Thought Leadership Marketing 101: Why It Works for Colleges

Paige Stortz | January 19, 2021 | thought leadership marketing, Higher Education

A few miles before a college town’s exit, a row of three or four consecutive billboards all exclaiming “start your journey today” or “see what your future holds” inevitably line the highway. 

But, just how effective are traditional media tactics—like billboards—at attracting prospective students?

Traditional media tactics like this work fine for split-second, B2C transactions. When someone sees a TV spot for McDonald’s, within the next minute or so they may crave a Big Mac. But, for decisions that take time, have several stakeholders, and require big investments (e.g., choosing a college), a TV spot, billboard, or other traditional tactic might not cut it. 

This is where thought leadership marketing (TLM) comes in. TLM is an approach to marketing that leverages expert content to pull in the right audience.

Here at Modthink, we use a simple equation to define TLM: 

Subject Matter Expertise + Marketing Tactics = Thought Leadership Marketing

With TLM, a college’s expertise (shoutout to professors, faculty, and even students) is paired with marketing tactics to assert authority, assist students choosing a college, and ultimately help the institution grow. 

TLM takes the shape of blog posts, podcasts, ebooks, articles, and other inbound content perfectly suited for the expertise of university and college scholars.

This framework has proven successful for academic institutions. TLM, for instance, helped rocket the Supply Chain Management (SCM) program at the University of Arkansas from #15 to #1 in consecutive rankings of the nation’s undergrad SCM programs, according to Gartner.

By showcasing its expertise through cutting-edge marketing tactics, the SCM program garnered critical attention and was recognized as the top undergrad SCM program.

And we at Modthink got to help.


Why TLM Works for Colleges & Universities

TLM dovetails perfectly with the experiences of college faculty, staff, and students.

There are at least three reasons why TLM and colleges are so compatible—I mean, Jack-and-Rose-level compatible. 

3 Reasons Why TLM Works for Universities - Audience, Resources, Digital Landscape


1. Audience: Colleges’ Customers Really Do Their Homework 

(No, we’re not talking about PSYCH 2000 homework.)

If you think about it, an academic institution's target audience doesn’t really change. Students, parents, teachers, and other stakeholders are, and most likely will always be, the prime groups colleges and universities target.

And these groups research—a lot—before making decisions about college programs. 

  • The overly-passionate school newspaper editor looking for the top journalism schools
  • The guidance counselor being asked which state schools offer the best value
  • The parent searching for a program with exceptional internship opportunities for their kid

As they each research, TLM puts colleges and universities in the position to provide timely information and answers. In the right place at the right time, videos, articles, social posts, and other forms of TLM can convince each of these audiences that your college is the right fit.

TLM is perfectly suited for the eager, information-seeking audiences colleges historically serve.


2. Resources: Experts, Insights, and Innovation, Oh My!

Despite what some reviews may say, college educators know their stuff.

They are the subject matter experts, as quoted in the Wall Street Journal, and the industry leaders with decades of experience. Their insight and knowledge provide a highly valuable marketing asset.

A college's faculty is one of its best selling points.

But, this resource isn’t tapped enough. While some faculty may be reluctant (we get it) to share their work or to be featured in podcasts, articles, ebooks, and the like, the benefits to their personal authority and the college's reputation are undeniable.

TLM doesn’t have to be flashy. Its focus is experts, insights, and innovation—assets colleges and universities have in abundance. 


3. Digital Landscape: It’s a Digital World, and Colleges Are Just Livin’ In It

Academic institutions have slowly begun to turn toward the digital. Colleges and universities now leverage social channels like Instagram and LinkedIn regularly and include paid social in their marketing plans. 

Digital isn’t the end-all, be-all, though. Even perfectly-placed banner ads and high-performing social posts, by themselves, sometimes struggle to move the needle on metrics—admissions, donations, new hires—that matter to colleges and universities.

But TLM marries the answers audiences are looking for with the modern, digital approaches that we're growing accustomed to, magnifying clicks and interest along the way. TLM meets audiences where they are, on the digital landscape, with compelling content to help them make informed college choices. 

This is especially true today, when learning-from-home is so commonplace. COVID-19 has upped momentum for online learning platforms and resources. For instance, MasterClass raised “$100 million in private investment” early in the pandemic, from individuals wanting to learn from home. 

Colleges must embrace digital marketing tactics, and TLM provides the ideal framework.


TLM for the Win

TLM may not work in every industry (I don’t see McDonald’s writing an ebook any time soon), but it does work for colleges and universities. We’ve seen it firsthand.

With TLM, an institution’s expertise can really make waves. Let's chat about the possibilities. 

Ready to dive into TLM? Contact us!


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