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CUnet recently released its 2012 Higher Education Marketing Benchmarking Report: Not-for-Profit Colleges and Universities. This report follows on the heels of an earlier release, in July of 2012, which examined and reported on similar research into the for-profit sector. These reports present some very interesting statistics and trends, revealing the dynamic and evolving nature of higher ed marketing in the states.

Here’s a brief recap of the reports main findings, along with a few related comments. (The comments in italics under the bullet points are my observations, not the work of the original authors of the report.)

1. Traditional marketing methods are no longer enough. – 84% of schools agree that traditional marketing methods alone are no longer enough to meet enrollment goals.

2. There is room for growth in online enrollment growth. – Only 58% of schools report any form of online program enrollment.

Given all the current hype about online learning this result of the survey may seem like it is understated but it is corroborated by The North America Market for Self-paced eLearning Products and Services: 2011-2016 Forecast and Analysis report from Ambiant Research, which reports that 2011 growth in North America was only 4%. (Canada was 12%). In 2012, the surge in available free online MOOC based-courses from leading universities will also have a significant impact on future growth in the market.

3. Spend on offline marketing is status quo. – Of those schools using print ads and direct mail, well over half are maintaining their previous spending.

The report suggests that offline spend will remain roughly stable with some decreases expected in print, direct mail and tv/radio. Typically we find that these types of offline cuts are often used to fund new online marketing initiatives, (as described in point 4). The very scary part to higher education marketing types about cutting back on their traditional mix, and the reason I suspect it remains roughly stable, is that they often don’t really know which part is working and the risk is very high that if you cut it back you may cut muscle not fat. This is where a good analytics strategy comes into the picture. We recommend clients always implement proper analytics on their offline and online marketing, to ensure that these risks are minimized.

4. Schools are investing heavily in online marketing. – Schools are most likely to invest in social media and email marketing this year.

Source: CUNet 2012 Higher Education Marketing Benchmarking Report

5. Schools are realizing that they can’t do it all alone. – Over 40% of schools indicated they outsource or are planning to outsource digital marketing services including SEO, PPC, lead generation, online display and email.

As one of those higher education marketing services providers, we are, of course, very happy to hear this. Keeping up with the rapidly changing landscape of online marketing is tough so we encourage you to seek out an expert to help you avoid the pitfalls and mistakes we’ve already learned from and get the maximum return from your limited resources. Start small, experiment and along the way make your supplier teach you how it’s done. We’ve learned from our experience that the more you’ve learned about digital marketing the more opportunity there is for us to add value to your efforts.

6. Cost per enrollment is increasing, although many schools still don’t monitor this metric. – Only 30 % of schools report that they actively monitor cost per enrollment.

7. Top priorities are increasing enrollment yield and attracting more, high quality students – Almost 80% of schools agree that increasing enrollment yield is their highest priority for 2012.

Recent research indicates that Facebook is an effective tool with which to engage “admitted” students, leading them towards enrollment, and increasing enrollment yield. It seems to me from the results of this survey that online marketing, in some respects, has come of age in the higher ed, not-for-profit sector. The measurable efficiencies of online marketing are generally understood and sought after by the analytical, cost-conscious marketer.

Perhaps, due to recent tough economic times, Not-for-profit is now more accurately understood to be Not-for-loss and the adoption of digital marketing is simply a means towards that end. As not-for-profit higher ed becomes more business objective driven, many of the priorities of the for-profit higher ed model are emerging in the behavior of not-for-profit institutional managers. (Dare we begin to use the words sales and customers?) For example, as enrollment yield and cost per enrolment metrics become adopted, the not- for-profit higher ed sector grows stronger in its capacity to manage their business operations, right down to the balance sheet that motivates their presidents and trustees, much like their colleagues at for-profit institutions.

In contrast, the changing dynamics in online education highlights the very different nature of these two sectors. The recent explosion of free online courses from major universities sits as a counterpoint to the increasingly business-like sensibilities of their marketers. Recent moves by for- profit school, University of Phoenix, to cut back and consolidate some of their operations, may be a for-profit canary in the coal mine for all of us to be mindful of as the higher ed market undergoes a fundamental shift in both business model and delivery systems. Regardless of the profit motive, online marketing (along with its accompanying analytics), as a result of having broader reach, better targetting and much clearer accountability, continues to grow in utility and relevance to both sides of the higher ed marketplace.

Do the findings in the CUnet reports address how your institution is evolving? How are you adapting your digital marketing efforts to keep pace with these changes in the market?