Solve Higher Education Enrollment Problems with Better Marketing Practices

For 2016, Ruffalo Noel Levitz reported that 46.3% of four-year private schools and 48.4% of four-year public schools had enrollment declines (of any magnitude). By the fall of 2014, there were 800k fewer students enrolled in national colleges and universities (both two- and four-year degree institutions) from 2010. The increase in competition to capture new students has ushered institutions to adopt more complex digital media tactics, stealing budget share from traditional advertising practices.

Conversion Rate Statistics

Historically, many colleges and higher education institutions have relied on conventional advertising techniques, such as direct mailings, television, radio commercials and billboards to reach potential prospects. While I’m not discounting these methods, I do advocate for marketers to orient enrollment marketing strategies to online channels in order to reach the always-on millennial demographic.

By using strategic digital executions that are aligned with enrollment practices in a post-lead submission state, higher education marketers can drive:

  • Differentiation between other institutions while the student is in “school shopping mode”
  • Above average lead-to-enrollment conversion rates
  • Lowest possible cost-per-enrollments

This post isn’t intended to be a how-to guide for enrollment advisors. Instead, the focus of this article will explore how digital marketing best practices should be applied to any lead in an institution’s lead management system (LMS) to help improve the post-lead submission communication strategy and increase conversion rates.

Most schools have adopted sophisticated multi-channel advertising campaigns, but marketers can improve lead engagement and conversion by embracing more advanced approaches. Below, I explore the advantages of leveraging lead source information to inform post-lead communication strategies and the opportunities around retargeting to prospects that have already submitted their information.

Identify the top sources of lead generation and submit this information to the enrollment team. Understanding which channels each lead is coming from can better inform the post-lead communication strategy.

A lead source is an offline or online channel that directs a student to find a college or university. In 2016, nearly 80% of all higher education conversions came from just three media channels. Internal websites, high-quality affiliates, and paid search were the most prominent aggregators of lead volume, followed by social media and email marketing. However, year over year from 2015 to 2016, paid search and internal websites were the elite channels, achieving higher quality leads (than an affiliate) and stable conversions rates throughout 2016. Knowing where leads are being generated provides insight into what motivated a prospect to conduct research, which keyword was searched or the path that led a lead to fill out a lead form. This insight can ultimately inform the post-lead communication strategy to better nurture a lead into a conversion.

For example, there is a monumental difference between a lead that comes from searching ‘online degree Cincinnati’ versus ‘best criminal justice school Ohio.’ The searcher behind the query ‘best criminal justice school Ohio’ is in-market for an education center that’s confined within the state of Ohio’s boundaries, which is significantly more limiting than a searcher looking for an online program.

Enrollment teams can leverage this knowledge to be more tactical and targeted in post-lead conversations, catering to the original mindset of the prospect. This type of candor is far more valuable than the forced completion of a form field; we have seen targeted conversations procure a lift of over 15% from the contact-to-application ratio. Once lead sources have been identified and submitted to the enrollment team, it is now the institution’s responsibility to identify how their team can establish rapport with prospects. From our experience, the key to building a formidable relationship between a prospect and a school is through gradual, deliberate and targeted communication.

Assuming that paid search is identified as the lead source, the searched keywords can then be broken out into logical buckets of information and submitted to the LMS. In doing so, the lead management system can strategically generate ‘icebreaker’ scripts for counselors or enrollment advisors to engage with prospects based on their degree preference or where they are in the school search process.

Ultimately, efficient recruitment and enrollment processes define lead quality and consider the costs associated with acquiring each student. Since leads are not all created equal, segmenting prospects according to their stage in the admissions process will stimulate better communication as they progress along the funnel and reduce conversion time.

Retarget prospects who are already leads. There is significant value in retargeting lost prospects with messages across display, social, email and search. Yet, marketers typically stop nurturing a lead once it has been handed over to the admissions team, with the exception of maybe email engagement. It goes without saying that just because a student’s contact information has been submitted to admissions, does not mean that they are going to fill out an application.

By understanding where prospects are in the student journey and their preferences, marketers can retarget leads with relevant display ads to encourage them to learn more, apply and enroll. In order for retargeting to be advantageous and cost-efficient, marketers should retarget prospects who are already a lead, instead of just retargeting users who are still in the prospect phase. Ultimately, retargeting current leads will translate into better enrollment rates down the line.

Retarget Prospects

Often, marketers approach retargeting by showing ads to individuals that have previously visited their website but have never materialized into a lead. However, retargeting offers advertisers more expedient opportunities than just segmenting website visitors into a ‘retarget’ pool based on which pages they viewed.

Our team at Katana typically executes retargeting by pursuing prospects who are already leads. An enrollment team member then follows up with these prospects to respond to initial outreach attempts and engage with the prospective lead while they’re navigating through the enrollment process. About 94% of college-bound students said that speaking with a college representative was crucial to the enrollment process, both before applying AND after acceptance, which highlights the importance of continued communication between both parties.  

Effective email nurturing programs have decreased over the past couple of years. With major email providers (such as Gmail and Yahoo) now filtering commercial messages from personal communication emails into individual tabs, open rates for enrollment emails have dropped from 22% down to 8% based on our own client studies.

Our approach to retargeting reaches hot prospects (i.e., those that are in the enrollment funnel) in a holistic fashion across multiple channels (such as Facebook feeds, banners or email inbox ads) with relevant messages, customized down to a prospect’s name– which maximizes power and is highly differentiated from competitors.  Although a simple example, marketers can pull a prospect’s first name from the LMS and retarget them with a personal message like, “Thank you, Melissa Lopez, for learning about School XYZ…”

We have seen a dramatic impact on just a few enrollment retargeting implementations executed. Amongst the schools we have applied retargeting for, we have seen an average enrollment lift of over 30% from leads that were generated through paid advertising.


The key to successfully retargeting prospects is through the integration of the LMS with your institution’s retargeting system. An integration, such as the one we do with our Data Fresh solution, allows the retargeting campaign to be customized based on an individual lead’s specific status of enrollment.

For instance, you can easily retarget an individual with a stage-specific message if they are overdue to submit their application. Similarly, you can serve ‘thank you’ banners to individuals that have had their initial communication with an enrollment advisor.  


According to the 2015 E-Expectations Report, nearly 60% of high school seniors and 55% of juniors were more likely to consider an institution that utilized email, text, social media and other digital channels as communication avenues. By understanding how leads are generated, marketers and enrollment teams can then retarget across the aforementioned channels to nurture leads to becoming students.

With the advent of new technologies and smarter use of student lead data, higher education marketers now have the opportunity to improve enrollment practices with the support of digital marketing. Upon implementation, institutions will see immediate impact that reduces conversion time and increases enrollment rates.

Katana is a leading digital marketing partner for higher education. We take advantage of large data sets and real-time advertising inventory and grow enrollment for over 120 universities and colleges nationwide.  For more information, please visit

Also published on Medium.