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Universities: Improve Your Paid Media Performance By Leveraging Lead Magnets

What is a lead magnet?

Want to grow your college enrollments? Learn why your institution needs to have Lead Magnets 🧲 as a part of its marketing strategy. Hint: It’s to improve conversion rates and grow enrollments. 🤯

In this post, we’ll explain the value of a lead magnet, how to implement and utilize lead magnets, and provide six real-world executing strategies to grow your college and university enrollments.

What Is a Lead Magnet, and Why Does It Matter?

Higher Ed Lead Magnets: Improve Your Paid Media Performance

A lead magnet is an offer of information through a guide, ebook, quiz, or a trial version of a program in order to gain the prospective student’s contact information. 

The key is that it’s something your prospective students would find valuable. 

Picture a literal magnet pulling prospective students into your enrollment funnel.

If a prospective student comes to your website and leaves without giving any of their information, the chances to develop a relationship are gone. 

You know how challenging it is to create awareness for your institution and programs in the first place. However, awareness is only the beginning. A lead magnet combines awareness, creates interest, and begins a conversation that can lead to a relationship with a prospective student.

Your lead magnet needs to solve a real problem your prospective student has, or gives them something they want. This is the challenging part: figuring out what your prospective students need or want. 

The lead magnet must be:

  • Easily downloadable or accessible 
  • Easy for prospective students to review and digest 
  • Promises a quick win

Lead magnets can come in many forms:

  • Quizzes, polls, or surveys 
  • Checklist
  • Cheatsheet 
  • Career Guide 
  • Application waiver
  • Swipe file 
  • Tutorial of some sort 
  • Webinar access or programmatic video content
  • An initial consultation with your admissions or financial aid department 
  • A newsletter (make sure it’s compelling) 
  • A case study
  • Free course / mini-course
  • Financial aid guide or some other offer related to helpings students with their financial aid questions such as access to a video library 
  • Tutorial
  • Certificate course 
  • eBook
  • Guide
  • Report / survey data/ insights 
  • Infographic
  • Educational Video or Audio
  • Webinar (Recording/Replay) 
  • Event Tickets
  • Free Book + Shipping
  • Sample Chapter
  • Sample Video/Clip or audit clip 
  • PDF Version of a doc (swipe file)
  • Summary/”Cliff Notes” Version
  • State of the Industry
  • Predictions
  • Mind Map
  • Recording/Replay
  • Audio Book
  • Scholarships 
  • Access to Video Vault or Library
  • Career Assessment Quiz: Prospective students who are unsure of which career path to choose can take a career assessment quiz to help narrow down their options + provides a strong CTA to “request more information” at the end. 
  • Personal Branding/Resume Course: Your institution can offer a Personal Branding/Resume Course to help those who take it develop a strong personal brand and create a compelling resume.  This can be a nice way to introduce your university and the career services offered. 
  • Offer a “Leadership” or “Diversity and Inclusion” course (that awards a certificate or something else of value) so that students will be able to return to their respective industries with strengthened leadership capabilities, along with the credential of having a “physical” certificate. Your school can offer free or reduced price non-credential courses so employers can promote your school to their entire staff—every organization needs stronger internal leadership. 

As students progress through the course, they can take assessments that can be shared with their employer and added to their annual review. This can be a documented benefit for the prospective student and proof for the employer that they went through the training. The goal is to impress prospective students, help them see the value of attending your institution, and nurture them down the enrollment funnel. 

Your institution can put them on a lead nurturing sequence speaking to the type of leadership training they will receive in a relevant degree your school offers.

Why Do Universities Need Offers (Lead Magnets)?

Paid Media Advertising Marketing Agency

The average American sees more than 4,000 to 10,000 ads daily, according to the Web Tribunal

How often have you been interrupted in the middle of your favorite podcast, YouTuber, or even your own music playlist by a short, yet annoying, ad? 

Ads are everywhere. They are unavoidable and are a part of our everyday life and they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, the overall employment of advertisers is expected to grow by 10% from 2020 to 2030

As more colleges and universities modernize their marketing strategies and put more of their dollars into digital advertising, competition will only continue to grow, along with costs.

Lead Magnets Can Mitigate Rising Costs

Lead magnets, however, do not replace your digital marketing efforts. On the contrary, lead magnets can enhance what you are doing, allowing you to generate more inquiries while reducing costs!

Increased Awareness

Higher Ed Awareness

Good lead magnets grow your university’s brand by building trust, showcasing program offerings, and providing quality resources that prospective students would find valuable.  

Lead magnets help you engage more visitors to become inquiries or subscribe to your email. This gives you a chance to share what makes your university or college special.

Higher Conversion Rates

Lead magnets can Increase your enrollment yield. By giving prospective students something valuable, you are already ingratiating yourself and starting the relationship off on the right foot. 

Think of these two scenarios: One school offers a student a valuable lead magnet, such as a career quiz, that helps him narrow down the right career path, while another school shows him a Facebook ad about their school with a call to action to learn more about the school. 

Which tactic has allowed the prospective student to engage longer with the brand? 

Which tactic acquires their email address in order to follow up with them about their results?  

Which university can send them additional lead nurturing emails?

Why Do Lead Magnets Work?

They give your ads and landing pages a reason to share a sense of urgency with a prospective student.

Offers instill that sense of urgency and can make or break your marketing efforts. If you are placing ads on Facebook promoting your institution or program without an offer, then you are running a branding campaign, merely exposing your brand to those who see your ad. The ad, however, is not enticing your audience to act right now. 

This is where an offer comes in.

If your ad is promoting a limited time offer, or some sort of lead magnet, then you are giving the prospective student a reason to act now. Once they sign up for the offer, it gives you a reason to email the prospective student and not only deliver on your offer but also introduce your university or college in greater detail, and begin fostering a relationship.

As long as the landing page delivers on the promise, you’re giving the visitor something very specific and relevant to them, increasing your chances of converting them into an inquiry (also known as a lead). 

Colleges that don’t create ads for recruitment risk rapidly falling behind.

To Gate, or Ungate Your Content: That is the Question

Just like an entrance gate protecting your field, a content gate controls who can access your lead magnets. 

Do you want to offer your templates, guides, courses, and white papers for free or do you want your content accessible only to those willing to provide contact information?

Gated Content is a great way to build your email list, increase lead numbers, and build out audience lists for advertising. Unfortunately, not all users are willing to input their contact information to receive your lead magnet. To help you with obstacles like that, be sure to read our higher ed lead nurturing article on the best ways to nurture prospects, helping them become enrollment ready. 

Ungated Content helps build organic awareness and leaves the door open for users to consume future content. Ungated content exposes your content to a broader audience. 

It all comes down to goals: If your goal is to expose your brand to as many people as possible, this is when you want to ungated content. 

All is not lost if you are not able to collect their email and phone number!  

As prospective students click through to access your ungated content, you’ll still discover a little bit more about them as that this piece of ungated content is interesting to him or her. You can then set up retargeting ads in Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, and/or YouTube to promote other additional offers, or drive them to inquire about a specific program. Retargeting is an effective approach and can help to encourage that student  to revisit what they found interesting in the first place.

How can you best balance content creation, distribution, and promotion for varying paths you are establishing for your university?

Start with Ungated Content First

It is important that a great deal of your high-value content is ungated, as prospective students are much more likely to engage your brand and start trusting you once they get some value from your institution. 

Start off by sharing career tips, resume writing, and application tips on social media, write blogs, and be sure to distribute the content on your website. 

Also, don’t forget the power of social media!

Check out these other universities killing it on TikTok.  These short-form videos provide students with career advice and more. 

Universities Killing it on TikTok

Miss Excel Example – Educational Courses

Check out Miss Excel on TikTok, she has over 870k followers on TikTok.  If you think you can’t create engaging content for your degree programs, check out Miss Excel. She’s giving out Excel tips, which one would assume would be the driest content ever. Nope!

Most of her videos share valuable tips and tricks, insights, and cheat codes, and she does it in a fun way. Who knew learning Excel could be entertaining? 

@miss.excel 🚨NEW FUNCTIONS BEING RELEASED🚨 #exceltips #tiptok #techtok ♬ Showin' Off – Danger Twins

After establishing your own brand and proving your expertise in this space or on a platform, it’s time to add in some gated content, driving awareness toward your university.

Let’s continue using Miss Excel as an example. Now that she’s built a following from her free content (ungated), she has a few different offers. 

Here is a gated free class.  She also offers paid courses, around $297 each. Some of her audience will sign up for her paid courses based on building a relationship with her on social media.

Others will need a bit more convincing. For those who need more convincing, Miss Excel offers a Free Live Microsoft Training as her lead magnet

Check out Miss Excel’s lead magnet

What Not to Do

Once a prospective student provides you their information to get access to your lead magnet, DO NOT put them on a regular communication cadence!  

These prospects haven’t shown interest in enrolling just yet, they are merely showing interest in accessing your lead magnet. 

This is when your university will need to put them on a different communication cadence than a regular prospective student. This is where you can share alumni success stories, take them to another lead magnet, etc.

Continue sharing more tips and tricks!  Don’t just send them information about applying now!

Real-World Lead Magnet Examples

The University of South Florida (USF) offered a free certificate course for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, they used this course as a lead magnet to introduce over 135,000 new people to USF. 

USF offered a free certificate course for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.  They used this course as a lead magnet to introduce over 135,000 new people to USF. 

Ultimately, USF had 135,000-course registrants. USF had to cap the program and open a waiting list. Over 20,000 students were placed on a waiting list, and 63,000 students were awarded the certificate. 

With more than 60% of registrants reporting that they found the program through a friend, colleague, or employer, USF earned a tremendous amount of earned media through the power of word-of-mouth marketing. 

USF wrote up a wonderful case study about their free course offerings. Not only did USF benefit from word of mouth marketing, they also benefited from a large portion of the free course registrants who said they would be interested in pursuing a degree from USF. 

Be sure to socialize this case study as proof this strategy works.  

Now, the course is still free, but if you want the certificate at the end, it’s $99. This $99 certification offering can still prove to be a great lead magnet for USF.


Lead magnets do not always need to be free. They can be drastically reduced in cost. The goal is to always exchange value for this strategy to work.

MBA guide download PDF (lead magnet example)

SNU created this ultimate career roadmap guide for MBA students. Right below the guide (in this example) is a link to fill out an application. 

Harvard University offers a huge collection of free online courses. Prospective students can get hundreds of hours of course work without any strings attached. In return, Harvard receives the participants name, email address, and region through their enrollment. 

And Harvard’s not the only one doing this. Over 20 higher ed institutions are now offering free classes online. 

By providing valuable resources, these universities can lead in prospective students, gain their trust, and seal more deals.

Lead Magnets Out In the World: King Lasik uses a quiz as a lead magnet

King Lasik has a great quiz on their website and based on your answers, the doctor’s office helps identify some of the biggest fears and concerns regarding lasik ,which helps the staff address a patient’s hesitation early on.

Blueprint uses this guide as a lead magnet

Blueprint offers a guide to introduce the MCAT test. Once Blueprint receives contact information, they begin the conversation to sign up for one of their courses. 

They also promote this guide via email.

Blueprint MCAT Prep landing page

Costco Rotisserie Chicken

While it may seem unconventional at first, Costco’s rotisserie chicken works similarly.

These underpriced chickens encourage their members to come to the store more often. In retail stores they use these as loss leaders (meaning stores either lose money and/or break even).

The rotisserie chickens are placed in the back of the store strategically, so members have to walk through the rest of the store to get to them. These chickens act as magnets pulling people into the store so they can impulse buy a kayak or a TV, or a children’s backyard playset. (I may have purchased all of these things and more during my random visits to Costco).

Here are a Few Higher Ed Lead Magnet Examples from Our Agency:

Now that you have a clearer idea of what they are and how to create them, let’s take a look at some real life examples Ellison Ellery provides.

On our website alone, we have free videos, educational blogs, and even downloadable templates

Our agency created a higher ed lead-nurturing communication cadence that universities can apply to their enrollment process, along with a marketing and admissions tip sheet. We spent a few months researching what has worked best for our clients, along with the best standards, to create this higher ed lead magnet

Our free blueprint will make it easier for you to host high-converting admissions webinars, and tips on how best to repurpose the content. From this lead magnet, universities receive a comprehensive breakdown of higher-converting webinar tactics to implement, and ways to leverage and amplify their webinar, extracting more value after the event for months to come.

Get access to our Admissions Webinar Blueprint Lead Magnet.

As a part of this lead magnet, we feature a case study to witness the offer in action and a supporting blog post with more information. Get access to our Admissions Webinar Blueprint case studyThis lead magnet comes with a supporting blog post to show how we cross promote these offers in blog posts and case studies. 

Here is an example of how we use a webinar as a lead magnet. How To Crush Your 2022 Digital Marketing Budget And Future-Proof Your Business

Along with creating the lead magnet, you’ll need to think about how you are going to promote this offer and/or campaign. Will you run ads to your lead magnets? As mentioned above, lead magnets can help you drive better results from your paid campaigns.

Here are examples of using free services as a lead magnet:

Ellison Ellery also offers colleges and universities a free SEO audit. Our SEO audit is a pressure-free way for universities to get a sense of what it will be like working with us. These types of lead magnets allow someone to get to know your level of services without having to make a big commitment. 
Check out Ellison Ellery’s free Google ads audit lead magnet. This is a win-win offer as Universities and colleges can either validate what they are currently doing is working, or our agency can help them unlock growth areas to drive more enrollments.

How to Create Lead Magnets (Offers)

Higher Ed Lead Magnet Examples: Want to Grow your College Enrollments

So you know what a lead magnet is, what it could be, and what it can do for you, but how do you do it? 

First, start with what your prospective customer would find valuable. As mentioned above, you can ask them directly. You can run higher ed qualitative studies. You can create student and prospective student focus groups to get to the heart of what your audience would find valuable. Once you identify what they would find valuable, you need to understand how valuable do they think your lead magnet would be. This will help you figure out if you can only ask for an email address or if you can get the person to fill out a lengthy registration form. 

Three ideas to inspire you to create your own lead magnets:

  1. Identify what your prospective students would find valuable 
  2. Create your lead magnet strategy 
    • Answer these questions: 
      • How will you promote the lead magnet? (Paid media promotion, landing pages, blog posts, website) 
      • What format will you use to create the lead magnet? 
      • Who will write the lead magnet? 
      • Who will own the project management? 
      • Is there seasonality for your lead magnet and how will your strategy need to be adjusted? 
  3. Develop your lead magnet and put it into the world
  4. Test and ideate adjustments to make your lead magnet stronger 
  5. Take learns from this process, create new lead magnets

Here are a few options to kick start your creative process:

Option 1: Free Courses, Career Advice, Tips, and more

Who just says “yes” to something before getting a taste of what it is first? 

Offering free or trial access to things like videos, webinars, products, and newsletters simply in exchange for people’s contact information is incredibly effective. All I have to do is provide my name and email to get a free consultation, access to more in-depth information. Heck yeah! 

What a great way to make the consumer feel more comfortable and aware of your organization, get them talking about it through word of mouth, promote your brand, AND gain their connection for future marketing opportunities. Think of all the earned media you can get from these initiatives. These types of lead magnets can help to drive your college enrollments for years to come, unlike a paid media ad. Once you stop running paid media ads, the inquiries immediately stop. Great lead magnets can provide you with new prospective students in your enrollment pipeline for years to come. You may need to make some tweaks to the campaign and offer based on testing, but it’s something that can work for you for a while.

Option 2: Offer Various Accessible Content

Remember: Lead magnets are most effective if they can be accessed in various forms. 

The easier we provide content for consumers, the more likely they are to consume it. Sure, you can always keep cranking out new content, but why not save a little time trying to create something new when you can offer something in more than one form? 

If you have a written blog, why not also record yourself reading it and make that format available, too? Or turn your videos into written transcripts as well! 

Everyone takes in information differently, and if there are different formats and ways to access the same information, they’ll be more interested in your brand. Another great situation where the consumer is able to learn more about you by simply offering their contact details, and all you had to do was rehash the same content in a different way. 

Marketing made easy!

Option 3:  Curate a Portfolio

People want to know what you’re all about and see how you do it and what kind of results you get, all while getting a sense of your brand, too. 

A great way to do this is by putting together a portfolio that could include case studies, white papers, how-to videos, a collection of your most high-performing content, and research you have conducted. 

Once this is combined, prospective students will just need to provide whichever details about themselves you wish to gather to access the portfolio. 

Not only will they walk away with a handy portfolio that highlights the authenticity and integrity of your brand, but you’ll easily gain their contact information without having to create anything new. It’s a win-win situation!

Don’t Limit Your Lead Magnets to a Single Channel

Be sure to promote your lead magnets on social channels, and for the most exposure, expect to pay to promote these lead magnets to your audience. You can choose to pay to promote your lead magnets to those who follow your social channels, you can also choose to promote your lead magnets to your competitor’s audiences and/or expand your audiences to include friends of your followers. 

According to Khoros, 98% of US universities have Facebook pages, while 84% are active on Twitter.

With more than half of prospective college students using social media to research universities, it’s simply not affordable to skip out on this valuable lead magnet opportunity. 

If one of your competitors does well on social media and has a large following, consider promoting your lead magnet to their audience. 

Checklist Before Publishing

  • Did you provide clear, actionable steps to accomplishing the task your reader needed?
  • Did you provide relevant and accurate facts and stats to prove your understanding of the concept?
  • Did you properly cite and backlink your sources?
  • Who will write and proofread your lead magnet? 
  • Do you have a marketing campaign set up to promote your lead magnet? 
  • Do you have a marketing budget associated with this initiative? 
  • Did you spell-check and proofread your lead magnet, landing page, email, etc?
  • Are there at least 1-2 images?
  • Do you have a landing page set up for your lead offer?
  • Will you email your lead magnet to your prospect? 
  • Do you have a CRM set up to put people on a separate communication track?

What’s Next: The Easiest Way to Level-Up Your Marketing Strategy

Higher Ed Lead Magnet What is a Lead Magnet

Now it’s time to go out there and increase your university’s awareness and start adding value from the very first communication. 

The key is to find the path of least resistance where everyone gains something from the transaction—and it doesn’t feel like anyone’s losing. 


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Renee Seltzer

Renee Seltzer

Renee Seltzer is founder and CEO of Ellison Ellery Marketing & Growth Agency and has spent over 20 years helping companies grow their revenue. As a cross-functional marketing executive with extensive experience crafting messaging that compels and campaigns that convert, Renee understands marketing at its core and can deliver actionable solutions for every marketing or sales hang-up.

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