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Building Higher Ed Brands: A framework for building a digital marketing ecosystem that is geared for enrollment growth

With the release of Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow and How Brands Grow Part 2 and the work of Les Binet and Peter Field, higher ed marketing managers have benefited from the development of empirical marketing principles that provide guideposts for enrollment growth. 

However, what isn’t so clear is how to apply those tenets to create a strong foundation for marketing and recruitment. With digital channels becoming increasingly saturated, competition among traditional undergraduate students increasing and the shifting nature of targeting online and adult learners, developing a framework for campaign planning as well as developing impactful KPIs has become even more important.

This article will show how two key tenets – mental and physical availability – can be used to develop a more effective digital marketing ecosystem. And while personalization and convenience are often lauded as harbingers of digital disruption, the realities of consumer behavior point to a burgeoning need to develop strong brands across digital touchpoints. In fact, in a recent report by NewsWorks and house 51, the authors found that even with the ability to hyper-target and personalize advertising, how consumers make decisions strengthens the argument for building mental availability in an increasingly competitive online environment. 

This is because humans have a deep-rooted heuristic that drives the need to reduce cognitive burdens. As much as marketers would like to believe prospective students are rational beings who research extensively, more often than not we default to what’s familiar and post-rationalize our decision. What this should tell marketers is that when a consumer reaches for a category, success rests in the ability to be easily thought of— reinforcing the investment in mental availability. 

Yet, mental availability is only one part of the story. So, while efforts are needed to ensure that our institution is thought of when the need arises, higher ed marketers must also work to make sure they’ve adequately maximized physical availability throughout the customer journey. Physical availability describes the breadth and depth of distribution. When applied to online environments, where your brand is distributed across marketing channels is fast becoming an important consideration for higher ed marketers. 

What follows is a brief description of mental and physical availability and how each can be applied to digital marketing, in an effort to plan more effective enrollment marketing campaigns. Finally, impactful KPIs will be provided as a guidepost to track each effort.

Mental Availability

Mental availability is the probability that a buyer will notice, recognize, and think of a brand in buying situations. What separates mental availability from a measure like awareness, is that the measure is often attributed to a single situation or cued product category. Increasing mental availability helps to ensure that a brand is thought of in a myriad of different buying situations—especially important when there’s a longer path to purchase.

When planning marketing campaigns, two key elements help to drive mental availability from a creative perspective: distinctive assets and category entry points. Distinctive assets are the brand elements that a brand invests in over the long term. Over time these elements act as shorthand for a brand. In “Decode: The Science Behind Why We Buy,” Phil Barden argued that “the signals we send – from colors to shapes to brand logos – are recorded into mental concepts based on learned associates in memory.” These elements can range from taglines to design elements to your brand logo. What’s most important is that they remain consistent and are used to strengthen the likelihood that each element will act as a trigger to the brand. 

Questions to ask when planning your distinct assets:

  • Besides the logo, what design elements need to remain consistent across marketing assets; colors, graphics, etc.?
  • What visuals or representations of campus/students should we use and in what style should those be captured?
  • What message will we use to thread our marketing and communications together – outside of a tagline – to link each marketing asset (i.e. phrases or tone of voice)?

Founded in the associative network theory of memory, category entry points help to define on what occasions and in what moments a brand may come to the mind of the consumer. It’s the job of advertising to build key memory structures to increase the chance a brand is mentally available in buying situations. The more category cues you can own, the more chances your brand has to be mentally available.

Questions to ask when planning messaging for category entry points:

  • On what occasions in our prospect’s lives do we want our brand to come to mind?
  • What memories are associated with those moments?
  • How can our communication create a link to those moments?

To measure mental availability is an exercise in both creative and media. Creative ensures that your advertising is memorable, and the media plan ensures that you are reaching enough of your audience in the most effective way. Pre-testing digital advertising within and outside of the category is an important first step. If you have the budget, both Google and SurveyMonkey offer survey options to test recognition. In terms of in-platform measures, Facebook’s Ad Recall Tool and view-through metrics provide insight into what assets need to be most present and when. 

In terms of KPIs, it’s important to track that you are adequately reaching as much of your audience as possible. It’s important to understand that while your campaigns may be getting plenty of impressions, those are more than likely not evening distributed. It’s important to check to see that you are actually reaching a large part of your audience, with enough frequency to have an impact. Practicing continuity is important and should help maintain evenly distributed impressions across more of your potential audience.

Physical Availability

If we think of mental availability as the likelihood that we are thought of in moments that matter, physical availability describes the effort to have your brand easily accessible when that moment comes. 

In a sense, physical availability is maximizing the breadth and depth of distribution in time and space. It consists of three distinct components: presence, prominence, and relevance. Presence describes a brand’s product offering, in terms of channels and retailers. Relevance describes the type of offerings consumers want to buy and optimizing so there are relevant options for most buying situations. Finally, prominence describes being easy to find within the context of a shopping experience or environment. 

In the case of building a strong digital marketing ecosystem, we need to extend this definition to online environments, in a way that accounts for how higher ed marketers can compete for “shelf space.” With pay-per-click, programmatic, SEO, and online stores, this is an important distinction to make. And as more research begins to show, these forms of digital marketing offer more convenience for in-market shoppers (i.e. “signposting”) rather than generating new buyers. As such, marketers must begin to see the opportunity to extend physical availability into digital offerings and develop ways to use these tactics to ensure they are aimed at growth. 

There are two ways to think of planning for physical availability: what is it that prospects are searching for when it comes to the college search and how can we ensure we are available when they do. When it comes to uncovering what prospects are searching for, there is a myriad of paid and free tools at your disposal. Paid tools like similiarweb, MOZ, and SEMRush can be used to understand what exactly prospective students are putting into the search bar as it relates to your school and the category and how well you rank for those search terms. Google Trends can be helpful to establish volume of searches as well as searches that impact the category as a whole. Finally, Google Search Console can be integrated into your Google Analytics account to assess what searches are bringing prospects to your site as well as how well you are capturing search traffic. To help our planning efforts, we will first look at physical availability from a demand perspective, or what is driving search? 

Questions to ask when establishing demand:

  • What keywords are prospective students using to search for the category and my school?
  • Are there dominant keyword themes that emerge that may be useful for web and ad copy?
  • What geographic boundaries do we need to consider based on our degree offering (i.e. mostly in-state audience or is this an on-line degree and prospects could come from any state)?
  • Can we establish an audience size to benchmark when considering our paid advertising efforts?

These questions are important because they can help optimize a website for prominent keywords, categorize query themes to uncover what “pools of demand” exist that drive searches in your category, establish your ability to deliver on search, in relation to your competitors, and how to budget effectively using Google Ads. Taken together, these form the bases for capture demand or increasing physical availability. 

In terms of KPIs, there are a couple of ways to assess your improvement on keyword rankings. First, you can use a paid service like the ones listed above to see how your optimization efforts have improved your availability in search. Not only can you track how you are improving your ranking on search engine results pages (SERPs), you can also track them in relation to your competitors. If you need a free tool to assess your efforts, Google Search Console tracks organic search impressions and average position. It’s not an exact equivalency, but if you are seeing more impressions over time or your average position improves, you can surmise that you are achieving some level of success with your keyword strategy. 

Assessing keyword themes are useful for a few reasons. Using non-branded keywords from search data can help establish opportunities to define what prospective students believe to be the benefits of your brand or the category. These results should also be reflected in web copy to improve your SEO efforts as well as your ad copy, if you are using Google Search Ads. Ad copy and web copy alignment improve your ad’s quality score, which in turn improves ad positions. 

Geographic boundaries are important to set up a realistic sense of search volume. Knowing your geographical market and search volume will allow you to develop an understanding of how much you will need to invest in your Google Ads campaigns. To track your campaign an impactful KPI to watch is your impression share. Impression share is a metric that is measured by the percentage of impressions your ads received divided by the total number of impressions your ads could have actually received. You can track your impression share on either display ads or search ads and give an overall indication of how well you are reaching users/searchers. Similarly, determining audience size can help establish key benchmarks for effective budgeting for both Google display and search ads. To maximize physical availability is to understand the number of potential searchers, or those in-market, and determine what type of budget mix we need to get our marketing efforts in front of as many prospective students the moment they begin a search.

To build an effective digital marketing ecosystem not only do higher ed marketers need to plan how they will create demand, but also how they will capture demand in a moment of buying behavior. Mental availability gives marketers a framework to develop creative and media plans to help ensure that their institution is thought of and physical available planning works to ensure that there is a link to the brand when a prospective student is ready to learn more. Both tenets combine to form a powerful tool to plan more effective marketing and recruitment campaigns. 

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By Christopher Huebner

Christopher Huebner is an enrollment management marketing professional. He has worked both agency and client-side, where he has planned and executed marketing and recruitment strategies across multiple program types and institutions. His work has been published in Journal of Education Advancement & Marketing and the Journal of Digital & Social Media Marketing.