Leading the Elephant: 5 Higher Education Marketing Strategies for More Impactful Digital Campaigns

Strengthen how you tell your brand’s story by using these 5 higher education digital marketing strategies

In the “Happiness Hypothesis,” psychologist Jonathan Haidt introduces a compelling metaphor to describe human behavior. The metaphor uses the relationship between an elephant and its rider. The gist is that no matter how much the rider – representing rational thinking – believes himself to be the guide, it’s really the elephant – representing our emotional side – that is directing. 

Understanding the elephant and rider metaphor is to understand how the mind processes information–or, dual-system theory. Popularized by Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, dual-system theory describes human decision making through two lenses: System 1 and System 2.

System 1, or the elephant, explains the mind’s “fast, automatic, intuitive” – and often subconscious – approach to decision making. As marketers it’s important to understand that the bulk of decisions are made emotionally and instinctively, including most purchasing decisions. In a sense, the rider defaults to the elephant–reducing cognitive overload.

System 2, or the rider, explains the mind’s slower, analytical approach to decision making. System 2 is often employed when we are met with a new task or a decision that requires heavy concentration–like parallel parking. 

In most cases, we let the elephant act as a guide. As Rory Sutherland wrote for Marketing Society: “With all the will in the world, the rider cannot get an elephant to do something which it does not want to do.” The choices we make have more to do with mental shortcuts and how we feel about something, instead of rationale. 

When developing higher education marketing campaigns, this System 1 and System 2 dynamic can be extremely beneficial. Not only can it strengthen your efforts but create a guide to reinforce your brand’s story from ad to landing page. 

Designing Digital Ads for System 1

“Sparks come from emotion, not information.” Dan Heath

Humans’ primary mode of cognition is System 1 thinking–defined primarily by intuitive, associative and subconscious thought. To put it another way, this system excels at reducing decision making. To save mental energy our brain creates automatic shortcuts, or heuristics. Heuristics are created when our mind processes information and then connects that information to our experiences. For example, when someone says “green,” we often think “grass.” 

For higher education marketers, the quickest way to “build” a heuristic is through repetition or emotion. Both help to maintain mental networks, improve saliency and linkage within the communication during the split-second consumers give to an ad. In a sense, designing ads with System 1 in mind helps to ensure that prospective students can process our brand with little effort and create an emotive link between the brand and a proposition. 

Reinforce System 2 Thinking with Landing Pages

“If people want to use your brand, they will find a logical rationale themselves. But the wanting must come first.” David Ogilvy 

When we need to employ greater mental effort to undertake a new task or concentrate on something complex, System 2 takes over. While System 1 is often automatic, System 2 is deliberate, orderly and rationale. If we can make the argument that a click signifies intent, then it is likely that landing page visitors will use System 2 in some capacity. 

To optimize for System 2 thinking, we need to appeal to reason. Humans are great at post-rationalizing our consumption behavior. Facts and functional benefits help reinforce a consumer’s emotional response or act as a motivator for consumption-related goals. According to ThinkTV’s The Benchmark Series, emotion-driven ads may act as an important primer for rational ads, as a student progresses through the funnel. 

For higher education marketers, optimize your landing page with “reasons to believe” that align with your primary advertising message. A useful exercise is to uncover what a prospective student might tell a friend why they applied to an institution. A school’s football team may be a key driver, but the starting salary of an engineering graduate or an internship pipeline is a stronger reinforcement.

Strengthening the alignment between digital ads and landings pages is an important digital marketing strategy for higher education marketers. Below we’ll show you how to design digital ads with System 1 in mind and reinforce System 2 thinking with landing pages. 

5 Digital Marketing Strategies for Higher Education Marketers 

1. Design for Distinctiveness

If designing for System 1 means making identifying our brand easy, then investing in branded elements across ads and each landing page is key. As part of any branding project, determine what brand elements you’ll invest in for the long-term. Brand elements can be a logo, color palette, design aesthetics and imagery. The more elements you can own, the more connections you can quickly create and maintain memorability. If they remain consistent from ad to landing page, the more likely these elements will become coded into memory.

2. Build Memory Structures

Just as higher education marketers can create “branded” shortcuts from communications to a brand, we can also elicit an emotional response that creates, shapes or reinforces lasting memory. These responses, or memory structures, are what tie together emotion and feelings to a brand and are more likely to move to memory. We know that marketing higher education is to sell an improved quality of life, so thinking through both the benefits and barriers of obtaining this goal, can help identify ownable emotional links to the brand. For example, Coca-Cola has invested billions linking both their name and brand assets to happiness. We can see this effort when their ads feature moments that spark happiness – mostly around food and a Coke playing a supporting role. The more these moments are repeated, the more likely we are to think about Coca-Cola when making a purchase decision related to moments around food. 

3. Create an Intuitive Link Between Brand and Jobs to be Done

Plan your landing page’s primary image like a narrative. Prospective students click over to your landing page in search of a solution. The image you select should act as a bridge – or appropriately illustrate this problem-solution dynamic. For example, if your primary message is that your students have the opportunity to create real-world impact, your image should reflect this impact. Because humans can process images quickly, marketers can use them to embed multiple brand cues which can strengthen the appropriate key connections to the brand.

4. Use a Benefits-Driven Headline and Action-Oriented Subhead

As prospective students move from an ad to a landing page, they are quickly establishing patterns and assessing where to direct their attention (i.e. System 1). Cohesion and simplicity are important. A benefit-driven headline quickly answers your audiences’ product-related question and provides impactful rationale for their interest. Depending on their level of intent, this is yet another opportunity to link a key benefit or emotion to your brand. Similarly an action-oriented subhead quickly points to what they should do. Together, this framework helps to reduce cognitive dissonance between ad and landing page.

5. Provide Social Proof

Social proof is one of the most vastly studied heuristics – or cognitive biases. Humans have a powerful desire to fit in and the quickest way to learn a behavior is to observe the crowd. Using social proof in a marketing context helps to quickly establish who a typical end user is as well as reinforce normative behavior or beliefs. Testimonials on landing pages is a common practice. What can move testimonials from a fill-in-the-black exercise to a System 1 and System 2 engaging element is to reinforce your “reasons to believe” while aligning key memory structures. Use the testimonial to reflect your typical student and provide a powerful quote that communicates your benefits in an emotional way, not necessarily repeating your value proposition. 

What do you think?

These higher education marketing strategies provide a useful way to think through how you tell your brand’s story from ad to landing page. Whether you’ve found success using them or want to start a conversation on how you might incorporate them into your next recruitment campaign, let us know!

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