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Higher Education Inbound Marketing: Why You Need a Strategy and How to Execute It

Reading time: 6 minutes
Image of students in caps and gowns throwing their caps into the air

Traditional higher education recruitment methods remain popular, yet they’re difficult for marketers to measure and easy for prospective students to overlook.

Inbound marketing is an affordable way to reach students and track your institution's return on investment—from the prospect’s first visit to your website to the moment they submit their application.

Let’s discuss the definition of inbound marketing, why college marketing teams should use this methodology, and how to implement an inbound higher education recruitment plan.

What Is Higher Education Inbound Marketing?

To understand inbound marketing in higher education, let’s first compare this approach to the traditional marketing process.

For years, recruiters reached out to prospective students by visiting high schools and hosting college fairs as well as sending information through the mail and advertising on billboards and radio. Marketers followed six stages of the traditional higher education enrollment funnel: prospects, inquiries, applicants, admits, deposits, enrolls, and retention.

In the digital age, prospective students have more power. They don’t have to wait for information to come to them—they do their research on laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Plus, it’s not just high school students searching for educational opportunities. Working adults continue to learn new skills to advance in their careers, and you’re not likely to find them at a college fair in high school anytime soon.

With inbound marketing, recruiters meet prospective students and their families where they are in the buyer’s journey on the digital channels they're using with the content they’re seeking. An inbound marketing funnel for higher education looks more like a sales and marketing funnel, which consists of four stages: attract, convert, nurture, and close.

Why Do I Need an Inbound Higher Education Digital Marketing Strategy?

Recruiters are facing increased competition from other educational institutions and elevated pressure to meet their organization’s enrollment goals. As the cost of tuition rises, prospective students are also seeking out free or alternative forms of education. Outbound marketing is just not that

Image of a stack of books
effective anymore because it’s easy for the target audience to ignore and hard for recruiters to track and make adjustments when necessary.

HubSpot offers data that proves the value of inbound marketing in higher education. Colleges that implement inbound marketing are seven times more likely to report higher ROI than colleges relying on outbound marketing methods, according to The Ultimate Guide to Inbound Marketing for Schools. Inbound prospects and applicants are also three times more qualified than leads captured through an outbound approach.

Higher Education Recruitment Trends

Today’s prospective students hold many expectations regarding the college experience. Recruiters must meet them where they are in the digital world and deliver. Higher ed marketing efforts must include providing virtual tours, answering questions through content, and having an active presence on social media.

Prospective students spend a great deal of time online because they crave connection. Implementing segmented messaging and conversational marketing into your strategy appeals to their need for personalization. Speaking to their pain points and addressing their objections makes prospective students feel more like humans than numbers.

Recruiters can benefit from inbound enrollment marketing because it allows them to make data-driven decisions and adjust their strategies as trends change. While the outbound method relies on putting out materials and hoping for the best, the inbound method provides more definitive answers about what works and what doesn’t.

How to Start Inbound Marketing in Higher Education

To start an inbound marketing strategy in higher education, recruiters need to take a look at the content they already have and evaluate the results they’re getting.

Data Analysis

As a recruiter, you must know the characteristics of your prospective students, the reasons they’re visiting your website and social media accounts, and the information that engages them.

Image of data graph on a computer screen
Identify your target audience by reviewing your enrollment data in your customer relationship management system (CRM) for similarities in demographics and other statistics. Check your website analytics for insights on traffic sources and keywords. Look at the results of your paid campaigns such as pay-per-click (PPC) to understand which actions generated the most engagement and conversions. Assess social media to find out what’s being said about your higher education institution—and who’s saying it.

With this data, you can build your ideal student personas, produce content that appeals to each stage of their journeys, and create key performance indicators (KPIs) to track your progress with metrics.

Content Optimization

You may not have to start from scratch with all brand new content. Examine the information you already offer on your website and enhance it with search engine optimization (SEO). Once you make your existing content SEO-friendly, create new content based on prospective student questions you haven’t answered yet and optimize accordingly.

Monitoring your content optimization as well as your website’s functionality will ensure your institution shows up when prospective students are looking. Plus, they’ll have a positive user experience regarding speed, structure, navigation, and value.

Content Promotion

Now that you’ve optimized existing elements and created new content, you can take your message to the masses and set up social media for greater visibility.

Focus on getting keywords into the content, title, and caption of your social media posts. Make sure you’re following ADA compliance with appropriate meta titles, meta descriptions, and alt tags. Designate someone who will manage your accounts to maintain cohesion and consistency in content marketing. Track your posts to measure what’s resonating with your audience.

The Higher Education Inbound Marketing Funnel

Now let’s review the inbound marketing funnel for higher education and see how various forms of content fit into the prospective student’s journey.


In the beginning, the goal is to attract ideal students to your institution through brand awareness. Content such as blogs, case studies, and social media posts with a focus on keywords and SEO can increase organic traffic to your website and improve your lead generation efforts.

Image of the back of a student in a cap and gown, facing away from the camera


Conversion occurs after you’ve earned credibility through valuable content. Your prospective students are now ready to take action. Offer an eBook, white paper, or webinar that goes more in-depth on a topic in exchange for contact information. Create landing pages for these offers that include calls-to-action and lead generation forms.


The nurturing stage focuses on personalized communication. Use marketing automation to set up email workflows that speak to the prospective student’s needs and interests. Segment this information according to persona. By providing the right targeted content at this juncture, you will be one step closer to turning prospective students into new students.


When your email nurturing campaigns are effective, prospective students will apply to your institution. At this point, your marketing plan initiatives have helped them along every step of the decision-making process, and they’ll be ready to enroll once they’re accepted. Congratulations, you’ve just completed a successful inbound marketing campaign.

How to Increase Enrollment in Higher Education

If you're ready to implement an inbound approach, a higher education digital marketing agency can help you with services such as content strategy.

With guidance from O8, you’ll be able to reach more of your ideal prospective students with proven higher ed digital marketing tactics.

About Karen Pomazal

Karen Pomazal is a collaborative and results-driven marketing leader with a demonstrated track record in digital marketing, marketing strategy, branding, thought leadership, content strategy, social media strategy, and content development. Karen has earned multiple national awards for writing and video content. Before joining O8, Karen led an in-house integrated marketing team that achieved record lead generation and new client generation, loyalty and profitability, grew inbound business from $0 to $1 million, and accomplished 20% year-over-year business growth for 6 years. She has also run...
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