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How colleges can drive traffic to their web sites

Marketing expert tells higher-ed IT officials about her process for developing a loyal following online

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Colleges should closely track their web site's "bounce rate," Joly said.

Colleges should closely track their web site's "bounce rate," Joly said.

Digital marketing guru Karine Joly told a group of college technology officials June 8 that it’s time for them to stop relying on gut instincts when devising ways to increase web traffic and start relying on data that can attract prospective students online.

Joly spoke during a morning session at the annual EduComm conference in Las Vegas, where 800 campus IT officials and staffers attended workshops and keynotes addressing the latest in education technology. The conference ended June 9.

Joly, founder of Higher Ed Experts, an online service offering professional development, released a survey in May showing that three out of four university IT officials said they spent fewer than two hours a week on web analytics, or studying their school’s web site traffic, including who is visiting the site and which search words guide them to the site.

Ninety-five percent of survey respondents said they track their college web site’s traffic, and 88 percent said they use the popular Google Analytics tool to do so.

But if daily visit numbers aren’t examined, Joly said, colleges and universities could overlook important trends such as the dreaded “bounce rate,” which measures visitors who click away from the college’s web site after viewing one page. Even if web traffic increases, the trend is not nearly as positive as it seems if many of those visitors “bounce” away after a few seconds.

“Analytics is like exercise,” she said. “We know it’s good for our health, but we think it’s hard. … Because we think it’s hard, we prefer to sit on the couch.”

Joly said colleges too often rely on a hodgepodge of analytics strategies without reviewing data broken down into specific reports. Taking this approach, she said, will develop an unfocused strategy that changes frequently.

“You can base your marketing decision not without hunches or opinion, but real data,” she said. “If [examining analytics] has such power to help us, how come we spend so little time [on it]?”

Joly’s top five keys to starting an “online analytics revolution” were tracking total visits, total page views, average time on the site, average bounce rate, and the percentage of new visitors. Other keys included visitor loyalty and the percentage of visitors from mobile devices and social media sites.

Taishi Thompson, director of web technologies at Ross University’s New Jersey location, attended Joly’s discussion and said search engine optimization—finding which popular search terms draw visitors to a web site, and then including them on your site—has proven difficult to grasp for many in higher education.

“There’s so much information out there about it, [and] that it makes it difficult to go in depth and find out what really works,” Thompson said. “You think you know what users want or what they need, but the [information] needs to tell you that.”

Joly encouraged IT officials to establish a consistent presence on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Sharing a useful link on either site, she said, could bring others to post the link and draw thousands of visitors to a college’s web site—all from one post or tweet.

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