Targeted Digital Marketing for Student Enrollment and Retention


Finding, engaging, recruiting, and retaining students are some of the greatest challenges facing educational institutions today. Competition for students is fierce, not only among local and in-state schools but also out of state and online programs. Not only must schools reach the right audience for their school’s offerings, they must be able to sell the merits of their school to all kinds of prospective students and their parents; they must also be able to gain the support of current students and alumni as influencers. 

The pandemic forced many educational institutions, from K-12 schools to community colleges and universities to take learning online, unfortunately, for many schools, higher education digital marketing practices have not kept pace with the post-pandemic new reality. Shifting expectations and family finances, and the political priorities of a new administration have shown a focus on community colleges, and online graduate programs. Higher ed institutions are forced into one of the greatest branding and positioning shifts in history to remain relevant and profitable. 

Different social platforms skew toward different audiences, as do Google ads, podcasts, webinars, and OTC marketing tactics. The biggest caveat – don’t treat each audience and each platform the same. Successful content and even the cadence of content should vary from platform to platform. A solution to this complicated issue is a broader and more complex advertising mix. Targeted digital marketing using the consumer data from cell phones and tablets can help colleges’ hone in on the right people, with the right message, at the right time. Which platforms you use to convince and convert prospective students may be different from the targeted digital marketing intended for non-traditional students, parents, alumni, and other influencers like school counselors or academic advisors. 

Let’s explore engaging, relevant messaging that can help boost enrollment and retention. 

Reading, ‘Riting, Recruiting and Retaining

The current trend of declining parent, student, and alumni engagement has been labeled “the enrollment cliff.” No one wants to fall off that cliff, nor is dancing on the edge a productive way to achieve enrollment and retention goals. But how to buck that trend? That’s where data-driven analysis-based targeted digital marketing campaigns come in. The goal of targeted digital marketing is to gain more relevant traffic, the kind of traffic that can be converted into new enrollment and increased student retention. 

The first step is to identify the issue or problem you are trying to resolve. Reaching high school students at virtual college fairs requires a different tactic than informing non-traditional students about their educational options at a face-to-face career fair. A buckshot approach will miss the mark, think of crafting a targeted digital marketing strategy like creating a curriculum or course catalog. The goal or strategy of the digital marketing campaign and select which tactics to apply, depending on the messaging, intended audience, and timeline. More on that timeline in a moment. 

For example, trying to reach high school juniors and seniors? Establish a relationship with students before classes even begin. Consider offering webinars and testimonials from recent grads, department chairs, popular instructors, or the financial aid staff, promoted on popular youth-oriented social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram. Leverage alumni on LinkedIn to reach parents and non-traditional students. Data analysis will help identify which markets to promote the content in, such as a tri-state area or multi-county region. These types of campaigns lay the groundwork for building relationships and trust, something both parents and students have identified as key factors when selected a higher educational institution as identified in a report by the National Student Clearing House

What about reaching non-traditional students? Typically, older students struggling the most to stay in school, a highly relevant factor as mature, non-traditional students fast become a larger pool of prospective applicants for colleges and universities. This is especially true as entire industries such and travel and leisure and foodservice have seen significant long-term job losses. Using targeted digital marketing to highlight transferable skills, the financial aid available under the American Recovery Act and various state programs, such as the Michigan Reconnect Program which helps enable in-state students to earn an associate degree or certification for free. 

The work does not stop with recruiting students. Targeted digital marketing campaigns can also help reduce the dropout rate among existing students, leading to increased student retention. 

Other tactics to consider include: 

  • The creation of purpose-driven online student communities. Promote these communities as part of the new student enrollment process. Taking this kind of proactive step pays dividends in the long-term. 
  • Remember your ABC – Always Be Closing. Promote campus and online support services such as tutors, mentoring, internships, and consoling from the start, when students and their families first start shopping schools. Do so creatively and consistently, using targeted social media content. Flashy ads and glossy mailers come off as two-dimensional and lack the impact of targeted digital content to reach the right audience at the right time. To reach parents, consider channels like Facebook and LinkedIn. Parents need reassurance, that the learning experience is effectively switching gears toward a sensible combination of the online and on-campus student experience for their kids.
  • And students need to see that they’ll get an education that has legs, lasting value in an ever-changing job market. They are looking for more than the credits required to complete their degree, without missing out on opportunities for social engagement. The importance of developing lifelong career connections appears to be greater than ever, and, as always, college students seek guidance in figuring out what they want to do with the rest of their lives. 

The Timeline

A welcoming culture, as portrayed on social media pages, website content, and in targeted posts and emails helps create the feeling of community for students who chose to utilize online or hybrid higher ed. One thing we can all be certain of, in the post-pandemic world, online learning and the flexibility it offers students it is here to stay, but how does their journey begin? 


The prospective student and/or their parents are experiencing and expressing symptoms of a problem or opportunity – where to go to college. This is the step in the journey where they doing educational research to more clearly understand, frame, and give a name to their problem, such as family finances, costs, family, financial aid, and degrees and program offered in-person and online. Making a positive first impression at this stage will start to establish the relationship. 


The prospective student and/or their parents have now clearly identified and given a name to their problem or opportunity – money, distance, timing, student life, ROI on prospective degree or certification. They have committed to researching and understanding all of the available approaches and/or methods to solving the defined problem or opportunity. By creating targeted digital content that addresses their specific issues (cost, financial aid, career connection, social engagement) an education institution can gain further consideration. 


The prospective student and/or their parents have decided on their solution strategy, method or approach. They are compiling a long list of all available vendors and products (think schools and programs) in their given solution strategy. They are continuing to research to trimming the long list of options down to their shortlist and ultimately make a final purchase decision – your school! 

Hudson Collective is here to help your higher education institution successfully navigate the shift in recruiting and retaining students. We believe that the best programs for higher education are rooted in deep audience analysis and journey mapping, to help you see which stories, channels, and calls-to-action most deeply resonate with your key audiences. Contact us today to learn more.




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