Colleges and universities are facing tough challenges in the decade ahead, including a decline in high school populations to feed into undergraduate cohorts, a decline in international students due to the uncertainty inherent in a post-pandemic world, and increasing competition from online programs and non-traditional options, like higher ed bootcamps and micro-credentials.
Given this increase in competition, differentiation is more important than ever. Higher education strategist Jeff Selingo says that the three things that will matter most in the coming decade are whether a college has a great location, a high endowment, and a strong brand. He goes on to write that the ones who have all three will thrive, the ones who have two of the three will do fine, the ones that have one of the three will struggle, and the ones that have none of the three will close.
Competitor research is a critical piece in strategic planning and enrollment marketing. Understanding how competitors are positioning themselves across their websites and other collateral provides clarity about opportunities for marketing improvements and differentiation. Given the importance of competitive research, higher education marketers and enrollment managers should conduct at least annual reviews in the following four areas.
Define the 8-12 key players in your competitive set and get familiar with their websites. Take screenshots to capture the elements that stand out to you. What images are they using? What value propositions are they emphasizing in their taglines and supporting copy? What are their key calls to action? How are they leveraging videos and student stories to illustrate their campus or program experience? Do they include information for employers, parents, and donors, or are they entirely focused on enrollment?
Create a spreadsheet listing your key competitors and map out their value propositions. What are the things everybody claims to be strong in? Where are the gaps? Which gaps is your institution or initiative uniquely able to fill? Many colleges and universities emphasize their rankings, career outcomes, location, diversity, faculty, and program duration. Getting clear on which areas you shine in will help you develop messaging to attract prospects through all your marketing materials.
Leverage industry-leading keyword research tools (including SpyFu, ScreamingFrog and Google’s Keyword Planner) to develop a list of the most valuable keywords in your space. Analyze keywords for average monthly search volume, keyword competition, ranking difficulty and keyword value. This will allow you to understand what keywords to bid on – and utilize throughout your organic content – to beat out the competition in prospect searches.
Once you’ve clicked on your competitors’ websites and engaged with their online presence, you will likely receive remarketing ads through the Google Display network across platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram. Take screenshots of these ads and collect them in a document to further build out your competitor analysis. You can also request admissions information through competitor websites, which will trigger their CRM email campaign, bringing their prospect nurture emails right to your inbox.
The four steps above should be conducted on an annual basis, and the information gathered should feed a discussion with your larger teams to enable strategic planning and execution of marketing campaigns. Convene your team and academic stakeholders for a one-time, in-depth SWOT analysis to map strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, then update the analysis on an annual basis with your findings from the exercises above.
Want help with your department’s annual competitor research review? Our full-service team can help analyze competitors and formulate a successful enrollment marketing strategy. Contact us today for a free consult and see how we can help. Schedule a consult now.