Digital Marketing Innovations Help Montgomery College Stay Connected with Prospective Students
As the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted daily life for MC students, the College increasingly uses modern digital marketing strategies to stay connected and relevant. Combatting the tedium caused by social distancing at home, students spend more time on their devices – keeping up with friends and trends on social media, binge watching favorite programs, streaming music, and browsing the internet. In every one of those digital experiences, Montgomery College is raising its visibility as an educational resource and forging more personal connections with students looking to make their move into higher education.
“Like other colleges and universities, MC has fully embraced a digital marketing strategy to connect with our prospective students,” said Emily Schmidt, MC’s marketing and digital media director. “Of course, we have retained our more traditional media strategies, such as direct mail, print advertising, and out-of-home advertising (such as transit advertising in Metro stations or on buses), to enhance our audience reach throughout the county.”
The College’s out-of-home advertising typically garners a healthy share of audience views – seen about 75 million times a year by county residents. Other traditional media techniques, such as radio and direct mail, also help drive awareness of the Montgomery College brand. The College sends colorful postcards to almost 25,000 households of Montgomery County high school students (usually juniors and seniors) promoting MC’s tuition savings compared to other college options. And mail campaigns are sent much more broadly throughout the county to attract adult learners for workforce training or continuing education.
“Traditional media, such as cable television, which can be highly targeted within a school’s primary/secondary geographic areas, are very efficient. And focusing on high-profile networks, such as ESPN, Bravo, and news channels, helps elevate MC’s brand messaging,” said Erin Giordano, account director at JL Media, MC’s marketing firm. The firm helps the College develop efficient media buying plans and negotiates pricing to fit the budget.
This investment in advertising bolsters the College’s already dominant brand awareness in Montgomery County. MC enjoys a 92% brand awareness score among county residents, according to a 2019 research study, that’s higher than the University of Maryland, Towson University, Strayer University, and University of Phoenix.
“Montgomery College has the strongest brand awareness, yet our marketing spend is a small fraction of what other institutions spend on advertising in our market. That’s a testament to MC’s reputation as a quality institution that serves the community,” said Schmidt.
The Message Is Everything
MC’s research among existing students and county residents reveals what people most want from the higher education experience. Primarily, they want quality education at an affordable cost. They also say they want to feel welcome and included in a diverse campus environment. Supportive faculty rank highly. And they want MC to offer convenience and flexibility to fit into their busy lives, which is especially important to community college students, who are also typically working or providing care to family members, especially during the pandemic.
From the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic, MC dramatically shifted its marketing to emphasize safety and flexibility of remote learning and advising. “We know that in this unpredictable environment of pandemic and economic uncertainties, it is important to provide students options. MC is providing maximum flexibility, offering distance learning, synchronous remote, hybrid, and 100-percent in-person classes in 15-, 13-, and 7-week terms,” said Dr. Sanjay Rai, senior vice president for academic affairs.
“We are also providing short-term training programs resulting in entry-level job skills in high-demand areas to help residents who are in vulnerable occupations,” Rai says. “We remain focused, too, on high quality and rigorous academic programs that are highly transferable and have high labor market value.”
With the goals of strengthening its brand and promoting enrollment during the pandemic and beyond to a diverse population that includes more first-generation college students and nontraditional students that ever before, the College crafts its marketing messages to emphasize its lower tuition, quality, and flexibility available to students. It also underscores that education can help them achieve their goals.
Digital Reaches the Right Students in Their Languages
Leveraging its commanding brand awareness to drive enrollment for the College’s courses and engagement with community services, MC’s marketing team uses a year-round digital marketing plan that reaches prospective students with call-to-action messages designed to drive registration. The marketing can specifically promote a degree program, tuition savings, or online learning, based on each prospective student’s profile.
Rather than the typical broad approach of traditional media, digital marketing can serve MC’s messages to prospective students on an individual level. Regardless of platform – social media, streaming video or music, or internet browsing – MC’s strategies efficiently reach prospective students based on highly defined profiles for a wide variety of credit and noncredit students.
“We can deliver messages to prospective students based on their geography, such as a neighborhood or their school, their interests in online browsing and search engine history, and more traditional demographic parameters,” said Ray Gilmer, associate senior vice president for Advancement and Community Engagement.
“We had 2.5 million people visit the MC website last year,” added Gilmer. “For those website visitors, we employ a technique called ‘remarketing’ that serves Montgomery College ads over the following weeks, encouraging those people to come back to MC’s website and continue exploring educational options.”
Montgomery County’s richly diverse population provides opportunities for the College to engage with the community in their own languages. In addition to English, MC’s marketing is provided in Spanish, Amharic, Korean, Chinese, French, and Vietnamese. Response rates and enthusiasm for the non English ads are strong.
Spanish language ads for Generación Latina, a program produced by Montgomery College Television (MCTV), which features Hispanic students, alumni and youth, as well as the long-running Mi Escuela es su Escuela (My School Is Your School) efficiently drive viewership and perform better than the norm. Additionally, video and static ads appearing on Facebook, Instagram, and myriad websites promote credit, noncredit, and community resources, and link back to related MC webpages.
“The strong performance of this digital marketing, and the popularity of the video programs, tells us that MCTV is filling a void in Spanish higher education information in the county,” said Melissa Pace, managing director at MCTV.
“Through the power of digital marketing, MCTV seeks to establish and build a relationship with specific populations in our community,” added Pace. “Early on, we designed custom messaging for veterans, single parents, non-native English speakers, prospective first-generation students, those who are food insecure, and adults looking for a career change.”
Facing the Challenges of the Pandemic
Across the nation, the pandemic has disrupted enrollment at community colleges more than other institutions, according to reporting from the National Student Data Clearinghouse. The findings even show a sharp disparity among the private and public four-year colleges and universities, with only the “highly selective” schools in each sector recording increases in enrollment, suggesting that community college students, for economic and other reasons, have been especially vulnerable during the pandemic.
“Students are facing new challenges balancing school, work, and family obligations,” said Melissa Gregory, associate senior vice president for student affairs. “They are reaching out to MC for help in ways – and numbers – that we have never seen before. Thanks to the federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds we received, as well as generous donations from the community, the College has been able to help thousands of students buy food, pay rent, cover child care, and buy their school supplies – anything it takes to meet students’ short-term financial needs so they can continue to pursue their educational goals.”
Even with all the academic advantages and support that MC offers students, and the innovative marketing that helps connect students to the College like never before, the fears, economic disruption, and life uncertainty remain a formidable challenge.
“At this moment, removing barriers is paramount,” said Gilmer. “We know that students are interested in enrolling, just from seeing the strong website traffic driven directly from our marketing. Yet, life during the pandemic, and just trying to stay safe, is only adding to the traditional hurdles our students face. We’re working to chip away at those barriers, however we can, to help our students succeed.”