Meeting Non-traditional Students Where They Are

Carnegie Higher Ed Mar 01, 2016 Carnegie Higher Ed Persona The Visionary Frontrunner

Are you meeting non-traditional students where they are in their journey?

One of the biggest challenges in marketing to non-traditional students is the lack of a fixed timeline. They don’t have to follow a predetermined year of entry, and they don’t have a consistent length of time for returning. Whether it’s to complete a degree or pursue a new one, the non-traditional student “sales cycle” can vary tremendously.

As marketers we are often flying blind when trying to deliver the right message at the right time to non-traditional students. We have our enrollment timeline: dates for events, deadlines for applications, deadlines to enroll. But these don’t necessarily align with how the prospective student is thinking. The magical moment when a non-traditional student decides to go back and seek a degree is not determined by our dates! We should hope that such a decision comes about when the moment is right for that person.

So how do we know where non-traditional students are in their journey? How do we know what information will be most helpful to them? How do we know what we can ask of them and what we have yet to earn the right to ask for? While reading tea leaves might be an option, there are some more useful ways that non-traditional students are telling us where they are—we just need to learn how to listen.

An adult or graduate student looking to return to school, either to begin or finish a degree, typically begins their research at the search bar. These initial searches usually contain a program or degree name combined with a geographic modifier. Searches such as “RN to BSN programs in Boston” are the beginning of the journey. The non-traditional student who searches this way is beginning to create a short list of schools that offer the program they are looking for in the area they need. This is a critical place to be present so that the prospect knows you have what they are looking for. Unfortunately, this is also the toughest area to break into. Organic search is saturated, and it’s the most expensive way to be buying keywords. With such a broad set of terms, the number of schools bidding on these words creates a highly competitive environment. Nonetheless, we need to work these keywords smarter and ensure our presence there in this step of the journey. 

When we know a student has searched this way, we know they are in the early stages. We need to consider the landing pages and experience we wish to create. What information is relevant for a non-traditional student at this point? What are they willing and not willing to do?

The goal is to get the prospect to include brand in their search, which will lower the cost for that placement on the search engine results page and indicate to us that they are aware of the institution. Layering in additional awareness strategies such as display, video, and paid social media will assist in driving more branded searches. Once the non-traditional student searches this way, we need to adjust the user experience to the point they now are in the journey. Stronger calls to action and the delivery of information for further down the funnel become more appropriate.

Similarly, Retargeting ads can bucket visitors to different pages on your website for the delivery of unique ads that change as the student flows through the process. A student who visits a general graduate admission page is most likely at a different point than a student who begins an application. By adjusting the display messages those students receive, you can alter the calls to action and walk alongside the prospect, guiding them as to what to do next.

The key here is that campaigns need layers that address different points in the journey. Listen to what the prospect is telling you about where they are and respond accordingly. The right message at the right time can make an enormous difference in their experience and in the effectiveness of your overall campaign!

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