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Transforming Higher Education Marketing

In Conversation with Renee Seltzer

For this episode of E-coffee with Experts, Ranmay Rath interviewed Renee Seltzer, CEO of Ellison Ellery Consulting, a digital marketing agency located in Orlando, Florida.

Renee discusses advanced techniques for higher education digital marketing. She emphasizes the importance of understanding students’ needs, creating unique selling propositions, conducting thorough diagnostics, and tailoring content to different stages of the student journey.

Watch the episode now for some profound insights!

Don’t just focus on social media tactics. Treat social media as a strategy and communicate effectively.

Renee Seltzer
CEO of Ellison Ellery Consulting

Hey. Hi everyone. This is Ranmay here on your Show E-Coffee with Experts. Today we have Renee from Ellison Ellery Consulting, a higher Ed Marketing Agency in Orlando, Florida. Welcome, Renee.

Hello. Hi. It’s nice to be here. It’s good. It’s good. It’s a sunny, beautiful day today.

Great. Renee, before we move forward and talk about, the advanced techniques for higher education digital marketing it would be great if we can introduce yourself and your agency to our audiences tonight.

Sure. So we are a remote agency. I have been doing higher-ed marketing for over 20 years, so probably pushing close to 25 years. So that’s pretty crazy. And our name really started from consultancy, so came in I’m a fixer, so I come into universities and help them figure out what’s wrong with their enrollment process or what’s wrong with why they’re not growing. And from that we became one of those agencies that grew unexpectedly with other services. Hey, they’re like we love the consulting. We love all of that you’re doing, but we also need your help to implement the strategies that you suggest. And that is really how we started to pivot into an agency.

How did you land up with there’s a very specific niche here, Renee. How did you land up in digital marketing for higher education?

Sure. So Orlando actually has a couple different bigger companies that are called online program management companies. So OPMs and I started back in the nineties and early two thousands working for companies like this.

So what they would do is they would partner with universities and they would do a split of revenue, and I would be their director of marketing. So I would help drive the strategies in those relationships, and then over time, I kept, I worked with other higher ed agencies and really just stayed not necessarily always in higher ed over 25 years, but really in the lead generation space.

So definitely no expertise in e-commerce, but all the expertise in how to drive an inquiry and then how to get that inquiry to become a student.

Good. And then how do you feel it is different from, marketing for other industries?

It’s, it’s a, it’s actually a beautiful industry in the sense that people are, underemployed or undereducated and you’re coming in as the university and giving them opportunities they may not have had, had they not pursued education.

I am a first-generation American myself and my parents didn’t speak the language when they came. I didn’t speak. English until kindergarten and education really changed the trajectory of my life. And my parents never knew what grade I was in. They didn’t know how to get me into college.

And I realized how tricky it is, especially for first-generation college students to get into college. And that’s where that empathy comes from, is I really wanna work with universities on how do we make the process easier so we don’t alienate the people who need education the most. The people who are rich and their parents are filling out their application, they don’t need education as much as that first-generation college student or that immigrant or that person who came from socioeconomic backgrounds, different backgrounds.

Those are the ones that need that social mobility. So that’s something that I always come from. How do we make sure we don’t leave them behind?

Yeah. Very nice thought that was Renee, I must say. So talking about higher education clients of yours, we all talk about unique selling propositions, USPs’ and other jargons when it comes to, projecting your client on top of their competition online.

How do you do that with your higher education clients?

It’s so surprising. These universities often will offer degrees in marketing and I’m like, go ask those professors because you guys are not doing USP, you’re not doing anything unique. Other than we offer online classes or we offer they just often universities will just say, I offer an engineering degree, and I’m like, great.

What makes your degree special? Our faculty care. Okay. That’s pretty much what everybody will say. So really getting them to start thinking more deeply of what is important to your students. Ask them, one of the first things that we do is student’s qualitative research. So we actually and a lot of times these universities will pay $500,000 for qualitative research, and I’m like, no, you don’t need that, because that will take a year and a half to get done and it’s really probably not gonna be as insightful as you hoped it would be.

Honestly, just invite a bunch of your students and give ’em a pizza party or whatever. It doesn’t have to be a big deal on Zoom and ask them questions. Why did you choose my university? What is important? How do you think this program or degree is gonna better your life? And, document that record it.

And then that’s a lot of the language and verbiage we wanna use back out. The reasons that your students signed up is what we wanna capture. And then put that back out into the marketing. Because it’s really students talking to students, and but I will say that is actually just a huge weakness I find in most universities, is they do these big brand campaigns where it says, find your purpose, live your being, these kind of lofty words that don’t mean anything, even though they really think they do.

And then, but they don’t tell you about the program. They don’t tell you about what you hope to get out of it. So I do want them to say, okay, that’s great that you have this big brand campaign, but let’s go a little deeper. Let’s go with what makes your program unique. And if you don’t have anything unique in your program, I often say this is the time that we start to work with our faculty to say, what, how can we improve the program to make it better?

So then we could talk about it in marketing. And some of it, so they get homework back. But a lot of ’em offer very generic courses and very generic programs. That makes it very tricky for marketing to, to sell or position or promote because there really isn’t anything unique about them.

Absolutely. Very good point that you raised. You need to see into your success, in terms of what you have been able to achieve in terms of, speaking to those students who have gotten on board and understand why did they do that? Why did they choose you? And then to have, see that story online versus going and trying to create something which is not there.

So very valid point, very valid. Now, with so many different marketing channels out there how do you help these education institutions determine which ones are the most effective ones to target their audiences?

So that’s a really great question.

And a lot of times universities come from that perspective. So they’ll send out these things called RFPs, requests for proposals. Yeah. And they’ll put it out with very specificity on we want this campaign. And I’m like, whoa, let’s. Let’s stop there. Before you start asking for very specific tactics, let’s do an audit.

Let’s take a full step back and do a really big diagnostic run. It doesn’t have to be, again, hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s probably a month deep dive. And in that deep dive, let’s look at your CRM. Let’s look at your tracking and your attribution. Let’s look at what is working to see if there’s an opportunity to double down on that.

And then what isn’t working. And we could either pull it back or adjust it and tweak it. A lot of times we think, oh, we gotta go on TikTok. We think big, but I’m like, that’s a tactic now a strategy. They’ll say more on social media or Google ads, but when I look at Google ads, their forms don’t work.

No one has tested. So one university I, cuz I always secret shot my universities. I filled out the form, and I went to fill out the form and it wouldn’t submit. The university doesn’t even know their submit button doesn’t work. But it wasn’t the submit button not working. I highlighted the form and there was a like a, an invisible checkbox that had to be checked in order for the form to be submitted. And I’m like, oh my gosh, you. You don’t even know, your forms don’t work, so that person lost interest and moved on to a different school. So in that diagnostic, it’s checking all your forms, it’s checking your landing pages, it’s checking do we even have thank you pages.

So it’s going back to basics. And then from there, That’s when we start to say, is there an opportunity? Does Google ads look like it’s working really well? Could we throw more money at it? And see if we could drive more inquiries that way. TikTok is really working. It’s so incredibly well.

So I, I think every university should really, I. Be doing what Duolingo does, being a little bit outrageous, being interesting, catching those users, while they’re engaged and being fun to show the university heart that way, instead of these lofty words of find your purpose. Which means again, means nothing.

But show me. Show me what it’s like to live on the campus. Show me what it’s like to go to a class, show me what it’s like to engage with a professor. Be more transparent. Show me and let me fall in love with your university on my time, and then we’re ready to talk about enrolling. But yeah, so I would say diagnostic first.

Before we jump into tactics, but TikTok is definitely something that more universities need to pursue. And one of the things that I always say, if you’re gonna pursue social media, do not put like an entry level Intern on social media. Social media is strategy. Social media is communication. Social media is how do you position yourself in the right light?

And often people will put somebody too junior in those types of roles, but I’m like, that is your business. That is who you are. And that super junior person may not be able to communicate effectively cuz they don’t know yet.

That, that’s a very valid point, especially for, businesses who hire social media interns and it is no fault of theirs, right?

There’s still a lot of college doing internship programs and they expect them to do wonders overnight. Very valid point raised there. Talking about content, storytelling about, how the journey would look like versus, like you mentioned, very apt example there.

Find your purpose, but how do I do that? And what is the journey towards finding that purpose, that, that entire story, this is all storytelling when it comes to content. It becomes very critical for me to be able to understand if I’m here, I have to reach here. What is that journey is gonna look like, right?

So how do you tailor, higher education content strategy to align with different stages of the student journey, starting from filling up the form to getting to school or university. So how do devise that strategy and what important factors or parameters do you consider while doing that?

Absolutely. So that really comes into that level of strategy, what makes you unique but then also what somebody needs to know at different parts of the journey. So at first, what someone needs to know Here, I’ll give you an analogy of a car, because, if I’m looking for, I have three kids, so I need a car that could fit all five people in my family.

So that’s criteria. So what we all go through is a certain level of criteria. Do you meet that criteria? And in higher ed there’s four criteria. Do you have my program, do you offer it online or on ground? How, what does it cost? And then, there’s also there’s one more. There’s four Ps in it.

I can’t remember what the, so positioning, I’ll think of it in a few minutes. But really students wanna know, do you have a program? Can I afford it? And then where is it located? And those are the key ones. And then So students have to go through that. So make sure that they understand clearly this is the program.

A lot of universities just market themselves and it’s really hard to find what actual degree programs they offer. And it’s like how you’re selling these. Look at them as e-commerce, look at them as each program it should have its own p and l. And then how are you positioning each program and how are so those are really important for universities to think about.

So you have, let’s say, TikTok or Instagram and you have your LinkedIn bio. That’s your, one of your first touch points. So how does your LinkedIn bio? Don’t just drop ’em off on the homepage of your website. Take ’em to a specific page that has some key pieces of information that someone early in the journey needs to know about you, including how easily can they find your program? How easily can they find the modality? How easily can they find the location? So make that really accessible. Cause those are the first things that people need to know. What’s the tuition? How can I easily get to it? Once they have those things, on the tuition page you should have links to your program page and on your program page links to tuition.

Cuz on your website, getting them to the key things that they’re looking for is really vital. And that’s a part of the student journey. Make sure they could answer those key criteria, and then identify, does this car fit five people? Okay, it fits five people. Now I can go to the next thing.

Let’s look at the cool features and bells and whistles and what it costs. So that’s, that’s how we start to go through it. People who are looking for a degree program do the same thing. And if universities could think that way, that they’re really just shopping and what are the key things they’re looking for, let’s make sure we make it easy for them to get to that.

But to go back to your first question of, when somebody first wants to know about your program, they just wanna see, do you have my degree program early on? So right. The first kind of touches is, do you have that? But the second touches is why us? Why would you wanna enroll at this university?

What can we do for you that no one else can do for you? And that’s really that middle journey, right? That’s now we’re really trying to sell you a little bit on what makes us so unique. And then the end of that journey is part of that student journey is how do we make this easier for you?

How do we remove those hurdles? How do we make this something that you love? And even if there is some hurdles, you’ll, you’re willing to jump over them. If I did a good job having you fall in love with us. That’s really important.

Just to add on to that p which you know wanted to speak about.

So the P’s that we follow is obviously, product, price, place and positioning. All of these are so critical to be able to understand value. You actually, place and position your product or your program offerings. So that is, why us becomes so critical, like you mentioned.

Yes. And program length is one of the other ones that I couldn’t remember, but students wanna know, is it 12 months, 24 months, 36 months? Like they, they want, so just making sure that we, have that really clear so that they could more clearly identify if this is for them.

Yeah, and we all talk about backlinks from external sites right at all times because it gets you traffic and we are also wowed about it.

But a very valid point mentioned by you in terms of the internal linking happening, from the main page to my program page. And I really do not have to go through and understand all of that you offer. I just need to understand what is there for my program or the course that I am looking out for.

So there’s internal links become so critical in order to help that prospect, deep dive with and understand more about the exact thing that he or she’s looking for. So that is, that becomes critical in your website journey. Yeah, please.

I often suggest, I was just gonna say, I often suggest universities add a tab or put it in like new students and then take them on a journey in that tab that says, these are the key things that people want to know.

Here’s how to fill out financial aid. But these, most students have very similar needs of becoming a. Prospective student, and you could actually just bundle to your point, all of those in kind of one section and then you could interlink ’em, which is helps with websites, but I’m not even talking about you.

You wanna always do that for SEO and just kept making sure your website is healthy. But I just mean from a usability perspective, that user, how do we have more empathy for them and how do we make that a clear journey? Like a student journey. They march this way and they have to check off, okay, this has this.

I’m gonna know. Invest more time because you’ve earned it. Like you’ve shown me that this is meeting all my criteria, now I’ll do the next step.

Absolutely. To create that urge to move ahead and, yeah. Learn more and more on that website versus, it not being engaging and I’m moving out of the website looking for more options out there.

And, talking about options, there is always competition online. And how do you do your competitor analysis when it comes to, X course being offered across universities. And, how do you do competitive analysis for your clients and what are the critical parameters that you look at while doing so?

So I definitely look at within a certain, generally within a 30 mile radius and sometimes bigger, just depends. You convert the best within 30 miles of wherever your university is because you have the most brand recognition. There’s always some schools, Harvard, we all have brand recognition of Harvard no matter where you are in the world, right?

But for most universities it’s within a certain geo of where they’re located. But you start with within a certain re what are the universities? And then you ask the people at the university, Hey, who do you normally lose students to? Or who do you think are our biggest competitors?

And then potentially you ask students too what are the other schools that you considered? And then you put that on your list and then you start to do competitive research. So we often, we do that as an agency, we look at what is their tuition, their programs, which ones have the same programs, which ones have different programs.

We look at program length. We really understand the how are we really competing against them? And then we also dig into, From an SEO perspective and a Google perspective, how are they spending money? Where there’s so many tools that we can do competitor research, so we understand. Are they running display ads?

What do the display ads look like? Are they doing Google ads? Are they, how from an SEO perspective, let’s audit their website? How much traffic is one getting versus the other? And what kind of words are driving that traffic? How sophisticated is that competitor versus me, as the base and we put that together and say, okay, this is where you stand as a benchmark and this is where they stand.

So from one university in North Carolina, we mapped it. Even on a tuition basis, here’s where you are on tuition compared to them and you’re right in the center. Which is a good story to tell, but also not you can’t say we’re the most affordable, right? Cuz you’re in the center. But you could say we’re more affordable.

So the verbiage makes a difference. Yeah. And so we get a sense of what those competitors are and we get a sense of how the competitors are positioning themselves too, because we don’t wanna position ourselves exactly like they do. We want to be different. So then that’s that conversation of how do we differentiate If they’re saying this, they’re saying small class sizes for or maybe they’re saying four-week classes.

Okay, so you have five-week classes, so maybe we don’t wanna lean in too strong on that one because on Google Ads they have it in the descriptions. Maybe we wanna lean in on these things so that, that’s, that helps us where, how strong we lean in on some of their unique propositions, if they have any.

Absolutely and no. In cases of universities and schools, local search becomes really critical, right? Because of obvious reasons. So how do you ensure that, a university’s website, taking the case of a university is optimized for local search? And what strategies have you found out of your experience of 20 plus years now to be most effective in this regard, talking about local search.

So local search is such a great Competitive advantage because most universities are not sophisticated enough in how they spend their budget, where they spend their budget. So really any form of agency, the biggest thing that they have to do now is just an education to get the university client to understand how important this is and to commit time and money.

So one of the challenges is most universities are pulling back on budget, but this is so incredibly imperative, like things like Performance Max. Really optimizing the Google profile, especially if they have different campus locations, one per campus location. Optimizing things like even their Instagram, biolink, little things like that so that when someone does making sure they’re using hashtags with their location in them optimizing, creating blog posts or article, programmatic pages that have the location or the main city that they could anchor.

Like I’m in Orlando. But we have little suburbs city called Winter Park. I’m probably not going to say Winter Park. I’m always gonna lean on Orlando even though that university might be in Winter Park cuz it’s just, people say Orlando. So really understanding what’s the city that you could anchor with, and just creating content that’s SEO optimized for the location for the program, and generic content that says college in Orlando Colleges, and using those variations and creating a fair amount of content. Related to those local terms. But for most universities, I would say Orlando is pretty competitive, but for most locations it’s not very competitive again, because they’re not sophisticated enough to be competitive.

So that’s actually a really big advantage.

Great. Lovely understanding your thoughts on this, Renee. And before we let you go, we, want you to play a rapid fire with us. I hope you are game for it. Sure. Yeah, let’s try it. Great. So what did you do with your first paycheck in life?

As an agency owner or in life?

In life when you first started off in life?

Okay. I started, oh gosh, I started babysitting when I was 10. So I have been working since I was 10 years old, so I have been working over 30 years. I’m due for retirement, but I say it’s because my parents were immigrants.

I really just bought, saved money so I could buy things like toothpaste for myself. There wasn’t anything fun, but I did save and buy my own car and pay for my own college. And I didn’t really take out any debt, so really, I had three jobs in college and made it through with little to no debt.

So that was pretty exciting, boring stuff, right? I didn’t go and buy a fancy car.

No, that’s actually meaningful. It’s all right. Yeah. Use the word meaningful, not boring. And where do we find you on Friday evenings Post office.

We do a family dinner with our family and then some extended family that all lives in the same community.

So we generally all get together. The cousins get together, they play, and and it’s just it’s a lovely bonding time for everybody.

Ah, okay. For the last one month, all the podcasts that I’ve done, everyone has a family person on, I should skip this question now.

It’s yeah. When you have little kids, my kids are pretty young. They’re all in elementary school, so you’re trying to savor those sweet little moments before they don’t wanna hang out with you anymore,

very true. I really, of life and you what is your next vacation?

I think we’re still pretty open. So not sure, but we just got back from the Dominican Republic and that was amazing. We swam with dolphins and we did just some really fun adventures and that was probably the first time our kids were old enough to they ziplined. Which was a little bit crazy cuz I don’t think it was that safe, but it was really fun.

So yes, and we weren’t really connected at any point, so we could have just fallen off the ledge. So didn’t the Costa Rica was a lot safer than this but no, that was, it was really fun and exciting and we’re just planning out what do we do for the rest of the year.

Great. Super Renee. Thank you for being such a sport and yeah, lovely understanding your insights about higher ed, and digital marketing, and I’m sure our audiences would’ve benefited a lot hearing those insights, to those valuable tricks in terms of how to go about, Doing SEO, and additional marketing for universities or schools. So thank you so much for Yeah, and it was lovely speaking with you.

Thank you. I was gonna say, I wanna leave with one parting gift. If you do work in the higher ed space and you find it frustrating and they move really slowly or not at all. It’s really common. So I just wanted to say, just keep the fight alive if you’re in higher ed, because they do frustrate you with their indecision and they’re really slow moving decisioning decisions in first place.

Just keep going. Eventually it’ll pay off.

Thank you. Thank you for that motivation. And yeah. How do our audiences find you out?

Sure, visit ellisonellery.com. We have some amazing content on there too. Videos and blogs. And then Renee Seltzer on TikTok and Ellison Ellery on Instagram and all of that.

So we’re there.

So thank you so much, Renee. It was lovely speaking with you. Bye.



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