The pressure is on for marketers at educational institutions-especially at schools that offer technical or professional certifications, and at small-to-midsize private colleges. Enrollments, particularly at for-profit colleges, are down; a strong job market is keeping candidates busy; and prospective students are unsure about whether an investment in education will pay off.

The schools that are best able to leverage digital marketing expertise will have the best chance of success in this difficult period. Even without the aggressive digital budgets and name recognition of “Top 100” schools, smaller institutions can reap the benefits of digital marketing and attribution for superior reach and conversion of qualified prospects.

The first step is to acknowledge that your institution can’t afford to have old-school marketing in a fast-changing environment. Having helped many schools with their marketing efforts over the years, we have learned that success depends on following this advice:

  1. Traditional branding should only account for one aspect of your outreach. Many schools spend most of their marketing dollars on institutional branding. Of course, this plays a big role further down the sales funnel. But to begin the journey, your prospects—unlike consumers who are looking for, say, cars or watches—aren’t searching by brand, or school name. Nine out of 10 searchers don’t know which school they want to attend as they initiate their journey, according to Google research. They are searching based on broader keywords or programs, and that’s where it’s important to meet them during this part of their journey.
  2. Generic search terms get results. The top of the funnel is broad and competitive. In fact, 83% of education query paths begin with a non-branded term. iii Searchers are starting with generic terms like “nursing program,” “M.B.A. program” or “computer science.” Or they may be undecided about what their next career step should be, so they begin with even broader terms — “night school,” for example or “schools close to my home.” Moreover, the path to conversion can take surprising turns. For example, a person who starts with the search term “criminal justice” may ultimately decide that a cyber security certification is the ticket. That’s just one example of the importance of bidding on a wide range of generic terms.
  3. You need to reconsider your marketing mix. Direct mail, newspapers, billboards, bus or subway ads, broadcast TV—these are the traditional tools in the higher education toolkit, and they continue to have value in raising awareness. However, many of your target customers aren’t reading newspapers (they’re online instead) or even watching broadcast TV (they’re on Netflix). And it’s a virtual certainty that, once awareness is raised, further research will take place online. Your mission is to be in the right digital channels for your target group. YouTube is likely to be one of those places; 57% of searchers visit a higher education website after seeing a video.
  4. The mobile experience should be a priority. In 2016, overall queries in the “colleges, universities and post-secondary education” category grew by 9%, but mobile queries grew by 32% in the same time frame, according to Google data. Nearly half of prospective students are using smartphones for their education research. What this means for higher ed marketers, according to Google: mobile-optimize your site and customize mobile ad messaging for the exploratory mindset. If the mobile experience is slow or lacking the right information, 35% of people will leave and go to another school’s website.
  5. Full attribution is everything. Marketing professionals in education need to see every step of a prospect’s search journey, not just the last click (because if you rely on last click, you assume you’re getting the majority of your leads from branding—see point #1).

With true full-channel attribution, you get to know your target market—from what time of day they tend to search (often at night, because they’re working full-time jobs) to what their concerns are (many may be single parents, or middle-aged people looking for a new career path). You can learn whether they require a fully developed web site to navigate and explore (as nursing applicants usually do) or prefer a one-page landing site with some information and a form they can fill out to learn more (as tends to be the case with interior and graphic design aspirants).

Over time, full attribution can give the most valuable information of all — what tactics correlate with searchers who ultimately enroll, and how many of them graduate from your program or school. And here’s the payoff: All of this information about what worked for those students can be fed back into algorithms to make your marketing more powerful and effective in the future.

While this kind of leading-edge marketing is relatively new to the field of education, it’s catching on fast. Your institution can greatly strengthen its position by leveraging essential search behavior information about its market — before its competitors do.

Andy Fenster is President and founder of, and Krista DiBiccari is Director of Digital Marketing for, Ai Media Group, a New York City–based media company that specializes in defining, managing, and executing online marketing strategies.