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1-1 with Laura Montgomery: Engaging students in the digital age

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1-1 with Laura Montgomery

We sat down with Laura Montgomery, Director of Program Marketing at The New School – the university that’s home to the U.S.’s  #1 design school, Parsons School of Design, to learn more about what it’s like to engage a self-guided, advertising-resistant generation of students in a traditional, slow-moving industry such as higher education.

Unlike most higher ed marketing professionals who rely on colleagues from different schools or departments coming together and sharing information, Laura is uniquely positioned to own a wealth of knowledge about student recruitment in higher education as she is responsible for promoting the full programme portfolio of The New School, encompassing seven different colleges within the university. 

I’m able to draw insights from campaign performance across all faculties and apply tactics that have worked for one program to another. I’m able to test new things and expand the really successful ones to another group.”

Her focus is primarily on acquisition for graduate programmes. As such, she uses programme profiles and student research – rather than fixed personas – to devise The New School’s marketing strategy:

“I use the concept of a program profile – a document that outlines all the key features of students we imagine being enrolled in a program: age, common countries and locations. Then a little bit about their motivations, why they picked this program, the kind of media they consume, plus key program features that we are going to be marketing, program differentiators: plenty of universities offer a Public Policy program; what makes our program unique?”

Do you adhere to international enrolment targets? “I have a breakout of domestic versus international, and then I look at campaign performance. The New School has some programs that are very domestic, like Public and Urban Policy. A lot of the content in that program is focused on New York City, so we see largely US students and some international students who come to use the city as a learning laboratory for policy. Then we have two-year programs in Fashion Design and Fashion Marketing which are probably 50% international. University-level awareness campaigns do have more focused  NYC targets, while program-specific campaigns have a mix of domestic and international targets. 

Our KPIs are internally benchmarked, when looking at the ROI. I look year over year at program and channel. Because, for example, a program inquiry about a general Management program is going to cost way more than an inquiry about a program we are uniquely positioned to offer, like Fashion Management. Fashion Management is fairly inexpensive to market, but compare that to a program in Media Management, which many business schools around the world have”.

Many of your colleagues want to know what social media platforms yield the highest ROI in terms of international student recruitment. How do you evaluate which channel is the most cost-effective? “It always depends on your goals, and the kind of campaign you are running: If you need awareness and want to let people know that you exist, or if you want direct response campaigns where people immediately click and inquire. And what kind of creative you’re using: static image, video? 

If you’re going after creatives, then it’s probably best to be on Instagram. If you need management type of people, you’re probably going to be on Linkedin. Because LinkedIn allows you to target so specifically, it’s going to be more expensive per click, but it’s going to be the more accurate.

I would encourage anyone to talk to current students and ask them what kind of platforms they are using.” 

How does your channel mix look like? “If any of The New School’s programs is going to get any support, it will need paid search, and paid social – Facebook/Instagram, Linkedin, Twitter.

Twitter is overall the hardest to use. People on Twitter are looking for new information and things to read, but there isn’t a lot of demographic or interest targeting. You can typically target people by the other handles they follow, but there isn’t a lot of personal data to target around like Facebook has. 

Facebook and Instagram are great in terms of pervasiveness. Everyone is using the one or the other. It’s trickier with the targeting, because people aren’t necessarily creating profiles that say ‘I studied Anthropology and I have a Bachelor’s degree.’ It’s more about their cultural interests, or their media interests. Facebook is cheaper for getting clicks and inquiries than Instagram.

LinkedIn is probably the easiest for higher education marketing. There you can target people who have a Bachelor’s degree, don’t have a Master’s degree, and have a professional or educational background in a related field. LinkedIn can be two to four times more expensive, but my general experience is that the quality is higher.

Paid search is something you want to do year-round, because you never know when somebody will start their search.”

How do you approach Location-based marketing? “I’ve learned to create separate campaigns for the U.S. and international audiences, both in terms of message and budgets.

When it comes to international audiences, I use keywords in British English. In the U.S., a lot of the terms revolve around ‘graduate programs’ and ‘graduate degrees’, and outside of here is around ‘postgraduate courses’, ‘Master’s degrees’.   

Targeting in the U.S. is more expensive – the cost per click is higher, and reaching the right audiences is more competitive. Therefore, to optimize the spending, I create dedicated campaigns for domestic students. 

When going international, you can get a lot more efficiency. Take India for example, I’ll be looking at cities that our existing student body comes from, as well as information about higher income levels, because students from India might be very excited to study in New York City, but aside from tuition fees, just the cost of living in NYC alone is unfeasible for a lot of students.”  

How do you evaluate success?

“To make sure you’re hitting an engaged audience, you should be looking at markers such as time spent on page and number of pages viewed.

Inquiries are probably the most straightforward measurement, yet it’s important to keep track of engagement when dealing with digital-first audiences, millennials and Generation Z, seeing as the number of stealth applications has been rising. If prospective students aren’t so much into clicking on ads and immediately handing over their email addresses, it’s important that you’re giving them other options for engaging, and getting creative about using retargeting tactics as ways of conversing with these audiences. Even if you don’t know what their names or email addresses are, you can still reach them and hand them helpful content that will help out in their decisions.”

What is creative retargeting in your practice? 

“I would recommend using retargeting more like thinking about the kind of content that will help someone understand what you offer and whether or not it’s a good fit for them. 

I’m not a fan of when a university blasts people with basic banner ads promoting the existence of the same program that students have already read about on their website.  

If a prospective student has visited a program page, you can reach them again on a social platform and serve them a richer content like a 60-second video about the program or a blog article. When retargeting, use specific content during the different waves of the campaign: from prospecting to retargeting and leading up to deadlines.” 

We all want to be talking to the “right” students. Yet, the student profile which is a good fit for your institution will always be unique to you. In this sense, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy or channel, and we all have to continuously explore and test our approach to effectively engaging with the new generation of students and allow for a conversation to happen online.

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