Intelligence
Benchmarking Digital Marketing in Higher Ed
Benchmarking Digital Marketing in Higher Ed

Intelligence

Benchmarking Digital Marketing in Higher Ed

Aug 30, 2021By Michael Stoner

Survey Says…

About a year ago, we began trying to understand how marketers in higher ed were using digital marketing strategies and tactics to market their institutions. We assumed that nearly every college and university was doing some form of digital marketing but wanted to know more: what channels they used, what they were doing on those channels, who was responsible for managing digital marketing, if and how they worked with agencies. So many questions.

Of course we turned to Google, but you know what? We couldn’t find much useful information. There are enticing tidbits scattered across blog posts, research reports, and press releases. But no good benchmarks that could help us — or you — understand the state of the market or make a guess at what other institutions like you were doing as far as digital marketing is concerned.

So we asked the community of marketers and communicators in higher ed — and we’re delighted to share with you the results of our research, “Benchmarking Digital Marketing in Higher Ed”.

What is digital marketing?

In designing our research, we defined “digital marketing” as “marketing programs that are planned to be executed through online tools, media, and channels.” And, because we know that the digital marketing landscape is complicated — and evolving — we focused our questions on the most important digital marketing channels: paid advertising (digital display), paid search (such as Google Ads and pay-per-click), social media marketing, and email marketing.

We also asked questions about key technologies and approaches that are fundamental to digital marketing programs designed to get results: search engine optimization (SEO), persona development, content strategy, and tools for customer relationship management (CRM) and email management.

One essential element of any successful digital marketing program that is often overlooked is that it starts with your website. The more your website content is optimized — through skillful use of keywords, personas, user-friendly forms, and an effective SEO strategy — the more successful your digital marketing activities will be. So time and money spent optimizing your .edu actually pays off because it helps your digital marketing dollars to be more effective and your digital marketing programs to be more effective overall.

It’s probably fair to say that where most institutions have invested their resources — in terms of staff time, rather than dollars — is in social media advertising.

Key Findings

What we learned confirms our guess that most institutions in the US and Canada — where respondents were concentrated — do some form of digital marketing. And 80 percent of the institutions we surveyed have a budget for digital marketing. At 85 percent of institutions, a central marketing or communications department manages the digital marketing budget. On about a third of campuses, the marketing/communications office shares responsibilities with Admissions, and on 22 percent of campuses, individual departments manage some of their own digital marketing budgets.

To say that institutions have a budget for digital marketing doesn’t mean that the channels we asked about in our survey are funded anywhere near equally.

A few institutions (17 percent) spend a lot (more than $100,000) on digital display ads and pay-per-click (PPC) ads (17 percent), but 51 percent a majority spend less than $25,000 on digital display ads (51 percent) and PPC (60 percent). And a large majority of institutions do their own email marketing, SEO, and social media advertising, so they invest relatively little in these channels.

It’s probably fair to say that where most institutions have invested their resources — in terms of staff time, rather than dollars — is in social media advertising. The goals for these initiative are related to raising awareness, generating leads, and increasing yield and conversions: 86 percent of social media advertising was directed toward raising awareness and 82 percent to generating leads. And Facebook and Instagram were the social channels where most institutions advertised: 82 percent advertise on Facebook, 81 percent on Instagram. A majority of institutions also advertise on YouTube (52 percent), and 50 percent advertise on LinkedIn.

The best approach to digital marketing is an integrated one

In our analysis of the data, we identified a number of characteristics of institutions that were practicing more advanced digital marketing. In general, these institutions had created a strong foundation for success across campus by instituting practices such as strong SEO for their website, developing buyer personas and institution-specific keywords, regularly analyzing results and shifting tactics based on that analysis, and adopting some other key practices. They were also experimenting with emerging tactics such as influencer marketing, which are not yet very common in higher ed.

How do you develop a world-class digital marketing program? It requires thinking institution-wide and developing a strong foundation and staff that can develop and run effective campaigns. You need a strong sense of mission and brand; an optimized website; a content strategy that can support multiple campaigns; and tools that help you analyze responses and tweak your programs as necessary — particularly a CRM system and digital analytics tools.

Learn more about the state of digital marketing in higher education, download the “Benchmarking Digital Marketing for Higher Education” white paper.


  • Michael Stoner Co-Founder and Co-Owner Was I born a skeptic or did I become one as I watched the hypestorm gather during the dotcom years, recede, and congeal once more as we come to terms with our online, social, mobile world? Whatever. I'm not much interested in cutting edge but what actually works for real people in the real world. Does that make me a bad person?