What can you learn about marketing from a small university in rural Texas?

You might be surprised… over the years higher education has become extremely competitive. In order to survive, colleges and universities have to define and target their market, convey the value they offer, and close the sale — all with a limited budget.

Sound familiar?

It might seem strange to think of institutions of higher learning as businesses but, in order to effectively recruit students (“customers”) and pay the bills, colleges have to operate the same way.

Just like any other business, they need to:

  • Raise awareness of their brand so that potential students hear about them.
  • Clearly communicate their unique value so that they differentiate themselves from similar institutions and give prospective students clear reasons to choose to enroll
  • Convey the long-term value of a college education so that students can justify the expense of attending their college. In some ways, a degree could be considered a product.
  • “Sell” students on attending their school over all the other options available to them.
  • Build their reputation as an institution and career opportunity so they attract qualified, competent faculty

SAGU is a small Christian university in Waxahachie, TX originally established in 1927.

College recruiting has changed a lot since the 1920s. What worked then won’t work now, so SAGU has continually sought to improve its marketing and sales processes to keep pace with competing schools.

In this case study, I will show how SAGU is leveraging the latest email marketing, SMS (text) messaging marketing, and marketing automation tactics to overcome two major challenges that most businesses can relate to:

Challenge 1: Competing against bigger brands

Just like you, SAGU has the deck stacked against them… they are one of over 5,000 higher education options available in the United States alone. There is a dizzying array of choices for anyone considering college. The recent growth in online schools has only added another layer of competition.

Photo via SAGU.edu

More than likely, you’ve never heard of SAGU… even though they’ve been around for over 85 years. For that matter, you’ve probably never heard of the overwhelming majority of those 5,000 institutions of higher learning. Most people are aware of the schools in their region, Ivy League schools, schools with strong athletic programs, and few others.

How does SAGU attract students and stand out in the sea of options?

Challenge 2: Competing against bigger budgets

Being a small, niche, private university, SAGU’s marketing and advertising budget is constrained and dependent primarily on them continuing to maintain or improve their enrollment figures. Prayers alone won’t pay the bills… they need effective marketing and sales strategies to meet aggressive growth goals.

How can they leverage a limited budget to get as a high a return on investment as possible so their marketing and advertising has the most impact possible?

Photo via SAGU.edu

David versus Goliath

For the remainder of this case study, I will outline the specific techniques SAGU uses to compete with bigger competitors, with more brand recognition, and much larger budgets.

Overcoming challenge 1: Competing with bigger brands

No matter what business you are in, if you aren’t doing anything different than your competition, you aren’t going to stand out and there is no compelling incentive to choose you over a competitor. All else being equal, the only reason someone might do business with you is because there is a matter of convenience — you are the closest business or the first one they find, etc.

To effectively compete, you’ve got to be different so that potential customers can see that there are specific, unique advantages to doing business with you. If you can demonstrate that what makes you different is valuable, you can overcome inconveniences of doing business with you, your pricing will become more flexible (potentially, you can charge more), and your advertising and marketing costs will do down because your conversion rate will go up.

Icons via Icons8 & Flaticon

One particularly effective way of doing this is to occupy a specific niche within your market. Rather than trying to appeal to your market in general, you try to appeal to only a specific group within a larger market. This is powerful because when someone who fits the profile you are targeting discovers your business, they will feel like you match their exact needs, speak their exact language, and understand their problems. Rather than being everything to everyone you are a specific something someone is looking for.

An example of this would be BMW or other high-end car manufacturers. They aren’t trying to appeal to everyone — they know that some people don’t appreciate or want high-end automobiles — so their entry level model is priced higher than what most people would want to pay for a car. They aren’t going to sell the volume that a lower priced car manufacturer is, but they aren’t trying to. Because they have niched themselves down, they are able to create adverts and marketing that appeals to high-end, financially established consumers. This niche focus involves every process in their company from the designers to the advertising department.

SAGU occupies a very specific niche — it is a small, Christian, liberal arts university. If you are a young Christian looking for a small college experience in a small town and want liberal arts degree, you’ve found your match. Will the majority of people shopping around for colleges want to attend SAGU? Probably not, but that’s okay because there are plenty of people looking for exactly what they offer.

OVERCOMING CHALLENGE 2: Competing against bigger budgets

SAGU, and most small businesses, face an uphill battle. They have to compete with larger companies that aren’t operating under the same budget constraints. While being a large, successful company comes with its own set of challenges, having limited options for marketing and advertising isn’t one of them. With enough money, even weak efforts will produce sizable results. Smaller companies don’t have that luxury — with a limited budget, every penny matters and needs to return as much as possible. Small budgets necessitate wise investments. You can’t gamble, you need proven methods with guaranteed returns.

For that, no marketing channel outperforms email marketing. It’s the reigning champion when it comes to cost, effectiveness, and return on investment. Social media may be the new black, but the smart money is on email. In addition to producing great results, it can be automated so there is very high return on investment of both money and time.

Realizing the advantages of email marketing, SAGU began using email marketing years ago as a way to collect and follow-up with leads (potential students). At college fairs they ask prospective students to fill out a paper information sheet. This information is then manually added to their contact database via a Wufoo form, that information is added to ActiveCampaign, and then the automated email marketing and sales process begins.

Icons via Icons8 & Flaticon

While other universities may be able to take out expensive ads, bid ridiculous amounts for keywords, or traverse the country to attend every major college fair, SAGU sticks to what has proven to work: capture leads and follow up. By focusing on proven, effective marketing and sales techniques they can ensure that their limited budget produces the best results possible.

But the email marketing solution SAGU has been using was not keeping pace with the advances in the digital marketing industry. Most notably, it lacked any marketing automation features and had no CRM so there was a disconnect between email marketing and the sales follow-up.

Looking for an enterprise solution

One of the major marketing automation solutions that SAGU looked at was Marketo. They could see that it was a powerful marketing platform with many advanced features. But, further research revealed that very few companies actually need or even use those features so paying so much to use it didn’t really make sense.

When they found ActiveCampaign, they could see that it offered many of the important enterprise-level marketing automation and email marketing features that Marketo offered, but with a significantly lower monthly price.

Timing their one-on-one follow-up

SAGU recruiters need to be able to speak with prospective students at key times as they contemplate which school to attend. This sales cycle can go on for years as many high school students will begin their college search early in their high school career. This makes it difficult to know when they need one-on-one attention. How is a recruiter supposed to know which leads to contact and when?

This is one of the major reasons that SAGU chose ActiveCampaign as their marketing solution. With ActiveCampaign they are able to use lead scores to assign values to leads on the basis of their fit for the school and also their behavior as they interact with SAGU’s marketing. For instance, if a prospective student indicates that they are interested in one of the more than 70 academic programs that SAGU offers, they might get an additional 10 points added to their score. If they mention they are looking for a program that they don’t offer, they might get 10 points subtracted from their score.

Icons via Icons8 & Flaticon

When a lead’s score reaches a threshold, it can automatically trigger an automation that notifies that appropriate staff member that this student is actively looking at schools at the moment and create a task for them to reach out to them as soon as possible. In this way, SAGU can be sure that prospective students are getting one-on-one attention while they are actively searching for information about SAGU.

The importance of automation

With a relatively small staff, SAGU needed a solution that would allow them to automate as much as possible. They needed to get carefully timed messages to prospects and they need to clean up their data regularly so that records stay current and they are no longer messaging “cold” leads.

To give you an idea of how much time they are saving, they are currently working on new initiatives they expect to save them 60 man hours a week!

Here are some of the ways that SAGU is automating according to their Digital Marketing Manager, Roy Ching:

“One of my favorite automations is a data scrubber for zip codes. We need city/state on our info forms. But, we wanted to be able to reduce the number of fields we were asking for. By combining automations with the U.S. zip code list, we were able to ask for a zip code and in effect answer 3 fields from that one piece of data.

We also use a central subscriber list called “Clearinghouse” as the powerhouse for our system. All leads run through Clearinghouse to standardize data, assign counselors, handle auto-responders, and then route subscribers to the appropriate lists based upon their degree level and type. Having 90% of our automations running on a single list makes it easy for us to watch the migration of leads through the system and diagnose problems.

If a prospect stalls in Clearinghouse, we’re able to spot check their automations, click on a specific automation and determine where they paused in the sequence.”

Targeting student interests

Students are attracted to colleges for different reasons. Someone may be after a particular academic program and little else matters. Someone else might be interested in having a fun, rich college experience with sporting events, fraternal organizations, and a bustling extracurricular social scene. Another person may want a school that is supportive of their religious lifestyle.

Using Site Tracking and other intelligence tools, SAGU is able to identify exactly what a prospective student’s interests are and then target those interests with automated follow-up. This is powerful because they can speak to each contacts exact interests rather than sending general information and try to appeal to everyone.


SAGU has a small, but impressive, marketing department that, despite the challenges it faces, is able to attract and enroll the students that would be the best fit for their school. Using an integrated email marketing, marketing automation, and sales CRM like ActiveCampaign they are able to get a high ROI on their marketing spend.