Higher Ed Hot Takes
• Issue #21

Is Your Website for Marketing or Community Engagement?

A man is holding a rectangular cardboard box that says "Donations" on it in black sharpie. He is wearing a blue shirt and khaki pants.

Is Your Website for Marketing or Community Engagement?

Engagement is an essential concept in the fields of both marketing and higher education. And they are not wholly unrelated. But marketing’s engagement and higher ed’s engagement mean entirely different things. This week, my hot take is on why these two engagement territories get muddled together and how to rethink them for a clearer content strategy.

First, engagement in higher education - how it’s defined and measured - is still contested in the academic literature. In other words, there is no single definition. It’s an evolving construct representing a combination of student behaviors, cognition, and affectation. Researchers and evaluators look for cues that students are involved in their learning and their campus’ social and contextual environment. Then, they attempt to measure the relationships between that involvement and factors such as student success and satisfaction.

Student engagement studies analyze outcomes against all kinds of indicators ranging from:

  • positive conduct and rule-following,

  • time on task and self-regulation,

  • effective uses of deep learning strategies,

  • enjoyment,

  • sense of belonging, and

  • attachment.

But there’s more to it, of course. There is also community engagement and civic engagement. Suddenly the construct of engagement leaps out of the current-student bounds and into a more generalized public sphere of influence. This is where things get murky.

You see, engagement in the marketing discipline represents worthwhile customer interactions that build brand equity and support the customer in completing calls to action. Efforts to increase engagement in the domain of marketing typically include:

  • events,

  • campaigns,

  • content marketing,

  • social media, and

  • marketing automation.

For all campus engagement, particularly community engagement, marketing engagement plays a vital role in developing connections. After all, your community audiences must know about you and your opportunities before they can meaningfully engage with you.

Marketing and community engagement blend together in nefarious ways. And there are downstream effects from this co-mingling of concepts. Namely, your university website is considered an engagement product in itself. What I mean is that university websites get incorporated into the flow of audience involvement in community opportunities.

On the surface, this doesn’t sound so bad. I mean, what does it really look like?

  • More stories of people participating in the university community in exceptional ways

  • More events and opportunities

  • More partnerships between the university and local or regional organizations

  • About content that gets community members excited

  • Links to social media and other platforms to encourage online involvement

I hear you.

The problem is that this content - as great as it is - masks the scent of information trail for prospective student audiences.

When prospective students come to your website, they expect a marketing site built for them and their journey. They expect every piece of content to direct them to the information they need to make decisions, compare options, and apply. When they encounter information that has little to do with that journey, they don’t know how to process it. They don’t know if you don’t know them well enough to know what they need or if your website is for someone else, but not them.

In other words, one type of engagement is getting in the way of another.

So what are the solutions?

For one, we need to acknowledge that there are other, more effective paths for engaging the community than making content for the website, such as:

  • Better search engine optimization (they will just Google you anyway!)

  • Inbound marketing strategies

  • Increased public relations efforts

  • Increased organizational partnership efforts

  • And ultimately, being where your community audiences already are instead of insisting they come to you.

Secondly, we need to acknowledge how fragile our attention spans are and how many other options prospective students have. Any link for a different purpose could interrupt prospective students from finding the program, feature, or benefit they need to read in order to choose you over your competitors. You may be one giving campaign message away from losing prospective students’ attention on their only visit to your website.

Your website can’t be a tool for community engagement without risking its marketing engagement.

So the next time you’re thinking about putting a “Giving Tuesday” prompt on a homepage carousel, remember who your website is really for.

- Kristin Van Dorn