Keeping Your Higher Ed Marketing Straight When the World Goes Sideways

Imagine you are on an airplane. You’ve gotten 10-15 minutes into your in-flight entertainment when the screen pauses, the audio cuts out, and the captain’s voice comes on. He tells you where his crew is from, why his airline cares about your comfort, and then mentions the current cruising altitude.

That’s all accurate information, but you probably wanted to know something different, right? You wanted to know when you were going to land, if the flight was going to be bumpy, and when you were going to get my snack. The captain’s message didn’t feel relevant to your needs. 

Consequently, the next time he makes an announcement, you likely won’t pay as much attention. Over time, you’ll pay less and less attention to the messages the captain delivers. 

How does this story relate to your marketing strategy? Here’s how: At its core, good marketing is good messaging, and good messaging is a good experience. 

If you don’t speak a relevant message to your audience in a way they can understand and at a time when they can receive it, then they’re not going to pay attention. How do you craft a message that will resonate, especially when you’re up against the clock? 

Katie Van Hazelen, Sr. Content Strategist at Helix Education, joins Andy Nelson, Vice President of Marketing at Helix Education, to discuss the underlying structure that makes for good “attention-getting” communication and marketing in a rapidly distractible world.

What Is Your Critical Higher Ed Marketing Message?

Before you dive into creating a new Facebook ad campaign or start writing that letter from the president, step back, take a breath, and review the fundamentals of a vibrant communication strategy. Regardless of whether you’re marketing a new program or a COVID update, the basics still apply. 

The first question you should ask yourself is: What is your message? 

What are you trying to say? More importantly, why are you sharing it? What actions do you want that specific message to drive? And most critical of all: What’s in it for your user?

Go back to the plane analogy. What is relevant to you as the passenger is that this plane is safe and that your flight won’t be bumpy. You probably don’t care about — or even really understand — what the captain is saying about altitude. But if he were to tell you that 32,000 feet is the optimum cruising altitude because it’s safe and the ride won’t feel bumpy, then he’s found his message. 

Who Are You Speaking To?

In higher ed, we have three main audience segments — students, parents of students, and stakeholders. Drill down, though, and you’ll start to find many more layers to that. There are current students, first-term students, first-generation students, and students on academic probation. Each of those audience members is unique, and each segment of your audience needs something different from you. 

It’s worth the time to look at your audience segments and try to understand their mindsets. What are the barriers in their way? What are the emotions they’re feeling? Understanding the audience members leads you to realize both what you want them to do and the barriers that will prevent them from doing it. Only then can you create marketing contact that reduces those barriers and leads to a good student experience. 

Where do these people hang out? What channels do you need to reach them? Email? Text? Billboard? Letter from the president? If you need a prospective student to call admissions, for example, don’t write them a letter. Send them a text. 

Can They Hear You Now?

It’s not enough just to give the right message to the right audience on the right channel. You also have to deliver it at the right time. 

When events are evolving quickly, you need to move quickly, too. That’s easier to do if you’ve already created matrices that show your audience segments so you can identify what each segment needs to know in your first message. It doesn’t have to be something big. For example, if you’re going back to campus, people want to know your mask policy. Understanding and being empathetic to your audience’s needs, regardless of what the situation is, will help you achieve your marketing goals.

That’s all good for short-term messaging, but what about the long term? People are very concerned about a lot of things right now, mostly the economy. They’re worried about their jobs. They’re also questioning: Can I really go to a school online? You can change your marketing by discussing just those things: How education will lead to job security.

If you’re a marketer, you know that pre-March 2020, it was tough to get somebody’s attention. Now it’s July 2020, and it’s even harder to garner that attention. Everything needs to be relevant to the exact situation people are in. By addressing the concerns of current and potential students, you can deliver marketing that speaks directly to them and also helps you achieve your goals.


This post is based on a podcast interview with Katie Van Hazelen from Helix Education. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.