Our 2020 Vision for Higher Education Digital Marketing

2020 digital marketing trends

If you’re still trying to implement digital marketing strategies from 2019, you may want to hit pause. It’s not that most of them aren’t still relevant; it’s that priorities have shifted. And if you do any kind of marketing for higher education, you need to keep up.

Here’s a quick look at the top 9 digital marketing trends for higher education in 2020:

1. Tell an Authentic Brand Story Online with Social Media and Content

With enrollments declining for the eighth consecutive year and predicted to continue their downward fall1, it’s more important than ever for your institution to have an authentic brand. You can’t stand out in a competitive industry unless you believe in what you do to the core. Only then can you tell an authentic story that will resonate with the right people. Don’t try to conform to a wide audience. Find your own tribe and provide its members with the education that will help them to reach their full potential.

2. Integrate Your School’s Story Across Your Marketing Channels

Along with that authentic story is an imperative to integrate that story throughout your marketing. That means that what you do through traditional media should match the look, feel and voice of what you put on digital platforms—and they should all complement one another. For example, if you build an informative white paper on industries your graduates might enter and the economic factors that may be affecting them, disseminate that piece of content across media. You may want to launch an email campaign to deliver it to the appropriate target audience, or build out paid media ads offering it as a download. You can even print it and take it to events promoting your school. The goal is to weave it fully into the fabric of your marketing strategy.

3. Build Up Your Website to Create Your Own Marketing Channel

You can populate every mailbox in the country with your glossy brochures, drown the airwaves with your messaging. You can take to the internet and social media and spend heftily to target the right audience, but if you don’t take care of your virtual front door, it’s all wasted effort and money. Your website is the number one way to market who you are and what you do. Make sure it sticks to your brand story, considers the user experience and includes:


Continual search engine optimization ensures that your site is indexed by search engines and found by your future students.

     A Virtual Tour

The best virtual tours are fun and interactive. They allow prospective students to get a feel for the campus, the school and its students.


Remember those chatbots that were up and coming last year? They came, they conquered; they’re here to stay. Especially if you target Gen Z or millennials—who often prefer bots to humans—you’ll want to embrace the technology. Using sophisticated AI, Chatbots have gotten better and more interactive. And they’re up and answering your students’ and future students’ questions long after your 9 to 5 staff has clocked out for the day.

4. SMS Marketing Is Effective with Prospective Students

Students may not want to talk to humans, but they’re okay with hearing from humans through text messaging. Especially if you’ve already contacted a prospective student, short message service (SMS) marketing can integrate well with your other efforts. For example, if a prospect signed up for an appointment, shoot them a text to remind them. They began an application, nudge them to complete it.

5. Use Artificial Intelligence to Automate Digital Marketing

Speaking of AI—it doesn’t need to be complicated. When computers infer from past actions what a user might do in the future, that’s a form of artificial intelligence. So are simple if-then statements. And if you’re not already using them on email drip campaigns and sequential remarketing, you’re missing out. Consider an automated email example. If your email software sends an email to a potential student and they open, read, and click an internal link, the next email is going to be different from the one you send to the person who ignored your email. Right?

6. Leverage Digital Marketing Data to Create Student Personas

With those plummeting enrollments, many small universities have been forced to close. Not so for those willing to pivot and use a data-driven approach to improve enrollment yield. Instead of looking only at your most recent cohorts, go back four or five years. What is the student persona of your most successful students? Use that microdata as your starting point. Then broaden your view to include intent data from a wider range of sources; the more data points, the better. For example, even if you’ve always enrolled locally, if you can find like-minded students across the country who express a willingness to travel, you may have found a new pocket of potential students from which to pull.

7. Hyper Target and Personalize Your Marketing Campaigns on Facebook and LinkedIn

Use all that data to find the best audience and send them personalized messages that break through the noise. Be a brand with which they want to interact. Use the targeting features of platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn to find the students who really are a better fit to your institution.

8. Build Strategies with the Right Digital Marketing Tools

There are hundreds of tools you can use in your marketing efforts. Customer management systems, project management, automated email, content management, SEO site crawlers, social media scheduling apps: there are too many to list. And they are all designed to create marketing efficiencies. However, they only work if you actually use them; and to their full potential.

9. Digital Marketing Increases Student Retention

It the best-case scenario, your digital marketing efforts yield potential students who apply, enroll, succeed and graduate from your programs. Digital marketing can do more than just help you find students; it can help you keep them. From orientation to graduation, use the full array of digital marketing tools to keep your students engaged, involved and happy.


If you’d like to learn more about digital marketing for higher education, contact the experts at ESM Digital. And if you see trends that we missed, let us know!

~Linda Emma


1 https://nscresearchcenter.org/current-term-enrollment-estimates-2019/