence prospects who may not be ready to take action yet, but are intrigued enough by your school or program to want to learn more.

But how do you write an eBook? Our blog post How to Write an eBook as Part of your Enrollment Marketing Content Strategy details 6 basic steps to craft an amazing eBook that generates leads and converts new contacts into inquiries, applicants, and enrolled students. 

Learn how to craft a custom content strategy for graduate student recruitment  in an 8-week cohort. Read more about the curriculum and sign up today!

The Rook: Blog Posts and Student Stories

The rook is a powerful piece with great range, but if you don’t leverage it well, it just sits in the corner doing nothing for you. Likewise, your blog can either sit in the corner, generating little results, or it can run the gamut and provide lasting value. 

So many higher education marketing teams create content that is all about their university, and while that’s one topic certainly worth covering, they’re missing out on a huge opportunity — to rank on the first page of Google for non-branded keywords! 

Creating content around industries and careers related to your programs is the fastest way to grow your domain authority and rank for keywords phrases that don’t use your university’s name. Why would you want to do that? Because you’ll be attracting potential students to your website that may have never heard of or considered your university before. 

With several blog posts around one topic, you’re telling Google you’re a thought leader when it comes to sports management, for example. By doing this, Google then rewards you by ranking your content higher on its search result pages, which in turn generates more new traffic to your website leading to an increase in leads, inquiries, applicants, and ultimately enrolled students. 

Below is an example of a blog post from Sacred Heart University that ranks for 64 keywords and is in the top 10 for 7 of them.


You’re probably wondering what a blog content strategy entails as it sounds too good to be true…Just follow these steps and you’ll be on your way to the promised land (commonly known as the first page of Google): 

  1. Create Target Audiences 
  2. Conduct Keyword Research 
  3. Generate Content Ideas 
  4. Develop a Content Calendar 
  5. Create Content 
  6. Track and Augment Your Content

Not sure how to get started creating blog content? Don’t worry, we’ve outlined a solid framework in our post, How to Develop a Blog Content Strategy as Part of Your Enrollment Marketing Game Plan. It walks through each of the steps to ensure you create content that generates a return on investment and will help you rank on Google. 

The Knight: Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

The Knight is a complicated piece that moves in odd ways but when properly utilized, can create havoc for its opponents. SEO is your knight — when understood, it wields tremendous power to outsmart and outperform its competitors. 

The good news is that there are some key, simple steps you can take today to drive more traffic to your site. And in a world where digital advertising is getting harder and harder – organic reach is plummeting and cost-per-click is sky-rocketing – SEO is a way to increase quality traffic to your university’s website for free!

There are hundreds of ways to grow organic rankings, but let’s start with the basics of SEO strategy so that you can generate some easy wins around key ranking factors. We’ve put together a list of four SEO tips for colleges and universities that you can implement today, in order to grow your search results tomorrow. 

  1. Conduct an SEO Audit 
  2. Redirect Dead Links 
  3. Create Content for SEO 
  4. Augment Existing Pages for SEO 

New to SEO and unsure how to go about getting started with these four steps? Dive into our post on 4 SEO Tips for Colleges and Universities in 2020 to get detailed instructions and links to some of the free tools you can use! 

The Bishop: Email Marketing Campaigns

The Bishop can only move diagonally, which may seem limiting, but when combined with all the other moving parts, can be really effective. Your email marketing campaigns are no different — if you blast a mass email frequently, it’s easy to see coming and doesn’t yield any return, but if you use it strategically, less yields way more. 

An effective email marketing strategy starts here:

Who are you emailing? 

Why are you emailing them? 

What do you want them to do? 

If you can’t answer these three questions, do not hit send! These may seem like very simple questions with obvious answers, but many enrollment marketers pull the trigger on emails without really thinking them through, which leads to a disengaged email list. 

See this slightly exaggerated example of a common email that schools send to everyone which fails to provide substantive value.

It’s “student recruitment” and not “student selling” for a reason; you’re trying to attract new students to your university not dupe them into attending. Your emails should exemplify that by incorporating your unique value propositions, user-generated content, and links to helpful resources. 

How do you craft emails like that without missing out on opportunities for prospects to inquire or apply if they’re ready? Explore our Email Marketing Strategy: Try These Tips for More Effective Emails blog post for specifics and examples of what great emails can and should look like. 

The Pawns: Social Media and Digital Advertising

You get a small army of pawns in chess for a reason — one on its own would be no good to you. Pawns have limited mobility but when used in unison, they create a vehicle for which the higher-value pieces can thrive and assist you in winning. Social media and digital advertising work the same way — you need lots of posts but the goal is to leverage your core pieces (eBooks, blogs, and your website) to generate winning results. 

If I asked you to tell me roughly what you were going to post on Facebook a year from today, what would you say? You just checked the date, didn’t you? Your brain immediately jumps to what’s going on around this time of year, like events, the start of a semester, a break, maybe National Puppy Day (so you can get some cheap likes on Instagram). 

Social media strategy is a complex marketing tactic but all you need to get started is a clear roadmap with flexibility built into it. So often, marketers are building social media strategies for the whole year and then after one curveball, they’re redoing the whole strategy. 

Every school has its foundational social media posts, and that’s a great starting point, but here’s how you can develop a strategy that leaves room for revision and actually converts social media engagement into leads. (Hint: the first step is not setting goals as every other social media post says.)

  1. Find your people 
  2. Don’t steal garbage, grab the steak 
  3. Identify whatcha got v. whatcha need 
  4. Choose facts over feelings 
  5. Play hockey, not soccer 
  6. Follow the Nike-Bloodhound-Barack Obama approach 

Not sure what these terms mean? Check out our post How to Develop a Social Media Marketing Strategy for Enrollment Marketers and you’ll understand. Also, if you’re wondering what NOT to do, we’ve got you covered, too: The 3 Biggest Mistakes in a Digital Advertising Student Recruitment Strategy

The Player: You

Chess is a great game but – unless you’re watching Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – the pieces won’t move themselves. The player's job is to be part strategist, part conductor to coordinate all of these marketing assets and tie them together in a cohesive and effective way. 

This may seem daunting at first but it’s still very much like chess; once you start to gain a little momentum, it just becomes easier and easier. If you’re unsure where to start, get stuck along the way, or just want a sounding board for your digital marketing initiatives, book a meeting with me and I’d be happy to chat and provide feedback based on your goals and current metrics. 

Topics: Enrollment Marketing, Digital Advertising, Content Strategy

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