With competition for top-notch students, faculty, and donor dollars growing ever-fiercer, colleges and universities are increasingly roping in digital marketing experts to help them stand out, says Louis Miller, managing director of strategy at eCity Interactive.
eCity — a Philly-based digital agency — began focusing on this space several years ago at the behest of Miller and a colleague. The company had just finished helping the University of Pennsylvania shift its annual donor appreciation publication online, and the two saw an opportunity to do similar work on a broader scale.
“Schools used to operate a little bit more on a faith in their reputation, but students have a lot more options now, so these universities really have to market themselves as a product,” Miller said.
In addition to Penn, the company has since worked with the likes of Rutgers University and The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College on websites and strategies that pack a digital punch and appeal to students, donors and alumni alike.
The key to its success, Miller says, is inbound marketing — a form of marketing where businesses and organizations attract potential customers via customized content, newsletters, blogs and other material designed to meet their interests.
Crain’s talked with Miller to learn more about the role marketing plays in higher education today, and how inbound marketing, in particular, has been a game-changer for both eCity and its collegiate clients.
Q: You say higher education has changed a lot in the past two decades. How?
In the past, schools used to operate more on the fact that, as a reputable university, students would come, you would educate them, and everyone would be more or less happy. Today, universities are trying to grow their services and create this college experience for students, but they’ve had to raise their tuition to pay for it. At the same time, state dollars are shrinking, forcing colleges to lean more on student tuition. So it’s much more competitive now.
Q: What do students typically expect when they start applying for college, and how are colleges missing the mark?
The generation of students looking at college now have grown up as digital natives and are very used to customized experiences, so it’s natural for them to expect that in their application and school search process. But when they go to school websites, there are a lot of clunky experiences and a lot of long forms. Some schools still have paper-based systems. So there’s a disconnect between the experience most students are accustomed to and what a lot of schools are providing, which certainly doesn’t position them as forward-thinking or cutting edge
Q: Can you talk a little bit more about inbound marketing, and how eCity uses it to help colleges and universities stand out?
With inbound marketing, you attract people to your website with very SEO-rich content, and then convert them with premium content. Based on the types of information that they click on or download, you send emails that kind of nurture them with related information.
One of the most powerful things we can do for colleges is set up automated workflows. Say, for example, a student comes to your website to check out your nursing program. That may be one of dozens of programs your school offers, but you can automate emails that are highly relevant based on what they’ve clicked on. If they click on nursing, send them more information on professors, careers, and profiles on alumni who have graduated from that program. You can do that all from behind the scenes just based on what that user has clicked on. There’s no need for them to fill out an inquiry form. Phase two is, once you have that information about that person, you can have your homepage be very targeted and personalized the next time they visit.
Q: That sounds pretty involved!
It requires a technology platform that can support this kind of automation. Many don’t have it, so they turn to us. We use HubSpot.
Q: Does eCity practice what it preaches?
We’ve actually been focusing a lot more on inbound marketing, and have grown by using the same strategies that we recommend to our clients: With a lot of content marketing, by writing insightful blog posts, creating newsletters, and going to industry events and conferences. Before we were doing a lot of website-building, email marketing campaigns, and paid media campaigns, all of which we certainly still do. But now, they’re more pieces to the bigger puzzle
Q: How has that worked out for you guys?
Before, we were getting maybe one or two leads per month, where people were just trying to get in touch with us about prospective projects; since we’ve started focusing more on inbound marketing, traffic to our website has increased by about 10 or 15 times what we were getting before. And now we are probably getting about 70 to 80 people contacting us in a month, just by publishing content that’s insightful, and that speaks to the pain points of people we want to work with.
People are organically searching in Google for answers to their problems, and with a smart SEO strategy, we are ranked pretty highly for some key terms. So people are finding our website and blog articles, where we have these premium pieces of content. That might include a guide for inbound marketing for higher education, or how to use user personas in your next website design projects, and people will give their name and email address to download them. They may not have an actual project, but we send them relevant and insightful information so that when they do have a need, we’re still front and center in their minds.
Q: Say a business wants to attract more customers, but doesn’t have the budget to hire an outside firm for help. What are some invaluable marketing tips you’d have for them?
Be where your customers are, so if they’re on Instagram, be active on Instagram. For some, LinkedIn is the only one that makes sense. Be active in the places where your users are spending time.
You’ll also want to create great content. Organizations that blog regularly, for example, get double the amount of traffic than organizations that don’t blog regularly. Blog about your users’ pain points — that’s what they’re going to be searching for, so blog about whatever those search terms are going to be. You want to attract them to your website and convert them by writing about how your services address their problems.