What admission teams can learn from global warming


It always disappoints me when people say it’s too late to correct the course of climate change. When they say we should reach for the low-hanging fruit, taking only those easy actions that do little to move us toward the future we hope for. Year after year, instead of making real change, we often default to the same tired measures while watching the planet spiral behind our screens, claiming there’s nothing we can really do. 

While I am not a climate expert by any means, I am an expert in digital marketing, and the similarities between the two fields are as apparent as they are unexpected. And I’m sounding the alarm: resigning to lead generation as the answer to mounting recruitment challenges is ineffectual at best and harmful at worst — but it’s not too late to change our approach. If we allow lead-gen companies to define the solution to the student recruitment funnel, they’ll define themselves as the answer. However, just like we can still change the narrative of the climate crisis, we can still change the trajectory of our admission efforts. 

Students are our communities’ and our universities’ most precious resource, the hearts of our institutions. There’s so much talk in higher education about being student-centered and serving the next generation of learners. But graduating classes are not self-renewing, and the way we choose to recruit says something significant about how we view our students and their families, as well as our commitment to opportunity in higher ed.

Seeing the Problem Clearly 

The term global warming is often met with resistance. People jump to discredit the issue or avoid its seriousness. Even now, I can hear echoes of “It still snows in Ohio!” from past holiday gatherings. For some, it’s easier to accept that climate is constantly changing than to accept that the earth is warming. So much so that political strategist Frank Luntz advised the Bush administration to use climate change rather than global warming because it was a “less frightening” phrase than the latter. 

This has been bad for all of us, and even Luntz admitted as much later on. We’ve softened the issue and exchanged short-term comfort for long-term certainty. 

Similarly, it’s easier for admission teams to focus on lead gen, year in and year out, than to address the real issues of diminishing recruitment: Fewer students are going to college. And more students have more options than ever before. 

You can only “lead gen” your way out of doing the actual work for so long before it’s over for you. By itself, it’s momentary mitigation, not a sustainable strategy. When we ignore the severity of the issue and focus on short-term wins that address a single goal, we are forgoing important, life-changing work that allows future generations to benefit from all your institution has to offer. This is why we must move from lead generation to intentional demand generation. It’s a matter of when, not if, and like global warming, we can’t put this off forever.

Defining the Solution

Lead generation and intentional demand generation are both crucial aspects of marketing, but they focus on different stages and objectives within the student acquisition process. Lead gen is an essential aspect of intentional demand generation, explicitly addressing the decrease in prospective students. By contrast, intentional demand generation encompasses a broader array of changes needed to increase student recruitment and retention. Intentional demand generation encompasses lead generation, but lead generation will never be sufficient alone. 

Lead Generation

As it’s used in higher ed, lead generation focuses specifically on identifying and collecting potential students, or “leads.” It’s about creating interest and gathering contact information from individuals who are interested in a program or degree, and making a handoff to the institution to convert that lead.

Intentional Demand Generation

Intentional demand generation is a broader strategy focused on creating interest in and then demand for an offering among a right-fit audience. To generate that target audience, we focus on creating awareness in potential students, educating and nurturing them even before they explicitly show interest, and then follow them through the matriculation funnel. The emphasis here is building relationships and trust through content, educational materials, events, or other engagement tactics unique to each institution.

Key Differences

  • Focus: Lead generation targets individuals who have shown interest or engagement, aiming to convert them into leads. Intentional demand generation creates interest and awareness among a broader audience, even before they express explicit interest.
  • Timing: Lead generation relies on prospects that may fit an interest and a handoff to internal teams for conversion. By contrast, intentional demand generation operates through every stage, often nurturing students into prospects and staying with those prospects through matriculation.
  • Approach: Lead generation often involves direct tactics to capture leads through forms, sign-ups, or specific calls to action. Intentional demand generation draws from broader strategies like content marketing, educational resources, and brand-building activities to create interest and awareness.

Both strategies are interconnected and vital for the overall marketing funnel; however, lead gen as a sole practice often leaves prospects and their families with little information or guidance. What’s the point of generating demand that won’t be a good fit, or even worse, that might negatively impact that student’s future decisions? 

It’s Time We Made a Change — But How?

  • Trust that a multi-effort approach will work. Focus on messaging, ad personalization, and user journeys that work, along with a communication strategy that encourages ongoing connection after CRM conversion. 
  • Use your first-party data often. Personalization is a massive contributor to conversion. Additionally, that same data helps you generate much better look-alike audiences.
  • Focus on engaging, unique content that addresses the questions prospects and their families are asking. 
  • Keep clear and segmented ad groups focusing on specific offers, programs, or values.
  • Create landing pages and user journeys that are easy to navigate, informative, and set up to convert efficiently. 
  • Communicate with prospects post-conversion. A “thank you” pop-up is not enough. 
  • Don’t fear having to elevate targets to a broader awareness message. You don’t always jump in the pool before dipping a toe. 

It’s not too late to start addressing the real challenge and stop looking for the easy win. As we know with the climate crisis, ignoring the issue is no win at the end of the day. It’s time for meaningful change, despite our reservations and fears.