Bob Johnson's Blog on Higher Education Marketing

Where do the "Key Steps" come from?

After working for 20+ years in higher education on the client side preparing RFPs, I worked for 6 years with an agency specializing in higher education marketing. Since 2006, I've been working as an independent marketing consultant with 80+ clients, primarily colleges and universities.

My notes here reflect lessons learned over those years in a quick effort to help both clients and agencies waste less time during an RFP process and get more benefit from it. Some of these might seem obvious. Trust me. They are not obvious to everyone.

What's your budget?

Few people are willing to state a budget range in an RFP.  Most often I'm told that is from a fear that the agencies responding will just "spend all my money" in their proposals. Sometimes people tell me it is because they do not have a budget yet and are using the RFP process to make a budget request based on the responses received. (If you are in this second group, be honest about it up front. It will help agencies understand how much you know about the work at hand.)

Consider these benefits of a budget reveal:

  •         If you tell agencies or consultants how much money you have to spend you will be able to better compare the substance of what you will get from each responder and find out what your $20,000 or $100,000 or $200,000 or more will buy.
  •        You won't waste time reviewing proposals that you can't possibly afford. And agencies won't waste time responding to what might they might consider a college or university with an unrealistic budget.
  •         If you have not had time to learn what your proposal is likely to cost, just say so. That will tell agencies what you know about the subject at hand and let them decide whether or not to respond.

Allow a decent response time.

No, you are not likely to get the best response from an agency when you give just two weeks to return a detailed RFP. Try for 30 days as a much more reasonable time. That's especially true if you want responses from smaller agencies that are busy with active client work and do not have staff working exclusively on RFP responses. One reason smaller agencies sometimes price themselves lower than larger ones: less overhead for people hired to respond to RFPs.

Who will review the RFP responses?

Higher education is notorious for extended, complicated review processes but that's not true of every college and university. Let agencies know in advance who is involved in selecting the RFP winner and how long you expect the decision to take. That will also give agencies an early insight into the customs and culture of a college or university. You will end up with responses from firms that are comfortable working within your system.

Who will approve the work?

Be as detailed as possible in explaining who will approve the work done by the agency awarded the project. I once decided, for instance, not to bid on a web writing project for the academic divisions at a large state university when I read that the copy would be reviewed and approved by both a faculty committee in the division and the university marketing staff.

If you can't outline the complete approval process, can you identify the project manager? If you can't do that, your homework is not complete.

Is there an incumbent agency?

Sometimes a college or university, no matter how pleased with their current agency, is required to generate an RFP process after, say, 5 years. From a client perspective, that makes sense. The client gets to see new approaches and to check pricing practices.

But give prospective RFP responders the curtesy of telling them if an incumbent agency is being asked to bid on the project. You don't have to say whether or not you still like the incumbent, but at least give potential new agencies the ability to make a decision on whether or not they want to compete in this setting. Some will not.

Let's be frank. Sometimes clients know in advance that they intend to renew a relationship with the incumbent agency. Some potential new firms will elect to tilt against that windmill. Let each agency make that decision.

Don't ask for "spec creative" work.

Yes, you can ask to see work done by an agency for other clients. Indeed, you might have already reviewed that work before inviting agencies to respond to your RFP. But agencies hate preparing new creative work for your project as part of the review process. Particularly when you add something to the RFP giving you ownership of whatever is submitted.

The bottom line: most successful agencies will not respond to RFPs like this in all but the most unusual circumstances. And even if you are the rare school that has the brand strength to have agencies salivating to add you to a client list, asking for spec creative still shows poor form on your part.

One last point.

When your selection process is over, let the losers know they lost right away. You might even go the extra mile and let people know who won.  

That's all for now.

Subscribe to "Your Higher Education Marketing Newsletter" for monthly marketing news and notes and weekly Link of the Week selections.

Join 7,100+ people and follow me on Twitter.
Happy New Year! Best wishes to everyone for marketing success in 2016. 

My December article on "6 Great Website Examples" for connecting quickly on a website starts with a unique home page from Xavier University. See how 5 other schools distinguish themselves at 

The Call for Papers for the 2106 eduWeb Digital Summit in August is open until January 15. Review the 5 track topics and send a presentation proposal. Start at 

Share with your marketing team: A full set of slides from my Digital Marketing Strategy tutorial at the AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education last November 
Conference Event in February

If you are planning serious website work in 2016, register for the Academic Impressions conference on "Higher Ed Web Redesign" starting February 29. Check the program and register at 

Follow me on Twitter at for daily marketing updates.

And now here are your December marketing news and notes.
Cartoon of the Month: 7 Marketing Resolutions for the New Year

How long will your marketing resolutions last this year? Every resolution you will see here starting with "This year I will focus on fundamentals" has merit. How long will you resist the last one on chasing fads?

Laugh, maybe weep a bit, and start your next marketing meeting with the cartoon 
Customer Experience Trends: The Most Important Topic for 2016

We all can find a plethora of articles on trends and innovations to follow in 2016. If you only have the time and patience to read one such list, make it "The Year of the Customer: 16 Customer Service and Experience Trends For 2016" from Shep Hyken at Forbes Magazine.

No matter what type of students you are recruiting, take special note of the first item: "Customers are smarter than ever." 

After you circulate the Cartoon of the Month, have your team discover what is most important to marketing success when you scan the other 15 customer experience trends 
Recruiting Out-of-State Students: Where Do People Travel?

How successful are you likely to be recruiting students who do not already live in your state? Distance from the home state is an important factor according to a new review of 2014 IPEDS data from Jon Boeckenstedt at DePaul University. California, New Jersey, Illinois, and New York are the leading exporters.

The legions of students exiting California, for instance, travel all about the country. University of Alabama and New York University are their most popular destinations. The many students from New Jersey, on the other hand, stay close to their home state.

Pick your favorite state(s) or school(s) to review when you visit 
Writing Right for the Web: New Academic Program Introduction

Every once in a while you see an example of academic program writing and content presentation that you wish would spread throughout higher education. This example from the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University is one of them.

Visit the unusually clean, simple, and easy-to-scan presentation at 
CollegeNET vs. Common App: Wrestling in the Mud?

CollegeNet is appealing an adverse court ruling on an anti-trust suit against the Common Application last spring. CollegeNet is the choice of the Coalition for College Access, Affordability, and Success to deliver future application services.

Review the reasons why a U.S. District Court dismissed the suit as well as the reason CollegeNet is challenging that decision at 
Goldman Sachs and College Value: Avoid the Bottom 25 Percent

A December note from Goldman Sachs reporting that graduates of the bottom 25 percent of universities earn less on average than high school graduates received no small amount of media attention. A quick Google search brings links to CBS News, CNN Money, Business Insider, and more. 

Estimate the PR impact from a typical report that "gives parents good reasons not to send kids to college right now" at 

The original Goldman Sachs warning is in a PDF at 
Digital Marketing Campaigns: The Best in Higher Ed in 2015

I have known the smart folks at Terminal Four since I first met Piero Tintori at a J.Boye conference in Denmark years ago and started my collection of red-covered notebooks.

And that is why it is easy to recommend a visit to the first installment of "The Best Higher Education Digital Marketing Campaigns of 2015." No guarantee that you will be a fan of each one but check the variety of approaches for insight and inspiration for your 2016 efforts.

My personal favorite: several faculty simply reading short notes about why students liked Keele University.

To review campaigns from the U.K. and the U.S., visit 
Disney World Marketing Content: Two Schools Merge in Philadelphia

The merits of the impending merger aside, the December press release announcing the tentative deal is a truly remarkable example of over-the-top content marketing. 

See how many superlatives can dance on the head of a pin when you read the announcement story at 
Nielsen Alertbox Report: Website Simplicity Almost Always Wins

Do you need more reasons to convince people that keeping lots of links on a website page isn't harmful, even when many are almost never used?

To help clean the clutter from your web pages and increase top task completion, get people to read "Simplicity Wins over Abundance of Choice" at 
A Fad You Can Miss in 2016: 9 Reasons to Skip Virtual Reality

You do not have to rush to create a virtual reality version of your campus visit experience if you believe the AdAge take that this emergent 2015 marketing darling just is not practical.

If you insist on early adoption, follow the link to the example for Stanford University football.

Root yourself in reality by reading "Reality Check: 2016 Won't Be the Year of VR" 
Most Popular Topic in December Newsletter: Content Marketing Cartoon

Everyone loves content marketing, ice cream, and apple pie. Cartoonist Tom Fishburne gently urges that we spend more time editing and less time publishing in his "Branded Content" cartoon at 
Be a marketing champion on your campus.

Bob Johnson, Ph.D. 
Bob Johnson Consulting, LLC
Bob Johnson Consulting, LLC

Increase your marketing success with these services. Contact me to schedule your project at 

Top Task Website Design Research with Gerry McGovern
Expert Marketing Communications Website Reviews
Communication Audits
Writing Right for the Web: Webinars, Conferences, and Campus Workshops
Competitive Website Reviews and Secret Shopping Projects
Connect in 5 Seconds or Less to Create Marketing Strength

Yes, you have 5 seconds or less when a web page opens to make a connection with someone visiting that page. People have to immediately see something they understand and that "something" had best be based on a top task the visitors want to complete.

Quick top task completion gives visitors a good experience. That makes them more likely to return to the website again. Your brand reputation benefits. 

An immediate connection depends on the power of words that stand out on the page. That's true for desktop and laptop visitors. It is especially true of mobile visitors. Today we pay homage to 6 higher education websites that distinguish themselves by their ability to create an immediate connection with the impatient, task-oriented people who use higher education websites.

These "immediate impact" examples are taken from the 2015 Link of the Week selections.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for IMG_0688.PNG

Most higher education home pages are dominated by a huge hero image, sometimes still part of a carousel series that few people stay on the page to see. Visitors have to search about the first screen or scroll down through layers of images and words to find the path to complete their top tasks.

The home page design at Xavier stands out for the "can't miss" placement of the search box. Potential students are prompted to use search to "find programs" that interest them.

Yes, there is a large image of a campus building. But nice as the building might be, it does not say anything distinctive about the school. Placing the search box right over that image says: "We want to help you find what you want to find." It creates a distinctive approach right from the start. 

Thumbnail image for IMG_0845.PNG

Here is an alumni page with a single primary purpose: make it as easy as possible for alumni to connect with one another.

If you view this on a desktop or laptop you'll find a discrete right column link to "Make a Gift to Carlton" but making a gift is not a top task for most alumni visiting a website like this. 

Alumni have several connection options: 
  • "In Your Area" for people and events
  • "Classes and Eras"
  • "Careers"
  • "Interests and Affinities"
  • "Majors"
Of course, if you are searching for a particular person you can try the directory at the start.

Thumbnail image for IMG_0742.PNG

Numbers are powerful because they draw immediate attention. Visitors to this financial aid page first see 3 key points that support the "You Can Afford" Harvard headline that follows right underneath them:
  • 70% receive financial support.
  • 100% have no debt at graduation.
  • 20% pay nothing at all to attend Harvard.
Large-screen visitors will see the same 3 points horizontally across the top of the page.

The Net Price Calculator is visible in the center of the page.

The language used in the "How Aid Works" section is a remarkably jargon-free example of "Writing Right for the Web."

Thumbnail image for IMG_0649.PNG

Can I get a scholarship at your university? That or something similar is a question often heard by admissions counselors at college fairs. Most schools do not make the answer as easy to find as Eastern Kentucky does on their 4-part form for "First Time Freshman."

Your estimate is available immediately after you tell EKU your high school GPA, your ACT or SAT score, and your state of residence. 

Just below the estimated scholarship amount are links to apply for admission, make an inquiry, or schedule a campus visit. That's perfect path positioning for a potential student encouraged by the scholarship possibility to take the next step on their college selection journey.

Thumbnail image for IMG_0608.PNG

This page wastes no time letting visitors know how much money has been raised and the major ways in which that money will be used.

Just as quickly as people scan the numbers they well also see:
  • How many people invested in the campaign.
  • How many "alumni champions" participated.
  • The amount dedicated to financial aid for students.
  • The number of "Perpetual Scholarships and Fellowships" created.
After people have scanned the top data points, they can remain to note the sizes of various donations and the sources of the money.

Like the Xavier home page, this program entry page takes the unusual but strong step of placing key links right on top of the video that opens the page. The video is visible as background, but it does not push the important words further down on the page where they are not immediately visible.

After the opening "Learn Everywhere" statement, the path to answering four questions is obvious:
What can I study?
Where can I study it?
How do I participate?
When can I study it?

The result? Another clean and simple page that takes people quickly to the content needed to complete their study abroad tasks.

That's all for now.

Subscribe to "Your Higher Education Marketing Newsletter" for monthly marketing news and notes and weekly Link of the Week selections.

Join 7,050+ people and follow me on Twitter.
Greetings in December. And a special welcome to new subscribers from my Digital Marketing Strategy tutorial at the AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education last month. Review the complete set of tutorial slides at 

The Call for Papers for the 2016 eduWeb Digital Summit in August is open until January 15. Review the 5 track topics and prepare a presentation proposal. Start at 

Make time on December 8 for a new Gerry McGovern webinar on Measuring the Customer Experience at your website. More than anything else online, the experience people have at your website will influence what they think of your school. Register at 
Conference Event in February

Are you renewing your website in 2016? Attend the Academic Impressions "Planning for a Higher Ed Website Redesign" conference in February. Check the details and register to join us at 

Follow me on Twitter at for daily marketing updates.

And now here are your December marketing news and notes.
Cartoon of the Month: The Danger of Mixing Content Marketing and Brand Promotion

In rushing to feed the "content marketing beast" are organizations failing to edit content to deliver what is of interest to the intended audience? The Cartoon of the Month is at 
Social Media Strength: Top Media-Savvy Universities in the U.S.

If you like infographics you will love this view of the top social universities in categories that include total online mentions, facilities, professional schools, Twitter mentions and followers, and Facebook likes.

As you might expect, size and reputation help. Start your scan at 
Advertising Online: The Ad Blocking Challenge

If you advertise online the strong trend to use ad-blocking software, especially among Millennials, raises new challenges to a decent ROI from your advertising dollars.

Visitors to gaming sites are most likely to use ad blockers, at 26.5 percent. Visitors to education sites are at 16.9 percent adoption. Both charities and government sites are under 5 percent.

Discover a useful resource when you download the 17-page "2015 Ad Blocking Report at 
Content Marketing and Your Website: Two Priority Goals

Two goals are most important to the success of a content marketing strategy. First, reduce the content of your current website by at least 50 percent to improve search and navigation. Second, focus on making it as easy as possible for visitors to complete their top tasks.

What quickly dooms content marketing? The wide-spread addiction to "ego content" that is difficult to escape. Think welcome messages from presidents and deans and "Disney World" photos and stories.

Gerry McGovern writes more in "Less Content Marketing, More Quality Content" at 
Student Recruitment: Communicating with Latinos

The Pew Research Center has published a new report on the challenges of conducting surveys among the Hispanic population in the U.S. If you or your agency are planning marketing research surveys that include a sampling of potential Hispanic students and their families, "The Unique Challenges of Surveying U.S. Latinos" is required reading at 
Financial Struggles in Higher Education: Another Pessimistic Moody's Report

Moody's is back with a November report based on a survey of 169 private sector universities and 129 public sector schools. The report: 50 percent in the private sector either expect falling tuition revenues or gains of less than 3 percent. Similar "softness" was reported in the public sector.

Continuing price-sensitivity and fewer students in the Midwest and Northeast again were cited as the culprits, fueling increased tuition discounting to maintain enrollment levels.

Bloomberg Business summarizes the report at 
Digital Marketing Strategy: 9 Key Questions

Sean Carton is a smart fellow. And he has just written a blog entry to help marketers navigate their way through the sometimes arcane world of digital marketing strategy, with a special focus on avoiding magical declarations from digital oracles masquerading as high priests. 

Study and answer the 9 questions from Sean "when developing a digital strategy" to keep your plans as realistic as possible. My favorites were Question 4 (What resources do we have available?) and Question 7 (If we do this, what are we going to do less of?) because both force the strategy discussion down to the real world.

Visit and review each important question that Sean asks in "How to Create a Digital Marketing Strategy" at 
Net Price Calculator: A New Easy-to-Find University Example

At most college and university websites, finding the Net Price Calculator from the home page is still rare even though cost information is a top task for many if not most potential students. Carroll University joins a tiny group of four schools I have found so far, with versions for both freshmen and transfers.

A Most Unusual Scholarship: For Terrier Lovers Only

Hiram College athletic teams are known as the Terriers. And starting in 2016 up to 5 new freshman students can receive a one-time $1,000 scholarship based on how well they show a love for terriers.

To win, students will need a photo or a 15-second video showing their terrier affection. While the bull terrier is the official Hiram mascot, love for any terrier makes a person eligible. More at 
Advertising in the 1980s: 5-Minute Summary from AdAge

Did people like this really exist in the 1980s? It, for sure, was not a time of reality marketing.

Spend just 5 minutes to go back in time and watch a mash-up of TV ads from the 1980s at 
Most Popular Topic in November Newsletter: Marketing Lessons for Student Recruitment

Since it was published in August more than 1,400 people have visited "4 Top Marketing Lessons for Student Recruitment" at 
Be a marketing champion on your campus.

Bob Johnson, Ph.D. 
Bob Johnson Consulting, LLC
Bob Johnson Consulting, LLC

Increase your marketing success with these services. Tell me about your most important challenges at 

Communication Audits
Expert Marketing Website Reviews
Top Task Website Design Research with Gerry McGovern
Writing Right for the Web: Webinars, Conferences, and Campus Workshops
Competitive Website Reviews and Secret Shopping Projects
Hello in November to everyone reading this issue.

We are well into the fall admissions season for traditional students here in the U.S. and it is fitting that the New York Time Education Life supplement for November includes 4 articles that focus on different parts of the admission process. If you don't get the Sunday NY Times, you can find everything online at

The supplement includes an article reviewing the issues around a proposed new admissions process that caused no small amount of controversy at NACAC 2015 in September. You can skip everything else in the supplement and go right to A New Coalition of Elite Colleges Tries to Reshape Admissions at

I am still in awe at the title appropriated by the group of 80+ schools: "Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success" leaves no high ground unclaimed. Fortunately, the title has not awed the critics into silence.

On a more practical level: Do people on your campus think social media marketing is more important than your website for successful student recruitment? If so, send them to 4 Top Marketing Lessons for Student Recruitment at 
Conference Event in November

The AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education in November is just two weeks away. You can still register and add my Sunday afternoon Digital Marketing Strategy tutorial at 

Invite a friend or colleague to subscribe to this newsletter. Just 30 seconds at 

If you are not already a Twitter follower, join me at for daily marketing updates.

And now here are your November marketing news and notes.
Cartoon of the Month: Your Marketing Toolkit

What is the most important element in a successful marketing campaign? Laugh at the possibilities in the Cartoon of the Month at 
"The New Math of College Rankings": Especially for Wall Street Journal Readers

For families who have the most money to spend on a college education, the WSJ is providing advice on how to best select a college with "return on investment and graduation prospects" in mind. In other words, focus on how a college or university will provide ROI on the cost paid.

The November 2 article highlights 8 websites that parents can visit to find ROI content. Wise marketers will read this article, review what is available on their website, and wonder how they can help potential students and their parents complete the task the WSJ article is encouraging them to research elsewhere.

Suggestion: See how your school fares on the 8 websites listed by WSJ at 
World University Rankings: U.S and U.K. Dominate Top 25

The Times Higher Education rankings for 2015-2016 perhaps are not surprising, although no Ivy League university made the first five. Two countries other than the U.K. and U.S. have universities listed in the Top 25 at #9 and #19.

Check the ranking criteria and search the 800 listed universities by individual countries at
Niche Rankings: Top 100 Test-Optional Colleges in the U.S.

Here is a new list of public and private sector schools that do not require either ACT or SAT scores to make an admissions decision. Bowdoin College heads a list that ends with Walsh University.

A "show details" link grades each school in 10 areas that start with academics and end with campus safety, including "value," "professors," and "campus quality."

See the rankings from Niche, a lead-gen site, at 
Reducing Tuition at Utica and Rosemont Colleges: What Do We Call It?

Is reducing your tuition level by 40 percent or so a "tuition reset" as the colleges prefer to call it or a "cut" or "slash" as has been reported in newspaper and TV reports? 

The difference shows just how nervous a school can be when flying in the face of prevailing sentiment that a high sticker price conveys a high-quality image. Both Utica and Rosemont are attempting a realistic approach in the face of tuition discounting that NACUBO reports as now averaging about 48 percent. 

Time will tell if the lower sticker price approach works. Meantime, neither school likely is happy with the "bargain basement education" label used by CNBC in a report at 
Brand Evolution in Higher Education: A Brief History

Take just a few minutes to read this fine review of higher education from the 1600s to the present, prepared by Sean Carton to keep everyone rooted in reality as we continue to debate who should go to college and the value of a college degree.

You can find "The Brand of Higher Education: Context for the Conflict" at 
Mobile Marketing: Google and Why "Every Second Counts"

Do you have skeptics on your marketing team who do not yet believe that "every second counts" in online marketing, especially on mobile? Ask them to read the AdAge article outlining new plans from Google to boost speed expectations from mobile users. 

Check your web pages at Google PageSpeed Insights after you read "Google is Making the Mobile Web Faster" at 
Social Media Marketing: Check Your Landing Pages

If you marketing plans call for students to journey from a social media site to become an inquiry, the quality of your landing page likely will decide your success. Nothing will kill marketing ROI faster than a bad landing page.

Create a separate landing page for every ad or post that you expect people to follow to become an inquiry or register for an event. Never drop people into a regular website page. That might sound obvious, but I have seen graduate programs in Integrated Marketing Communications drop people right into a home page with no obvious place to take the desired action.

Read the Social Media Examiner recommendations and/or listen to the podcast for "How to Optimize Landing Pages to Boost Social Media Conversions" at 
International Student Recruitment: Impact of Cost on U.S. Success

Cost is the factor most likely to keep students accepted to U.S. universities from enrolling here, according to a recent Eduventures report. For 2015, about 47 percent of students accepted to a U.S university declined the invitation. 

Nearly two-thirds gave "I can't afford it" as their reason not to enroll. About one-third said they might enroll at a later time. And a surprising 23 percent said they did not know enough about the school that accepted them.

The countries most often selected as U.S. alternatives: Canada, the U.K., Australia, and Germany.

More details from the research are at 
Twitter vs. Instagram: Which Will Best Boost Your Marketing Results?

The answer to that question is complex. Instagram, says author Dominque Jackson, is better for engagement within the network. Twitter is better at creating engagement outside the network.

See the reasons and review detailed demographics of the people using each site at 
Pell Grant Enrollment: Variations in Enrollment and Graduation Levels

How serious are universities about enrolling low-income students? A new report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy suggests that some schools are more serious than others.

In addition to four universities in California cited for strong performance with Pell Grant students, universities in four other states made a "Strong Student Outcomes" list: Indiana Wesleyan, Grand Valley State in Michigan, Stetson University in Florida, and University of Tennessee - Knoxville.

For a detailed review of how 18 universities are meeting the challenge of enrolling and graduating Pell Grant students at varying net price points see the report at 
Most Popular Topic in October Newsletter: Growing a New a Brand Reputation

It takes generations to grow a brand reputation and not nearly as long to lose one. The Cartoon of the Month gives pause for thought to anyone thinking about a rebranding campaign at 
Be a marketing champion on your campus.

Bob Johnson, Ph.D. 
Bob Johnson Consulting, LLC
Bob Johnson Consulting, LLC

Increase your marketing success with these services. Contact me for details at 

Top Task Website Design Research with Gerry McGovern
Expert Marketing Communications Website Reviews
Writing Right for the Web: Webinars, Conferences, and Campus Workshops
Competitive Website Reviews and Secret Shopping Projects
Communication Audits

Bob Johnson
Blog Contents
Recent Entries Categories Monthly Archives