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How to excel in higher education marketing and public relations in 2024

Jun 14, 2024 | EdTech

Strategic communication is all about developing mutually beneficial relationships with audiences on which the success or failure of your organization depends. When it comes to higher education marketing, there is a big diversity of audiences that educational institutions must cater to, requiring a personalized approach to how messages are crafted, when and where they are shared, and how the success of campaigns is measured. In addition, the advent of AI is dynamically redefining the landscape of media and the process of how people find information.

DreamApply’s education CRM is used not only to streamline student admissions but also as a tool for marketing and public relations. To dive into strategic communication in higher education, we’ve invited  Lisa Schmidtke, who has 25 years of leadership experience in marketing and PR management, to the EdTech and Pancakes podcast.

As the former Director of the Cronkite Agency at Arizona State University, Lisa brings a wealth of knowledge on strategic communication in higher education. She has also served as the General Manager of Allison and Partners, a global marketing agency that works with clients across various industries, including medtech, start-up tech companies and economic development organizations. Before that, Lisa was the Regional Marketing Director for one of the largest healthcare systems in the U.S.

Differences between PR and marketing

Lisa shares the importance of understanding the subtle differences between public relations and marketing.

“Public relations has more to do with managing public perception of a brand or managing a service or product. It’s about working with key stakeholders and storytelling, messaging around a product or a service,” she explains.

PR involves cultivating relationships with multiple audiences and managing media relations to create a strong brand perception. It often focuses on long-term returns on investment, building and maintaining a brand’s reputation over time. Marketing, on the other hand, is more technical and results-oriented, focusing on consumer journeys and conversions.

Lisa points out, “Marketing is a little bit more of a science… it’s more about the consumer journey, and when to deliver messages using which tactics at certain points in time for a conversion.”

Marketing aims to generate immediate leads or revenue, often with measurable short-term results. The real magic happens when PR and marketing blend together, balancing long-term brand building with immediate conversions. Marketers tend to leverage more data for strategic decisions, while PR practitioners often excel in storytelling and creating authentic experiences. Together, they serve the objectives of an educational institution much more effectively.

Arizona State University’s success in marketing

Given Lisa’s experience with Arizona State University, ranked no. 1 in innovation among U.S. universities for the ninth year in a row, we asked her about the key factors behind ASU’s success in marketing. Lisa points to the role of ASU’s leadership, in elevating the university’s focus on innovation and accessibility.

“Arizona State University has been a phenomenal university for a very long time. President Crow has elevated the bar along with his leadership team around innovation, accessibility, and really providing access and opportunity to all,” she explains.

ASU’s approach includes providing education across various formats and for diverse demographics, including in-person, online, and programs for individuals with full-time jobs. Additionally, ASU has formed strong partnerships with recognized institutions in technology, healthcare, engineering, journalism, such as Open AI. These efforts are supported by a robust marketing hub, a cluster of all teams focusing on media relations, PR, marketing, advertising and storytelling, which has been instrumental in protecting and growing the university’s reputation.

Cronkite Agency’s student lab model

One of the standout topics discussed was the Cronkite Agency‘s innovative student lab model. Lisa Schmidtke implemented this model to provide students with hands-on experience in managing real-world PR and marketing campaigns. The student lab model at Cronkite Agency operates like a professional PR and marketing agency but is run by students under the guidance of experienced faculty and industry professionals. Students work on actual client projects, gaining invaluable practical experience that bridges the gap between academic learning and real-world application.

What makes a successful strategic communicator?

Lisa highlights several key traits that make a successful strategic communicator. According to her, the ability to listen and empathize is crucial. A strategic communicator must understand not just the immediate issue but also the root cause. Lisa emphasizes the importance of having a comprehensive understanding of the entire picture, which involves asking probing questions and delving into the operations of the business. This holistic approach ensures that any broken processes are identified early, as they can affect everything else down the line.

Honesty, attention to detail and excellent writing skills across various styles, particularly AP style, are also vital. Moreover, being analytical to measure the effectiveness of communication plans and having strong people skills are necessary. While one doesn’t need to be a social butterfly, confidence and the ability to relate to clients are important.

As Lisa succinctly put it, “You need to be a people person…you need to have confidence, and you need to be able to relate to people.”

How to communicate the value of a degree in higher education marketing?

Communicating the value of a degree requires addressing the long-term benefits it provides. Lisa emphasizes understanding the audience and their potential doubts.

She suggests highlighting how a degree offers enduring value and opportunities, saying, “It’s the one thing you’ve really earned that no one can take away, and what it allows is opportunity in the future.”

While some may think a degree is unnecessary for entry-level roles, Lisa points out that higher positions often require advanced qualifications. Additionally, degrees offer networking opportunities, connecting students with professionals who can influence their careers. By focusing on these aspects, institutions can effectively convey the lifelong benefits and opportunities a degree provides, mitigating the current perceptions about the lack of need for formal higher education.

Tools in PR and marketing in higher education

We asked Lisa about her favorite tools for strategic communication. Among her top picks are DreamApply integrations, including Salesforce, HubSpot, Google Suite and Analytics. Lisa emphasized the indispensability of the Google Suite for its comprehensive analytics and certification programs. For media relations, she pointed out the importance of media list-building and management tools.

Lisa also highlighted tools like Sprout Social for digital needs and noted that there are excellent free resources available, such as SEMrush’s certifications. For those in advanced stages of marketing, she recommended mastering CRM tools like Salesforce and various marketing automation platforms. As an example, consider Zapier, another DreamApply integration.

Additionally, Lisa underscored the evolving role of AI, not as a replacement but as a collaborator for brainstorming and generating ideas, stating, “It’s the way you use the tool that’s important.” These tools collectively enhance strategic communication efforts by integrating marketing with admissions management, ultimately helping institutions convert more prospects into enrolled students.

How to make sense of analytics and attribution?

Analytics play a crucial role in strategic communication, providing actionable insights to guide decision-making. Lisa highlighted the importance of working with clients or companies to determine the desired results and key performance indicators (KPIs). She noted, “You could produce reports all day long, but if the person you’re sharing them with doesn’t understand…it’s all for nothing.”

To manage the complexity of analytics, Lisa recommends using a variety of tools and plugins. She mentioned utilizing Google’s analytics reporting tools, which offer customizable templates and plugins to generate comprehensive reports. The process involves compiling data from both paid and free resources to tell a cohesive story. Understanding the cadence of reporting is also essential; some metrics need monthly tracking, while others are better suited for quarterly reviews. This approach helps in identifying when to react and adjust strategies based on performance.

How to use DreamApply for optimizing conversion value

When it comes to the analytics for higher education marketing specifically, you can measure the conversion value of all your enrollment-related campaigns with DreamApply. Let’s say you get clicks from PPC ads or trigger the interest of future students in an onsite event. How will you know how many of them progress to register an application and complete it? You can easily measure levels of intent and progression through your funnel with the UTM tracking feature in DreamApply’s Marketing Add-on.

With clear insights into which channels drive completed applications, you will be able to optimize your ROI based on conversion value instead of vanity metrics. This is one of the reasons why institutions like Pavia University have achieved unprecedented results with DreamApply such as a 1000% increase in student applications in 5 years.

List of topics discussed in episode 8

  1. Taste of the episode
  2. Introduction to Lisa Schmidtke
  3. Lisa’s journey to PR and marketing
  4. Impact of journalism background on PR Career
  5. Differences between PR and marketing
  6. What can PR and marketing professionals learn from each other?
  7. Arizona State University’s success in marketing
  8. Cronkite Agency and student lab models
  9. What makes a successful strategic communicator?
  10. Communicating the value of a degree in higher education marketing
  11. Ethics and integrity in strategic communications
  12. Crisis communication and anticipating risks
  13. Tools in PR and marketing
  14. Uniqueness of paid social, SEM and SEO
  15. Analytics and attribution
  16. Personalization: pitfalls and best practices
  17. Choosing the right platforms and formats
  18. Audience segmentation and buyer personas
  19. Future of strategic communications with AI
  20. Word association game
  21. The importance of building the right team and final thoughts

Watch the full episode of EdTech and Pancakes with Lisa Schmidtke

Listen to the audio version of the podcast on DreamApply’s website, Spotify or iTunes.  

About DreamApply  

Founded in 2011 in Estonia, DreamApply is an innovation-driven EdTech organization that improves access to education around the globe. DreamApply’s application management software helps more than 300 educational institutions across 40 countries to improve admissions, marketing, financial and other internal processes.  

DreamApply’s easy-to-use and customizable software increases student enrollment by 30% and reduces application processing time by 40%. With features designed with and for educational institutions, and integrations with commonly used systems, DreamApply empowers teams to get more done with less effort.  

Continue exploring by requesting your free, personalized demo.  

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