Marketing & Retention Go Together

Students eating in the cafeteria on the first day of class.

I’ll be honest — up until I started researching for my dissertation on the enrollment cliff, I took the old school approach.

“Marketing got ’em. Now, it’s someone else’s job to keep ’em.”

I was wrong in my approach. I repeat. I was wrong in my approach.

Why Retention Matters

The bottom line:

We don’t have students, then we don’t have jobs. It’s imperative that we all work together….

Study participant

That is certainly correct. However, in this article I wrote for Simpson Scarborough I discussed a few additional reasons why retention is important for marketing teams.

Here’s a brief recap of some of those points:

First: It’s the right thing to do. It’s important to provide the service we say we are going to provide. Many of our university brands talk about caring for the whole student. What better way to show that than through emphasizing retention. If we are living our brand, we need to be doing everything we can to make sure our students are staying in class, getting the support they need, and are prepared to leave their mark on the world post-graduation.

Second: Students are no longer tied to a particular university just because they started there. Transferring and marketing to prospective transfer students is a much more accepted practice because universities can recruit enrolled students via marketing thanks to a NACAC change in 2019. This means retention matters even more as students may be more regularly encouraged to transfer. 

Third: Retention makes good fiscal sense for our universities. It is 3-5 times more cost-effective to retain a current student and ensure their graduation than to have to go find and recruit a new student. And that number is likely to go up as the recruitment pool shrinks. Additionally, as more universities use performance funding models (currently used in 41 states), retaining students is important because those students who leave and go elsewhere do not count toward the university’s productivity scores.

What the Data Says

The SimpsonScarborough Highered Ed CMO Study is conducted every two years, so it serves as a good benchmark of how the role of marketing is changing over time.

The most recent study was released in Spring 2022 and for the first time showed a significant growth in retention efforts for marketing leaders. The data showed a 21% jump from when the survey was released in Spring 2020.

Ways Marketing Can Help with Retention

When I first started thinking about this, I wasn’t sure how my marketing team could really help with retention. However, over time I’ve come up with a few possibilities:

Change Agents for Campus – Marketing teams tend to work across the entire campus, which gives them an opportunity to see things outside of particular silos. As such, marketing teams have a unique perspective, allowing them to bring campus entities together and serve as change agents for campus. Are there obstacles that exist for students? Are there processes that don’t make sense? Marketing, more than many groups, is likely to see these and may be in a place to help improve the processes.

Communicate with Students – I think it’s important we communicate with students. Student communication can involve activities on campus, reminders about resources and key dates, and finally points of pride and successes for the university. Making sure these are part of the student communication plan can help keep students engaged. Exactly what that looks like is up to you. It could be a newsletter, it could be campus flyers, it could social media, it could be digital ads. The bottom line is we need to make sure there is a strategy to get those messages to our students.

Brand Awareness – I think current students play a role in brand awareness and pride in their university. Think about it, when you buy a new car — you then start to see advertisements for that car because you are aware of it. I think it’s important that our students see our message in the community. Cue the billboards, bus wraps, and airport signage. One side of the argument is you shouldn’t advertise where you are because there’s already a strong brand awareness. However, the other side of the coin is if all students ever see is other university messages then it starts to subtly suggest those other places are better.

What’s The Why?

Higher education is changing. The enrollment cliff will be here in a few years, meaning fewer students. With fewer students — retention is more important than ever. Higher ed marketing teams nationwide are clamoring to help lead through these challenges to make a difference for the institutions that care we so much about. While the work is hard and there is much to do, the opportunity is immense. And we, as a profession, are ready.

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