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5 Tips for Higher Education Inbound Marketing Success

How can we better engage our alumni?

Why are our donation numbers down from last year?

Why do the majority of our funds come from a small minority of donors?

These are just a few of the questions that higher-education institutions regularly ask the alumni relations and fundraising departments. Many higher education institutions rely on outside funding to cover core educational and university costs, so it’s essential to find ways to attract and engage donors.

“Fifty years ago, state funding covered 90 percent of core educational costs; as of 2014-15, it covered about 40 percent of the core budget and 15 percent of the overall UW-Madison budget. That has meant the university has had fewer core dollars to attract outside funding and maintain the quality of a UW-Madison education.”

University of Wisconsin at Madison

The efficacy of any marketing effort depends on your ability to make your brand story part of the audience’s life, to create an emotional bond. While this tends to be a challenge for marketers in many industries, this is one area that alumni relations is ahead of the game. Alma-maters already have a powerful emotional association with the brand. The challenge for higher education is to convert alumni passion into donations. 

One of the most efficient ways to regularly engage alumni and build a sustainable and scalable donation program is through inbound marketing.Inbound marketing employs the development of strategic assets such as blog posts, videos, eBooks, whitepapers, etc to share relevant and timely content with your target audience. Compared to phone calls and expensive mailers, inbound marketing takes a more organic, non-interruptive approach to managing alumni relations. Chief Marketer recently reported that the average ROI of an email campaign is 28.5 percent while the ROI of a direct mail campaign averages 7 percent. When executed correctly and consistently, inbound marketing results lead to stronger, long-term alumni relationships with a much lower price tag and an ROI of 3800 percent

At its core, inbound is anything that provides a tremendous amount of value to your target customer without asking anything from them in return.
A.J. Agrawal, Alumnify

When the conditions for success are in place, an inbound marketing program enables higher education institutions to transform their alumni marketing efforts and deliver personalized customer experiences that engage, delight, and, most importantly, drive donor dollars.

Here are 5 tips for higher education inbound marketing success. 

1. Segment and understand your target audience.

To be ready for inbound you need to start with an understanding of your donors. Who are you currently talking to? Who is your target audience? How would they want to connect with you? These are all important questions that you need to ask before you do anything else. No single donor will be the same, but by asking the right questions you’ll start noticing patterns, which will help you start building a deeper understanding of your target audience to ultimately create your alumni personas. These personas will guide the strategies and tactics for your inbound marketing efforts.

A good way for alumni relations to begin the segmentation process is to identify the characteristics of the upcoming graduating class. How can you present all the alumni benefits, discounts, and offerings in a way this graduating class would want to engage with? What unique associations does this graduating class have with the institution? There should be a difference in the content used to engage a recent grad versus someone who graduated 20 years ago.  

2. Start the conversation with the “Why”.

Your story should be the core of every marketing message. It’s the reason people donate, participate, and, most importantly, care about your organization. You need to deliver a consistent message that accurately tells your “why” – why you do what you do, and how that why relates to your audience’s personal or professional lives.

Higher education inbound marketing isn’t just about driving donations. It’s about providing alumni with useful and timely information. For example, a graduating senior is likely unaware of all the alumni perks. From discounts on health insurance, online shopping, and local eateries to a huge network of resources, career services, and financial services, prospective donors need to understand how they will benefit from their donations. Inbound marketing can help alumni relations show off all it has to offer.

3. Understand the donor’s journey.

Today’s consumers control how, when, and where they consume information. It’s important to remember that the customer is the hero; your brand is merely a guide to help them on their journey. Understanding the Customer BuyWay, or donor journey, is a critical first step for inbound marketing success. 

You can start with some educated guesswork on how alumni become aware of donation opportunities, where they go when considering donating, what kind of information will make them connect with the university and make that decision to donate, and finally what are the avenues that donors look for to make others aware of donation opportunities. These are all critical steps to getting started in understanding the journey. Once you have the hypothesis, build out some tests, and see how that resonates with your donor personas. This will be where you learn and adjust to get the most out of your marketing dollars. You must always be testing and evaluating the ways to reach and engage alumni and prospective donors.

4. Set the right goals.

Inbound marketing goals must go beyond just increasing donations. The beauty of inbound is it gives brands the ability to build a life-long relationship with alumni supporters; to regularly deliver memorable experiences that sustain the emotional connection and inspire brand advocates.

Inbound methodology is focused on building relationships to generate and sustain long-term results. It’s common to feel frustrated in the early days as inbound efforts may not outperform in the short-term the same way as an outbound strategy. That’s why it is important to set S.M.A.R.T goals: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-based. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the “top of the funnel” metrics and prioritize the leads, but it’s important to keep tracking your conversion metrics. If your traffic is not converting you might have a messaging problem. Focus your objectives on the final goal and adjust the steps along the way to get there.

5. Make email accuracy a top priority.

Did you know that 30 percent of consumers change email addresses every year? That number is even higher when it comes to business email addresses.

When it comes to successful inbound marketing, email deliverability is everything. It’s critical to maintain a healthy email list by removing inactive contacts and email addresses that bounce.

Inbox service providers (ISP) like Gmail, Yahoo, and Microsoft use intelligent algorithms to identify where incoming messages are placed. They basically keep tabs on how your messages perform — bounces, unsubscribes, spam reports, opens, clicks — and give you a ‘sender rating’. High bounces or unsubscribes can lead to a low sender rating and deliverability problems. For example, at many ISPs, if a contact doesn’t open your messages for an extended period of time, the messages are automatically sent to the spam folder. However, if there are hundreds of contacts not opening your email at the same ISP, all messages you send to every contact at that ISP will be directed to the spam folder.

Inbound marketing can be a highly effective strategy for your alumni marketing efforts. However, in order to generate sustainable results, it’s critical to have the conditions for success in place before launching your inbound marketing program. Download our helpful checklist to help you successfully launch an inbound marketing program.





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