As higher education marketers, we have enrollment recruiting down to a science. From sophomore year of high school through graduation, we are messaging students during key decision-making moments, guiding them toward the college or university that’s the right fit for them. But what about the students who chose a school that didn’t fit them, started working in the wrong field, or decided to attend community college first?
In recent years, demographic instability in high school graduates has led more colleges toward the development of a comprehensive transfer plan, and with good reason—as of fall 2018, transfers comprised 38% of all students enrolled in higher education institutions, according to The New York Times. But even with the resources and infrastructure in place to support them once they arrive on your campus, it can be difficult to figure out the right marketing mix to connect with each type of transfer student.
Unlike first-years, transfer students aren’t all coming to your institution from the same place, and they don’t all have the same needs. And not only are a transfer student’s needs different from those of first-year students, they’re also different from those of other transfer students…which can make it even trickier to determine the best ways to reach this population.
How to adjust your digital marketing strategy for distinct transfer student groups
Transfer students have a wide range of motivations and reasons for transferring, but generally speaking, there are three major groups of transfer students that can benefit from different messaging and marketing tactics.
The community college transfer
Often considered the most “typical” type of transfer student, community college transfers come to four-year institutions after earning credits toward an associate degree. Community college students are an extremely diverse group, but for marketing purposes, think of this cluster primarily as students who went straight to community college after high school, often to save money while deciding which academic path to pursue or while completing general education requirements. Because of the open enrollment policies of many community colleges, they may be less familiar with the admission process, but they still don’t want to be treated like first-year students—because they’re not.
When messaging community college transfers, authenticity and respect are essential. It's important to be cognizant of where they are in their journey while you’re communicating with them, as they aren't high school seniors but students who are well on their way to completing their degree. To do that, emphasize the ways your institution can help these students meet their academic goals in a timely and affordable manner and the ways your faculty and staff can provide guidance while also ensuring independence.
Digital tactics for reaching a community college transfer
As digital marketers, we have a huge advantage when we’re targeting community college transfer students—we know where they are, which makes Mobile Location Targeting (MLT) one of the most important tools in our toolbox. With MLT, you can geofence around a physical location (like, for instance, a community college campus) and serve display ads to users within that space. Staying in front of your prospective students while they’re on campus can also increase your message’s effectiveness, since your audience is already in an educational mindset and may be thinking about their next steps while they’re in classes and meeting with their advisors.
List-based advertising on social media platforms and through search engines can also be effective for this audience, particularly if your institution has purchased lists of community college students or Phi Theta Kappa members. If you have an inquiry list of former prospective first-year students who chose to attend community colleges, this is a great time to utilize that as well!
The four-year college transfer
Students transferring from another four-year college or university have been through this before. They have an idea of how the admission process works, they’ve been hit with every marketing tactic in the book, and they’re looking for a change. While the “missing ingredient” for these students can vary widely, it tends to be either financial (not enough aid), academic (not the right programs), or social (not the right fit). Showing students how your school can fill the specific void they’re experiencing is essential.
Digital tactics for reaching the four-year college transfer
Because four-year college transfers are often looking for something specific that they’re missing at their current school, it’s important for institutions to demonstrate how they can meet those needs. Search campaigns are a great way to accomplish this—by using specific keyword targeting and writing ads that address the most common pain points for these students, you can catch these students while they’re in the early research stage and just beginning to look into transfer opportunities.
The career change transfer
Career change transfers are non-traditional students who have made the decision to go back to school to pursue a new path. Some of these students apply straight to a new four-year degree program and some take a few community college classes before transferring to finish up their bachelor’s degree, but all of them have one thing in common: they have a specific academic goal, and they’re looking to your school to help them reach it.
A significant portion of students within this group are veterans who are going back to school in preparation for a career change as they reacclimate to civilian life. Veterans and other career changers tend to enter career-driven majors like Nursing or Business rather than liberal arts majors, and they tend to be more cost- and time-conscious than other prospective students because of their obligations outside the classroom. When marketing to these students, consider using career-focused messaging and imagery with an emphasis on career outcomes.
Digital tactics for reaching the career change transfer
Search campaigns can also be very effective for career change transfers. In particular, keywords that specifically call out a shift in career (‘how to become a nurse,’ ‘second career teacher’) can help get your message in front of prospective students who are just starting to consider a return to school so that you can work with them as they progress through the enrollment funnel.
This audience is also more likely to be on LinkedIn than other transfer audiences because they are typically already actively engaged in the workforce. This opens up an opportunity to use LinkedIn targeting for outreach campaigns, which is especially beneficial if you notice certain trends in your program applicants—for instance, if your elementary education program is popular with paraeducators, you can run a transfer campaign targeting to just people with paraeducator roles listed on their profile.
Best practices for transfer student marketing
According to the 2018 State of College Admission report released by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, more than 80% of transfer students attribute “considerable importance” to a college’s website as a recruitment strategy. Use this to your advantage by optimizing your website for transfers! Having specific pages allocated toward primary transfer concerns like the credit evaluation process, articulation/enrollment agreements, affordability for full- and part-time students, and campus involvement for commuters is one of the best ways to help show your prospective transfers how they can find their fit at your school.
Display retargeting complements these website improvements and should be an always-on approach for any transfer campaign—it’s a great way to keep your messaging and your brand top-of-mind for students who have already explored the transfer pages on your website.
To attract transfer students, you must understand them first
Once you’re familiar with the varying needs of your prospective transfer population, there are an infinite number of ways to grab their attention and demonstrate your value to them. The most critical parts of the process are recognizing their differences and adjusting your messaging to reflect those differences in a way that feels personalized while still being scalable to the size of your institution.
Want to learn more about higher education marketing? Check out our other blogs to take your social media marketing from 101 to 201, learn how duplicate content could be hurting your SEO efforts, or focus on increasing your international student applications.
If your college or university is ready to enhance your marketing strategy with custom messaging for specific populations, let us know—we’re here to help!