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8 Digital Marketing Priorities for Higher Education in 2018

We spoke to marketing professionals in higher education to pin down the industry trends to watch in 2018.

A new year brings new enthusiasm to accomplish some of the biggest challenges in the field of higher education. From artificial intelligence to big data, the industry is being hit with buzzword after buzzword, as we weed through the trends to unearth solutions that will bring the industry to the next level.

With the help of insights from higher ed marketing executives and CMOs, we pulled together a list of digital marketing priorities for the new year.

1. The Application of Machine Learning

Machine learning, an executable element of artificial intelligence (AI), is fueling our marketing technology stack in ways that will make marketers more informed, efficient, and aware. After observing from afar in 2017, this next year will bring an investment by higher ed marketers in this technology, to serve users more precisely and productively, with access to more data to drive our decisions. Salesforce’s Annual State of Marketing 2017 reports that over half of marketers are already using AI to deploy strategies that dive deep into personalized experiences, from marketing automation. to website personalization, to custom content and even tool consolidation.

Andrew Gossen, Executive Director of Digital at Cornell University Alumni Affairs & Development, shares:

I'm keeping a close eye on Artificial Intelligence, especially with regard to things like machine learning and marketing automation. We're on the cusp of a transition that will let us do customization and personalization at scale and at a speed that simply hasn't been possible. Our ability to segment our audience and then refine and optimize our segments based on behavior will take a major leap forward, as well. This is an incredible exciting thing -- we'll be able to serve our institutions more effectively by serving our constituents better. 

And he adds a very important caveat...

But as is always the case with emerging technologies, it's going to take some time and structured experimentation to separate the substance from the hype, identify the most impactful use cases, and make sure we align our investment in tools and staff with our fundamental business goals.

Let’s not jump at the trends, but rather find meaningful application across our marketing stack and consumer decision journeys, to ensure that the technology supports our goals.

2. Using Digital to Integrate Experiences

64% of marketing leaders say their company has become more focused on providing a consistent experience across every channel as a result of changing customer expectations. For admissions marketing, in-person experiences (campus visits, events, faculty and alumni connections) are without a doubt a crucial aspect of a prospect’s engagement with your institution. But today, social media provides a similar level of human interaction. So how can marketers use data from digital channels to improve one-to-one connections?

Tim Jones, Chief Communications and Integrated Marketing Officer at Beloit College, shares:

A major priority for Beloit College in 2018 is to explore ways we can design experiences that bridge the digital and analog. Recognizing that everything speaks, we can better shape perceptions through interactions that extend seamlessly from digital origins to in-person actions. So we’re leveraging dedicated social listening tools, multi-dimensional digital metrics, and market intelligence to better understand the entirety of our audiences’ interests, desires, ideas, values, goals, and behaviors—not just what we get from responses to our outreach—and using that understanding to build opportunities for lasting digital, social, and in-person connection.

3. The Evolution of Marketing Automation to Personalization

Marketing automation platforms and processes are a critical component of your marketing stack. They allow marketers to regularly engage prospective students or alumni through their respective funnels. 2018 will bring an evolution of the strategy to incorporate behavioral and psychographic attributes, which will be used to automate related content within both physical and digital channels to further entice and engage. Salesforce’s Annual Report suggests there is a growing need for personalized experiences, reporting that 52% of consumers will switch brands if their communications are not personalized. With 88% of marketers using marketing automation in 2018, we’ll see increased effort to diversify segments based on behavior.

Barbara Scott, Associate Dean and Chief Marketing Officer at the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, shares:

One of our goals is to take marketing automation to the next level. We’re in the process of building out new nurturing streams to affect conversion and yield and will be developing more dynamic content.

4. Multi-Channel Attribution

Integrated marketers have always understood the need for a consistent omni-channel brand experience for consumers, but how has each touch point impacted conversion? “Last touch” data is no longer most relevant, but rather evaluating the holistic, and unique, journeys of users. eMarketer reported that two-thirds of marketers prioritized “cross-channel measurement and attribution” with many industries prioritizing the effort to “optimize media channels in this increasingly fragmented world.”  And now with the entrance of Google Attribution to the market — providing free access to an attribution solution for those already engrossed with Google products, particularly higher ed — in 2018 marketers will bring a desire for multi-channel analysis and attribution, implementing tools and processes to provide a deeper understanding of where to invest energy and resources.

5. Mobile Micro-Moments

With 35% of .edu visitors coming from a mobile device and spending less than two minutes on average (according to Google Analytics benchmarking data), marketers are identifying the specific needs of these mobile visitors and how we might influence engagement and conversion. Driven primarily by sources like organic search and social media — whether through SEO, personalization, or content — we will see mobile highly prioritized in strategy development.

Gene Begin, Vice President of Marketing & Communications at Wheaton College, shares:

In 2018, we’re going to increase our focus on micro-moments. We will improve our SEM strategy to prioritize providing solutions to immediate mobile searches for common brand queries or informational transactions. Whether it’s in life or online searches, if you are there for someone in an immediate time of need, they will typically appreciate that by being more available for you in your time of need… and in our case, that likely equates to brand advocacy.

6. Accessibility for All

Accessibility is at the core of development, user experience, and content creation, but the word “accessibility” will no longer just be used in context of legal regulation or a task to check off the development to-do list. Rather, in 2018, we’ll see accessibility become a top priority for all digital marketing initiatives.

Tonya Oaks Smith, Executive Director of the Office of University Communications at Louisiana Tech University shares:

I have always considered one of the most important focus areas for digital to be accessibility. Accessibility traditionally means we ensure that we’re complying with WCAG 2.0 guidelines, but it’s more than that. We enable participation in an information society through more than adaptive technology and tools. We also empower users by implementing accessible language in our digital channels. This challenge is ever-present in an academic environment, and so creating a more accessible digital experience for all our stakeholders, regardless of their ability, is a priority for our team in the Office of University Communications (especially as we work our way through a web redesign).

7. Improving Conversion

According to Hubspot’s State of Inbound 2017, 70% of marketers indicate that their top marketing priority for the next year is converting leads into customers — i.e. improving conversion. You’ve built a beautiful website that supports robust landing pages for each of your paid and organic marketing tactics, but how can you adjust the creative of the channel and functionality of the landing page ever so slightly to improve conversion by percentage points? Those percentage points may move the needle for your bottom line — perhaps significantly. In 2018, we’ll see more marketers testing solutions and obtaining and analyzing more user behavior data.

8. Applying Marketing Insights to Drive Business Decisions

With access to a robust martech stack providing myriad metrics, marketers now have more insight than ever into the intent of our audiences, especially qualified candidates. Next year we will see higher ed marketers widely share and socialize this insight internally to advance their institutions, from value proposition to product development.

Valerie Fox, Chief Marketing Officer at Bentley University, shares:

One of our top priorities is focusing on delivering business and customer intelligence in the form of insights from marketing campaigns, focus groups, labor market analytics, etc. In 2018, I expect marketing will increasingly be responsible for driving business value for the institution.