Digital Marketing Strategy,

Higher Education Marketing: Finding Prospective Students

Nick Gerdzhikov

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Looking for more prospective students so you can boost your enrollment numbers? Let me bring your attention to the top of your funnel, and show you specific methods and channels to find prospects and engage them to become inquiries.

The number of enrolled students is the most important determinant in all budget considerations in your institution, and is probably the number predicting the very survival of your college or university.

In my previous post, I outlined the structure of the admissions funnel and shared that you can do two things to boost your numbers:

  • Widen the funnel at the top to engage more prospects
  • Be more efficient in your marketing all the way through the admissions funnel

In this post, I’ll explore the channels and methods you can use to widen your funnel at the top. In subsequent posts, I’ll focus more on the lower parts of the admissions funnel, so stay tuned!

How to Gain a Competitive Advantage

With more than 5,000 players  in the US alone, the education industry is characterized by intense competition.

While having (a) recognized faculty and (b) impressive infrastructure helps, the old days of relying solely on these and your reputation are over. In order for you to attract more students you need to be as efficient as possible in communicating your value proposition and benefits to the right audience.

It all boils down to knowing what types of students you want in your institution, where they are in your funnel, and how you can effectively provide the proper content through the proper channel.

Prospective Students vs. Inquiries

The main difference between these two important groups is the level of engagement. A prospect may be anyone whose name and email you got, while inquires are the small part of prospects who have expressed some sort of interest toward your institution.

Additionally, the two groups have different pain points. Prospects are generally more oriented toward succeeding in life, while inquiries are already considering your and other institutions, and need help figuring out which one is the right fit!

Understanding the different level of engagement and the pain points of your prospects and inquiries is crucial. Only then can you target them with the right messages and through the right distribution channels.

Finding and Engaging Prospective Students

Marketing Channels - How to Attract Prospective Students.

Let’s examine the very top of the admissions funnel and consider what you can do to stay ahead of the competition in attracting and engaging prospective students.

1. Search Engine Optimization (SEO)


Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the process of making improvements on and off your website in order to gain more exposure in search engine results. Optimizing your website for search engines is one of the most obvious, yet most overlooked, possible strategies for enrollment professionals. Because organic traffic can make or break your efforts to attract new students, this tactic should be at the top of your list.

Best Practices:

  • If your institution has sufficient resources, be sure to hire full-time SEO professionals to optimize and maintain your site. If not, hire an outside SEO agency with a proven track record. Keep in mind that SEO is not a one-time endeavor. After the initial SEO Audit of your site, you need to invest in monthly maintenance.
  • If you rely heavily on your local market focus your efforts on Local SEO!

2. Pay-per-click (PPC)


Achieving results in SEO and attracting organic traffic might take some time, but there’s another way for you to target prospective students. Search Engine Marketing (i.e., pay-per-click, or PPC for short) offers you the opportunity to quickly rank on the top of search engine result pages and get traffic to your site. Most search engines provide you with the opportunity to place paid ads targeted at the specific keywords your prospective students use. Google Adwords and Bing Ads are most popular in the industry.

Best Practices:

  • As with SEO, if you cannot afford to have a full-time PPC expert on staff,  hire a professional agency.
  • It is very important for you to make sure you have dedicated landing pages for all your PPC efforts! Directing PPC traffic to your institution’s homepage or another somewhat relevant page on your site is very inefficient in terms of cost per conversion! With PPC you pay for the click of each visitor, and you must ensure that your landing page converts these unknown visitors into prospects whose name and email you have.

Here’s an example of a landing page from Sprott Shaw College. Notice that there is no navigation at the top… Landing pages are stand alone by nature, and they must be optimized for conversion. The less clutter or extra information, the better.

College Landing Page - PPC Example

3. Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO)

With CRO, you can optimize your site to maximize your business objectives. CRO is great for turning unknown visitors into known prospects or even inquiries. Simply put, when visitors come to your site through one of your marketing channel you provide an easy way for them to sign up for more information, newsletters, or contact admissions. A visitor to your site is worth so much more if you manage to get their contact information.

Best Practices:

  • CRO is an ongoing process, so you need to constantly experiment with different test variations in order to discover what converts best for your specific audience.
  • If you do not have the resources to hire a full-time CRO expert or outsource your efforts to an agency, you can come up with simple and low-cost solutions.

For example, the American University in Bulgaria uses a chat widget to collect users’ information. When an unknown prospective student visits the site they are usually full of questions.  The “Chat with us” widget is displayed on each page the user visits. By chatting with an admissions officer, many unknown visitors turn into known and engaged prospects!

CRO for Colleges - example for engaging prospective students.

4. Email Marketing


Though current prospective students tend not to use email as their main channel of communication,  it is still a channel which you cannot afford to miss out on. It is essential that you have very engaging email content. Keep it short and remember that  you should be more general with your messaging. By definition, prospects are not engaged yet — so you should be enticing them with the surface-level unique benefits of studying at your institution. Don’t go into details about student life and campus activities just yet.

Best Practices:

  • Have efficient email automaton in place. As soon as a prospect signs up you need to email them consistently for at least one month. Start with an immediate thank you e-mail and follow up with an engaging email at least once a week. If your in-house mailing system doesn’t offer proper email automation, consider using external services like Mailchimp.
  • Use a mailing service that tracks the open rates, engagement, and rating of each receiver. A feature I find very useful when using Mailchimp is the subscribers’ rating. Halfway through the automation process you can see which prospects are most engaged and give them a personal call. This can really boost their engagement.

5. High School Visits


The oldest trick on the book! You can get a lot of prospective students to give you their emails and phone numbers if you manage to visit their school and make a presentation about your institution. This tactic is especially effective when you want to outflank your competition by recruiting in smaller towns where it’s harder for high school students to travel to education fairs. The only difficulty is that it can be hard to convince some high school principles that they should let you present/sell in their classrooms. But once you connect with a few good ones, you’ll start reaping the benefits right away.

Best Practices:

  • Try to develop personal relationships with the high school principles. This can help you gain access to their students at events or even at school visits.
  • Sponsor high school events and partner with your most valuable feeder schools. This may sound difficult, but it is very applicable to some markets.

6. Education Fairs


Fairs are very effective because they usually draw a big crowd of prospective students. Depending on the resources you have, try to be present to as many Higher Education Fairs as possible. The problem with fairs is that all of your competition is there, too.

The good news is that fairs are a great opportunity to check out all the recruitment materials of your competition. You can gather all their brochures and handouts and listen to their sales pitch, all on one place. Observe carefully what they do well, and optimize your strategy to surpass and outshine their best efforts.

Best Practices:

  • Education fairs can be very effective depending on the sales skills of the recruiters you send, so send the best recruiters you’ve got. This is where proper training and the motivation of your team come into play at full speed.
  • From my experience as a recruiter, I can share that tying  the number of recruited students to monetary bonuses is a big motivating factor for the whole admissions team. Unfortunately, this practice is found to be inappropriate by many colleges and universities, in light of false beliefs that higher education is not a business. Enrollment professionals know best that private education is a business… and its survival depends primarily on the motivation and drive of your recruiters and counselors!

7. Social Media


Social media can be much more effective in engaging your prospective students than email. If you effectively manage all your social media channels you can significantly increase your brand awareness. Though there is generally no limit on how many social media channels you use, you must consider your resources when planning. There is no point in having inactive social media accounts, or active accounts on platforms your target audience doesn’t use. 

Selecting which social media channels to focus on can be tough, but the rule of thumb is simply to choose the ones your prospects are using the most. If you’re recruiting in the US, you need to at least have solid and active presence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr.

Best Practices:

  • Create premium content and tailor it specifically for each social media channel. Having a full-time photographer and videographer can really help you attract and engage a big audience.
  • Invest in social media paid ads and promotions. Having amazing content certainly helps, but it can only reach so many people for free. Be sure to have sufficient budget in place for social media in your recruitment plan.
  • Use student generated content. All those student plays, theater productions, blogs, news articles, and clubs are a great opportunity for you to show the spirit of your institution. Be sure to utilize the content your students produce, since it comes to you for free!
  • Create a community, since that’s what social media is all about. If you’re just starting out on a social media channel, reach out to engage your current students, faculty and friends. Your own community can significantly boost your popularity and might even have a viral effect, spreading news of your profile and institution quickly.

A good example of well managed Facebook pages comes from Baylor University. The university is very good at leveraging captivating, high-quality visuals and student-generated content. Additionally, the profile is very active and creative — just look at the timeline on the right!

Baylor University Facebook page, Effective use of social media.

8. Affiliate Marketing


Paying sites to direct relevant traffic toward your institution can be very effective. You need to research your market and find which sites are the biggest “influencers” over your prospective students.

To research relevant affiliates, first put yourself in the shoes of a sixteen-year-old, and try to look for colleges and universities online. Look for information that will help you solve your (student) problems and help you deal with the pain points you know you have. Once you discover the most popular sites where students find this kind of information, you have found your affiliates!

Best Practice:

  • When contracting affiliates, dedicate most of your budget to “pay-per-lead” programs.

9. List Buys


A good way to obtain massive numbers of prospective students’ contact information is to buy lists. The problem with this method is the low quality. Often, purchased lists are full with spam trap emails which can hurt your email reputation and even get your account blocked. However, if you carefully filter the spam emails and maintain “healthy” lists, you can engage a significant amount of prospects and nurture them into becoming inquiries. If done right, list buys are really worth the effort.

Best Practices: 

  • Use data validating services to clean all the lists you buy. Services like DataValidation can save you from getting your account listed as Spam or blocked completely.


There is really no single right way to recruit prospective students. To be successful in enrollment you need to position your institution in a testing mode. Invest time and resources to multiple channel efforts and carefully measure which channel works best in attracting your specific audience. I hope this article has provided you with some ideas of what you can experiment with, as well as validated what you’re already doing right.

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