Only pay for results: Performance marketing for colleges and universities

Ken Leren, founder of Marketing Town, explains digital performance marketing, and how it can help the HE and FE sectors reach more diverse demographics

For a sector that has seen massive change in the past decade and now faces renewed pressure to expand its reach to be more inclusive, it is puzzling for digital marketers to see further education still relying so heavily on bus shelter and poster advertising to fill lecture rooms.

It was probably a tried and tested formula that worked a decade or more ago. Now, the rise in tuition fees to a maximum of £9,000 per year means there are more further education colleges offering a wider breadth of courses than ever before.

That’s not to mention the infinite-sized classrooms offered by online learning. It means further education and vocational skills training organisations need a far greater reach than ever before.

Is digital the answer?


College and skills training organisations need to ask themselves if these general ‘awareness’ channels are where people find out about and research the course they eventually go on to book? Is using the same methods year-in and year-out going to help them reach a wider socio-economic group to boost diversity?

When The Guardian asked British universities to reveal how much they invest in marketing, the top spenders were around the £3m a year mark. Several institutions claimed to spend very little or virtually nothing, beyond hosting open days, because of their reputation. The paper pointed out this was hard to stack up against a claimed drive from elite institutions to be reaching out to a more diverse range of students from less privileged backgrounds.

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Is it not more likely, then, that new audiences from a wider demographic need to be targeted online? Colleges, universities and skill training businesses have become more adept at offering courses over the internet and transforming paper-based administration systems to become more digitally streamlined. Yet, when it comes to transforming who they appeal to, digital seems to be an after-thought, well behind posters and ads on the side of a bus.

Only pay for results


It is possible that many institutions have small, busy marketing teams who fear embracing digital marketing could be expensive and complicated. They may well feel they have ticked off the digital box by posting on a social media channel or two, perhaps even supplemented with a small budget for display advertising.

However, that really is just speaking to people who already know about them. To try a new channel to reach out to new audiences probably seems a little risky. What they may not realise, though, is there is a digital marketing option that only pays on results.

While marketers may be aware of the likes of Pepsi and Ford spending millions on digital advertising in the hope people buy fizzy drinks and cars, the performance marketing industry has a very different proposition. It only charges for results.

To try a new channel to reach out to new audiences probably seems a little risky. What they may not realise, though, is there is a digital marketing option that only pays on results.

If a college, university or skills training provider wants to reach out to attract more students – perhaps from different geographic areas, more diverse backgrounds or for courses which are harder to fill – they can simply ask a digital marketing partner, or affiliate, to do that for them. The client would then only pay for a deliverable result. It could be a prospectus order, a booking for an open day or a confirmed booking to join an online course.

The affiliate may use digital advertising to attract interest in a further education establishment’s courses, or through engaging content on an education site or blog. It could be utilising its extensive email marketing database. The channel used may vary but the proposition of only pay for a pre-determined result remains the same.

Help with performance marketing


To work properly, there needs to be an organisation running the network of colleges as clients and affiliate marketers as suppliers. It almost goes without saying that a further education or skills business needs to know they are dealing with reputable partners who pass on people who are truly interested in signing up to their course or skills training.

Performance marketing not only needs a platform to ensure clients only work with reputable affiliates, but also to go the extra mile and match them with those that have had the best success in attracting high calibre candidates from the target audience for the courses being prioritised. A platform can also use sophisticated software to ensure campaigns are performing to the agreed standard and make recommendations on which partners a client might also try for new campaigns or to extend existing ambitions.

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It can be tempting to stick to what you know best, but further education and vocational training is going to struggle to fill the multitude of courses now on offer if they stick to just printed messages.

When the industry has moved on so much and uses digital for internal transformation of administration systems, it seems remiss of marketers not to reach out through performance marketing. Using a new approach can utilise new, digital avenues to engage with a wider audience and tick both boxes of filling courses and widening socio-demographic reach. When payment is only made on results, it seems the perfect win-win.

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