May 15, 2023

Universities & Colleges: 5 Effective Ways to Differentiate Your Marketing Program in 2023

Written by Clodagh O’Brien

In 2023 there’s huge competition in the higher education sector as institutions face competition to attract and retain students. 

Today’s students want to enroll in courses and programs that are career-focused and offer them the best chance in an ever-changing job market. This shift to becoming more employable is driving students to look for shorter, cheaper, and more hands-on alternatives to traditional education. 

This shift is obvious when you look at the stats. According to a National Student Clearinghouse Research Center report, post-secondary enrollment in the U.S. (undergraduates and graduates) decreased in 2022 by 4.1% - that’s about 685,000 students.

For universities and colleges, this means you need to differentiate yourself to survive and thrive. You have to show your value as a learning institution and be more visible and attractive than competitors (new and old).   

In this blog, we’ll explore 5 proven strategies to differentiate your higher education program in 2023.

  1. Build Strong Industry & Academic Partnerships
  2. Emphasize Practical Learning
  3. Invest in Technology
  4. Embed Micro-credentials into your Program
  5. Invest in Marketing

1) Build Strong Industry & Academic Partnerships

The decline in student enrollment requires universities and colleges to pivot and adapt to improve their value proposition and find new and stable revenue streams. 

Collaborating or creating partnerships is a great way to differentiate your program and provide students with relevant knowledge and skills that the job market demands. 

Across higher education, revenue is squeezed while costs are rising, according to an article by Enrst & Young. The problem is that too many institutions are chasing too few students. The biggest decline in enrollment has been among small colleges (fewer than 1,000 students) which account for some 40% of degree-granting institutions in the United States. 

The graphic below shows the different categories of partnerships based on size and stability.

Ernst & Young four categories for partnerships
Ernst & Young four categories for partnerships

The best way to undertake a collaboration is to:

Identify areas for collaboration - Examine your institution and see what you need from a partnership. Is it new courses that tap into the needs of the job market, an up-to-date and industry-aligned curriculum (like our DMI content which is guided by experts from leading industry brands such as Coca-Cola, Google and Meta on the Global Industry Advisory Council), or a partner with a known brand and name?  

Structure potential opportunities - Think about your vision and find someone that feels the same way. You also need to be practical about how the collaboration will work, who makes the final decisions?

Sustain the benefits of a partnership - Sustaining a long-term partnership can be a challenge, so think about how to leverage it to offer value to all parties including students and work to get the full benefits. 

Case Study: University of Cincinnati & Procter & Gamble

University of Cincinnati & Procter & Gamble lab
University of Cincinnati & Procter & Gamble lab

Fifteen years ago the University of Cincinnati (UC) and consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble (P&G) partnered to launch UC’s 1819 Innovation Hub. 

Over the years the partnership provided work experiences for nearly 500 students and delivered technological advancements that have boosted P&G’s product portfolio.

In 2023 they ramped up the partnership with a new Digital Accelerator Lab to support students, and faculty, and provide them with the opportunity to perform research activities with P&G technical staff. 

“We are passionate about innovation, and the path to game-changing advancements most often is accelerated when we collaborate to bring the best minds and talent together,” said Lee Ellen Drechsler, P&G senior Vice President. “It is a priority of mine to drive strategic collaborations that help us raise the bar on innovation and constructively disrupt our path to better meet the needs of consumers.”

More than 25 students at UC have gone on to full-time positions at P&G after their time at the Digital Accelerator. While others have moved on to companies such as Amazon, General Electric, Microsoft, PayPal, Stress Engineering, and Tesla.

2) Emphasize Practical Learning

Many students want hands-on learning experiences that will prepare them for real-world careers. As a result, colleges and universities need to focus on updating academic programs to meet the demand for more targeted and modular learning that connects to future jobs. 

Examples of practical learning are:

  • Programs that emphasize job readiness or career training
  • Micro-credentials that offer short, skills-focused recognitions that demonstrate competency in a specific area 
  • “Stackable’ programs that provide a pathway to a certificate or a full degree
  • Experiential learning enables students to learn from real-life experiences such as internships, mentoring, or volunteering 

These types of learning give students the practical skills they need to succeed in their chosen field. It’s particularly useful in areas that constantly evolve such as digital marketing. Just think about the explosion of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies such as GPT which have the potential to change the way businesses communicate and engage. 

“84% of students and graduates from our partner universities say DMI’s partnership added practical digital marketing experience to their degree.” DMI research

Learn more about DMI University Partnership

3) Invest in Technology

Online learning, or e-learning, was already a popular way for people to gain knowledge and skills before the pandemic. But when lockdowns forced people to go online, people realized how easy it was to use technology to learn and the appetite keeps growing. 

“The e-learning market is predicted to reach $1 trillion by 2028” Global Market Insights

This shift to online learning requires universities and colleges to invest in technologies. While many have invested in creating hybrid spaces with updated AV equipment and Zoom integration or new student engagement platforms such as CRM, online tutoring and wellness tools, it’s the innovative technologies that can make the difference to a student. 

Support technologies and tools that enable lecture capture, plagiarism detection, and data analytics offer great opportunities for educators while AI-powered technologies can be used to personalize learning experiences. 

With AI you can offer tailored learning paths, curate and recommend content and address knowledge gaps or difficulties. You can also track and measure student engagement and performance to help intervene if students are having difficulties or nudge them to take action like the experiment at the University of Maryland which developed a model to predict the likelihood of success of a student in a course to help guide intervention processes.  

Translation tools, chatbots and software that describes visual content can also be powered by AI and make learning more accessible for neurodivergent learners. 

In addition, practical learning options can be provided at a lower cost making education more affordable for students and reducing the threat of student debt which can hinder education. 

4) Embed Micro-credentials into Your Program

Micro-credentials or alternative credentials are mini-qualifications that demonstrate a student’s knowledge and proficiency in a certain subject. 

According to HolonIQ's ‘Micro-credentials survey 2023’, the application of micro-credentials in institutions remains focused on short courses, with fewer universities using micro-credentials as part of degree programs. 

Short courses offer lower barriers to entry for micro-credentials in institutions and are often a more natural ‘fit’ to their non-accredited offerings. 

However, there’s more scope for these qualifications which are being recognized by universities and colleges as a way to boost the relevancy of their programs but also as a way to make money. In fact, 88 percent of institutions see micro-credentialing as an important strategy for their future. 

Micro-credentials as important strategy for the future
Micro-credentials as important strategy for the future

While the perception of quality has been a barrier to micro-credentials, that’s now changing while trust is also growing among educators. 

The research also shows that most university leaders expect industry credentials will become a credible alternative to degrees in the near future, or believe they already are a credible alternative. This highlights continued awareness among educators of the importance of industry and job-relevant higher education.

Micro-credentials as a credible alternative to degree programs
Micro-credentials as a credible alternative to degree programs
“76 percent of employers are more likely to hire a candidate who has earned a professional certificate” Hanover Research

Case Study: University Canada West

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University Canada West (UCW) recognized the need to update its MBA program by adding a digital element to its marketing courses. The university’s objective was to get students job-ready in a changing Canadian job market.

Following a planning, application, mapping, and validation process, UCW partnered with the Digital Marketing Institute to become a ‘University Accredited Partner’ with access to a library of industry-validated curriculum, DMI membership content (short courses, webinars, podcasts, toolkits, etc.) and most importantly, its students were certified to a Certified Digital Marketing Associate (CDMA) standard. 

As a result of the partnership, UCW saw a 120 percent increase in student recruitment and 700 new students in the first 6 months of the agreement.

5) Invest in Marketing

In such a competitive market, it’s important your institution has a brand that stands out to attract potential students. An effective way to do that is to invest in advertising and marketing, and many universities and colleges are doing just that. 

A Simpson Scarborough survey found that institutions spend between $429 and $623 for each enrolled student on marketing. Some well-known universities, such as NYU, UPenn, Johns Hopkins, and Stanford are spending $1-2 million each month on digital advertising campaigns according to a Washington Post article

That level of spending is out of reach for many institutions, but it just shows how heavily educators are investing in marketing to drive brand awareness and website traffic. To compete, your college or university needs to devise and implement marketing campaigns that get your brand out there. 

So how can you achieve this?

  • Use social media - Chances are a lot of your prospects use social media, so you have a great opportunity to get in front of people through organic or paid posts. Figure out what social channels your students are on and test some creative or messaging to see what resonates. Check out ‘The What, Why & How of Social Media for Higher Education’ for more information. 
  • Leverage email marketing - Create a list of people that have been in touch with your institution and segment them so you can tailor messaging. Create email campaigns that speak to the needs of each audience to drive engagement. 
  • Create valuable blogs - People searching for a course or program also want information. So create blogs, social posts or other content that answer their questions or provide a solution e.g. ‘How to find the best course for you?’ or ‘What do I need to get a job in digital marketing?’
  • Create videos - Video content is hugely popular and is great for helping a brand show off its personality and share its ethos. Show off your campus through a video or film a ‘day in the life at X’ featuring a student.  
  • Look at promotional partnerships - Do some research in your local area. Are there any non-profits you could partner with to set up a volunteering program that students could join or is there a sports club that many of your students attend? 
  • Leverage graduates or influencers - Your best advocates are your graduates or students who have returned to do another course or program. Get testimonials from them to feature on your website and promotional material or encourage them to create user-generated content you can promote. 
  • Create multi-channel campaigns - Creating a blog or posting an announcement on social media will only go so far. Devise campaigns that are multi-channel with a broad reach. For example, if you create a great video, send it to your email list, post it across social media channels, use paid advertising, or embed it in a blog to rank in search engines like Google.  
  • Leverage analytics - When it comes to marketing, analytics can be your best ally. Use any data to get insights on how your content is performing, what channels drive traffic and give the best ROI, and what course or program gets the most attention. Use these insights to create content and use the digital channels that deliver. 

Make your marketing program stand out!

In this competitive marketplace, you need a differentiator that will help you stand out to boost brand awareness and drive enrollments. Partnering with the Digital Marketing Institute will increase the value of your programs by providing students with an industry-recognized credential with relevant professional skills to make them job ready. Learn more to find out how easy it is to add our credentials to your program. 

Clodagh O’Brien
Clodagh O’Brien

Clodagh O'Brien is a content creator and strategist. Over the last 12 years, she has created and managed content for many SMEs and global brands. She's passionate about digital marketing and the impact of technology on culture and society. You can find her on Twitter or LinkedIn.  

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