The Crowded Higher Ed Marketplace

Zero to bachelor’s in 2.5. Bring a spark, light a fire. From here, go anywhere.Higher Education Marketing, Higher Education, Marketing, Hampton Roads

Those college taglines are comfortingly familiar to Hampton Roads residents. On any given day you’ll hear a radio ad with one, whiz by a billboard with another.

Which one are you most familiar with? If you answered #1, stay tuned.

With 5 traditional universities (including 2 historically black schools, Norfolk State and Hampton University), 2 colleges (including the second-oldest in the nation, William & Mary), the world-renowned Eastern Virginia Medical School, and a robust community college system, Hampton Roads is spoiled for choice when it comes to higher education.

But the competitive pressure continues to escalate from for-profit schools, most of which are based outside the region altogether. Perhaps the best-known locally is ECPI, which is HQ’d here in Virginia Beach—and who belongs to that ubiquitous tagline #1. (Recently replaced with “The best decision you ever made.”)

And that’s pretty telling. You know ECPI’s hook—but do you know ODU’s? Virginia Wesleyan’s? (It’s #2 above) NSU’s?

If you’re struggling, it’s not your fault. Chalk it up to market saturation.

When you add up ALL higher ed advertisers, including those outside the region, a staggering $25.4 million is spent on higher education advertising in Hampton Roads each year, with an additional $80.6 million spent on marketing and promotion. That’s to reach an audience of 718,820 TV households and 1.5 million adults in Hampton Roads. (Nielsen)

In 2014, regional schools spent close to $3 million on higher ed TV advertising in Hampton Roads (Kantar). More than half of that $3 million was ECPI. In other words, excluding ECPI, local schools purchased less than 15% of all higher ed TV advertising in Hampton Roads last year.

You see, it’s not just about competing for enrollment anymore. It’s competition for airtime, for screen time, for ears and eyeballs.

And in Hampton Roads, that’s some pretty fierce competition. In fact, if you add up the total number of colleges, universities, trade school and tech school locations within Hampton Roads the options total over 250!

So, higher ed marketers in Hampton Roads face big hurdles to break through the noise and capture the attention of prospective students.

Aside from having the deepest advertising pockets—how do you stand out in Hampton Roads’ crowded higher ed marketplace?

Higher education is a service-driven industry—just like health care, real estate or banking. Any lofty ideas about the Ivory Tower or historic campuses need to take a backseat to deciding what your school excels at, and how to sell it.

Maybe start with recognizing that the average local student looks very different from even 15 years ago.

Hampton Roads is home to one of the world’s largest populations of military personnel, many of whom earn GI Bill benefits. Those are adult students whose needs are very different from those of 18-22 year olds. Students, Hampton Roads, Higher Education, Marketing

Many of them are pursuing education while serving full-time, or they are retraining for a new career and want to complete their degrees as quickly as possible. They’re looking for shorter semesters. (Hence the appeal of “2.5,” brought to you by ECPI’s 6-week sessions).

Incentivize military and adult students. Spotlight any benefits unique to military. Explain how your school can help with any red tape. Bear redeployment in mind: is the coursework portable? What are you willing to do to retain students or help them transfer? And what about those shorter sessions—can your school compete?

Student veterans seek out degrees in business, criminal justice and intelligence studies. Promote these programs if your school offers them. If they don’t, start a conversation.

Norfolk State is leading a $25 million effort to educate a new cybersecurity workforce. That’s a massive opportunity to connect with military and veteran students and help them on the path to a future career with local defense contractors.

Beyond the military community, consider the growing adult student population. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 2000 and 2011, enrollment of students aged 25+ rose 41%. From 2011 to 2021, NCES projects a further 14% increase.

Hampton Roads has over a half-million adults with “some college” education, and over 194,000 say they plan on going back to school in the next 12 months.

These students enroll for a variety of reasons—to join growing industries such as health care and technology, retrain for a new career after job loss or retirement, or to enhance their current career. Those goals don’t typically translate to a 4-year undergraduate degree. More students are seeking 2-year degrees and certifications, while many professional students want graduate certificates or master’s programs.

Find out what adult students want—and let them know you’ve got it. Don’t forget most of these students are working while in school, too. Regent University’s grad program just switched to two 8-week terms for spring 2015. That’s a good sign it’s listening to the needs of its MBA-seeking students, many of whom likely work full-time.

The smart higher ed marketer is also engaged with Hampton Roads’ top employers and tying those opportunities into their messaging.

Help prospective students envision themselves in a future career. Share real-life success stories (Regent University and ECPI have done this for years), or show that your school positions graduates to land the “hottest jobs” in “growing industries.”

According to Sonya Schweitzer, University Director of Marketing at ECPI University, “We’ve been using real graduates or students for our TV ads for quite a long time—testimonials.” She added, “Every effort is made to show graduates who represent different demographics, as well as making sure their stories are believable and represent the average student.”

Make the most of integrated multimedia marketing. Seventy percent of prospective students go to the college website first. But remember, the path to enrollment is long and winding and needs to include traditional media as well as integrated digital methods (online and social media marketing).

Schweitzer explained ECPI’s perspective: “Even though most people will have seen an ad or a billboard in this market, they will convert through our website, or search [marketing], at a much higher rate. We use social media to have a conversation with our prospects, as well as our current students and grads. It is a very strong selling tool for prospects who are researching who we are. They can hear it from people other than ourselves—unfiltered. That is powerful.”

Meet these prospects where they are, through targeted marketing such as programmatic buying, and through artful social media marketing. Aim for a conversation, a relationship—not just a one-size-fits-some banner ad campaign.

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So, ready to graduate with honors from the Hampton Roads school of higher ed marketing? Look over your campaigns and make sure you’re not overlooking any of these opportunities. If you are, take some time to regroup, reimagine and revitalize. With any luck you can still enhance your efforts for fall 2015 recruitment.

And bear in mind that statewide, Virginia public college enrollment declined in 2014—for the first time in 20 years. Things just got a little more competitive.

If you have questions about anything in this article, feel free to post or contact me at jdelatte@seventhpoint.com

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