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Marketing & Advertising

Stop Buying Lists: It’s Time for Higher Education to Embrace Inbound Marketing Strategy

By a Verblio Writer

(1634 words)

Inbound marketing strategy has arrived in higher education. Or has it? On the one hand, experts at HubSpot and Converge tout the philosophy, bringing along such prestigious institutions as USC, which have embraced the concept.

On the other hand, that hasn’t stopped many institutions from falling back into their old habits.

Don’t get me wrong: various aspects of inbound marketing are now present at colleges and universities throughout the United States. Student blogs are a common marketing tactic, social media is a must, and automated email communication plans are taking hold.

But in their midst, a large number of higher education institutions still revert back to old tactics when it comes to finding their audience: purchased lists.

The Allure of Purchased Lists

On its surface, the tactic makes sense. Why spend weeks and even months building a comprehensive marketing strategy to grow your audience, when buying student names saves both time and effort?

As a result, the typical admissions cycle is simple: buy the list at the beginning of the school year or during the students’ junior year, and use it for your direct mail and email marketing efforts. No year-long setup and agonizing over generating enough inquiries required.

Volume is another perceived advantage. Each year, more than 3 million students graduate high school. If they want to go to college, chances are they take a placement test like the SAT or PSAT. Rather than having to hope that they express interest on their own, you can simply get their contact information in one fell swoop.

Finally, don’t underestimate another anticipated benefit: the lack of marketing knowledge required to build your audience. Building a strategy dependent on organic lead generation takes both time and marketing skills, both of which can be in short supply, particularly in smaller institutions. Buying a list of SAT or ACT test takers is simply more convenient.

Determining the Real Problem

But therein lies the problem. Today, more than 4,000 degree-granting higher education institutions exist in the United States. I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of them, even if they have started to offer web forms for interested students, continue to rely on buying lists for the majority of their leads—thanks to the exact reasons mentioned above.

That, of course, leads to an immediate problem: competition. Colleges know that students are applying to as many as 40 individual institutions each. They all want in on the game, doing their best to market to a large pool using both email and direct mail efforts. Buying a list means simply doing the same things that countless other institutions are doing at the same time.

Competition is fierce, and ROI is minimal.

That’s especially true considering the little attention that high school students pay to colleges in which they’re not interested. Open and click-through rates drop dramatically in direct correlation with the number of purchased names on your recipient list. In my personal experience, emails to SAT names have seen an average open rate between 10% and 15%, compared to 40+% for organic inquiries on the exact same email.

And that’s before we even get into the questionable legality of the practice. Technically, services like College Board are in compliance with CAN-SPAM, the law regulating email marketing in the United States. In reality, though, they’re in enough of a gray zone that email marketing tools from MailChimp to ConstantContact actively forbid purchased lists on their platforms. Two years ago, College Board was named in a lawsuit concerning student privacy violations.

Finally, the cost of these lists can be massive. A single name on College Board costs $0.42. For ETS, the testing service responsible for the GRE and TOEFL, that cost rises to $0.50 per name. Given the large volume of names typically bought, along with the additional cost in sending printed materials and viewbooks to students who may never be interested in you, a search campaign can quickly rise and envelop the entirety of your marketing budget.

Finding a More Sustainable Solution

Let’s start with the obvious: simply stating “we’ve always done it this way” is not enough. In the age of tight marketing budgets and increased recruiting competition, a more sustainable solution than purchased lists is becoming increasingly necessary.

That’s where inbound marketing enters the equation.

When embracing this philosophy, your entire strategy will be built on executing your individual tactics in order to maximize lead generation. Here’s how HubSpot, long a thought (and product) leader in the inbound marketing strategy realm, describes the concept:

Inbound marketing is about using marketing to bring potential customers to you, rather than having your marketing efforts fight for their attention… By creating content specifically designed to appeal to your dream customers, inbound attracts qualified prospects to your business and keeps them coming back for more.

The tactics of this philosophy will sound familiar: social media, blogging, search engine optimization, and email marketing. But it’s how they are used, and how they center on your website and lead generation, that makes them uniquely inbound-focused.

Rather than trying to engage with prospects who have no stake in your institution, you make yourself relevant to them. Once leads enter your database, you know that they are interested enough to be worthy of receiving more targeted (and expensive) promotional efforts regarding your university.

Emphasizing Quality Over Quantity

When taking advantage of inbound marketing, you will get fewer prospects. If the sheer amount of leads is your goal, continue buying those lists. But ultimately, we all know our responsibility; it’s getting butts in the seats. A lower quantity of inquiries simply will not impact your institution negatively if each of these inquiries has a much higher chance of resulting in an application and, finally, a new student.

While other industries have begun to forsake direct mail as a marketing tactic, it continues to be prevalent in higher education. In an effort to convince not only students but also their parents of your value, colleges send viewbooks, postcards, and countless other materials throughout the academic year. If you grow your audience organically, rather than by buying lists, you get a smaller list with a much higher conversion percentage. Each printed material, in other words, will come with a much higher ROI.

Because distressingly few schools truly embrace inbound marketing, empirical evidence for its benefits in our field is difficult to come by. But in other industries, its success has been well established.


Given these and plenty of other statistics evidencing the strategy’s success, it’s no surprise that inbound is becoming the prevalent marketing strategy online. That is especially true in B2B industries, which have a longer buying and decision cycle similar to college recruitment.

In fact, I would argue that the philosophy’s strengths are uniquely suited to higher education.

Embracing Inbound Marketing Strategy in Higher Education

You know inbound marketing tactics can work because chances are that your school is already using some of them. You have a social media presence. Your students and faculty write regular blogs. You try to engage your audience and drive them to apply through regular, perhaps even automated emails. And chances are that you are at least on some level trying to optimize your website for search engines like Google.

Now, it’s time to bring these isolated tactics together into one, overarching strategy. Do you want to generate quality leads? Then optimize your entire digital marketing strategy toward that goal.

Use your social media efforts to drive website visits. Write blog posts that lead to more in-depth content, which you can gate behind a sign-up page. Optimize your website and landing pages not just for generic keywords, but long-tail phrases that students and their parents frequently use when they’re researching colleges like yours.

And once they enter your database, immediately start to engage them using relevant, targeted, and personalized email messages. Acknowledge their interest, deliver the content they signed up for, and get them in touch with your admissions office or the department in which they’re interested.

Seeing so many universities embrace a variety of digital tactics is encouraging. But noticing that these efforts still seem disjointed, and that they still build on a strategy dependent on purchased lists, can quickly get frustrating given the tangible benefits of an integrated inbound approach. Truly embracing it means letting go of old behavioral patterns, and embracing a more sustainable and successful strategy instead.

Looking Forward

Not all is lost. In delivering the keynote address of the 2015 AMA Higher Education Symposium, Dan Dillon (Chief Marketing Officer at Arizona State University) stated succinctly that “higher education marketing tends to lag five years behind the private sector.” That means we’re not a lost cause—we’re just a bit late.

Sooner or later, as budgets continue to shrink and marketing insights continue to pile up, higher education will catch up. In the meantime, universities that embrace inbound marketing to the fullest will have the undeniable advantage of operating in a relatively noise-free environment that their peer and competitor institutions don’t yet dare to adopt.

I think we’re on the right track. Graduate school marketing especially, which works with a smaller and more focused pool of prospects, has seen an influx of organic lead generation tactics that rely on web forms rather than purchased lists. I am confident that in due time, undergraduate admissions strategies will follow.

All we have to do is shake off the cobwebs, rebuild our strategy—and stop buying those lists.

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