How Storytelling & Digital Marketing Helped This University Increase Enrollment By 41%

How Storytelling & Digital Marketing Helped This University Increase Enrollment By 41%

College enrollment in the U.S. is on a multi-year decline. Enrollment fell by nearly half a million from 2012 to 2013 alone. And many news outlets are speculating that the college admissions bubble is about to burst.

So how did one small Connecticut university defy the odds and increase its enrollment by 41% this past year?

A lot of smarts, and a little marketing magic.

The University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, Conn. credits its record-setting enrollment to “the quality of the University’s education, as well as to the employment of new and innovative recruitment strategies.”

But we wanted to know more. So we asked for the inside scoop on their marketing and admissions strategies from USJ’s marketing and admissions team.

[Spoiler alert: We knew before we asked; we worked with this awesome school on its website content and upcoming content marketing strategy. But we want YOU to learn their secrets, so we asked anyway.]

Congrats on your amazing enrollment increase! What changed in your overall marketing plan this year, and why do you think it resonated with prospective students?

Overall, we shifted away from working with an expensive marketing agency and used the funds to develop our own work. We blended traditional outbound marketing with inbound marketing strategies, and focused on storytelling.

We created and launched the “I Will” campaign, which embraced and celebrated our Women’s college stature (rather than shying away from it). The campaign consisted of 12 commercials, which aired at key times in the enrollment cycle and hit shows that prospective students watch (according to research conducted on their interests). We used USJ students in the commercials (their words, their stories), which added an air of authenticity. The style was “emotional storytelling” intended to capture the hearts and interests of prospective students and their parents. Beyond TV commercials, the campaign included billboards, bus wraps, mall banners, ads in movie theaters, traditional radio and online radio.

We’ve been gradually shifting more of our advertising budget over to digital marketing from traditional channels. Connecting with prospective students in the digital space is obviously the right move, but it’s the ability to effectively target a particular demographic that makes digital marketing so effective. Add in psychographic targeting, and we’ve been able to tailor specific advertising messages to highly targeted groups on a program-by-program basis.

We employed strategic tactics to make sure our campaigns were effective, including multiple ad copy variations, multiple image variations, unique landing pages, calls-to-action with conversion forms, and an adherence to information scent.

What role did your new website have in your enrollment efforts?

If you consider a website as the centerpiece of your marketing efforts, it’s imperative that the website be optimized to effectively communicate information to prospective students, that they are able to easily navigate and find the information they are looking for, that we offer them easy ways to connect with us for more information, and that we offer relevant calls-to-action and conversion opportunities on just about every page of the website.

Our rebuild to a new website included a complete overhaul of the strategy and architecture. All of the content was rewritten to be web- and SEO-friendly. A fresh design was introduced, and the site was built to be responsive. The end result was a lean, marketing-driven website with calls-to-action and conversion opportunities throughout.

Adding “Learn More” forms allowed users to easily ask questions about programs. In the first year, 5,600 forms were filled out and the numbers are increasing during year 2. An early review of applications from 2/1/14 to 7/21/14 showed that 48% of applicants who had used a Learn More form were either enrolled, deposited, admitted, or accepted. The takeaway here is that the users communicating to us via our website are prospects that we need to pay close attention to because the yield is so high.

What makes your new website so much more effective than your previous site? What strategies and tactics did you employ?

Lean, marketing-driven, web- and SEO-friendly content made the user experience better, as they were able to find and digest content easier. The previous version was extremely text heavy and cumbersome (also out of date in design, not responsive, etc). The transition from old to new was a bit of a culture shock from the community but we were able to succeed because we had the backing of the administration.

As for specific strategies and tactics:

  • “Learn More” forms on almost every page allowed users to engage and communicate with us without feeling pressure to commit. It has been a great customer service win.
  • The responsive design caters to our mobile audience. From 1/1/14 – 4/30/14, our mobile audience comprised 20% of website sessions. That number jumped to 28% in the same period in 2015.
  • We utilize landing pages to complement all of our marketing campaigns.
  • The architecture was completely reworked to make the user experience more intuitive and to reduce the amount of content so that users could focus on the content that truly mattered to them. Content intended for our internal audience was removed and placed on our intranet. 
  • Our ownership model changed from decentralized, where programs and departments were free to change content on the website at their leisure, to a centralized approach where Marketing & Communications controls all of the top level pages and reviews all website updates for approval.

The end result is a website that has maintained its integrity over the first year and beyond. There has been minimal degradation.

What feedback have you received on the new site?

We won a Merit award from the Education Digital Marketing Awards. But the best feedback is in the enrollment numbers. It’s obvious we are providing better service to prospective students and making it easy to ask for and receive information. This also provides the opportunity to convert them from an inquiry into an applicant as we capture their information and develop a correspondence.

Do you have any new strategies on the horizon to keep this momentum going?

We are going to shift even more resources into digital marketing. And we are (still) working on a content marketing strategy — so stay tuned!

Thanks to USJ for letting us peek behind the admissions curtain! For more school storytelling inspiration, browse our FREE Resource Library, exclusively for Cursive subscribers. 

Think content marketing is for big business only? No way. There is a lot to learn from the great content marketing brands out there, and plenty of ways schools can implement the smart tactics they use.
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