David Nobs
David Nobs

Our education clients all share several goals, namely, to increase awareness and boost enrollment. Marketing efforts on behalf of higher learning institutions should be proactive and dynamic in achieving these goals. Communications must cater to prospective students, parents, out-of-state prospects and working professionals looking to further their education, as well as current and prospective staff and faculty.

Building awareness and preference, increasing volume of qualified student enrollment, enhancing the image of the institution are the pillars of marketing success. Given the new realities caused by COVID-19 and increased pressures on colleges and universities to provide value to students given the rising costs, make these now more important than ever.

One method to “walk the talk” and stay ahead of the curve is using research to guide strategy. As an example, our research uncovered motivations for education seekers when deciding to enroll in school, how students perceive online education compared to onsite learning, which marketing phrases motivate adults and the most important considerations for students when choosing a school.

When you consider that college tuition has increased more than 150 percent in the past decade, it’s not surprising that the word “affordable” is almost twice as motivational for education-seekers than any other option.

Getting a PR boost

Given the increased competition and focus on providing value, public relations and reputation management is vital for educational institutions. An ongoing communications effort and overarching strategy that includes media relations, thought leadership, content marketing and special events can spotlight students and faculty, showcase alumni, reinforce core competencies and announce new programs.

One of the proven methods of generating institutional awareness is using prominent speakers to address students, faculty and the general community. Hosting corporate leaders, best-selling authors and celebrated journalists, political dignitaries, famous athletes and entertainers, or even leading educators from other schools, are ideal opportunities for school promotion.

As an example, a leading figure in journalism is presented with the prestigious Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism each year. As ASU noted on its website, the recipient list reads like a Who’s Who of the media world: Tom Brokaw, Ted Turner, Bob Woodward, Bill Moyers, Katharine Graham, Helen Thomas, George Will, Ben Bradlee and Roone Arledge, to name a few.

Lester Holt, the award-winning anchor of “NBC Nightly News” and “Dateline NBC,” accepted the award in 2019, saying that these times demand clarity and fearlessness. “Rather than lick our wounds, this is journalism’s time to shine, to shine a light in dark places as we never have before, and to hold individuals and institutions of power accountable,” Holt told a pre-pandemic crowd of more than 1,000 media, business and community leaders, supporters and students. “That’s what we do. That is our calling. That is what we will do.”

At ASU Cronkite School’s Public Relations Lab, students get real-world experience creating strategies and campaigns for clients from across the country and around the world.

According to ASU, the lab functions like an integrated marketing PR agency, with students working in teams on client projects under the direction of a seasoned PR professional.

Each semester, students gain real-world experiences and provided an opportunity to showcase their work in a number of areas: corporate communications strategies; crisis communications; event planning and promotion; media relations; leadership and collaboration; multimedia storytelling; social media content planning and execution; strategic internal and external communications; and website design.

A great example of promoting student accomplishments is Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. In the last three years, Newhouse creative advertising students have achieved success at award shows worldwide, winning 127 awards in 2017-18, followed by 142 awards in 2018-19. In 2019-20, students won an unprecedented 151 awards, according to a recent school press release.

“It’s amazing that our students continued to carry the glory in the past year,” said James Tsao, chair of the advertising department. “[This is] thanks to our tireless professors, who keep raising the bar [and] made us be a creative powerhouse.”

A social shift

We’re seeing an increased focus on social media in education so that institutions can have a digital conversation with these multiple audiences. By leveraging a mix of content, schools can generate online awareness and showcase student accomplishments, campus lifestyle, campus events, faculty and their achievements, and share student success stories.

Content needs to be customized for each social platform. Creating a single piece of content and pushing it out through all channels just doesn’t work anymore. For instance, what works on LinkedIn isn’t necessarily going to perform on Instagram.

As a result, education marketers are now creating social campaigns that engage its target audiences with customized content that considers the channel and depth of conversation using a variety of methods such as videos, infographics, podcasts, webinars, contributed and earned media content and white papers.

“Social media in higher education has become an essential chapter in almost every institution’s playbook. According to our research 98 percent of schools use social media across campus.

Why? There’s a lot of value for schools to unlock on social media. Universities now take to social to recruit budding scholars, promote school spirit, and raise fundraiser dollars,” according to Katie Sehl, a freelance writer and blogger for Hootsuite. “With so much at stake, it’s a lot for higher education social media teams to manage. Not to mention the colossal task of supporting a vast international community across numerous channels. That’s why it’s imperative to have the right strategy, tools, and support in place so teams can use social media to its full potential.”

In order to generate awareness, promote institutional advancement, and increase student enrollment, the use of research and mix of public relations, special events and social media is a powerful combination in reaching the multiple audiences necessary for success in today’s competitive environment.


Dave Nobs is managing director at LAVIDGE, a full-service advertising, digital and PR agency in Phoenix, and adjunct professor at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Communication.