With so much competition in the higher education space, sometimes it can feel impossible to differentiate your institution. And that’s because it’s incredibly challenging. In years past, the key to college and university branding might’ve been killer direct mailers or beautiful collateral. While both of those examples are still important, the current climate requires cutting through the clutter more effectively.

Understand the state of college and university branding

What we know now, is that college and university branding is as much about the wants and needs of the prospect, as it is about the product. It’s up to the institution to form a relationship with the prospect, so that they may understand the ways the college or university meets their needs. But how do we do this effectively? Digital marketing provides unique opportunities to connect with our prospects, understand their behavior, and demonstrate thought leadership that resonates with students and secondary audiences.

Harness power of content marketing

Content marketing has certainly proved its value over the past few years. What better way to help prospects understand the important nuances of your institution? So much of branding is relationship building, and content gives your institution an outlet for users to interact with your brand through a number of mediums. Video testimonials, social media takeovers, student blogs, virtual tours, online newspapers, Twitter Q&As, each of these are great outlets to engage your audience. Not only are these great ways to inform your prospects and stakeholders about important information, but they facilitate engagement. A piece of print advertising can help communicate your message, but it can’t enable communication the way most digital media can. Each piece of content is an opportunity to create—and strengthen—relationships with your audience.

“Live the brand”

Most of us understand it’s not enough to just say what your brand is. “Immersive,” “innovative,” “state-of-the-art”; all of these adjectives are tossed around quite regularly, often without the support of action. As higher education marketers, one of our greatest challenges is helping connect our branding and communications to the ultimate experience at the institution. The attributes we tout are far more complex than those of a more traditional product or service, and we need to ensure we’re living up to them. Social media, blogging, and video are great ways to bring your college or university branding to life, but it’s not enough.

With widespread access to social media and other digital platforms, it is imperative our promises live up to student experiences. Our students, their families, and our faculty become some of our most important storytellers. They are honest, sometimes brutally, and they’re certainly not filtering their commentary through our brand standards.

When prospects research your institution, they don’t just look for information straight from the source. They search, they ask connections, they browse forums, they go on tours. All of these experiences add up to their very important (and oftentimes expensive) decision. The more you can do to connect your positioning to the real-deal experience, the better. The catch? Most of the experience tends to fall outside of marketers’ reach. Enlist the help of leadership, distribute surveys; take calculated steps to help connect the two.

Use analytics and insights to optimize

Your digital footprint gives you immense opportunity to learn from your efforts and audience. Better than ever, we can learn about our campaigns and marketing materials. Which were most clickable? Which led to more applications? What combinations of tactics attributed to the greatest success? This type of insight can tell us a great deal about not only our marketing efforts but our audiences. However, in order to truly gain an understanding, it’s important to create a foundation for your marketing strategy. We recommend using S.M.A.R.T Goals and creating a measurement plan. These elements help you better translate the results of your marketing activities into actionable next steps.

College and university branding is always going to be a challenge. The needs of prospects are always changing and inherently individual; marketers will always have a list of internal audiences to satisfy. Truly understanding the landscape is the first step toward creating effective solutions for your institution, and generating results!