So we all know that higher ed institutions are more competitive than ever before, and they have to market aggressively to keep those enrollment numbers up. At the bottom line, you want to win more students to your school. But digital media is saturated by competing interests, including more than a few other schools and non-traditional academic venues, all fighting for the student audience’s attention.
How do you stand out and show that your school is special? You might have to throw out the traditional marketing playbook and adjust your strategy to a new level. What you are doing is trying to engage the candidate audience with your school’s story. Forget the empty marketing copy, and focus on the heart-felt, human-level message. Load your pitch with authenticity and sincerity, and show your personal side, so you’re not just another huge, intimidating institution.
Your marketing buzzword of the day is “brand personality.” You shape a brand’s personality with story-telling. Your school has a brand to sell, so let’s personalize it.
#1: Mastering the Art of Story-Telling
We often talk about creating “engaging content” in marketing, but what do we mean by that? It means that the content is interesting, relevant, and draws the audience in. In this aspect, content marketing is a little bit of an art form. It takes some story-telling skills. Even the most exciting and important story could bore someone if it’s told poorly.
Take the narrators for docu-drama TV series, for instance. All those “true crimes” and “unsolved mysteries” stories have narrators with not only a captivating voice but a script that carefully lays out each detail to intrigue the viewer. They pick and choose which details to reveal upfront and which to hold back. They create suspense here and deliver a payoff there, making a true story as interesting as any fiction.
Even if we aren’t all talented bards, we can follow the same templates they used. Believe it or not, most of the fiction that has ever been written, from Pride and Prejudice to Star Wars, follows one of several basic plot formulas. Here’s one list of seven basic plot structures; which ones seem ready to turn into a college story?
- Overcoming the monster
- Rags to riches
- Voyage and return
This is just one theory of templates, remember. Some authors and literary professors will tell you that there are twenty elemental plots. But let’s keep it simple. Here are some college student stories ready-made for these templates:
- Overcoming the monster: Inspired by the COVID pandemic, a student joins medical school vowing to fight viruses on the research front.
- Rags to riches: The daughter of first-generation immigrants gets to be the first in her family to attend college and starts her own design company.
- Quest: A dissatisfied wage earner wants a better career for themselves and seeks a degree.
- Voyage and return: A youth comes from the ghettos of Chicago to attend law school so he can return home and fight to win justice for the poor and underprivileged.
- Rebirth: A parent facing an empty nest wants to get to that career, which she put off to raise a family all those years ago.
So we see at least five basic narrative structures, just like real-life stories, that can frame the experience of a higher education journey. When in doubt, copy the literary greats and frame student stories within classical story-telling templates. We do this all the time in marketing; even a 30-second TV commercial can encompass a short narrative. We use these story structures to connect with the audience. We are engaged in a story by identifying with the characters and situation.
Keep this story-telling framework in mind through the rest of this article. This is the core of your story-telling marketing strategy; the rest is more about producing it.
#2: Using Video To Show and Tell
Video has become the dominant content format on the web, which is why YouTube itself is the Internet’s second-most-used search engine. More video content is uploaded to the Internet in a month than three decades of network television. Especially among the young adult audience, video content connects more than other media formats.
So put this together with the story-telling factor: Lights, camera, action! The most engaging way to tell a story is to tell it on video. Universities are already set up for video marketing opportunities, such as:
- Student and alumni testimonials
- Interviews with campus staff
- Tours and virtual open house events
- Showing the student point of view in a “day in the life”
- Recording lectures and capturing in-class activities or projects
- Videos of guest speakers and presentations
- Documentation of extra-curricular activities
As the rise of platforms like TikTok has shown, you don’t need Hollywood blockbuster production standards to create a relatable video. Students are already swapping gigabytes of video captured with any pocket phone. It’s more important to join this exchange now than worry about fancy editing and production design.
#3: Letting the Students Tell the Story
We all know that social media rose in popularity this century to dominate the world’s attention. What we don’t all often note is that there’s an important lesson there. Social media would not be possible without users who were eager to share themselves online. Therefore, we’re all driven to speak our minds online. We all love an audience!
The youngest generation is no exception. They spend more time engaged in social media than previous generations. To them, live-streaming your life in-between watching others’ live streams is a natural lifestyle. Take advantage of this innate drive to create and share, and work with students to develop user-generated content about your school. You can share everything from spirited student shenanigans to documented curriculum projects on your marketing channels. Here are some more ideas:
- Your school website can feature embedded user-generated content, even up to hosting student video blogs.
- Your school should have a YouTube account cranking out content routinely.
- The school Instagram account can be an accessory for broadening your reach
- The best user-generated content can even be used as testimonials within Facebook Ads.
There are several points to using user-generated content in your marketing. Your audience will see that you trust your students to do the talking. They will see that on your campus, students have their own voice. Peer-produced content carries much more weight with them than P.R.-produced marketing. Most of all, student-produced content makes the story of your campus and the accomplishments of the students come to life.
Learn more about creating user-generated content for higher ed.
#4: Staying Current With New Tech and Apps
Keeping up to date with the latest in big tech news seems a Sisyphean task. But staying current with electronic media is a necessity for any kind of digital marketing. Jumping onto a new platform early gets you noticed more. You’re better off if you beat the competition and get your message pushed to the front.
@universityofgaWhere do you like to hit the books, Bulldogs? ##BeKind ##fyp ##college ##uga ##tiktokuniversity♬ original sound – UGA
Just in the past few years, we’ve seen the rise of:
The list goes on and on, with tens of millions of users per platform. Some of these channels are good for content marketing. Others are better suited to digital ads. A few are ideal for creating things like integrated messaging features on your campus website or using them as a chatbot platform.
You want to go where the students are going, so pay attention to what they run and use daily. Students are often the first to try out a new app, so you’ll have to keep an eye on the changing social media and app landscape. Once you find a good fit, join the conversation and add value. Don’t just spam people with ads or marketing junk. You want to have authentic conversations, which leads us to our next point:
#5: Caring About What Students Care About
Back in step #1, we talked about common plot frameworks for stories. But every story has a character, and every character, if they are an active agent in that story, has a motivation.
What is your students’ motivation to continue their education? Many will simply answer “to advance my career, duh,” but that’s not necessarily the only motivation. If it were just about trying to acquire wealth, they’d all be home investing in Bitcoin. Clearly, we’d all prefer to make money while following our passions. That is our motivation!
What do your students care about? What issues do they find to be the most pressing? What if they want to change the world? What is it about the world that needs changing?
So when we tell our story about the school or the student, make sure we also highlight the other motivations for students to pursue a brighter future. Your alumni success story and student testimonial don’t have to focus on just the bigger paycheck. Remember those other quest objectives in the narrative.
- The students who want to research alternative energy or other environmental progress
- The future social workers and politicians who want a world without poverty
- The socially conscious who want an equal voice for all
- The medical student who wants to nip those future pandemics in the bud
These are the students with the most compelling stories. Your message can be more than just “we helped this student succeed,” but “we helped this student make this a better world for all of us.” That can be your school’s call to action. If you have any programs and courses related to solving problems in society, your school is doing something to help society progress.
Appeal to that troubled young mind out there and ask them to join you in your journey to a brighter future.
Why don’t we see more schools using a more engaging, emotional message in their marketing? It might be that traditional marketing doesn’t always work at this level. You can’t pluck a lot of heartstrings trying to sell most products. By contrast, schools are in the business of selling the future, spreading the enlightenment to fight for all that’s fair and just in the world, and yet they’re often stuck marketing themselves like a pack of cigarettes. Your higher education institution needs to find a digital marketing partner that understands your unique challenges and the natural advantages you can use to promote your business.