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Lead Generation and Lead Nurturing 101 for Higher Ed Marketers
William Bullard

Many Higher Education leaders describe their institution's admission, retention, and other growth-related programs as "strategic enrollment management." While that term covers many significant areas, including curriculum and facilities, the strategies shared in this post focus on how to increase your inquiries, applications, and yield rate using lead nurturing strategies — a vital piece of enrollment marketing.

Enrollment marketing can be simplistically segmented into two phases: lead generation and lead nurturing. Let's begin with lead generation.

Phase I: Lead Generation

The goal of lead generation is to increase submitted applications through integrated marketing, digital advertising, and social media campaigns. This topic has received significant attention for the reasons below. Please note that new marketing tools are necessary but not sufficient for successful lead creation. You must still develop marketing goals, define your target audience, select the optimal channels, create targeted messages, and execute iteratively.

Lead Generation for Higher Ed

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Why are lead generation strategies on the rise in Higher Ed?

In general, the same marketing strategies that used to work — like billboards and print ads — are expensive, don't offer ROI, and are declining in effectiveness among today's digital-dependent consumers.

Tuition is far and away the dominant source of revenue for a college or university's annual operations, so creating more leads is important for virtually all educational institutions that need new students to grow and survive.

Technological changes make it imperative to keep up. The Internet is barely 20 years old and continues to evolve rapidly. The science of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) changes constantly, and digital marketing has made huge advances in targeting, personalization, and flexibility. New modeling and analytics tools offer astute marketers the opportunity to define and target high-potential prospects and analyze the success of multi-channel campaigns.

Content and inbound marketing have gained tremendous credibility and are increasingly seen as peers with more traditional forms of "push" marketing.

Social media is another rocket ship, with Facebook's 1.9 billion active users, Instagram capturing Generation Z, and SnapChat roaring to a stunning valuation in its recent public offering. Social is become gradually integrated with SEO and your "buzz" significantly affects your applications.

Phase II: Lead Nurturing

During this phase, colleges and universities work to create personalized communications to connect with potential and current applicants. This strategy has three primary tactics, with the ultimate objective to convert more browsers into "interested" prospects, more "interested" prospects into applicants, and more admitted students into matriculants — all without crushing your enrollment team.

Lead nurturing strategies

The three primary lead nurturing goals:

1. Develop a closer relationship between prospective students and your college or university by communicating about topics of relevance to that individual.

2. Qualify the prospects by tracking their interest in your institution and communications.

3. Improve the efficiency of your admissions office.

In sum, this involves sending emails with personalized information to each prospect from the first interaction through the decision to attend your institution. This approach augments the personal attention admissions officers give prospective students and families by creating a crisp electronic dialogue based on their interests, with the relevance of that content paramount.

To do this effectively, you'll want to create a profile or "persona" for each candidate, to permit a personal dialogue and qualify him or her to determine the propensity for taking the next step in the process through a "lead score." Most interactions can be tracked, so they not only strengthen your institution's connection with these potential students, but also help you gauge their interest in you. This in turn lets busy enrollment staff determine where to focus their attention during the critical home stretch.

The most common method of integrating email and website activity with an individual's profile data is via a marketing automation system (MA) that integrates email with other systems that store data and track the activity of each individual. While most innovative colleges and universities are considering nurturing their prospective applicants, many institutions do not yet have the financial or technical resources to build a MA platform. A successful deployment also requires intensive strategic thinking and collaboration between admission, communications, and IT.

Test and learn

Interested in the potential to improve your applications and yield rate, but not ready to commit to a marketing automation system? You can test the strategy and effectiveness of lead nurturing using a manual approach to segmenting, emailing, and tracking communications to prospective applicants. By using an email platform such as Finalsite's eNotify, you can assess the value of personalized communication.

The platform allows you to create dynamic lists based on constituent information — like grade, location, or an interest you've learned about from their inquiry form — and then build responsive emails with content relevant to that specific group. The test is a great way to assess whether investing time and dollars into nurturing strategy and/or system is worth pursuing. In addition to seeing actual results, you will also gain valuable insights into what messages trigger action, communications requirements, and potential pitfalls – before trying that in the complex environment of a platform launch.

If you are results-oriented, try this: segment your early group of interested prospective students into two groups and communicate with one half of them as you normally would. Nurture the second segment using the techniques below, then see which group produces more applications. Eureka!

There are many other ways you can enhance both lead generation and nurturing in addition to the strategies noted. These include targeting communications based on the prospect's level of commitment; using SEO, PPC, web content, and video to educate and nurture; and ensuring your social media presence is robust and tightly integrated with your other channels.

Lead Nurturing Steps

1. Segment Audiences and Content

The first step is always to determine your audience. In Higher Ed, your primary target is the student, while the family remains a big influencer. Next, select several broad but targeted topics that best represent the interests of your potential students, e.g. athletics, arts, academics, community service/trips, and technology/innovation. To resonate with your prospect, at least two categories require more granular content; academics or athletics need subsets, because an article on math won't be relevant to a history aficionado.

2. Create Your Content Streams

Once you have defined your audiences and related content, create a set of concise emails for these subjects – two or three sentences and a link to a web page, news item, video, document, or survey.

You will send a personal note to each interested party roughly once a week with news or highlights in each "content stream:"

"Hi Suzanne, I hope your fall is going well – take a look at our (great win over our soccer rival/video of our latest play/news about our community service trip)."

You don't need to generate much new content for these touches; instead, use your communications calendar or historical pieces to leverage topics you typically communicate to your constituents. You know you have your main community service day on X date, the marquee football game on Y date, the big musical on Z date. Build these topics into your streams as a natural way to strengthen your bond with the prospective student.

While email is the primary medium for nurturing today, text capabilities are growing and may offer similar chances to stay connected with this tech-savvy generation, albeit without providing as rich an experience as email.

3. Assess Interest Via Activity Tracking

Whether you are using a marketing automation system or doing targeted communications manually, it's straightforward to create audiences/personas, e.g. the baseball players, science students, service advocates, and artists, and then build content streams for your admission cycle. While manual systems can't track all the data accessible to a MA platform, you will still have plenty of actionable information on the recipient's interest via email opens, clicks, and replies; videos watched; forms completed; and articles downloaded. A custom landing page known only to your nurture prospects can offer macro web tracking. These activity-based notes or data can be added to a spreadsheet or the prospect database system. The person doing the tracking can also identify prospective students with the most interest in your institution, providing a priority list for your enrollment team.

There are many variables and nuances in creating an automated or manual lead nurturing system, so not every question or issue is covered here. Of course, there is an incremental investment in time and effort to build content streams and create micro-segments, but these need to be judged holistically. How many more applications and enrollments (nurturing must continue after the acceptances are sent!) can you generate by building a tighter connection with potential students? How much more effective and efficient can your admissions team be when focusing on high-potential leads? Only with this strategic level of analysis can you project whether lead nurturing is worth the long-term investment for your institution.

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William Bullard

William Bullard is the founder of EdChanges, a marketing services firm that offers schools, colleges, and universities a wide range of strategic marketing services. He moved into education in 2012 and enjoys applying lessons from his innovative past work in direct marketing, the Internet, and digital marketing to schools and higher ed. He has been the director of communications at two Boston-area schools and a consultant for several education-related organizations. William earned his MBA at The Anderson Graduate School of Management at UCLA and is the VP of Internet Marketing for the American Marketing Association – Boston. Learn more about EdChanges by visiting them at

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