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The Building Blocks of Strategic Education Marketing

strategic building blocks of education marketing

When you began your working career, did you hear the phrase, “you have to start at the bottom and work your way up?” For most of us, this was a truism that meant we had to learn the basics, get the lay of the land, and build a foundation we could use as a springboard. Rare were people with the connections or talent to head directly to the top.

“Starting at the bottom” also applies to marketing an institution. While it is exciting to create the social media campaigns, print ads, or website programs to accelerate your progress, those can’t be successfully developed in a vacuum. Those campaigns will not realize their full potential unless they draw on the core strengths and brand of your educational institution. These days, it is reasonably easy to develop professional-looking media and marketing programs – the challenge is to deliver the right message to the right person at the right time in the right medium.

In our case, building from the bottom-up means starting with the hardest work of all: creating or reinforcing the vision, mission, goals, strategy, and brand for your institution. On that foundation, you will add the key components of your marketing execution - research, segmentation, messaging, and campaigns. Then, and only then, are you ready to apply this strategic framework to address your three macro objectives.

Vision, Mission, and Related Factors

Vision is essential

Ahh, vision. That big, bold term that means “the ability to think about or plan the future with imagination or wisdom” (Oxford), or more simply “something you see or dream.” (Merriam-Webster), or any of dozens of similar versions. Virtually all definitions agree on a few characteristics: a vision is focused on the future, it is big picture, and it is inspirational. Starting with a vision is crucial to your marketing success – does your institution state its vision, and do your key people even know and understand your vision?

Another question about vision: how often should you change yours? Because a vision is focused on the long-term picture of the college, university, or school, it won’t change often. In addition, because educational institutions address many “softer” aspects of their service and community, some core elements will also be immutable. However, a strong argument can be made that in this crucial moment, with private education increasingly roiled by demographic, societal, and financial change, many institutions may need to reconsider their vision.

Mission is another substantive term. It is often paired with vision, acting as the short-term complement to the farsighted perspective of the latter. A mission typically defines the purpose of your organization and what you deliver to your families or customers in the present time. In researching missions, you will find a wide variety of options, from full page versions to brief descriptions. Once you have clarified your vision, determining your mission is fairly straightforward, albeit not simple.

Here are two examples of the shorter types of missions:

“Amherst College educates men and women of exceptional potential from all backgrounds so that they may seek, value, and advance knowledge, engage the world around them, and lead principled lives of consequence.”

“Horace Mann School prepares a diverse community of students to lead great and giving lives. We strive to maintain a safe, secure, and caring environment in which mutual respect, mature behavior, and the life of the mind can thrive. We recognize and celebrate individual achievement and contributions to the common good.”

Marketing Strategy, Goals, and Branding

Marketing Strategy

Once the challenging and crucial task requirements of formalizing a complimentary vision and mission are completed, an institution must next connect those pieces to these three crucial factors to complete a strong marketing foundation.

Marketing strategy starts with key elements that affect your mission and primary sources of revenue, such as how marketing reflects and supports your institution’s broader goals, how you segment your distinct target audiences, and your positioning toward each. See more details on why your institution needs a strategic marketing plan.

A significant part of a successful marketing strategy is developing tangible goals, which are relatively easy to grasp. What will you commit to achieving, say, in enrollment or fundraising? A common question in this area is how specific to make your goals. Do you want to “increase awareness of and inquiries to your institution,” or “raise the number of inquiries by 20%”? “Grow your annual fund substantially” or “expand your new donors by 10% and your total annual fund donations by 8%?” This level of detail may be cultural, historic, or driven by new leadership; I prefer that goals contain enough detail to provide tangible measures of success and critical data for future projections.

Branding is a very common term in education marketing. Indeed, assessing branding is among the most common aims of a school, college, or university marketing project. While we may think we know a lot about branding, I was surprised to see the breadth of descriptions of the word: everything from merely “a logo and tagline” to an all-encompassing “collective impact or lasting impression from all that is seen, heard, or experienced by customers who come in contact with a company and/or its products/services” (from Investopedia’s Entrepreneurship section). However you define it, brand is an essential part of any organization’s marketing approach.

The five crucial factors noted above are the pillars of marketing in education, and in business as well. They are the building blocks onto which we layer the “second level” of our foundation. While I believe this second level is very similar in business and education, their paths diverge at the top level of our infographic, when education marketing focuses on admissions, fundraising and alumni relations, and retention, while companies concentrate on growing new customers, retaining old ones, and increasing net revenue per customer.

Research, Segmentation, Campaigns, Messaging

Market research and campigns

Once marketers have gone through those crucial steps to understand their institution’s attributes, value, long-term goals, and brand, the next step is to dig a bit deeper. What do my constituents and community think of me? How would I best define my audience? What marketing channels will be most effective? What messages should I use for which target markets?

Research comes in many flavors. There are basic parent satisfaction surveys, most likely the most common practice in schools; image audits in which an institution learns the perceptions held by both its outside community and its internal constituents and identifies the “gaps” between them; other forms of qualitative research tied to an institution’s brand or reputation; focus groups with in-depth conversations among a small group; and many other types. All of these programs deliver findings that affect your audience definition and messaging. Now, as muscular predictive analytics tools become more common and affordable, there are increasing options to forecast trends in your market based on birth rates, moves, and more among your key demographic and psychographic groups.


Segmentation uses strategic thinking that has been common in direct marketing for decades but is only now catching on in education marketing. This is the simple premise that using known data about an individual and creating groups of similar audiences such as Claritas’ “White Picket Fences” or “The Cosmopolitans” will lead to greater response and action. Marketers now have the ability to slice and dice their potential target markets, test different list sources, and understand what segments are most cost-effective to target. Oh, and tools such as Facebook custom and lookalike audiences have brought micro-targeting to the attention of thousands of education marketers.

Crafting effective messaging is your next step. What do you say to your current students and parents, prospective families, alumni/ae, faculty and staff, and community members? What themes, phrases, headlines, images, hooks, and offers do you provide? What marketing channels do your target audiences respond to?

Campaign development and analytics is where you determine what digital and social media ads, print ads, direct mail pieces, blog posts, organic social activity, events and community engagement, and other marketing programs to pursue. Where will you allocate your marketing budget? How will you track and analyze your campaigns to assess which are driving the most interest – and results? Having done the strategic thinking around your building blocks, you are well prepared for the key elements in campaign development.

Ahh, Finally – Admissions, Retention, and Fundraising and Alumni Affairs

Welcome to Admissions

As we’ve discussed, a common problem in marketing is jumping to the top level of our strategic framework immediately. We’re behind on open house registrations – quick, send another postcard! Down 10% in total dollars raised on June 1st – zip that email out right now. Many education marketers simply follow old habits that are no longer effective, or try the latest tip they heard about (let’s run some Facebook ads!).

Contrast that scattershot approach with starting at the foundation and methodically building up your marketing. Nailing down your vision, goals, and strategy first; layering on your research, target audiences, and messaging; applying this groundwork to your unique programs for admissions, retention, and fundraising. These approaches offer a stark marketing contrast with much at stake for your college, university, or independent school.

Next Steps to Powerful, Relevant Education Marketing

Checklist for strategic marketing
  1. Clarify that you have a vision and mission, and harness them to drive your marketing strategy, goals, and brand. Ensure that these critical building blocks are carefully aligned and reflect your leadership team’s assessment of the changing education landscape.

  2. If needed, commission market research to gain a more complete understanding of the perceptions of your institution, what your brand stands for, how satisfied your current constituents are, and similar questions.

  3. Ensure you have clearly defined your primary market segments: in addition to current families and students, have you identified various sub-groups of prospects for admission based on their interests, income, demographics, geography, or other factors? Do you have distinct audiences among your large and consistent donors, occasional givers, high-potential non-donors, and other possible advancement targets? Do you know what students are at risk for a premature departure based on their grades, attendance, and other factors?

  4. Create a messaging plan that addresses the needs you have found for each of your top segments, especially in prospecting. Are some highly focused on the academics and college admissions? Others searching for a program that espouses versatility and participation? Do some segments revere diversity while others are mad about sports or the arts? Your messaging must connect with your target audiences to turn inquiries into applications and acceptances into matriculation.

  5. Now put your marketing programs into action! Create the digital, print, and social media campaigns for your enrollment programs and fundraising communications. Test several of them, against similar versions of the same marketing piece and against other lead- or awareness-generating media. Track the results carefully against historical norms as well as against your projections. Benchmark your ads and posts against your rivals’ comparables. Adjust your marketing options based on key findings from your analytics.

  6. If you don’t have a strong and consistent follow-up program from admissions inquiry until decision day, get started now! Nurturing, staying in touch, and ideally personalizing your touchpoints to active prospects will ensure the growing awareness of your institution is not squandered by a lack of relevant, regular communications. Learn more about lead nurturing from this article written for website leader Finalsite.

  7. Begin trying to identify families or students truly at risk of leaving; develop a program to communicate with them differently and address potential retention concerns.

Create your crucial marketing campaigns on the building blocks I’ve noted and you will greatly increase your chances to improve your enrollment and fundraising. Get started today

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