Three Popular Enrollment Marketing Models Which one is right for your institution?

© This article was reprinted from Recruitment and Retention Newsletter with permission by The National Center for Student Life, A Division of Magna Publications, Inc.
Written by Pete Thornfield


Increasing competition for students. Shrinking budgets. A more complex higher education landscape. It’s no wonder the world of enrollment marketing is always evolving.

Marketers today need world-class creative that resonates and differentiates. They need to know what marketing channels work best and in what combination, and they need to know how their campaigns are performing. Likewise, there’s more pressure than ever to strategically maximize budgets based on campaign performance—that is, to have the visibility and capability to reallocate marketing spend to the channels that show the best performance and decrease where the return is lowest. Successfully vying for enrollments requires all of this and then some.

Institutional marketing has become far more strategic in recent years. Both in-house and outsourced teams are tasked with building brand awareness while simultaneously driving enrollments, and improving the academic quality of incoming students while increasing conversions. Maximizing growth and minimizing spend to accomplish these objectives has never required more strategy.

Most colleges and universities today leverage one or more of the following enrollment marketing models to attract and convert student inquiries: best-ofbreed, in-house, or integrated agency of record. While each has its pros and cons when it comes to marketing channel and sector expertise, data centralization, and financial risk, determining the right model for your institution can be difficult. Here we will explore what you need to know about each approach in order to choose the right model for your institution.

Best-of-breed model

In this model, institutions use different vendors to create campaigns for different promotional channels. For example, they may use one vendor for print work, another for search engine optimization (SEO), and yet another for dialogue marketing. This approach allows institutions to take advantage of specialized competencies, as each best-of-breed vendor likely knows its specific channel intimately, has experience and successes with it, and can effectively maintain ownership of the strategy.

This approach also gives institutions the benefit of an outside perspective, often helping them understand how each channel has driven results outside of their industry, as well as the potential of it working within higher education.

Yet this multivendor approach can come at a price. Often there are time and cost inefficiencies. The  vendor may not be well-versed in higher education, requiring a significant learning curve to get up to speed. Additionally, the disparate nature of working with different partners means your brand story isn’t always consistent. Different writers and creative teams, while proficient in their crafts, can vary your look, sound and feel. In this case, you are left taking a chance that your story gets lost, muddled, or unrecognized along the way.

The lack of data visibility is probably the riskiest part of a best-of-breed model. While each vendor can provide you with channel-specific results so you can see what’s working, data often gets stuck in silos and you are not able to see all of your results in an integrated picture to know how your campaigns are performing in relationship to each other. This causes you to lose incredibly powerful data insights that steer future messages, placements, and spending.

In-house model

Internal enrollment marketing models allow institutions to maintain significant control, hiring and growing resident experts across all of their channels, including print, TV, radio, search, social, display, remarketing, Web development, marketing automation, and attribution modeling. This centralized model certainly has its benefits.

For starters, your internal team is typically closer to your brand than anyone else. This uniquely positions them to create effective, personalized, and consistent messaging that rings true to your institution’s exact experience. In addition, with everyone working under one roof, your team can often produce faster turnaround times for creative execution, not to mention streamlined operations management.

From a data perspective, an in-house model likely provides easy access to results and analytics. This enables sophisticated attribution modeling so you know which channels are best impacting your inquiries. This also eases channel reallocation since there is likely internal, centralized management over all channels and therefore little tug-of-war when it comes to satisfying a multitude of channel vendors.

Where an in-house model weighs heavy is in the cost arena. Dedicated personnel don’t come cheaply, and staffing an entire team of specialists is often cost-prohibitive. Being able to financially attract the talent required to produce world-class creative is burdensome and can take away from marketing spend that could otherwise go toward campaign implementation.

Integrated agency of record

Choosing a single enrollment growth partner to manage your entire marketing strategy means you have an integrated team working on your behalf for everything from creative and message consistency to channel selection and mix. This partner often has the bandwidth to be able to hire world-class teams across all of your key competencies as well.

An integrated agency of record is often financially incentivized in direct alignment with your overall growth as well. Performance-based compensation plans mean your partner has a stake in how well your campaigns do and how your channels work together. Your integrated agency of record is more likely to be media-neutral, focused on optimizing your marketing mix with the best combination of channels, not just maximizing a specific channel—in other words, their own slice of your marketing pie.

Multilayer visibility is also key to this approach. Because all of your data is in one place, this “closed loop” approach to attribution provides powerful enrollment insights. You can more easily understand how your campaigns are performing with and in comparison to each other—what is working, what isn’t, and by how much. This information can tell you how to ideally and continually adjust your marketing spend allocation to support whatever channels and messages are working best.

When interviewing an integrated agency of record, institutions are advised to confirm the agency’s industry expertise. While an agency may be well-versed and experienced in a variety of channels, experience specific to higher education may not always accompany its résumé. Institutions will also want to verify the agency’s bandwidth to support campaigns, especially during peak times, as well as typical turnaround times, which, depending on workload, could be lengthier than desired. Institutions will also want to assess an agency’s data ownership and accessibility policies. While information is centralized, it is often up to the agency to determine the level of transparency, as well as how and to what extent they share results.

Key questions to ask

When determining which model makes the most sense for your institution, consider weighing the efficiencies, costs, flexibility, cohesiveness, and results that each approach can deliver. Ask the following questions:

  • Will you have access to world-class creative resources across all channels?
  • Will you have transparent access to data across all channels?
  • How easy will it be to adjust your marketing mix as you go?
  • Does the financial model provide you with an acceptable level of risk/reward?
  • Will your brand stay consistent and integrated across all your marketing channels?

Each institution is unique, and it therefore follows that each institution’s enrollment marketing strategy is unique. Finding the model that is right for your institution will enable you to deliver the kinds of marketing programs that drive inquiries and return on investment.

As the vice president of marketing services at Helix Education, Pete Thornfield helps integrated agency-of-record clients embrace bold, game-changing marketing strategies that result in increased enrollment and stronger brand equity. He earned his MBA from the University of Texas at Austin.

© This article was reprinted from Recruitment and Retention Newsletter with permission by The National Center for Student Life, A Division of Magna Publications, Inc.
Posted on December 4, 2015

Kara Snyder

As the Director of Corporate Marketing, Kara brings nearly a decade of education marketing insights and experience to Helix Education. Before joining Helix, she worked in enrollment and affiliate marketing, undergraduate and graduate admissions, and student affairs. Kara earned her bachelor’s degree from Temple University.