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Student Enrollment Lead Generation: Inbound vs Outbound

Student Enrollment Lead Generation: Inbound vs Outbound

The world of higher education marketing is changing. Practices that reliably delivered results for years are beginning to become less effective. Thanks in part, to changing student preferences and external factors outside any school's control.

In this new environment, the right inbound marketing strategy is crucial for colleges and universities, that want to effectively attract new incoming student classes.

Especially for non-marketing experts, terms like inbound marketing and outbound marketing may not be an intuitive way to think about the way schools promote themselves to prospective students. In reality, the difference between the two concepts and the shift from the latter to the former can form a roadmap for successful promotion and recruitment for years to come.

Education Outbound Marketing, Defined

Outbound marketing is, in its truest sense, traditional marketing. Once you know your audience and preferred channels, you push messaging out, promoting your school as prominently as possible.

Examples of outbound marketing in higher education include:

  • Visits to college fairs with a promotional booth for your college.
  • TV, radio, billboard, and print ads that highlight your school as the perfect choice for potential students.
  • Email blasts or printed admissions materials that are sent to purchased lists of potential students.

Traditionally, outbound marketing works because it allows you to reach a broad cross-section of potential students. Especially if you align your channels of choice with their needs, and get your messaging right, it's still a tempting choice for many institutions.

What is Inbound Marketing for Colleges and Universities?

Unlike outbound marketing, inbound marketing seeks to draw in prospective students by offering them valuable content and experiences tailored to their needs. According to HubSpot, which first defined the concept in 2016, this approach works because it "forms connections they are looking for and solves problems they already have."

Examples of higher ed inbound marketing include:

An SEO-focused website that appears prominently in search results for relevant majors, student experiences, and the college experience in general.

  • An active social media presence that showcases student life and academic endeavors at your institution in an engaging way.
  • Emails and admissions materials are triggered by the actions of interested students and deliver valuable information based on their individual needs.

Unlike outbound marketing, inbound alternatives follow a basic three-step model

  1. ATTRACT your audience by speaking directly to their needs and interests, 
  2. ENGAGE them with value tailored to those needs, and
  3. DELIGHT them by going above and beyond expectations to encourage them to apply and enroll.


This more audience-focused approach comes with undeniable advantages directly related to your marketing ROI. A fully functioning inbound marketing campaign can produce more and higher-qualified student leads at a lower cost, making it a natural choice for most institutions today. 

3 Differences Between Education Inbound Marketing and Outbound Marketing

Let's break down just how inbound marketing differs from its more traditional outbound alternative in a few core ways:

1) Cold vs. Warm Leads: Instead of reaching out to audiences who may have never heard about your school, inbound marketing focuses on audiences who have actively raised their hand to learn more. The result is a more focused, efficient enrollment marketing spend and effort. 

2) Broad vs. Personalized: Broad-reaching marketing efforts are just that; casting a wide net because you don't necessarily know enough about your audience segments to personalize a campaign to them. On the other hand, inbound marketing allows you to build more personalized messaging flows depending on audience needs and characteristics, which is especially relevant when targeting Gen Z.

3) Opt-out vs. Opt-in: Audiences for outbound marketing receive your messaging because they fit specific demographic or geographic factors. If potential leads don't want it, they'll opt out - but only after getting annoyed and potentially tarnishing your reputation. Inbound marketing is, by default, the opposite, targeting only students who want to hear from you and building a more positive reputation in the process.

These basic differences are a core reason why higher education institutions (as well as countless other industries) have gradually moved to more inbound-focused marketing strategies over the past decade. 

Younger generations are gravitating to digital media that are a more natural fit for inbound efforts while actively avoiding ads in the process. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has made in-person college fairs and high school visits, a decades-long staple of higher education recruitment, more unreliable than ever. 

These trends point to one thing above all: the necessity to move to a more inbound-focused higher ed marketing approach. It's a better fit for the current environment, and prospective student needs make it the clear-cut choice for any institution looking to not just improve current results, but future-proof their recruitment strategy and investment in the near- and long-term.

How to Move From Outbound to Inbound Marketing for Higher Education

Moving from a traditional marketing model to a more inbound-focused approach doesn't have to be a major overhaul. In fact, many schools succeed in simply taking stock of their current channels, making tweaks where needed to their strategy and execution.

In addition, higher education marketing would be impossible without at least some outbound elements. Your school probably can't afford to miss the next college fair in your local metropolitan area, where all of your competitors present themselves to qualified leads.

The key, then, is leveraging many of the inbound elements to build a more comprehensive, student-centered approach to your recruitment effort. That starts with comprehensive audience analysis, understanding who your target audience is, and what motivates them during the college search.

From there, it's all about content. Emails, web content and social media channels benefit from a value-first approach that offers content specifically designed for audience needs. Once the content is in place, integrating it into your existing marketing efforts is surprisingly straightforward.

In this approach, your website becomes your marketing hub, home to all your most important and valuable content. All other efforts, from emails to social media and even printed materials and ads, link directly to it.

That might sound complicated, but it doesn't have to be. You just need a reliable partner experienced in higher education lead generation. That's where Sonority Group comes in. Are you ready to build and optimize your marketing for success, both now and in the future? Let's chat! 

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