Field Notes: 7 budget-friendly marketing tools

July 10, 2020
  • Admissions
  • Communication
  • Communications Plan
  • Marketing Research
  • field notes
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"Field Notes" is a regular Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at

by Becky Tankersley, MEd, Director of Communications, Enrollment Management, Georgia Institute of Technology and AACRAO Content Coordinator, Group I

Breaking through the noise to get the attention of high school students takes a lot of effort during “normal” circumstances; doing so amid a pandemic is a challenging endeavor. The way we live—from how we work, to how we recruit, to how classes are taught—has drastically changed during the covid-19 pandemic. 

The way we communicate has also changed. There was a time when having a virtual tour on your website was a luxury; now it’s become a necessity. Virtual events and webinars are held multiple times a day, and we’re all clamoring to stand out among the crowd in students’ inboxes and web browsing. 

Not only are we navigating a new normal with our communication methods, but we’re doing so with limited budgets (and in many cases, with budget cuts). These tightened budgets may not allow for additional funds to pay for vendor services or outside marketing firms. So how do we use what we already have to best connect with students?

As always, the best place to start is by considering where prospective students are in the enrollment funnel and in their search process. A recent article in Inside Higher Ed highlighted a survey of rising high school seniors who were unable to visit colleges for much of the year. The survey found that “while the students hope to visit campuses in person in the coming academic year, they would rely on these alternatives for now:

  • College websites: 75 percent

  • Virtual tours: 72 percent

  • Personal email from colleges: 51 percent

  • Virtual Q&A sessions: 46 percent

  • Print material from colleges: 40 percent

  • Virtual college fairs: 37 percent

  • One-on-one virtual meetings: 37 percent

  • Social media: 37 percent

  • Digital advertising: 9 percent”

The good news? A quick look at this list shows many of the tools you need to communicate with students are already in place! Now is the time to dig deeper into those assets and maximize the resources you have on hand. 

1. Take full advantage of email marketing. Cost-effective and efficient, email is a heavy lifter when it comes to communication. But are you simply sending emails, or have you created a comprehensive marketing plan? Step up your email marketing by segmenting your audience by academic interest, grade level, or other key demographics. Deliver the content they’ve already told you their interested in seeing. Provide students with information such as student profiles, application tips, academic information, and curricular opportunities. Link to stories shared on your social media handles. Ensure each message has a clear call to action, such as “apply today” or “take a virtual tour of campus.” And lastly, measure and assess your email results to identify what is working, and what is not, in your campaigns.

2. Maximize your virtual tour. Due to Covid-19, virtual tours have become the primary (and only) tool for prospective students and families to visit college campuses. If you already have a virtual tour, enhance it by creating a landing page with additional resources to connect families to the student experience on campus. Link to registration pages for webinars, and include a link to sign up for more information. If you don’t have a virtual tour, or the budget or capacity to create one, utilize organic videos taken by staff or students that can be posted on your YouTube channel. And don’t forget that “old fashioned” tools like photos can also be used to showcase your campus.

3. Host virtual Q&A sessions. If you aren’t already doing so, host a virtual session to help students get to know your school. Coordinate with high schools to host a virtual visit with their students. Ask other departments on campus to participate and highlight their offerings. Give students and families a chance to submit their questions before and during the session.

4. Optimize your website. Search engine optimization is an important step to helping students find your school or program online. Check your website analytics for most visited pages on your site. Ensure you’re using meta descriptions and keywords, along with other optimization tools, for your site. Want to learn more about SEO? Visit this article for a quick overview of SEO basics.

5. Engage students through social media. Social media is a free tool that is ideal for telling your institution’s story. Use videos and images to highlight your campus and students. Embed links to social media content on your website, in your emails, and on your print materials. Measure and assess your posts to learn what content is performing best, and continue to tailor your posts according to those analytics.

6. Utilize a blog. When it comes to marketing, content is king, and a blog is a great way to create original content. Blogs can be a key element to your communication plan, enabling multiple staff members, and even current students, to tell your school’s story. Blogs can be used for application updates or reminders. This content can be stretched even further when you share it in your email campaigns and social media posts. Not sure how to get started? Check out my previous article on what to consider before launching a blog.

7. Don’t forget about print. In a virtual world, print stands out. If your budget will not allow for a large-scale mailing, identity your institutional priorities and mail to a smaller subset. Utilize your print materials to drive your audience to your website, social media handles, and virtual visit resources. And as always, include a clear call to action on the piece.

Marketing doesn’t have to cost a fortune to be effective—the key is to be where the students are. Start by assessing how your institution uses each of the platforms mentioned above, and identify ways you can take your communications to the next level. 



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