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.’
Solution: 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.
Solution: 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.
Solution: 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.
Solution: 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.
Solution: 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)
Mistake #6: Only Evaluating Campaign Performance Based on Lead Performance (and not considering total operating cost)
The higher education space is infected by its addiction to measuring leads, as I’m sure we’ve all been in one meeting or another that has demanded to generate more leads.
After years of analyzing entire marketing operation costs versus isolated costs, you would think that institutions would have gotten smarter around how they evaluate campaign performance. In other words, the cost of a lead doesn’t stop once it’s generated and instead should be analyzed by the additional cost it takes to sell, administer and retain the lead.
At my marketing firm, Katana, we evaluate the total cost of marketing operations with all of our higher education clients’ campaigns. Due to limitations of a university’s technical system (i.e. they don’t have a CRM system set in place), we don’t always get to implement the entire ‘total marketing approach’ in order to accurately determine a lead’s business value. However, at the very minimum, we shift the focus away from leads and over to business value.
Solution: Schools need to start evaluating each ad source by success metrics that go beyond lead generation to include metrics like contact ratio or enrollment ratio. Higher education marketers might be challenged with technical setups, like receiving the enrollment statuses related to a lead, but no matter if you’re a small, large, public or private institution, there is always a way to identify means of holding leads accountable for business value.
If you establish this perspective right off the bat, then you’ll have more time to set up a system that will help your team analyze leads and appraise business value.
Mistake #7: Not Reaching Users Early Enough (stand out, higher conversion rate)
Continuing on the previously mentioned mistake, a lead-only evaluation focus influences institutions to shy away from digital marketing tactics that provide better business value, but higher cost-per-leads (CPLs).
Solution: Video ads, for example, perform poorly on a CPL basis, but I have personally seen this ad unit work well upon analyzing the campaign on a cost-per-enrollment basis. Why is this the case? I consider video a higher marketing funnel tactic, and they are successful because video provides a school with the opportunity to reach audiences and brand itself in front of a prospect before anybody else, helping the school stand out from the rest.
Back in 2010, we analyzed student leads that enrolled across 12 of our partnering schools based on the ad tactic we used to generate each lead. We asked each student how many schools they were considering in their decision process. It was interesting to see that the typical low funnel lead generating tactics, such as paid search and affiliates, indicated that a student was receiving information from over six different schools at one point. Our study revealed that the student leads we generated had a higher propensity to engage with video, such as demographically targeted banners where the CPL was in the $200s, but prospects only received information from up to 3 schools. Furthermore, these student leads showed significantly higher engagement levels with the university that initially influenced their decision to even think about re-enrolling in school.
Mistake #8: Receiving Leads, but No Enrollment Team is Established to Follow-Up (by channel-specific strategy)
I’ve already briefly touched on this, but there is a ‘lead generation syndrome’ that exists among higher education marketers. In both small to mid-sized institutions, we have learned early on that it’s necessary to review the capacity of each university’s enrollment team. We have been in scenarios where we met all set lead volume goals just to find out that only 30 percent or less of student prospects were not contacted because proper resourcing was not in place by a sufficient enrollment team.
This is undoubtedly a waste of ad spend, and MUST be established before initiating a digital marketing campaign and scaling to higher levels. A small derivative of this improper resourcing is the fact that enrollment teams often only have one single “script” to manage a student prospect, but this doesn’t take into account which degree an individual is pursuing or even how the lead was generated (either branded keyword or non-branded keyword). Enrollment teams need be sufficiently staffed and work closely with marketing departments to provide a student prospect with the most personalized and insightful approach starting with lead generation and continuing with the initial touchpoint with an enrollment counselor.
Solution: A little coordination and planning will have significant impact to a school’s enrollment performance numbers.
Mistake #9: Not Tracking Re-Targeting by Channel
Re-targeting is one of the latest popular digital marketing practices, as I’m sure you’re all aware by the countless Amazon ads that chase you around the internet with the last product you searched for but didn’t purchase. Likewise, marketers in the education sector have adopted this approach, learning that re-targeting works and performs at the desired CPL or CPE.
I mentioned earlier that paid search needs to be segmented into buckets, and this is also true for re-targeting. It’s important to understand that re-targeting is based on a pool of landing page or website visitors that come from various sources of traffic, like a Facebook campaign. In general, we know that only 8-12 percent of site visitors convert into a lead on their first visit to a school’s site.
We know that a portion of site visitors who didn’t complete a campaign goal will likely revisit your website and ultimately convert somewhere down the line, so re-targeting helps to keep the awareness about your institution top-of-mind. Marketers also have to understand that the original source that drove the visitor to your site must be attributed once the visitor converts later from re-targeting efforts.
Unfortunately, most marketers consider re-targeting its own channel and fail to recognize it as just a means of support to the original ad tactic, which subsequently makes re-targeting’s performance look great in comparison to the original traffic source’s performance.
Solution: If re-targeting is segmented and aligned to each original traffic source, it will greatly enhance the perspective of this traffic source.
Mistake #10: Ignoring the New Generation (informed/landing page, mobile, clear differentiator)
The higher education landscape has experienced a drastic generational shift that is now mainly occupied by the millennial demographic. Despite the countless literature, case studies and recommendations available on how different millennials are from other generations, higher education digital marketers have been stagnant in their technical approach to reach them.
Solution: There are three rudimentary recommendations I share with higher education intuitions when addressing this increasing generational shift:
- Millennials are a generation that is significantly more empowered and informed versus previous generations (i.e. Baby Boomers)
- Millennials consumes digital information on portable devices (primarily mobile)
- They are highly skeptical and seek credibility
Knowing this, higher education marketers need to make adjustments to their online marketing approaches. Gone are the days of single-page landing pages with vague descriptors and information about their institution that lack a clear value proposition.
With this generation, a significantly richer and more educated approach is required.
Higher education marketers need to recognize today’s generation of student prospects as one of information richness. Therefore, lead-to-enrollment prospects that visited a single-page landing page have dropped more than 40 percent over the last five years of our evaluation.
Marketers also have to take into account a mobile-centric approach that accommodates mobile responsive designs and ads, click-to-call features or a lead form that allows Facebook-login connectivity as an alternative to filling out the required fields (in order to reduce friction for a mobile user).
Upon developing this list, I find that all of these mistakes are preventable if proactive measures are enacted–and this will reduce budget waste! While your marketing plan may account for some of these recommendations, I hope you’ve found at least a couple of these insights helpful to your overall efforts. If you are interested, you can continue making an impact to your digital marketing campaigns by reading my 10 Tips to Boost Your Higher Education Campaigns.
The recommendations I’ve provided for you in amalgamation with a strategic media partner will ensure that your higher education digital marketing campaigns are performing to their highest potential.