Survey Says

Why education marketers should rely more on content to reach prospective students.

GUEST COLUMN | by Saied Amiry and Ira Amilhussin

CREDIT LinkedIn higher educationAs the media landscape continues to shift, it’s getting much harder to reach prospective students. The attention of consumers – especially millennials – is increasingly fragmented, and the competitive landscape is becoming more challenging as new online education options emerge.

That’s all reflected in admissions data. According to one survey of college and university admissions directors, 58 percent said they failed to meet their enrollment goals this year even though, paradoxically, 63 percent of American jobs will require a post-secondary education by 2018.

Though standing out in the crowd – and rising above the noise – is challenging for today’s education marketers, there’s reason to be optimistic about what the future holds.

Given just how large the pool of higher education seekers is, there seems to be a disconnect between supply and demand. But a targeted, content-based digital marketing strategy can help higher ed institutions tap into that demand.

This spring, LinkedIn surveyed 1,627 members who were current or intended MBA and Master’s students and alumni in the U.S. to understand the grad school decision process. The research suggests that the context and relevance of marketing messages are of paramount importance.

Here are three of our takeaways:

  1. Make sure you’re in a position to be on your targets’ short list.

The average short list for MBA and Master’s aspirants consists of only three schools, and 72 percent of respondents had developed their short list before they ever reached out to a school representative. It’s critically important for schools to engage with prospective students early in the decision process, even before they contact your school. On top of that, LinkedIn’s research shows that 93 percent of those surveyed ended up enrolling in a short-listed school, so if you’re not on the short list, it’s very difficult to make it into the consideration set. 

How do marketers get in front of prospective students early in the decision journey? The best way to do that is through an always-on content marketing strategy that helps prospective students evaluate the graduate school opportunity, navigate the application process and transition into their selected program. Targeted, relevant content marketing allows schools to build a relationship throughout the entire decision process – helping closely align them with best-fit prospects each step of the way.

  1. Understand the nuances of the different audience personas you’re trying to reach and target them accordingly. 

It’s important to craft content with your target demographic in mind, as well as their stage in the decision process.

For example, someone in the initial awareness stage is going to be influenced by very different messaging than what moves someone in the final selection stage. The former will be apt to consider institution rankings and be hungry for content on career advice, while the latter, when making their final decision from a short list, will be much more interested in alumni stories that convey that they stand to get their money’s worth. So having a wide range of content assets and a careful targeting strategy to show those content pieces to the right people at the right time is crucial.


With respect to demographics, education marketers should bear in mind that millennials and Gen Xers have somewhat different motivations for pursuing higher education. The main imperative that drives millennials is the pursuit of a higher salary, while passion for learning is, by a narrow margin, the main motivator for Gen Xers. (Forty-eight percent cited it, compared to 46 percent who said “the need to up-skill in order to be successful in today’s world” was among their primary motivations.)

Content aimed at each respective demographic group should reflect those differences, not to mention other audience attributes that can be targeted to, like work experience and education level.

  1. Recommendations from peer networks matter.

Advice from family, friends and colleagues is the second most influential source of information on where to pursue an MBA or a Master’s degree, with 50% of respondents calling it important. (The most influential source is the institution’s website, which 57% of respondents cited.)

Obviously, word of mouth is the lightning in a bottle that any marketer would love to tap into, but it’s difficult. Considering the influence that peers and colleagues have on the decision, it’s helpful to arm alumni and professional groups with content to share. Having a presence on professional networks like LinkedIn, where the context aligns well with your aspirational content and where alumni ambassadors can easily be reached, is also key.

And while social recommendations are important in today’s media landscape, professional networks are twice as influential (with 17 percent of respondents citing them) as personal networks like Facebook (with 8 percent).

Though standing out in the crowd – and rising above the noise – is challenging for today’s education marketers, there’s reason to be optimistic about what the future holds. For one thing, international students represent a huge opportunity for higher ed, with 28 percent of prospective students globally expressing intent to study outside of their country and 74 percent of those expressing an interest in the U.S. specifically, according to LinkedIn’s global research.

Add that to the growing need for higher education in today’s world, and marketers have plenty to work with. The key is delivering relevant content to prospective students at the right time in their decision process to get them thinking seriously about your school.

Saied Amiry leads marketing for the Higher Education category within LinkedIn’s Marketing Solutions business. Ira Amilhussin develops thought leadership content and research for LinkedIn’s Higher Education category.

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