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How a DXP can help higher education marketing do more with less

Marketers are expected to do more with less… And it couldn’t be more true for higher education marketers. Here’s how a DXP can help.
Stéphane Recouvreur

Stéphane Recouvreur 21 Oct 2022

On top of the significant challenges that the entire higher education sector is currently facing (student retention, dwindling enrolments, and a student mental health crisis to name a few), university marketing teams have their own sets of challenges and many of them come down to the pressure to deliver greater results with smaller teams and tighter budgets.

Add in the fact that many teams are still getting by with outdated CMSs that were never designed to handle the amount of data – nor the complex experiences – that today’s students demand, and it’s easy to see why so many institutions are struggling to compete.

The impact of higher education marketing cuts

With many higher education institutions currently facing revenue losses, estimated at $85 billion in the US alone, the budget cuts have come thick and fast – particularly to marketing (traditionally the first business function to take the hit, regardless of industry or region). For HE marcomms teams, these cuts have resulted in:

  • Smaller teams: a survey of higher education marketing professionals in the US revealed that, on average, universities with more than 10,000 students have a minimum of 16 marketers. To put this into perspective, Gartner suggests an effective modern marketing organization should have a median team size of 115!
  • Restructures: according to Marketing Week, more than half of all marketing teams in the UK experienced a restructuring during 2021. While restructures can often transform teams for the better, worryingly a significant number revealed that their restructures involved merging with other departments and, in some cases, losing key skills and specialisms.
  • Smaller budgets: in 2020, 49% of US institutions had implemented IT budget cuts. Given that more than 20% of HE tech spending falls within the marketing category, this represents another big hit for marketing departments across the sector.

While such cost-cutting efforts might have seemed unavoidable, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, they can leave marketing teams completely hamstrung, with neither the headcount, budgets, or technology to innovate their way forward.

Marketing to modern students – the new norm/expectation

The same changes that have triggered the need for marketing budget cuts (fewer students, increased competition, and a pandemic) have also signaled a new baseline for student expectations – which, again, falls to the marketing team to fulfill.

Creating personalized student experiences

Competition for students is fierce. In the US, the number of HE institutions has been in steady decline since 2013 as a direct result of falling enrolment rates. With the undergraduate population predicted to decline by an additional 15% by 2029, a university’s website is its most powerful recruitment tool – and its best chance of future survival.

Gen Zers expect the same fast, intuitive and personalized experience across every online touchpoint; whether that’s from Amazon or their university’s website. The ability to serve students content relevant to their needs and interests can make the difference between winning or losing new enrolments. In fact, one study showed up to 85% of international students – often a university’s most valuable customers – made an application to their institution based primarily on the website alone.

Most marketing teams are painfully aware of what their online experiences should deliver; from powerful search that can answer student questions in an instant, to personalized course content. But grappling with staff shortages and outdated, restrictive CMS platforms has meant that few have scratched the surface of what’s possible with content personalization.

Taking SEO seriously

While a university’s website can determine whether a prospective student enrolls, SEO is the vital step that put them on the student’s radar in the first place.

Unsurprisingly, a massive 59% of prospective students start their search for the right university on Google (or other online search engines). What is surprising, is that nine out of ten students don’t know which university they will attend at the start of their online search. NOT appearing in a student’s Google search results means there’s a real likelihood that your university doesn’t even factor in their decision-making process.

SEO is complex, time-consuming, and requires specialist skills, which is why a thriving industry exists to help organizations that are struggling to tackle it alone. For higher education marketers, unable to outsource to an SEO agency or purchase complicated tools, SEO becomes just another task on a ‘to do’ list that will never actually be ‘done’.

Covering all the bases of web accessibility

Inclusion is key. In the battle for attracting and retaining students, ensuring that your website is accessible is no longer just a social responsibility. Web accessibility is being increasingly legislated in many countries (in Australia, an inaccessible website is considered a breach of the 1992 Disability Discrimination Act), and universities that fail to offer content that can be accessed by everyone risk alienating a wide range of students.

In the US, an estimated 19% of undergraduate students have a disability, yet 11% percent of students with a disability said that their college or university was not aware ‘at all’ of their need for accessible technology. This lack of awareness can directly impact retention, with only 16.4% of people with disabilities obtaining a bachelor’s degree, versus 34% of people without disabilities.

Unfortunately, like SEO, web accessibility is a significant task that can easily require an entire team. The University of Arizona, for example, has a dedicated accessibility resource center on campus that works alongside marketing to ensure all of its websites are universally accessible. With the definitions for what is considered ‘accessible’ constantly evolving and thousands of pages of content to review, accessibility is an impossible task for many marketing teams.

Getting governance in order

An emerging post-Covid norm is that a university’s website should be its online campus. But while this sounds great in theory, in reality, it means that the university’s marketing team only has ownership – and control – over a very small part of the website’s content.

A university website “can have thousands of web pages, with hundreds of faculty members and staff constantly adding, removing or changing content”. Encouraging students and staff to become active content contributors is an important means of keeping information current and online engagement high – but it also comes fraught with risk.

Without adequate controls, allowing widespread access to staff to update and upload content can result in broken links, missing pages, and a branding nightmare. For teams still relying on a CMS, there is often limited (if any) ability to manage and track permissions, edits, and publishing approvals – essentially leaving marketers with little control but all of the responsibility for website content.

Even small teams can create great experiences – with a DXP

DXPs are designed to deliver personalized experiences – at scale. The reason ‘at scale’ is so important is that universities don’t have one customer – as we’ve mentioned, the majority have at least 10,000 students and only 16 marketers.

Every aspect of a DXP is aimed at empowering teams to be able to keep up with customer needs and create the content and services they need quickly. This means a powerful combination of automation, pre-configured components, website templates, auditing tools, and a user-friendly interface that means creating new experiences, quickly, is possible – regardless of the size of your marketing team.