The business school market has always been one of the most unique and dynamic areas of the education sector. Serving a highly ambitious, intelligent, and hard-working base, these institutions provide students worldwide with prestigious qualifications that serve as a gateway to lucrative top-level career opportunities.
With its emphasis on relationship building, value, and informativeness over traditional ‘hard-selling’ tactics, digital marketing should be a natural fit for this space. Yet, while most business schools engage in some of form of online recruitment activities, there is an abiding sense across the sector that many could be making more of the potential of digital channels to maximize visibility and impact.
If you feel that your institution could be getting more from its digital marketing initiatives, there is no better time than now to re-examine your efforts.
Why do Business Schools Need Digital Marketing?
Competition among business schools has never been more intense. For a start, today’s professionals and aspiring professionals alike are increasingly mobile. Where once schools dealt with a narrow field of prospects and competitors in their region (with a small cohort of international applicants), they are now faced with a vast global marketplace.
This is reflected in recent application trends, with a 2018 Graduate Management Admissions Council survey showing more regional variation in application rates across different countries. Compounding this, the sheer amount of choice available is increasing all the time, with quality schools offering an increasingly diverse array of different course options to suit the needs of prospects.
It isn’t just other business schools that your institution has to compete against either, it’s other opportunities. In recent years, more and more young professionals have questioned the overall value of qualifications to further their careers, as graduates have found their job prospects more limited than they once were. As MBA graduate Daianna Karaian commented in an article for The Economist, “These days, questioning the value of a business degree is one of the few growth industries.”
While this skepticism about the value of education is by no means unique to business schools, it is becoming more and more of a challenge to convince prospects that pursuing a business degree is the best path to reaching their professional goals. Indeed, the aforementioned Graduate Management Admissions Council survey found that pursuing a new job opportunity was one of the leading alternatives prospects considered.
Shorter professional certifications, MOOCs, and corporate training programs are also gaining traction as alternate routes to success.
All of this means that business schools today face a more discerning audience than ever before. Simply put, students want a business education option that will perfectly fit their needs and will provide a dependable path towards helping them advance their careers, and they are willing and able to go further than ever before to get it.
Reaching such a demanding market is difficult, but digital marketing can provide avenues to making it happen. Through targeted and strategic initiatives across a range of channels, your school can position itself at the forefront of this busy marketplace, and engage prospects at every stage of the enrollment journey to convince them that your programs are the right choice for their needs.
Defining Personas for Your Business School
The first step to recruiting business school students online is ensuring you have developed well-researched, accurate personas. Depending on what your school is offering, you may need to develop more than one to cater to specific segments of your audience and their unique needs.
For example, your school might find the motivations and goals of international students are very different from your domestic student base. They may be concerned about the cost of living in your city, for instance, or want to know more about post-graduation visa regulations in your country.
On the other side of the coin, you may be specifically looking to target local students for a particular program. A part-time MBA with an evening or weekend schedule, for instance, might be best pitched towards professionals working in your city or region. Segmenting your personas will allow you to develop separate but complementary digital marketing initiatives that consider and speak to each group.
Example: An excerpt from a business school persona developed for local applicants.
Age differences, professional experience, and income levels are other examples of disparities within your target audiences that may create a need to segment them into separate personas. If you are offering a number of different programs, you also may find that the potential pool of applicants for each one is widely different.
Another persona which is arguably unique for business schools to cater to is employers. Many organizations will offer funding to employees to pursue high level qualifications like MBAs and business master’s degrees. Even if this isn’t the case, an employer may be offering a prospective student support in other ways, such as by providing them with time off to pursue their studies. Even if you never deal with inquiries directly from these organizations, your student recruitment campaigns still need to speak to their needs, and communicate how your students will use the skills and knowledge they gain from your courses in their day-to-day work, becoming more of an asset to their employers.
While you should create as many different personas as you feel is relevant, it’s not necessary to go overboard in your segmentation. There is no need to have a dozen different personas just for the sake of it if there are only minor differences in each one. Instead, think carefully about how your persona creation will be put into practical use in your marketing efforts. For instance, will segmenting your personas help you target your paid advertising campaigns more accurately? Or better define your content marketing calendar? Or identify strategically important keywords?
These are the things that make persona development such an important building block for your business school digital marketing campaigns. With the detailed picture of your typical prospects that personas provide, you can develop key messaging for your school or specific programs that speak clearly to your target audience, and can then inform every aspect of your digital marketing initiatives.
Positioning Your Business School as a Thought Leader Through Content Marketing
Content development is one of the most important aspects of modern digital marketing. Across all sectors, consumers increasingly favour organizations who eschew traditional selling tactics, and instead focus on providing them with valuable, relevant expertise which helps to address their problems.
This shift in audience needs has caused many organizations to place more emphasis on building trust through well-researched, informative online content like blogs, videos, and infographics.
More than most, business schools are ideally placed to thrive in this environment. As Toby Roe of EFMD Global Network highlighted in a recent article, academic experts tend to be seen as highly trusted sources of information. This credibility, combined with the prestige and name recognition that a respected business school enjoys, could give institutions the opportunity to establish themselves as leading online authorities.
This, unfortunately, is where some business schools tend to fall down. While they publish content regularly, it tends to have more of a ‘news’ focus, with most posts being short articles offering quick updates from the school. As helpful as this kind of content can be for your school community, it doesn’t necessarily have the persuasive power that more in-depth, strategically thought out posts can have in generating engagement and convincing prospects that your school is the right choice. Long-form content also tends to be favoured by search engines, making it easier to rank in targeted searches.
Positioning your school as a thought leader can be done through a mixture of strategically targeted content marketing initiatives. For instance, content that highlights or discusses the latest trends and developments in the business sphere can be a great way to capture the attention of the kind of candidates that many business schools will be seeking to engage.
Example: Hult International Business School makes thought leadership a huge focus of its blog output. Posts which focus on topical subjects or new developments like the one below can help to capture the imagination of prospective students.
You can also draw on the talents of your faculty and alumni. Creating profiles, interviews, and soliciting guest blogs can all be excellent ways to elevate your content to the next level, while also showcasing the kind of expertise that your courses and programs will offer to prospects.
Example: WU Executive Academy often leverages its expert faculty to produce content. In this article, Professor Jonas Puck talks in great detail about the history and successes of its MBA in Energy Management program.
The key, as always, is for your school to remember who its audience is. Prospective business school candidates tend to be highly educated and intelligent, and will expect content that offers real depth and insight.
If you can accomplish that, your web presence will serve as evidence of the level of knowledge that your school can offer prospects access to, and help to convince them that a business education is the right avenue to take towards reaching their goals.
Driving Student Inquiries and Applications on Your Website
Producing quality content will help to drive traffic to your website, but it is equally important that your school is well-positioned to translate that traffic into inquiries and applications.
Simply put, all of the information that prospects might need before making an application should be readily available – and easy to find – on your website. Additionally, any pages you have that might serve as touchpoints for prospective students researching your courses and programs should also push them towards conversion through carefully placed inquiry forms, CTAs, links, and offers.
A good place to start is to look at your homepage. By and large, your homepage will be the primary landing page for a vast majority of your leads, and it needs to position your school and its programs in a way that will really grab your audience’s attention, communicating your school’s key messages and unique selling points in an immediate and arresting manner.
Example: The homepage of HEC Paris is very well-designed, immediately outlining the school’s USP and offering numerous CTAs for visitors to move forward. The nicest touch is perhaps the three options under the ‘Find the best program for you’ section, which offers a path for each of their main target personas: students, professionals, and employers.
Your homepage should also provide easy navigation to other important pages on your site. This could include your program pages, as well as pages related to financing, your application process, student life, facilities, and anything else that is likely to appeal to them. These pages also need to be rich in content and information, and include CTAs that prompt prospects naturally towards taking the next steps.
Example: The Rotman School of Management has a dedicated page on its website offering financing advice for potential MBA applicants. CTAs on the right-hand side of the page prompt prospects to move towards further inquiries and applications once they have the information they need.
In short, rather than simply offering different information scattered across various pages, your entire website should have a logical flow to it, which drives leads down the funnel towards conversion.
Finding Quality Business School Leads on Social Media
Social media can also offer various avenues through which to improve your visibility, amplify your web content and drive traffic to your site, and engage with prospects directly.
Of all the popular social networks, LinkedIn is perhaps the one which holds the most desirable return for business schools. The site hosts an enviable audience of young but experienced professionals across a diverse variety of industries. Even more promisingly, data from the Pew Research Centre indicates that 49% of LinkedIn users earn over USD$75,000 per year, meaning they have the financial means to pursue a high level business school qualification.
Another crucial advantage of promoting your school on LinkedIn is the mindset of users. Those who are frequent users of the site tend to be very highly motivated and ambitious, making them prime candidates for qualifications like MBAs. Furthermore, they tend to log on with a purpose, specifically seeking knowledge and insights to better themselves professionally, rather than to casually browse or connect with family and friends as they might on other social networks. This makes any efforts from your school to engage with them somewhat more likely to resonate.
There are many different tactics your school can use to generate engagement on LinkedIn. For instance, you could post links to blogs or articles on your website which are targeted towards those with a professional mindset, or share interesting studies or facts and figures from elsewhere. It’s also the ideal platform from which to highlight the successes of your alumni, many of whom may be very active on the site themselves.
Example: Rutgers University shared this success story about a business school graduate who went on to a successful career in marketing.
As effective as focusing some of your efforts on LinkedIn can be, that isn’t too say you should underestimate the value of other social media sites. Twitter, for instance, is an extremely active and vibrant forum that many young professionals frequent in order to keep up with the latest news and trends in their sector, and can be a great way for business schools to encourage conversation amongst its school community.
Example: The Rotterdam School of Management regularly shares topical content on Twitter.
Facebook and Instagram, on the other hand, arguably hold even more importance due to the sheer size of their audience. Both platforms can be a good place to deliver more informal, casual content, which can make your school more accessible and relatable to prospects. However, there is also room for more serious content that can drive visits to your website and conversions more effectively. The diversity of both sites’ audiences means there’s room for just about everything.
Supplementing Your School’s Organic Digital Marketing Efforts with Paid Advertising
While organic digital marketing efforts can gain your school some traction, having some budget set aside for paid advertising is essential in today’s online environment. This is especially true on social media, as the organic reach of many brands on networks like Facebook has been severely limited in recent years.
Social advertising also offers some advantages which makes it desirable as well as necessary. The targeting options on different networks allow you to accurately pinpoint audiences that are in line with your student personas, making it easier to ensure that you reach qualified, interested prospects. Although their targeting options vary, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter all allow you to build audiences for your ad campaigns based on key attributes like their age, location, gender, education level, employment information, and interests.
LinkedIn has been particularly fruitful for many business schools around the world, and the company itself highlights numerous success stories in the sector on its website. For instance, Queen’s School of Business used Sponsored Updates and InMail to increase interest in its ‘thought leadership platform’ QSB Insights, as well as its webinars. The campaign achieved an incredible 300% increase in traffic to QSB Insights and a 60% increase in webinar attendance, resulting in an additional 450 leads for their executive MBA program.
Example: One of the ads Queen’s School of Business ran in their LinkedIn campaign.
Facebook Ads is also a great potential conversion channel for business schools, particularly as it offers the potential to advertise on Instagram and Messenger, too. The platform’s range of placement options and formats also makes it an extremely versatile option.
Away from social, paid search on Google Ads can also be extremely effective in driving conversions. Because they offer you the potential to target by keyword, you can find prospects who are already actively searching for schools and programs, making it an interesting alternative to the demographic-based targeting options on social media.
One disadvantage of advertising for business schools is that competition for desirable keywords and placements can be fierce, which may result in higher bids being needed to secure what you want. For example, advertising on LinkedIn can be more expensive than other platforms due to it being used by many B2B marketers and other high end enterprises, while the bids required for many desirable keywords for business schools on Google Ads – such as ‘MBA degree’ for instance – can be quite high. Nonetheless, planning and targeting strategically can help you to mitigate the cost to a certain degree.
Ideally, a combination of both search and social campaigns across a few different networks would be the best approach for most business schools. Having said that, you may find your initiatives limited by your budget, and carefully evaluating your target audience and what channels they are most likely to be active on will help you to distribute your ad spend across the platforms that are most likely to secure a good return.
Following up on Online Student Inquiries
Digital tools are also become increasingly integral to the inquiry follow-up process. At a basic level, creating autoresponder emails to be sent to students at the initial point of inquiry can be helpful in creating a strong first impression.
Your team should try your best to make these as rich in detail as possible, offering helpful information rather than just thanking leads for their inquiry or promising a follow-up response soon. You can make this easier by including fields in your forms that allow you to segment leads by program or another relevant parameter at the point of inquiry. This way, you can create different autoresponder templates for different target groups.
Once a lead is in your system, you can also create automated nurturing workflows to maintain contact and stay top of mind with leads, while slowly moving them towards enrollment with carefully timed messaging and enticing CTAs. Including complementary content offers such as links to blogs and videos can be helpful in providing added value to recipients.
Example: A lead nurturing mail from London Business School. The message is concise and direct, but also includes a lot of added value content, including a video and the option to download a brochure. Further CTAs at the foot of the mail encourage recipients to apply, discover more, or try out the school’s GMAT simulator.
If possible, you should aim to supplement this with manual contact from your admissions team, either by calling them or encouraging them to book meetings (whether online or in-person) with one of your advisors.
A good marketing automation system will allow you to create workflows with a range of enrollment triggers and ‘if/then branches’, which can be set to take different actions with different leads depending on their specific activity or circumstances. Your team may even be able to implement lead scoring to prioritize follow-up with more qualified leads. Using these tools, you can create the perfect follow-up process for your school’s needs.
The Importance of Online Events in Digital Marketing for Business Schools
Information sessions, open houses, and lectures have always been a key part of business school student recruitment, serving as key conversion events where prospects can have their most pertinent questions answered and solidify their interest in your school.
In today’s more digital marketplace, online versions of these events can serve the same purpose, with the added value of enabling you to reach a wider audience all over the world. As a result, more and more business schools are investing time in virtual tours, information sessions, and webinars. These events tend to have a high conversion rate, and should be promoted extensively across all your digital channels.
Paid advertising can be particularly effective for this. Your school can create short-term campaigns thought either paid search or social media to drive registrations. Promoting your event in your social media news feeds in the days leading up to it can also help to increase the number of prospects you attract.
Example: Alliance Manchester posts details of its webinars on LinkedIn to attract registrants.
You should also use email marketing to reach out to the existing leads in your database in the weeks leading up to an event, as it may be just the push they need to more forward with their application. An initial email can be followed with reminders for those who signed up close to the event, as well as follow-up mails for those who have yet to commit.
Example: A typical email marketing workflow for a webinar. You can automate this process with marketing automation tools.
Following up after an online event is equally important. Your admissions team can send automated emails both to those who attended and those who registered but didn’t attend, encouraging them to take make an application, or to arrange one on one contact with advisors. In general, you should aim to do this no more than 24 hours after the event has taken place, so that you can capitalize on their interest while the session is fresh in their minds.
Measuring Your School’s Digital Marketing Success
While being active across a range of different digital channels is important, it’s equally crucial to continuously measure the success of your efforts. Doing so will help you to identify areas you can improve, and work to maximize your potential results over time. Fortunately, one of the greatest strengths of digital marketing for business schools is its measurability.
The key is to ensure your efforts are being tracked at every stage in the enrollment journey. Traffic and lead generation on your website through various channels can all be measured through Google Analytics, while you can evaluate the success of your paid advertising and social media marketing efforts through platform-specific systems like Facebook Insights and Google Ads.
Once an inquiry has been made, you can monitor your team’s productivity, the success of your follow-up efforts, application and attrition rates by configuring your CRM and marketing automation reporting. Many of these systems will also offer additional insights into the conversion rates of your landing pages, inquiry forms, CTAs, and other digital marketing components.
It’s important to note that you should not necessarily expect digital marketing to provide a quick fix for your school. While some strategic efforts – particularly in the realm of paid advertising – will provide you with significant short-term gains in inquiries and applications, the majority of your online initiatives will serve more to lay a long-term foundation for future recruitment. By cultivating an active and visible online presence across the web, you are putting an infrastructure in place to attract a steady stream of regular leads for years to come. If your school is willing to put that effort in, the rewards will be well worth it.