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Inbound marketing has gradually become an essential priority for higher education marketing, however there still exists much confusion as to what exactly constitutes a successful inbound marketing strategy. It is a recognition that old-fashioned, one-way marketing that pushes advertising on consumers is no longer an effective way of reaching and engaging with target markets. “Digital native” prospective students are particularly media-savvy, tuning out the vast majority of interruptive ads, sales calls and pop-ups. Inbound marketing earns their attention organically for a lower average cost, nurturing relationships by creating content that provides value and a frictionless path to conversion.

inbound marketing description

This isn’t to suggest that there’s no place for empathetic outbound marketing that delights and dazzles, only that students are increasingly ignoring or filtering out intrusive messaging that they haven’t chosen to receive. Inbound marketing is the art of getting noticed and accepted within the context of students’ natural behaviour through a strategic integration of digital marketing techniques. Insights into students’ preferences and needs informs the development of relevant content, which is delivered at the right time according to their progression through the recruitment funnel, and made more visible via search engine optimization and social media marketing.

It is basically an adaptation of the traditional Awareness-Interest-Desire-Action (AIDA) customer acquisition model to suit the realities of the 21st century, integrating all the supporting functions of content marketing. Inbound is particularly relevant to higher education because prospective students are increasingly active in their web-based school research, qualifying themselves as leads. Advances in analytics mean colleges and universities now have the capability to track the student path towards enrollment while measuring the success of each initiative, resulting in increasingly targeted and value-added content creation. Meanwhile social networks encourage ongoing discussions, the delivery of more engaging content types and enabling your students to become brand ambassadors through sharing it forward. The combined effect is to elevate your web presence authentically and deservedly.

inbound marketing process

Step 1 – Mapping Out Your School’s Content Strategy

Defining qualitative goals, quantifiable objectives and key performance indicators (KPIs) is an essential first step to creating successful strategies. Establish a number of student leads, applications or enrollments you wish to generate, knowing where you stand now and what your top competitors are doing to benchmark your progress. As you map out your school’s content strategy, understand where your content will be accessed by prospective students in your digital ecosystem. Do you have a blog section prominently on your website? Your leads will require different messaging depending on their stage of the enrollment funnel, how close they are to enrolling based on online tracking of expressed interest.

Before creating your compelling content, you should begin by properly understanding your prospective students. Identifying and developing realistic student personas that comprise your typical target audience(s) forms the foundation of which content you will produce and how you will promote it. These personas must be continuously refined over time so your content best resonates with the interests and motivations of prospective students, while helping to resolve doubts that may impede enrollment.

Personas can be segmented according to program, age or geographic source before focusing on commonalities that represent each group. Add as much detail as can be reasonably attributed, although the essential characteristics you’ll want to uncover are the persona’s background, motivation or goals resulting from their education, challenges or concerns that might prevent them from enrolling, and interests that might inform content. Be as precise as possible so your content seems like it’s addressing one person’s specific needs. Here is a sample for a healthcare student:

persona development higher education marketing

Start developing these personas with insights from staff and faculty close at hand, then fill them in by leveraging information gleaned from social channels and website forms. Consider posing casual questions or conversation prompts on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn to reveal why students enrolled or what is most challenging about returning to school. Online tools like Survey Monkey can be a great asset for retrieving this information directly from students, running a contest with an appealing prize to encourage involvement. The results can provide valuable evidence to justify marketing direction to upper management while uncovering unexpected insights about general student perceptions.

Step 2 – Creating Persona-oriented Content

Inbound Marketing involves creating high-quality content that aligns with the interests of your target student personas to naturally attract interest in your school and programs. Although some consider inbound marketing synonymous with content marketing, inbound actually takes content essentials like blogging, social media and SEO and integrates tools and strategies like lead segmentation, tracking/monitoring and marketing automation. However, all the best processes of inbound marketing are nothing without good content.

Targeted, personalized content boosts organic traffic to your website, supports recruitment, and helps to promote a cohesive college brand. This content can include blogs, social media messaging, visual content (images, videos, infographics and motion graphics) newsletters, press releases, premium content assets (eBooks, webinars, checklists, etc.) and anything else that tells your stories. Inbound content is on-brand but definitely not sales-y, providing valuable information that strengthens relationships with prospects and students.

Your website is your top marketing resource so ensure that its content is engaging, complemented with images and video to enhance readability, and easily navigated on desktop or mobile to give your audiences every reason to remain and return. Text or video interviews with students, parents, instructors and alumni can be promoted as testimonials, which are particularly effective for lead conversion. Ensure that your valuable website content is easily findable.

Example: Stenberg College’s homepage provides clear pathways to student and institutional blogs, an aspirational video confirming their “I changed me” messaging and a prominent call-to-action for prospects to take the next steps.

Stenberg website marketing

Great inbound content is educational and/or entertaining that answers prospects’ questions before they’re asked. These are the same answers students are searching for on Google that will bring them to your site in the first place and keep them coming back as you gain their respect and trust. Relevant, informative and search-engine-optimized blogging is the hub of your inbound machine, driving organic traffic and leads. Consider instructional posts, spin-offs of timely events, helpful lists and visual-laden infographics. Be sure to include a call-to-action, connected to a “request information” or application form, making it easy for visitors to take the next step.

Example: Automotive Training Centre knows its prospects are primarily teenaged guys interested in fixing cool cars. This infographic teams the writing and graphic design team to provide actionable advice on their website’s blog, aligned with long-tail search terms and also promoted on social media.

atc infographic content marketing

Develop a content calendar to plan for frequent, consistent, fresh output with a mix of topics to appeal to your top target bases. Coordinate this publishing schedule with seasonal and special events, leveraged in promotional emails and social media sharing. Leverage student ambassadors to help create authentic content about the campus experience that can be published on special blogs, student-only microsites or various social media channels.

Certain premium content like ebooks or webinars that involve more time and effort to create, help to nurture leads with in-depth material that might be sufficiently desirable to justify being “gated” behind information-requesting forms. Popular blogs are ripe for transformation into newsletters, slideshares or some of these longer form options.

Step 3 – Optimizing Your Website for SEO

Once upon a time, good SEO strategy meant fishy schemes like loading articles with keywords and replicating them throughout the web to trick search engines into getting higher rankings. Thankfully, Google algorithms have improved significantly to its present state of rewarding the best authentic content. Keyword stuffing and content replication are definitely out, more likely to be penalized these days by search engines. Current best practice places more importance on social signals (sharing and engagement on social media), fluidity of the mobile experience, visual-based content, and high-quality content that naturally integrates appropriate keywords.

Formerly isolated functions like SEO must now be integrated into every stage of effective inbound marketing. While content may be the king of inbound, SEO is its trusted advisor, working behind the scenes to ensure that content reaches its full visibility potential. Search engines are increasingly able to competently understand intent and context, prioritizing localized, personalized sites that correlate to a user’s past web behaviour. Optimizing content for quality and social sharing should be your SEO priority but on-page optimization will improve your chances of ranking highly.

Integrate a combination of long-tail and more generic “head term” keywords into your content, considering the competition for each term. Research how your personas are seeking your programs to develop more conversational, long-tail keyword phrases. Each webpage and blog should be focused on only one keyword phrase that describes that page’s content. These keywords can be used in the title tag for each page so long as they aren’t repeated on multiple pages. Use one unique H1 heading tag per page, ideally the appropriate keyword, and include H2 tags to add a little on-page SEO weight. “Image alt” tags help search engines understand what your pictures signify and can alert them that your pages have media-rich content.

Link a moderate amount of keywords in your blogs to relevant pages on your site if it seems a logical connection. While meta-descriptions don’t help search engine rankings, they do show up in searches, so are therefore critical calls-to-action that shouldn’t be neglected. Craft short and sweet meta-descriptions, integrating a keyword, that persuade searchers why they should read your content.

Step 4 – Social Media Strategy & Development

Social media plays an important role in inbound marketing – providing insights about your target personas, amplifying your school brand, expanding your content’s reach, and promoting SEO. Prospective students are intimately familiar with social media, interacting with peers and institutions via channels like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn throughout the college search process. Social media effectively generates traffic to your website by encouraging engagement around your published content, and socially shared content is increasingly an important ranking factor in Google’s algorithm.

social media marketing

Include social sharing buttons on your website’s blogs, share blogs and more visual content on your social media channels, and initiate discussions with people expressing interest. Consider engaging and sharing content beyond the usual suspects, such as with bookmarking sites, discussion forums, and lesser known media sharing networks. Monitor activity for new content ideas and to see which posts are most popular. As optimizing social media can get complicated, many organizations will have at least one dedicated media manager, closely connected with content and other departments, to schedule posts, create fresh ideas relevant to each social channel, and monitor your brand mentions using social listening programs like Hootsuite.

Social media contests can help you collect authentic user-generated content that can be used across channels, attracting traffic with “social proof” rather than manufactured marketing messages. Students, alumni, faculty and parents can contribute to the interactive storytelling, building your brand and organic web traffic. Add hashtags to social campaigns to facilitate coordination and measurement  while encouraging retweets, echoing your content throughout the web.

Example: University of Wisconsin-Madison is a Twitter phenomenon for their rapid response time that nurtures conversation and popular posts instilling campus pride and nostalgia. Their campus-wide #UWRightNow campaign generated over 3,000 tweets in only 8 hours, gaining worldwide visibility.

university social media marketing

Step 5 – Tracking & Measuring with Google Analytics

Without the insightful data collected with analytics tools, schools would just be throwing content blindly into the wind. Tracking and measuring your progress with Google Analytics or an alternative service is a necessary ongoing process to understand your target market(s) and continuously improve your content. Analytics can be complex but it is the key to measuring and refining the effectiveness of your inbound marketing metrics across all channels to maximize ROI.

Setting goals that you wish to accomplish with your inbound marketing provides a comparison point to evaluate your success. Important metrics include overall traffic to your website, time spent on your site (bounce rate), lead conversion (clicking your call-to-action or completing forms), inbound links and referral traffic from social networks, and click-through rates from email lead nurturing campaigns. Analytics is valuable for evaluating your keyword performance and social media engagement, revealing precisely where your traffic is coming from so you might refocus initiatives on specific markets.

education google analytics

Inbound marketing is an interconnected process, continuously evolving to create authentic connections with your students and prospects. Content that provides real value, is fully search-engine-optimized and socially shared, and meticulously measured and refined to track progress and communicate directly with targeted prospects, will elevate your web presence, engage with your community, and enable school success.

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