“Marketing” used to be a dirty word in higher education circles.

Not anymore. Facing a declining pool of high school graduates, colleges and universities are ramping up their marketing efforts, boosting some area agencies in the process.

“The old approach was to just kind of shovel as much stuff at them and hope something sticks because there were so many kids that ultimately, when the music stopped, everybody had a chair to sit in,” said Bill Thorburn, CEO and executive creative officer of the Thorburn Group.

Higher education has had to change its approach in recent years, said Eric Sickler, Thorburn’s vice president of client services.

“It’s been very much a ‘We talk; you listen. We make; you take’ attitude in higher ed for decades, and now they are realizing that they need to listen more,” Sickler said. “and they need to measure more what they are doing.”

Mai Nhia Xiong-Chan, director of undergraduate admissions at Hamline University, said the school has had an increased focus on digital content such as video that can help show prospects what student life is like. While much of Hamline’s marketing is done in-house, Thorburn was involved in a project to encourage prospects to “Think. Decide. Act.” and pursue a graduate degree in business at the school.

“We really feel strongly with being able to connect to our audience on an emotional level,” Xiong-Chan said.

While sending print brochures and view books to potential future students remains popular, Hamline is trying to make sure print pieces have digital components which drive students to the school’s online presence, Xiong-Chan said. Some pieces are being replaced altogether by digital versions.

In a 2015 survey of marketing leaders at higher education institutions by mStoner, 76 percent said they had completed a brand strategy project at their school with most completing it within the past five years. Thirty percent of respondents said they spent more than $200,000 for brand strategy work.

Shrinking market

High school graduates in the United States are predicted to decline in another 10 years, due largely to the decline in births since 2008 and slowing immigration during the recession, according to a report by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

High school graduation projections developed by the Minnesota State Demographic Center for the Office of Higher Education show that the number of high school graduates in Minnesota has already been in decline and will stay relatively low for the next few years.

Add tuition costs, which continue to rise, and colleges are put in a more competitive position.

“There are articles out there and concern out there about what is the value of higher education,” said Pat Weas, chief operating officer and executive strategy director at Thorburn. “There is a real question about, ‘Is higher education worth it?’ ”

Given the times, reinforcing a school’s brand has become critical for continued growth, marketing professionals say.

“It is the longest journey that you will take with a brand, from 15 [years old] to your grave,” Bill Thorburn said.

Marketing executives said it is important for a school to differentiate itself and discover a centering idea of why the school exists that is reinforced throughout someone’s experience with the school from undergraduate to alumni.

John Lawlor, principal and founder of the Lawlor Group, which focuses almost exclusively on private education marketing, said the key for schools is to show what students get for their money.

“It’s very important that colleges today project a distinctive brand identity, and a key thing is that they communicate data and evidence that supports the investment of time and money,” Lawlor said.

Growth in business

Schools should make informed decisions based on data, said Lawlor, whose Eden Prairie-based company has a focus on conducting market research.

Higher education marketing has been a large factor in the recent growth of the Thorburn Group. The company saw a jump of about 140 percent in revenue last year compared with the year before.

In 2014, Thorburn was acquired by Stamats Communications Inc., a provider of marketing and research to the higher education market based out of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Earlier this month, Thorburn moved into new offices at 811 Glenwood Av., a renovated almost century-old former dry goods storage facility across the street from International Market Square in Minneapolis. The space will allow staff size to grow from its current dozen.

About 50 percent of the firm’s business is in higher education, with the other half coming from consumer work for such legacy brands such as Polaroid, Harley-Davidson and Disney.

In the higher education sector, Thorburn mostly works with small to midsize private schools such as Drake University, Hamline University and St. Olaf College.

Much its work is related to attracting nontraditional students such as those who are older, which executives say is important, especially in light of the decline in high school ranks.

After analyzing all the trends and understanding all the changes, students really just want to go to a school that feels good to them, Sickler said.

“When a prospective student is considering six or eight or 10 or 12 colleges or universities, she’s really thinking not about making a purchase but about embracing a new family,” Sickler said.