Building a Digital Marketing Strategy to Attract Post-Traditional Students

When you picture today’s quintessential college student, what do you see? If it’s someone straight out of high school, lounging around on an idyllic college campus lawn, think again.  Known as the “traditional student,” this sector of the student population still represents the majority – but there’s another group making ground and increasingly demanding attention. Post-traditional students—that is, people who come to education a little later in life—represent a staggering 40 percent of all students, and that number continues to grow. Because they’re arriving at universities later—often after they’ve started working—reaching them requires a unique strategy (and a different way of thinking about the Higher Ed student population in general).

To build this strategy, you’ll need to do a few key things:

  • Understand who post-traditional students are, and what they need
  • Identify what you can offer them in response to those needs
  • Connect with them through their preferred channel, when they’re ready to connect with you

Each of these steps will help you develop a targeted, cohesive marketing strategy to connect with and embrace post-traditional students.

Know Your Audience (Post-Traditional Students) and What You Can Offer Them

Getting to know post-traditional students is the first step in framing your digital marketing strategy narrative. After all, successful marketing is about communicating the right message, effectively, at the audience’s level.

So who are post-traditional students?

Define the Audience
Post-traditional students are usually older than traditional students. The group spans anywhere from 19 to 52 years of age. Within that range, we can identify a few important trends.
The average post-traditional undergraduate and graduate students are 29 and 33, respectively

  • Almost 70% of them are women
  • They tend to be single and have fewer children
  • While they’re racially diverse, most of them tend to be non-minorities
  • Most of them work either full-time or part-time
  • They are typically financially independent from their parents

Understand the Audience
Now that you know who post-traditional students are, the next step is to identify what they want. This usually aligns with their overall lifestyle and needs.

For example, post-traditional students increasingly prefer online learning to studying on campus. They also have an overall preference for convenience. This aligns with the fact that most post-traditional students work full or part time. Convenient online study allows them to balance their education with their current careers.

Post-traditional students also tend to be motivated by their employment in other ways. Many of them want to pursue higher education to improve or change their career prospects. That’s why they look for a high job placement rate after graduation.

Another important factor to consider is money. Because most post-traditional students are financially independent from their parents, affordable tuition and financial aid is also a priority.

All of these are examples of concrete needs tied directly to the post-traditional student’s lifestyle—needs that you could fulfill.

Identify What You Have to Offer

You’ve identified your audience. You know what they’re looking for. But what can your institution offer to students that nobody else can? This step is all about (a) understanding your program, and (b) understanding the value it adds for potential students.

To identify what you can offer and put it into context, ask yourself these questions:

  • Which of their needs can my program address?
  • What exactly am I offering to fulfill those needs?
  • Is our program unique from our competition from the perspective of my audience? If so, how?
  • What is the clearest, and most effective way to communicate all of this to potential students?

Once you have the answers to each of these questions, you’ll have a clear picture of what message you want to send your audience.

Building a Multi-Channel Digital Marketing Strategy

Once you’ve figured out your message, the next step is to deliver it to your audience. This is where your multi-channel digital marketing strategy comes in. In essence, you want to use a variety of platforms and formats to deliver a consistent message to your audience.

Multi-channel digital marketing is a valuable strategy for several reasons:

  • It casts a wide net. Because your message is represented across a variety of media platforms, you have multiple opportunities to reach people you might have missed with only one channel.
  • It gives you an opportunity to build a cohesive brand identity—and it gives your audience an opportunity to become familiar with it over time in different settings.
  • It provides multiple touch points. That gives your audience more chances to interact with you whenever they’re ready.
  • It generates more data that you can use to understand your audience.

Your Digital Marketing Tool Kit
When building a multi-channel digital marketing strategy, you have a lot of tools at your disposal. It’s up to you which of these you use, but diversifying your options is a great way to cover your bases and connect with as broad an audience as possible. Those include:

  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO): This is about focusing on your website’s position in organic search results. While time consuming to manage, it’s an opportunity to position yourself as an authority in your space – and inquiries tend to be higher quality since students are actively searching for schools or programs on their own.
  • Search Engine Marketing (SEM) or Paid Search: This buys the ad listings surrounding organic search results. While it can be competitive and expensive to manage, it has the potential to deliver high volumes of targeted traffic, lots of data, and is great for A/B testing.
  • Display and Social Media Advertising: This refers to the graphic ads you might see on blogs, websites, and in social media applications. It’s great for building brand awareness, easy to target specific demographics, and easy to measure. But it also has a lower conversion rate, is high risk, and generates lower quality traffic.
  • Affiliate Marketing: Outsourcing some of your digital marketing to a third party can be a convenient option that also increases brand exposure. You often only pay for the results you want (i.e. clicks, leads, calls) rather than up front. However, make sure you track your affiliate’s activity closely to make sure their activity aligns with your standards.
  • Television and Video Marketing: This also includes digital video like Hulu and Netflix. It’s more effective than any other channel in driving brand awareness, and lifts the effectiveness of other channels by almost 90%. However, A/B testing can be challenging, and it can be expensive to produce and run. Also, it can take time to start seeing results.
  • Mobile Marketing: Since more than half of all website visits come from mobile devices, it’s crucial that all your web pages and forms, and other digital efforts, are optimized for mobile accessibility.
  • Email Marketing: 75% of marketers believe that email is the most effective channel for brand awareness, acquisition, conversion, and retention. It has a high average ROI, low cost, and it’s easy to test and track. That said, it’s also easy for you to get buried in inbox clutter.
  • Other Opportunities: Don’t forget about your non-digital marketing efforts! Avenues like radio advertisements, print ads, sponsorships, and event marketing could be a great complement to your digital marketing efforts, and help to build up your presence in your community.

If you understand who post-traditional students are, what they want, and why, you can create an effective message that hits your target. And by embracing multi-channel digital marketing, you can make sure that message gets delivered in a variety of ways. Of course, picking the right mix of channels and allocating the right amount of resources to them depends on your institution’s size, goals and other unique factors. Need help with developing your strategy? Contact us to schedule a free, no obligation marketing consultation  here.


Bruce Douglas

All stories by: Bruce Douglas