January 22, 2021

Higher Education Marketing Trends to Watch in 2021


It’s safe to say that predicting the biggest enrollment marketing trends for the year ahead is a lot different than in past years. The industry is reeling from the impact of COVID-19 on everything from enrollment numbers to the types of programs a school offers, and some aspects of higher ed may never go back to their pre-2020 state. 

In looking at what 2021 may bring in terms of student acquisition marketing, most trends will likely focus on how to help recover from the pandemic. With enrollment falling and 75% of households changing college plans altogether in the last year, marketing plans must shift and adapt to the times. That doesn’t mean wholesale changes to platforms. But instead, schools will find themselves creating and marketing new types of content, reaching out to new audiences in unique ways, and focusing on more niche tactics that may be lower-volume but higher-reward than in previous broad campaign approaches.

If you’re looking to plan out an efficient, effective student acquisition strategy in 2021, here are some digital marketing trends to follow.

Create and Promote Virtual Content

Content creation, and usage of it in digital ad formats, is going to be a major focus for higher ed marketing in 2021. It’s already grown during COVID-19, as campuses have shut down and resorted to virtual tactics to keep prospects informed and engaged. And even when campuses start opening up more fully, a lot of prospects may always desire the virtual format moving forward.

Your school can get ahead of this by focusing on creating visually engaging and informative content that is evergreen and able to be repurposed in ads, such as:

  • Virtual tour videos
  • 360-degree campus imagery that can be used in interactive ad formats such as Facebook Instant Experiences
  • Testimonial videos, which can be crowdsourced from current or former students to add an organic social media aspect as well
  • Live streaming chats or Q&A sessions with people like admissions reps to help answer questions that prospective students may have

A More Crowded Digital Ad Space

Even as enrollment has declined and many marketing budgets have been reduced, competition in some key digital areas has increased heading into 2021. A more crowded ad space is a trend likely to continue, as a result of two main driving factors:

  1. The majority of schools have pivoted aggressively into online offerings, which have wider reach and appeal outside of traditional on-ground markets
  2. In an effort to curb declining enrollment, schools have begun marketing more toward broader audiences, going further outside their market in many cases and creating new overlap with other school’s campaigns

The online piece especially will lead to a need for better strategy and control over tactics like paid search. Online offerings can be difficult to differentiate between schools, especially schools newer to it that haven’t built out key selling points. A local college targeting online-based search terms in PPC will find themselves competing with major national players as well as probably every other major school within hundreds of miles – a level of competition not nearly as prevalent when looking at on-ground offerings. 

Adapting Campaigns to a Crowded Market

Because of this crowding, and the ability to easily enroll online students from anywhere, your marketing strategy will need to get more precise in order to remain efficient:

  • Focus first on long-tail keywords specific to your program, avoiding the heavy competition that may come from something like “best online college.” 
  • Decide on key selling points before writing ad copy. It’s not enough anymore to tout online learning as an anytime, anywhere solution. Every school’s online programs can claim that. You’ll want to find selling points specific to your school’s brand, such as quickness of completion, job placement history from your college, quality of the professors or curriculum, etc.
  • Resist the urge to expand your geographic footprint. Online learning can be appealing to prospects located anywhere, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of going nationwide with your marketing approach. But that’s a good way to burn up the budget inefficiently. More than 77% of online college students still live within 100 miles of their school’s physical location. Focus digital efforts there and dominate your home market, rather than spreading too thin outward just because online has broader appeal.

Bigger Focus on Yield and Retention Marketing

It’s unclear when new student enrollment rates will pick back up, especially with graduating high school classes shrinking and many prospective students opting for gap years

This puts an increased importance on schools making sure they are getting the most out of their accepted classes and continuing students. And digital tactics can play a big role in helping improve things like yield rate. We anticipate a big trend of schools wanting to use digital targeting capabilities to ensure yield and retention are maximized:

  • Turning accepted classes into a custom audience to market to for yield, focusing on urgency messaging and delivering testimonials and lifestyle content designed to convince the prospect to commit to attending
  • Geofencing tactics targeting on-campus students to promote new events, deliver messages of positivity or support, etc. in order to build a better community feeling that helps students want to come back next semester
  • Using data analytics and predictive modeling to identify students at-risk of leaving before it becomes an issue, proactively delivering messaging and helpful solutions to mitigate the risk


The world of higher ed marketing will surely change drastically in 2021 as we continue adapting to the events of the past year. If you’re wondering how to get out ahead of these trends in your own student acquisition efforts, then let’s chat!


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