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Gotcha! 5 Ways Marketing Agencies Dupe Schools

ways marketing agencies can tank your enrollments

Could a Your Marketing be Tanking Your Enrollments and You Don't Even Know It?

Marketing Is The Engine That Grow Colleges and Trade Schools

In our technology-saturated era, higher education institutions face ever-growing pressure to effectively promote programs, engage prospective students, and drive enrollment numbers. As a result, many turn to specialized marketing agencies promising strategy, creative firepower and results.

But not all agencies put education clients first. Some overpromise and underdeliver while others lack true specialization in the vertical. This leaves administrators frustrated by wasted budgets and questionable ROI.

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After consulting dozens of colleges and trade schools, we uncovered five common ways even well-intentioned agencies can mislead or disappoint their education clients:

#1 – Misleading Vanity Metrics

Some agencies often present schools with dashboard metrics intended to impress more than inform. Huge reach numbers, high click-through rates and inflated engagement percentages can all mask disappointing lead and applicant volumes. Pressure agencies to focus reporting on measurable, decision-driving outcomes beyond shallow vanity metrics that give a false sense of successful performance while obfuscating ROI accountability. Simply put, make sure the metrics presented map back to actual enrollment impact. No more smoke and mirrors vanity dashboards allowed!

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#2 - Cookie Cutter Campaigns

Some agencies shortcut custom strategy in favor of pre-packaged campaigns geared to the education vertical. While elements apply broadly, these templatized approaches lack the nuanced messaging and positioning needed to differentiate schools vying for the same students. One size definitely does not fit all. Ask agencies about their strategic vision specifically for your school.

#3 - Fuzzy Math

It’s common for agencies to impress prospects with big numbers around past campaign reach, engagement or recall lift. But education decision makers should insist on transparency tied to enrollment impact. If an agency touts metrics unrelated to applicant volume, funding or ROI accountability, that’s a red flag. Pressure them to show exactly how their efforts drove quantified admission rates. No more fuzzy math allowed!

#4 - Overpromising Technology

Many agencies tout proprietary tracking, analytics and optimization technologies as core selling points showcasing their enrollment marketing capabilities. But behind the curtain, these platforms tend to be third-party services loosely integrated together under a shiny brand name. Evaluate the exact capabilities and dashboard visibility provided, not the tech label itself.

#5 - Lack of Education Experience

Just because an agency lists education clients doesn’t mean they have true vertical expertise. Probe their team’s higher ed backgrounds, years in the space, academic culture fluency and enrollment marketing chops. An agency should feel like an extension of your team with shared vocabulary and priorities. Don’t settle for dabblers simply chasing sales.

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The Takeaway

Not all agencies use shady tactics. Many provide huge value driving measurable admissions growth while simultaneously lifting burdens from internal staff. But the exponential pressure to hit ever-rising enrollment targets makes schools vulnerable when gaps exist between promises made and results delivered.

By knowing the right questions to ask, insisting on transparency, and vetting experience, colleges and trade schools can avoid disappointment while accelerating marketing performance when partnering with the right agency.

What To Do Now?

Hiring the right marketing agency can be a crucial decision for colleges and trade schools looking to attract more students in an increasingly competitive landscape. With less government funding, rising tuition costs and more online education options than ever before, schools need an effective marketing strategy and strong ROI to stand out.

The stakes are high. Ernst & Young Parthenon published an analysis estimating that around 20-25% of colleges are financially unstable over the next 6 years. Meanwhile, revenue from tuition accounts for 20-30% on average of total revenue for public colleges and universities. This makes an effective marketing strategy vital.

Fortunately, partnering with the right college marketing agency can provide schools an arsenal of data-driven strategies tailored to your target demographics while allowing your internal team to focus on academic priorities. But sifting through the clutter of agencies promising results can be daunting.

Here’s a closer look at pros, cons and key factors to consider:

The Pros of Hiring a Marketing Agency

Objective External Perspective:
An experienced agency brings fresh eyes unclouded by internal politics or sacred cows. They identify growth opportunities others may overlook.

Marketing Specialization:
While your faculty and staff specialize in academics and school operations, a good agency focuses 100% on marketing strategy and execution. This division of labor plays to all parties’ strengths.

Expanded Capabilities:
A full-service agency provides a range of skills and capabilities that a single freelancer or in-house marketer likely can’t match. This includes research, creative, web development, media buying clout and more.

A good agency will feel like you are working with a partner or in some cases like your in-house team. When done right, the agency relationship provides clear objectives, metrics tracking and is accountabile. This keeps efforts focused on ROI, not vague impressions.

The Cons of Hiring a Marketing Agency

Perceived Higher Costs:
Agency fees can appear steep, especially for smaller schools, but their economies of scale and marketing specialization often provide better ROI than in-house solutions.

Learning Curve:
It takes time for an agency to fully grasp a school’s values, programs, and target audiences at a nuanced level. Patience is required when starting an engagement as strategies develop.

Potential Culture Clash:
Agencies sometimes use inscrutable marketing jargon that can frustrate academic teams. Good agencies mitigate this issue by learning institutional culture and communicating clearly.

Loss of Ownership:
Some schools feel using an agency means relinquishing control of their brand identity or messaging. But a good agency partnership should enhance, not hijack, a school’s unique value proposition.

Key Evaluation Criteria for Prospective Agencies:

Industry Experience:
Consider agencies with teams that have worked extensively with universities, community colleges, trade schools or similar organizations. They will understand the business model, challenges and KPIs.

Strategy-First Approach:
A strong agency will focus first on research, target audience insights and positioning strategy before rushing into tactical execution. Ask about their strategic planning process.

Culture Fit:
During conversations with prospective agencies, notice how well they seem to “get you” as an institution. Do they ask thoughtful questions? Express interest in your mission and programs? Take time to understand values? Cultural fit is crucial.

Work Samples & Client Examples:
Ask to see examples of the agency’s work for other schools similar to yours. Review the creative materials and strategy recommendations. Also ask for references to have candid conversations about their experience partnering with the agency.

Transparent Pricing:
A trustworthy agency will provide clear pricing and scopes of work rather than vague promises. Ask detailed questions about fees, service contracts, optional add-ons, and budgeting guardrails so there are no major surprises.

Proof of Performance:
Insist on regular, data-centric performance reporting keyed to your KPIs. Third party analytics integration can help verify campaign impact and attribution. Optimizations should tie directly to insights from reporting.

Keeping It In-House Will Get More Costly

In the end, choosing the right marketing agency requires a thorough evaluation. But the work upfront can pay major dividends. According to LinkedIn’s 2022 U.S. Emerging Jobs Report, demand for marketing professionals is expected to grow over 15% annually as organizations invest more into digital strategies.

The expertise and expansive capabilities of an agency tailored to the education vertical provide schools an advantage in spreading awareness, boosting lead generation and meeting enrollment goals in an increasingly noisy market. And finding an agency that feels like an extension of your team can ease workload pressures on internal staff while lifting long-term recruitment trajectory

Keeping It In-House Will Get More Costly

When you consider the cost of hiring an in-house team versus paying a specialized marketing agency, review the cost of hiring a core digital marketing team in addition to their benefits, taxes, and they will also require specialized software, hardware, development, and more. 

Below is a table comprised of average salaries from Salary.com. Granted, these will have to be adjusted for location, years of experience, and so forth, but even if you were to cut the expense in half, you still have to add the actual advertising costs to run ads.


Annual Salary

Monthly Breakdown

Marketing Manager



Content Manager



Senior Graphic Designer



SEO Specialist with PPC experience



Full Stack Web Developer



Monthly Subscriptions for Specialized Tools









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College Marketing Pros

Digital Marketing insights, news, and tips for post-secondary institutions.



the college marekting company dedicated to helping schools grow
College Marketing Pros