4 Questions for Higher Education Marketers Entering 2024

4 Questions for Higher Education Marketers Entering 2024

The calendar has officially flipped to 2024. The holiday decorations are boxed up and put away (maybe). Normal routines are starting to settle back in and now it’s the scramble of attempting to end the current academic year on a high note while simultaneously planning for the future.

I read numerous articles and listened to various podcasts over the holiday break that predicted major marketing and communications trends for 2024. It’s always fascinating to hear what other industries are predicting and how closely those predictions translate to the higher education space. We all know that higher education, in general, can fall behind the curve on the latest marketing and communication trends, so what can colleges and universities take from thousands of predictions and put into practice? Here are four questions to consider as you continue both short- and long-term planning.

Where does AI fit into my strategy?

The unofficial buzzword of any 2024 prediction content-- AI. The topic exploded in 2023 and thoughts ranged from “Will AI take my job?” to “Is it even safe to use in higher education?” New AI solutions and strategies become available almost daily, making it hard to even understand where to focus when it comes to an AI strategy. 

Primacy surveyed higher education marketers and communicators at various conferences in 2023 to get a pulse of AI use and familiarity in the industry (you can download our white paper here to see more results). Respondents were hesitant to believe that their respective departments would be investing in AI tools and strategies, even though even simple applications can save staff time and energy while creating efficiencies in content creation, design, and personalization. 

AI can be an intimidating topic to tackle when you don’t know where to start or how to apply it to your everyday challenges, but the pure power of AI makes it a must-have in your 2024 strategy. The white paper linked above describes basic starting points, potential applications, and some thoughts on why the simplest implementations of AI will help you check off more items on your to-do list.

Don’t be afraid to research, ask your colleagues questions, and experiment with the tools at your disposal. Even if it’s not a direct implementation, make “investigating the potential use of AI in our marketing strategy” a top priority early in the year. 

Are we just doing what we’ve always done?

The tasks and deliverables that marketing, communications, and admissions teams are responsible for seem to grow exponentially by the minute. Priorities and goals shift on a dime, meaning strategies (and implementation of those strategies) are a constantly moving target. 

Those moving priorities make it easy to systematize other projects. The “we’ve always done it this way” response to questions around prospect communication, brand marketing, or other strategies can be an easy reply because it’s easier to produce and publish something recognizable within a comfortable timeframe when your focus is being pushed into other areas. However, does recognizable or comfortable break through in a crowded market?

We are fortunate enough to work with colleges and universities across the world on programs ranging from traditional undergraduate to continuing education certificates and most of the time, that work involves surveys and focus groups with prospects, parents, and current students. The overwhelming message we heard from these audiences in 2023 was the disconnect between what they want to see, how they want to see it, and what they are actually receiving from an institution. 

Schools spend an incredible amount of budget on beautiful viewbooks and send one to any prospect on a list. Most of the prospects discard this type of non-differentiated material, only to have the parent dig it out of the trash and maybe give it a look. Meanwhile, prospects (no matter the level of degree) are simply looking to make a connection with someone or something (like an intelligent chatbot) to answer their questions and give them a sense of place (whether it’s in person or online). 

In 2024, you need to ask yourself if the strategies you are deploying to recruit, market, and fundraise are in the best interest of your audience, your budget, and your resources, or if they are happening because “it’s what we’ve always done.”

Do we look and sound like everyone else?

Non-differentiation has been an issue in higher education for decades. Three under a tree, drone shots over campus, students on the steps of a library, parents sitting at a laptop studying with a child on their lap. Everyone points it out when they see it, but few are actually breaking the mold and doing something truly different. If you were to remove the logo from your brand anthem video, your website, or any piece of marketing or admissions material, would the target audience know it was from your institution?

Schools desperately need to differentiate themselves from their competitors, from both a messaging and design perspective. I asked Primacy’s design team what trends could potentially help higher education get out of its middle-of-the-road approach and two ideas were immediately discussed. 

The first topic is of being, as one of my colleagues described it, “unapologetically authentic.” Higher education target audiences, no matter the age, are looking for a connection. That’s true of high school prospects, graduate school prospects, donors, researchers, etc. What can this school do for me that no other school can? The connection is made through authenticity in message and feel, not through a video or print piece filled with buzzwords like “innovative” or “world-class.” Schools need to authentically represent differentiators that make target audiences feel something, not just a list of rankings and attributes. Nike and Adidas both make shoes, but each have passionate and loyal customers because of the entire experience, not just the swoosh or three stripes. 

The second topic from the world of design is something Adobe coined “The New Nostalgia” in its 2024 Trends Report. Nearly 50 million vinyl albums were sold in 2023, which is up 14.2% over 2022. Jordan retro shoe sales saw a 29.4% growth in 2023, a jump from $5.1 to $6.6 billion. Even with amazing photography technology built into phones, the digital camera market is expected to grow from $8.2 billion to $12.1 billion by 2028. It’s safe to say that everything old is new again. 

The opportunity to visually differentiate your marketing and admissions materials while leaning into an incredibly popular trend has the potential to be a higher education marketing game-changer. Throwbacks, vintage, however, you want to describe it. Don’t be afraid to communicate in a style that will actually resonate with your audiences.

Do our communication plans address current situations?

When developing multi-year communications plans, the idea of developing plans for immediate and unknown scenarios can be ignored at the expense of trying to feel more comfortable by having longer-term strategies in place. Last year was a great example of why college communicators must be able to (and have a plan to support) long-term institutional goals but also effectively pivot to important issues that are dominating news cycles. 

Whether it’s international conflicts, unexpected pressure on university leadership, or responding to a piece of legislation, the role of college communicators has never been more stressful (or highly visible). The standard copy-and-paste communication plan year-over-year needs to be replaced with a strategic effort that takes the most pressing issues into consideration and brings campus leadership into the fold, working through these potential scenarios and how they can be handled. 

As a friendly reminder, 2024 is a presidential election year.