Internet has changed how students choose. Are you spending money in all the wrong places?

Prospective students spend considerable effort researching their options. Have Higher Education marketing approaches evolved to keep pace with their target audience?

How it used to be.

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People have been marketing products for centuries. Marketers have long believed that consumers follow a spiral path down to decision making called the “funnel metaphor”.

The funnel metaphor illustrates that people take a path from contemplating on numerous brands, then narrowing it to a choice down to their decision to purchase.

For example, before, when a consumer wanted to buy new shoes, they would just go to a shoe store and choose from a number of brands and designs there.They would mostly rely on the information given to them by the sales person and narrow down their choices to finally make a purchase.

Companies invested significantly in repetitive traditional advertising and sales promotions to build brand awareness for the people to be familiarised and hopefully influence a purchase.

The funnel metaphor has been applied to education too. In many Universities, the majority of time and effort is spent on being found (top of the funnel) and making prospective students to actually apply (ultimate bottom of the funnel).

How the Internet has changed decision making behavior.

Mckinsey & Co. developed a framework that suggests a customer goes through four stages of purchase decisions called the “Consumer Decision Journey” that doesn’t follow a downward spiral path like the funnel metaphor does.

These four stages are – consider, evaluate, buy & enjoy, advocate and bond.

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Here is what CDJ is proposing and what it could mean for educational marketing:


This is where consumers contemplate which Universities to consider in the first place.

Their initial set of choices are most likely gathered from friends, ads, websites and other channels.

Entering the consideration set is still important. But generally, schools currently overemphasise the importance of getting into the initial consideration set.


In the evaluation stage, consumers are assessing information about the Universities to make an informed decision.

“Evaluate” is a neglected stage where a bit of extra effort can have a great impact. Students spend considerable effort in researching options. During the evaluation stage, they may come across new options and add them to their consideration set, as they drop other options.

If you offer a specific degree, and a prospective student is looking for it, you’re likely to make it into their initial consideration set.

But what information is available about your institution? Besides University websites, prospective students consider information on third party comparison platforms like, and and social media platforms like YouTube and Facebook as credible and important for their decision.

It’s not just about being noticed. It’s about being very clear about your ideal student and what you can offer them that other schools in their initial consideration set cannot.

  • Know your ideal target audience
  • Know your strengths
  • Make your strengths obvious to your ideal target audience

From a direct marketing communications perspective, it’s important to stay top-of-mind in this period, which can be achieved by (video) remarketing (YouTube, Facebook, banner advertisements) and e-mail newsletters, specifically targeted at people who have been in touch with your brand before, e.g. by visiting your website or leaving their e-mail address.

By this time, they know your institution exists. Offer extra depth with stories about students, etc.


When it’s time to apply, how easy do you make it? Open days are an important way to “close the deal” – how well do your admissions officers stay in touch with top profile students? Is the procedure straightforward?

Does applying involve downloading a PDF file and filling it out or can it be done online? Is the form mobile friendly? Yes, people do try to fill out forms on their mobile phone.


Does marketing have a role to play after students have applied? We think so. Everything that was promised in the decision making stage, needs to be delivered here.

This means a need for setting realistic expectations in every marketing communication, and a smooth transition from applying to becoming a student. Help students along when they get settled, and their experience is going to be a lot better, making more students into advocates.


If everything went right, students will be more than happy to give you a positive rap. Being a student at your institution becomes a part of their identity. If they’re proud of it, they’ll love to show it off.

There is NO WAY a marketing department can out-produce their student population. And the number of reviews, videos, blog posts and photos will skyrocket if you encourage them and provide a platform.

Here are some ideas: Organise a competition, appoint ambassadors for different schools, courses, countries of origin (e.g. an ambassador for China, Germany etc.) and share official channels to broadcast what students created.

Team up with other education providers in your city & government to create a “study in our city” website. Encourage reviews on comparison sites such as


In higher education, bonding mainly involves building a strong alumni community that can support your institution in various ways. The foundation for this is laid when students are still IN your institution.

People bond with people, so it’s essential to provide channels, both offline and in person, for alumni and current students to meet. For shorter courses such as language courses, bonding is about staying in touch continuously, even if the classes may only take place once a week — which can be achieved through blended learning applications such as

In short

The internet has given students a lot of extra tools to help in selecting which course to choose. As a result, effective student recruitment needs to make sure all the phases of the Consumer Decision Journey are covered.

If too much effort is spent only to get noticed, chances are, prospective students will add your institution to the consideration set, but consistently drop you in the later stages, as they can’t find out enough about what it’s really like to be a student at your school to be comfortable applying.