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Tactical strategies to drive enrollment

Leading up to its Early Decision II and Regular Decision deadline for Fall 2020, New York University (NYU) decided to dial up its “service-oriented” student messaging. As one of the largest private research universities in the country, and under normal conditions, the move would be an energizing shot in the arm to its student base. Boasting 19 schools and colleges, NYU’s enrollment arm draws from a diverse set of backgrounds, including students from nearly every state and 133 countries.

When students arrive on campus, it can feel like a very big place. The service-oriented messaging campaign is designed to make the students instantly begin to imagine they belong there. But with the pandemic, NYU was cautious that its size could be more concerning for prospective students who might not have the same access to resources to navigate their college search as they would in a typical year. With that in mind, the NYU marketing team shifted a lot of its messaging to be more consultative and supportive of its applicants.

“At the end of the day, we want the same thing that our applicants want—successful applications to NYU and more students pursuing higher education,” says Jenny McMahon, NYU’s Director, Marketing and Communications. “We wanted to provide students with advice and resources to do this. Of course, attribution can be a tricky thing in higher ed marketing, but through this campaign—and a host of other efforts—we saw just over 100,000 applications to NYU for undergraduate admissions this past cycle.”

“At the end of the day, we want the same thing that our applicants want—successful applications to NYU and more students pursuing higher education.”
— Jenny McMahon, Director, Marketing & Communications, New York University

Since its founding in 1831, New York University has remained an innovator in all things higher education, continually reaching out to an emerging middle class, embracing an urban identity and professional focus, and promoting a global vision that draws its students in. That’s why, pandemic and all, every strategy it employs has the students’ best interest at heart. “The pandemic really pushed higher education—and all industries—beyond what we previously thought was possible,” McMahon says. “But it also created new opportunities to engage with international and underrepresented students in the virtual space by eliminating barriers to access. This has helped us see what happens to our reach when we aren’t so tied to the traditional idea of physically getting students to the campus to see it firsthand.”

For many schools, marketing budgets were cut or tightened during the pandemic, which means the need to bring in students and generate revenue was heightened as well. “Times of budget constraints can lead to real innovation if you let it,” McMahon says. “I think higher ed marketers are finding new ways to drive results, and becoming more performance-focused in our marketing efforts. The pandemic heightened the need to stand out in a highly connected world, but I don’t think it made it any more challenging to do so. In fact, during the pandemic, we saw a 30% increase in international student attendance at our virtual events compared to what we saw the prior year at our in-person events.”

When NYU noticed this trend, it was able to move quickly on it. NYU is both the largest sender of students to study abroad and the largest receiver of international students in the United States, which means with locations on six continents, it has a global story to tell. McMahon says the university was encouraged to see that the interest in global experiences remained high throughout the pandemic. In today’s environment, NYU has a unique perspective on the power of connectivity and cultural exposure, even from inside of a virtual classroom.

Located in western New York, the University of Rochester houses more than 12,000 students, 3,000 faculty and 30,000 staff. Known as one of the world’s leading research universities, Rochester has crafted a reputation as an institution unafraid to break or push boundaries. And that goes for its marketing department, too. For example, during a SEO (search engine optimization) initiative the past two years, the university bolstered organic traffic to its content by more than 200% by optimizing existing content and creating new content targeted for high volume keywords and search traffic.

Brian Piper, Rochester’s Director of Content Strategy and Assessment, says the communications team worked with the enrollment department to track conversions driven from this content so it could show more specific return on investment from the increased organic traffic. “Before investing time or money in new campaigns, look at your existing content for optimization opportunities that may increase organic traffic and create new chances to incorporate calls to action within high traffic pages to drive more potential students into your enrollment funnel. This can provide a low-cost, low-resource solution to use existing content to help increase enrollment.”

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With every university focusing on the virtual landscape and realizing the importance of their digital footprint, it is more difficult to be heard through all the content being produced. Piper believes that is why it is vital to conduct keyword research and optimize content for search in order to reach the widest audience of potential students and faculty. If you create the best article on a topic, but fail to optimize it for search, you’re missing out on the greatest potential driver of traffic to your content.

“Our SEO initiative has shown the greatest return by driving organic traffic to our content, improving brand awareness and increasing conversions in our key departments,” Piper says. “By tracking search terms and traffic, we are able to create content focusing on answering questions that our users are asking and creating new landing pages at the top of the content funnel.”

The University of Rochester’s communications department will remain focused on creating content that is aligned with its strategic priorities and promoting original research in areas where it has experts. Every piece of strategic content it produces is optimized for search engines and the communications team constantly goes back to find high performing existing content and re-optimize it. “Our SEO initiative is helping to create optimized content across the institution and creating opportunities for collaboration and cross-promotion,” Piper says. “We are tracking content performance by strategic initiatives across all channels to determine which audiences engage with which strategies on which channels.”

“By tracking search terms and traffic, we are able to create content focusing on answering questions that our users are asking and creating new landing pages at the top of the content funnel.”
— Brian Piper, Director of Content Strategy & Assessment, University of Rochester

Data is a critical piece of the puzzle for NYU’s marketing strategy, too, especially what can be gleaned from its storytelling and content initiatives. “For us, we find that a robust SEO practice, which really feels like the intersection of data and storytelling, is a huge contributor to enrollment. It helps us engage with those elusive ‘ghost applicants,’ and keeps NYU top-of-mind in the college search,” says McMahon.

One of the cornerstones of NYU’s efforts is the content site, meet.nyu.edu—an initiative that has helped shape its marketing strategies since it launched in 2019. In the Gen Z era, bands live and die on authenticity, so knowing who you are as an institution, and how you connect to your target audience is critical. That is why McMahon says it is imperative to stay ahead of the game. “Get curious, do research, ask questions. Marketing is such a data-rich environment and there is so much to learn from the data you have, but you have to start by asking questions, and seeing where that data takes you.”

Today, and throughout the next several months, the higher education community will be working through how it holds on to the best of what it has learned after a year-plus like no other. How it continues to iterate and modernize the traditional practices it has thrived on is a work in progress.