An outline of how to complete a competitive audit and the value of higher education marketing research.

For higher education marketers the enrollment cycle can leave you feeling like a hamster on a wheel. Run, run, run… seat a class or cohort… keep running.

Did you meet your enrollment goals for the year? Terrific! Expect enrollment targets to increase for the next campaign cycle. So too will the push to recruit a more qualified pool of applicants, though the product and budget with which you’re working often remain the same. The pressure to work faster and harder towards seating that next class is ever-present. What should you do?

Pause, step off the wheel for a moment, and work smarter instead. An approach not often considered due to demands on time and the cyclical nature higher education marketing is most often your best chance at making a difference.

Dig in and research (or update your research) on your audience, competition, and the industry in general. All worthy focal points in their own right, we’ll touch on some tips for auditing the competition.

What’s the purpose of a competitor audit?

Depending on your goals, a Competitor Audit can serve myriad purposes. In a general sense, an audit helps determine competitor brand positioning and promotional efforts. Insights from it will inform and guide your brand positioning and marketing. It also serves to benchmark competitor creative approaches, messaging, and executions to ensure that you differentiate your creative from the competition where you see fit. There are tools that can help directionally inform you about competitor spend in certain areas, social-media specific ones that can drill down on your institution’s percentage of share of voice in the conversation — and more.

Set aside time to make it happen.

Allow for a few weeks to collect and assemble your information. The audit might be aimed at assets both online and offline. If auditing a competitor’s email marketing efforts, for instance, that will require signing-up to be on their list and time to see how their email marketing campaigns unfold as they message to you. Budget, time constraints, and other variables may impact how long can be spent actively engaged in discovery, but we aim to set aside at least 3-4 weeks when helping our clients.

Start by looking in the mirror.

Using the same methodology across the board that you’ll use for auditing competitors, audit your institution’s own properties and marketing efforts first. Start with your institution’s website (and when you zero in on each competitor, start with theirs). Examine messaging and the consistency, or lack thereof, in staying on brand. Compare the dollar figures on search engine marketing (SEM) spend scraped on your institution by a tool to what you know your actuals are. This will help inform you on what the tool’s margin of error might be when you research your competitors’ numbers.

Don’t forget to leverage tools.

Speaking of tools, there are many that we leverage for our clients. A great one to determine if competitors are running online display campaigns is, which also offers a free version. Search the name of your competitor and MOAT’s basic version will return online display executions along with information on ad size and active run dates. There are other tools like SEMRush and iSpionage that are helpful in auditing paid search activity and keywords bid on by competitors too. Even if you don’t have access to a tool, you can still do it the ‘ole fashioned way. Google relevant keywords of your audience, your competitors’ names, and clip text ads that appear. Search at different times of day (because competitor budgets may exhaust by late day or be set for peak times) and change up your Google profile settings (i.e. location) and others to see if that helps widen the net.

Assemble and draw insights to include the data in your overarching higher education marketing research.

There’s nothing sexy about a competitor audit. It is roll up the sleeves work. But when all of the insights, data, and information are assembled in a coherent framework, it can be a beautiful thing. Trends will emerge re: positioning, creative executions, tactics, spend and more – allowing you to see a more complete picture of where your institution fits and how it can differentiate. Plus, learn:

  • valuable information to draw insights and inform strategy
  • where gaps exist in your own approach and whether they warrant attention
  • to understand where to adjust your thinking and how to be more confident in attacking the next enrollment cycle
  • how to be armed to answer the “What’s everybody else doing?” question from leadership – a particularly common one in higher education

So pause, spend a couple of weeks, and take a look around. Then act. It will be worth it.