I have been in the higher education sector for over 17 years and unfortunately have continued to see marketers make the same mistakes over and over again. Some of these errors are the fault of foundational business orientation (such as lead evaluation versus quality evaluation), while other mistakes are the results of marketers not fully understanding the technical abilities of today’s digital executions. Further, higher education practitioners are challenged with the changing trend in demographics (Millennials) and user behavior (such as mobile versus desktop).

To remedy these areas of hindrance, I have compiled a list of implementations that can easily be integrated into your higher education digital marketing campaigns to generate immediate positive impact with Millennial students.

As the saying goes, you learn more from your mistakes than your successes. However, if you’re a digital marketer, your mistakes might be seen by hundreds of thousands (even millions!) of individuals, and can ultimately be detrimental to a campaign’s performance and overall budget.

Hopefully my industry insight will provide college and university marketers with the actionable items necessary to proactively avoid some of the biggest and most common mistakes in digital marketing within the higher education vertical.

Below are the biggest mistakes I’ve seen higher education digital marketers make:

Mistake #1: Combining paid search evaluation

Whether it be Google or Bing, paid search has historically been the best performing channel for higher education marketers and is considered the ‘golden standard’ in terms of performance expectation.

However, marketers often look at paid search holistically rather than in granular segments. Often, advertisers combine branded (your school’s name) keyword with non-branded keywords; this is counterintuitive because if people are searching for your school’s name, then they already have a better understanding or interest in your institution versus somebody searching for a general term like ‘online MBA.’

In order to comprehensively analyze paid search campaigns with the greatest accuracy, marketers should simply split the performance of the two keyword buckets into separate segments.

Mistake #2: Not setting contractual controls with directories/affiliates

Another highly used digital tactic for lead generation are the so-called ‘affiliate relationships’ or ‘directory sites.’ For many years, I have been an advocate for educating marketers about the ambiguities of higher education affiliates. I am not arguing that the channel as a whole is corrupt; however, higher education marketers need to engage with all of these providers with the highest awareness.

Most marketers simply accept the standard terms of affiliates, not truly understanding that they have the ability to push back in these relationships. In my experience, I have learned that strong contractual relationships prevail.

The following are some simple contract terms to be implemented:

  • Definition of the acceptable lead quality
  • Ability to return leads not meeting lead quality
  • Clear definition of how leads need to be generated by affiliates (e.g. non-incentivized)
  • Limitation of resale or cross-selling of a lead

These are just a few contract terms that should be established at the foundation of any contractual relationship you work with. Based on my 17 years working with EDU directories, I have derived at the notion to simply find another one if they don’t want to align to mutually accepted terms.

Mistake #3: Proper tracking isn’t implemented

It always amazes me how many schools spend thousands of dollars on marketing efforts, yet stumble when asked the simplest digital marketing question possible: which channel/initiative is your best performing tactic?

The core problem relies on higher education marketers’ inability to understand how to strategically and technically set up proper tracking of each digital advertising campaign and their corresponding landing pages. As with every digital execution, there are several advanced tracking opportunities, but I’m simply referring to the fact that most marketers aren’t correctly setting up tracking that’s capable of capturing the ad source of a lead with comprehensive channel data (for example, an ad message code) in their LMS system.

From a campaign’s inception, these simple technical practices should be considered and addressed, but marketers seem to neglect it altogether.

Mistake #4: No phone tracking is set up

This brings me to my next topic about improper phone tracking–a tactic that most digital marketers don’t set up or outright avoid.

Making the decision to allocate their time and budget to higher education is an extremely meaningful decision for any individual. It typically warrants a two to three-year commitment with financial investments of over $10,000 in addition to major time sacrifices.

That being said, many of the ‘real’ or higher quality leads for a university are from individuals who actually want to immediately speak with an enrollment advisor instead of waiting to be contacted through a lead form. Therefore, I highly encourage including your university’s phone number explicitly on all landing pages. I’m always surprised by the amount of school marketers that don’t leverage unique and dynamic phone tracking systems, and even if phone tracking systems are in place, it isn’t aligned with the individual ad campaigns (similar to what I mentioned in the previous mistake).

Mistake #5: Message disconnect between creative ad and the corresponding landing page

Often, mistakes can be avoided by merely putting yourself in the perspective of the consumer’s experience. You would be confused if you walked into an establishment, deemed a sushi restaurant, but was handed a menu that serves American dishes, Mediterranean food and sushi. This analogy illuminates an all-too-common scenario in higher education marketing; for example, a display ad might depict a nursing-specific degree, but the corresponding landing page leads users to a general degree landing page (or a landing page that doesn’t mention nursing degrees at all).

This is admittedly an extreme case, but the reality is that a mistake as preventable as this does happen. Indolently planning how the user experience (UX) is connected – from ad to landing page – almost guarantees a tainted UX, which ultimately wastes a school’s marketing dollars.

Therefore, higher education marketers need to plan out ad campaigns by segmenting each into ad buckets and then aligning the landing pages to correspond with the creative’s message on either unique landing pages or relevant sections within a landing page.

There are, of course, more advanced approaches to seamlessly connecting the user experience, such as creating ad journeys based on a user’s first time visit versus the second or third visit. Regardless of which approach is taken in structuring the UX, my hope is that marketers will spend the necessary time to audit what they are currently doing and think of a user’s journey while doing so.

(Next page: Digital marketing tips to reach Millennial students 6-10)


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