In a competitive recruitment landscape, marketing is increasingly essential for strategic planning for higher education. In many respects, brand strategy is synonymous with institutional strategy. And so administrators, VPs, or Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) who craft strategic marketing or enrollment plans must be prepared to make decisions that impact the bottom line.
Even more, the marketing function is in a key position to connect brand strategy and a major motivator for students: getting a good job after graduation. This is a huge opportunity for CMOs to make an impact.
But it’s essential to make these decisions based on real-world data, not wishful thinking. On the organizational level, a misstep could mean that you waste money and effort on strategy or marketing campaigns that miss the target. On the messaging level, neglecting a major motivator for prospective students (careers!) could make you look irrelevant or outdated.
That said, a data-informed, stakeholder-inspired marketing plan is within reach. With the wealth of data available, especially labor market data, you can craft a marketing plan that covers the complete picture.
The "marketing mix" framework for education
One of the classic ways to ensure a comprehensive marketing plan is the “four Ps” of the marketing mix. According to Investopedia, an online finance dictionary, “The four Ps are the key considerations that must be thoughtfully considered and wisely implemented in order to successfully market a product or service. They are product, price, place, and promotion.” These categories provide the basis for a comprehensive marketing plan.
Before we go any further, let’s take a minute to situate this theory within higher education. Teresa M. Flannery, a longtime marketer in higher education, uses the marketing mix framework as the basis for crafting strategic marketing plans. In her book, How to Market a University, she translates the four Ps into the education environment:
Price decisions include rate setting for annual tuition, fees, room and board, and expenses, as well as net price (after tuition discounting or institutional financial aid). Product decisions represent all the choices about the academic programs and services the institution offers. Place decisions represent choices about access to the programs and services, ranging from on-campus course offerings (frequency and times of sections), to the business hours which departments and services offices are open, to the number of starts per year for online programs and the access to courseware that provides the place for online learning to occur. Promotion decisions refer to the message strategy and channels that will be used to reach segments of the target markets. (How to Market a University, p 24-25)
While you may or may not use this model in your own marketing planning, it’s an effective way to ensure a comprehensive marketing plan. Since it takes into account the many different aspects of marketing, we’ll use it as a basis for examining where data fits into each aspect.
Incorporate data into your marketing plan
The good news is that there are many sources and types of data that can help put together a solid marketing strategy. Whether you’re a CMO working on integrating brand and institutional strategy, or a Director of Marketing working to find new markets for CPE programs, data can help you make good decisions. Data-backed research can help you win over faculty, secure funding, and decide where to allocate your team’s time and efforts.
Common sources of marketing data:
Marketing KPIs like clicks, conversions, and leads
Traditional enrollment metrics like matric’s, melt, etc.
Qualitative data like creative testing, focus groups, etc.
Institutional data & research
We want to make the case that there’s an uncommon source of data that can add a new dimension to your strategic marketing or enrollment plan: labor market data.
Labor market data brings a real-time, real-world perspective to your plans and promotions, which bolster credibility to prospective students and internal stakeholders. By including labor market data in your marketing efforts, you connect with a key motivator for most students: getting a good job and having a fulfilling career.
Let’s take a look at sources of data that can help build a strategic marketing plan.
Types of data in a comprehensive marketing plan
PLACE: Pairing quantitative and qualitative data for market intelligence
Higher education has historically been a place-based endeavor. Undergraduates flock to a campus, based in the community, or move across the state (or country) to attend their college or university of choice. This place-based approach is especially apparent in land grant universities, with extension centers or regional campuses — or in community colleges, which are often laser focused a city or service area.
In terms of education’s centuries of history, educational opportunities that are NOT placed-based are the newcomers: online-only education, or schools that have made a deliberate decision to cross from a place-based campus to online offerings (SNHU, for example). Of course, that has led to many examples of “online” or “global” campuses from regional institutions, which are often an online option for the same people in the region, but who can’t make it to campus.
In many respects, education’s place-based dilemma mirrors the remote work revolution. Is online education meant to capture the same regional audience? Or is an online-focused effort a better bet? The type of person who wants to attend your institution might be found in a metro area…or maybe that person is in a different state, in a rural region.
Identifying these prospects, knowing what types of programs will attract them, and running messaging looks different in an online-first environment, versus an on-ground one. That’s where data comes into play.
Many higher education market research consultancies provide you with voice-of-student research, feasibility studies, admissions or enrollment surveys…even mystery shopping services. All of these things are great — if you’ve identified pools of students from which to recruit. You probably have a wealth of information from your SIS about completions, retention rate, etc. But that’s just looking within your institution.
At a certain point, you’re going to have to look outside. And that’s where labor market data comes in. As we’ve just said, simply re-interviewing the same people in the same geographies is not going to help you identify NEW opportunities (unless what you’re after is a deeper knowledge of existing markets!). In-house market research is your most flexible way to keep an eye on your established and potential markets.
Are you looking to keep your regional/local flair, and expand your market deeper? Great!
Are you looking to make strategic decisions on how to identify non-local areas to recruit students for an online program? Another strategy!
We’re not here to tell you which strategy to use — that’s up to you and your stakeholders. But making smart decisions requires using data that goes beyond what you already know.
PRODUCT: Make smart decisions about your program offerings
No matter how stellar your marketing campaign, if the program isn’t valuable to students…they aren’t going to enroll. Now, obviously, the marketing department doesn’t have final say over the programs offered by an education provider. Much of that work will entail working with enrollment management, faculty or teaching staff, and other departments across campus. But marketing professionals are in a unique position to bring additional data to this discussion.
Historically, there are many ways to identify which programs prepare students adequately for the job market. Our work with clients has revealed that many new program proposals contain lots of data on similar programs across the nation, but when it comes to demand in a specific region…the data tends to be more, shall we say, anecdotal. It relies on faculty expertise, trade magazines, individual studies, and the like. Even better research would include conversations with workforce boards and drawing on employer partnerships, but none of them give the bird’s eye view like labor market data.
Using traditional data such as industry or occupation data, or real-time information such as job postings and the skills that are present in them, you have an opportunity to create, rearrange, or market programs that make sense for where your graduates will live and work. In addition to faculty interests, student requests or focus groups, and employer connections, labor data gives another view into double-checking (and making a proposal with data you can stand behind) the actual demand for a program.
In fact, doing this type of check would also be a good practice to get into for regularly-scheduled reviews of existing programs. Knowing the hiring conditions your graduates will face. Tracking whether demand is going up or down. These types of data help you 1) create marketing messages that position your program within the actual job market, rather than the job market of 2004 when the last comprehensive research was done, but also 2) keep your eye on the horizon, regularly, means you’re less likely to be caught flat-footed by the next “sudden change.”
(BTW, we wrote an ebook about this if you’re interested.)
Having a good idea of your priority programs will help you make better decisions for your unit internally, such as which programs might benefit from a dedicated campaign (that would generate actual ROI) and which programs are better left to their own devices.
PRICE: Putting tuition and aid packages in context
Education is a costly proposition, not only in terms of monetary outlay, but also in terms of time, deferred earnings, and opportunity costs. Now we’re not under any delusion that the marketing department will suddenly be dictating tuition costs. There are many factors that go into setting tuition: strategy, fundraising, state or federal funding, scholarships, etc.
But wise decisions about tuition or tuition discounts should include the input and counsel of the CMO, especially when it comes to research around “pricing threshold,” investigating elastic or inelastic demand for courses, and strategy on how to message full list price vs net price (or total cost after financial aid discount).
Besides adjusting the price of college itself, marketers can also help students consider their education investment in context of the increased earnings and career opportunities they are likely to benefit from after graduation.
For instance, if one potential objection to enrolling in your institution is the high cost, how could you incorporate hard data on degree ROI into your objection-handling? By knowing the projected lifetime earnings of graduates from your institution, you’ll have data to fall back on when questions of affordability come up. You can communicate what students can expect to earn with a degree from your institution, and how that will elevate their life, especially when compared to not getting a degree at all.
Let's continue with our final P…
PROMOTION: Data builds credibility in campaigns and program webpages
Internal stakeholders are not the only ones who need hard data. Prospective students are skeptical. Prospects are increasingly interested in the return on investment for their degree. Putting real-world data and career options in front of students at the point of decision (or baking it into your campaigns) gives students confidence.
In addition to basing campaigns on anecdotal stories of alumni achievement and faculty prowess, or your brand story, you also have a way to craft compelling campaigns and marketing collateral based on outcomes of students at scale. For instance, having data at scale allows you to assert that "70% of graduates work in a field related to their major" or "30 graduates work for Wells Fargo.” (Yes, it’s possible to dive deep into the careers — and even projected earnings — of your alumni.)
Historically, it hasn’t been easy to incorporate real-time data around career outlooks. This process would have involved time spent searching online, a few educated guesses, and tedious manual updates. But with the resources available now, you can gather career outcomes data on your graduates, or occupation outlooks for your region, in one place. Even better, you can serve up that data on program webpages in a flash with widgets or APIs.
It’s necessary to tell students what they can expect to learn in your program. Learning outcomes are necessary to display on program webpages and in marketing materials. But you know what else is essential, according to a growing number of surveys? Hard data that connects the degree to real life.
Showing students what they’ll learn in your programs, plus what skills they’ll gain and what jobs they'll qualify for with those skills, helps them see the practical roadmap of how a degree at your institution equips them for the future.
Move forward with labor market data
As you can see, labor market data adds a new dimension to a marketing or enrollment strategy. Whether a traditional marketing mix, or an approach that’s entirely custom to your circumstances, labor market data provides a much-needed perspective to complement institution, academic, and financial data.
In fact, CMOs will often hire consultants or outside research firms to assist with the amount of research that needs to get done. These consultants often provide a mix of qualitative, quantitative surveys, and secondary research using external data sources (such as IPEDS, census data, job postings, etc.). These consulting firms are likely using labor market analytics as part of their research package. The thing is, incorporating labor market analytics isn’t just the purview of a consultant — you can do it in-house, as well.
So where can you find labor market data? How does it overlap with other data that you already have? And how could it be deployed in the education setting? This is an especially important consideration if you don’t have a dedicated business intelligence analyst on your team — but the good news is that when it comes to using labor data, there are plenty of tools and guides to help.
This article is part of a series on “Labor Market Data for Marketing & Enrollment."