5 Essential Digital Marketing Tips for 2020

Posted on December 16, 2019

Do you ever get caught up in a whirlwind of acronyms, analytics, and data? Lots of marketers do. My advice? Keep it simple. Stay focused. Avoid the noise of algorithms (they’re changing constantly) and pocket these five evergreen guidelines for digital marketing as you head into 2020. Huge h/t to the awesome presenters from Digital Summit (Carlos Gil; Scott Calderwood, SAS Institute; Leigh George, Freedom) for drilling down on these tips.

1. Don’t think like a marketer, think like a student/prospect.

I know, I know. It’s common sense. But how many of us take a step back and think about our prospects before we make marketing decisions? Do you really need 34 fields on your Open House sign-up form?roll-your-eyes-gif When you register for a conference, wouldn’t you be rolling your eyes if the form took ages to fill out? Make your marketing decisions based on the success of your prospects, not your brand.

I mean, look at social media; social media from a brand standpoint is broken. We’re under intense pressure to make sure it works, but it doesn’t when we take the “social” out of social media and use it only to sell, sell, sell. Relevant content has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with what’s relevant to YOUR audience. Dive into those metrics to know what’s relevant and what isn’t, and think first about educating or engaging your audience instead of selling. If you consistently engage your audience, you build a loyal community, and then you don’t have to sell—they’ll do it for you.

2. Test everything (or anything).

You’ve heard of A/B testing, and maybe you’ve even started to test your email subject lines or a CTA here and there. But how many of us test and iterate every ounce of our marketing efforts? Remember, any improvement is an improvement. Here’s my challenge to you: start testing something you haven’t been testing. Be curious. Never assume you know the answer, and prepare to be humbled—what you think will win the test may actually lose by a landslide. But really, you can never fail with testing, only learn. Add up some small wins and make ongoing, incremental improvements. Test, retest, and test again. (And hugely important: document your efforts! Keep a running tab of test outcomes that your team can easily access.) Your marketing efforts and all those acronyms (CTR, CPC, CVR, CPA) will thank you.

3. The challenge in 2020 is not reaching people, it’s avoiding bad experiences.

You’ve probably had an experience where you felt like your phone or smart home device was listening to you. Maybe you saw an ad, but never searched for it, or have no memory of trying to find it, but your phone just “knows” you want it. Now I’m not saying your phones are listening in to your conversations, but for me, this hammers the point home: in 2020, the challenge isn’t reaching your audiences.

Remember Blockbuster? Rows and rows of VHS tapes in their trademark blue & yellow sleeves, shelves of candy by the checkout, “Be Kind, Rewind?” Blockbuster is dead. #RIP (but shoutout to the last stalwart of nostalgia in Bend, Oregon). But make no mistake—Netflix didn’t kill Blockbuster, late fees did. It’s the same story we see again and again; Uber didn’t kill taxis, limited access and fare control did; Apple didn’t kill the music industry, being forced to buy full-length albums did; Amazon didn’t kill other retailers, poor customer service and experience did. The challenge in 2020 is avoiding bad experiences. In higher ed, even more so than other industries, institutions should be helping their “consumers” with their passions, not the other way around. Ask yourself how your purpose intersects with that passion, and how you can make an impact on the challenges that matter most to your students. Stop thinking like a marketer and start thinking like a student, and avoid experiences you wouldn’t want to go through yourself.

A few thought starters: Are your admissions events giving families the most memorable experience you can? Do you offer the majors that are the most popular in today’s economy? Are you connecting with prospects on a real, genuine level with every interaction?

4. Though technology promises to connect us like never before, we are more isolated than ever.

Gen Zers are digital natives. They’ve never known a world without internet and constant connectivity, and they’ve probably never been to a Blockbuster (again, #RIP). Let that sink in. But despite that connectedness, young people today are lonelier than ever before. Now, I’m not one to demonize social media, and I won’t draw causation where there is none, but we can’t ignore this fact. We have to bring people together in real and meaningful ways. We have to build community. And higher education brands are in the perfect position to do just that.

By default, higher ed institutions bring people together around shared interests. Whether you’re a big school with thousands of fans of your athletic teams or a small liberal arts institution with a close-knit campus community, don’t take that community for granted. Ask yourself a few questions: What can you do to help connect the community you serve? What could you do at your location or online to support your community? What can you do to make your customers’ (students’) lives _________ ? Fill in that blank with something unique to your institution, and go make it happen.

This is especially important for your online programs—how can you make distance learners feel like part of the on-ground community? (We’re a big fan of emotional and beautiful welcome kits.)

5. Customers are conflicted: We value personalization but don’t trust brands’ use of our data.

Do you give Alexa (or Siri or Google) the side-eye every now and again? They’re listening, right? Should they be? Am I creeped out or is this just part of life now? To be fair, I don’t think you’re wrong to be a little wary of who has your data and how they use it. But at the same time, I know you’re way more likely to open an email if it’s got your first name or a coupon for those items you left in your shopping cart. We want the personalization, but we don’t trust the brands with the data to make that possible.

So what does that mean for you as a marketer? You’re collecting data, whether from buying names or from applications, online forms, etc., so what are you doing with it? Be transparent about the data you have, and use it to make your users’ experience better. What data can you share to provide the insight your customers could benefit from? What parts of your institution would your students/prospects want to understand better? Apple, Instagram, and Facebook have all implemented features to show users how they’re spending time on their phones, rather than hiding data they collect. But don’t miss this: all of these companies directly benefit from you spending more time on your phone. It might feel counterintuitive to be transparent with your users, but I encourage you to give it a shot.

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