Bob Johnson's Blog on Higher Education Marketing

Summer is upon us above the equator and the visit season is in full swing at residential campuses. May everyone reach their goals and perhaps just a few more.

So too is the conference season still before us. If you have not quite decided where to go review these events. 

On July 23-25 the excellent ACT Enrollment Planners Conference opens in Chicago. Check the program for sessions of interest, including my pre-conference workshop on "Essential Keys to Successful Online Recruiting," at 

The eduWeb Conference for 2014 runs from August 4-6 in Baltimore. Start your exploration with the strong selection of pre-conference workshops, including my own "Advertising Online: Strategy and Tactics for Recruitment Success," at

If you are attending the AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education in November, plan to include my Monday afternoon Digital Marketing Strategy tutorial. See the events 

And now here are your marketing news and notes for July.
Digital Challenges Survey 2014: Just One Question

Answer Gerry McGovern's Digital Challenges Survey at that only asks for your open-ended response to this question: "In becoming more customer-centric and embracing Digital / Internet/ Web what are the key challenges an organization faces?"

We have well over 100 responses so far. Answer the question to receive a copy of all the responses.
US News Rankings: The Cost of Moving Up

Do people on your campus, maybe even your president and board members, talk about moving higher in the U.S. News and World Report rankings?

If so, purchase a copy of a new research report demonstrating that it is expensive indeed, with no guarantee of success, to move appreciably higher. Annual variations of up to four places are considered "noise" you can ignore, whatever the trustees might think. 

Start with an Inside Higher Ed article at and link from there to download the full report.
Email Marketing: 5 Schools that Excel

Jens Larsen at Eastern Washington University just might do more secret shopping that I do. See his recommendations for five colleges and universities that excel at email marketing programs for student recruitment at

The schools vary from as large as Arizona State University to as small as Stephens College. Follow the links to each inquiry page and start secret shopping to compare your own results against the Fabulous Five.
A New FAFSA: Just 2 Questions?

Exactly why the FAFSA form to evaluate income for financial aid has to contain more than 100 questions has always been a mystery to me. Two senators, a Republican and a Democrat, are moving to the other extreme in introducing new legislation so that schools can calculate need with answers to just two questions.

Are they insane? Decide for yourself. Start at and link along to the press release from Lamar Alexander's office. The two questions proposed: What is your family size? What was your household income two years ago? 
Online Enrollment: NCES States by State, Region for Fall 2012

How popular is "distance" education around the U.S.? If knowing the details is important for your planning and strategy efforts download the NCES PDF at for any state that interests you, divided by 2-year and 4-year school types and size of institution.

By region, the percent of students taking some but not entirely online courses varies from a low of 8.1 percent in New England to a high of 16.5 percent in the Southeast. The Plains states lead with the highest percent of students taking only online courses at 23 percent.
If You Like Advertising, You Need to Know AdFreak

Be sure to follow "The Best and Worst of Advertising, Branding and Design" from AdFreak 

If you think that highly paid agency talent guarantees great advertising, some examples here will have you shaking your head.
Tuition Discount Rate: Still Ugly for the Private Sector

NACUBO is out with the latest survey of tuition discounting practices. The average continues to rise to a new high of 46.4 percent for full-time freshmen in 2013.

For schools that are increasing in enrollment, Chief Financial Officers cite 7 responsible elements, with 57 percent for "better recruitment and marketing" to 23 percent for "new athletic programs."

See the other five elements and more on the continuing debate over tuition discounting as a viable strategy at 
Beware the Social Media Bubble: Are You Ready for Change?

Doug Miller is new media manager at DePaul University and an astute observer of all things in the social media world.

In a recent interview Doug stressed the importance of not fixating on a single social media tool in the future but planning for flexibility. Social media is not about to disappear but chasing new shiny objects each time one appears can destroy any chance of a coherent social media strategy.

For more on surviving and thriving after the bubble bursts start at 
Best University System in the World: Not in the U.S.?

If you rank the math skills of bachelor's level university graduates around the world, the U.S. ranks 16th, just behind Korea and above Australia. The top three countries: Austria, Belgium, and Finland.

The U.S. does have more "great" universities than any other single country. See more on a new way of evaluating and comparing higher education around the world at 
SEO: 5 Critical Rules for Success in 2014

Despite the despair of some black-hat SEO specialists, you can still do things that increase your chance of ranking higher in search results than competitors that do not do them. 

Take a check on your practices with a review of 5 key points from Website Magazine. My favorites are two that are still lacking in higher education: "Write for your audience" and "Speak their language." 

How to measure progress? One way is to note the diminishing use of "Prospective Students." That in-house term seems to be less common today. Perhaps someday we will banish it.

You can find more on my favorites and three others at 
Blog Promotion Tactics: 9 Tips from Experts

Looking for a variety of tips from blog experts on how you might gain more exposure for blogs written by your students and faculty? 

Copy and distribute the infographic on "The 9 Most Powerful Blog Promotion Tactics from Top Marketing Experts" at

Actually, you will find far more than 9 tactics as each of the nine includes several individual steps. Not all will work for every blog but chances are good that everyone will find something to use to gain a wider audience and more impact for your school.
Most Popular Topic in June Newsletter: The Future of Higher Education Marketing

Monsters University, St. Michael's College, CRM software and more were included in my May 23 blog post at 
Conference Presentations in July, August, and November

July 23-25, Chicago, IL: ACT Enrollment Planners Conference, "Affordability and Financial Aid: Crafting a New Student Communication Message," and a pre-conference workshop, "Essential Keys to Successful Recruiting Online: Speed, Simplicity, and Top Task Completion." Details 

August 4-6, Baltimore, MD: eduWeb2014 Conference. Program details, including my pre-conference workshop, are at 

November 10-13, Austin, TX: AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education, Monday workshop on "Digital Marketing Strategy." See the program at 

Plan a custom presentation on your campus. Host a workshop on any of my conference topics. Review the 2013 and 2014 topics at and contact me at or 248.766.6425.
Be a marketing champion on your campus.

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

Email marketing: 5 schools that do an unusually fine job

Back today with the last two questions from my interview with Jens Larson, manager of student communication strategies at Eastern Washington University. Look below for 5 schools that do especially good work with email communications for student recruitment.

If you missed Jens's advice on how to achieve "delicious" email success in the first part of our interview, that's just a click away.

For more insights from Jens, sign up for notices of new posts on his own blog "U of Admissions Marketing." If email marketing is important to you, plan to attend Jens' workshop at eduWeb14 conferece: "Where Did All the Email Strategists Go? The Contrarian's Guide to Winning at Email Marketing."

To make it easier to start secret shopping here, each link below goes direct to an undergraduate online inquiry page. Enjoy!

4. For people who want to do a bit of secret shopping and experience a strong email campaign for potential students, what universities do you recommend?

  • Always start with competitors. Once that's done, the following institutions can provide inspiration, although secret shoppers need to look beyond higher ed to find the cutting edge of email.
    • Arizona State University. I haven't had them on my secret shopping list for a while, but they tend to keep emails short, often with just one clear button or link and just a line or two of text. Super simple. University of Nevada Reno is very similar in this regard, too.
    • Full Sail University. It's a for-profit, but they make an effort to highlight their students' work and successes.
    • Stephens College. The level of personalization--which is remarkable in the industry--and their steady rate of emails keep them at the top of my inbox. At last count, they've sent several dozen emails in one recruitment cycle, and very few feel spammy.
    • University of Chicago. Their emails typically have twice as much text as most higher ed emails, but they also have twice as much personality. Interestingly, elite institutions seem more likely to showcase institutional personalities via email. Perhaps they have more confidence? Better strategy?
    • Wellesley College. It's the second all-girls institution on the list, but niche schools like Wellesley often have a better understanding of their audience and recruitment goals, and it shows in this email campaign. Their print campaign is also some of the most amazing copywriting in higher ed. But be nice with your info requests. Their print campaign is an expensive one.
  • No campaign will ever be perfect given time, cost, and technology constraints, but elements from those five schools together would be an almost unstoppable campaign.

5. What is the most common mistake you see universities making in an email campaign?

  • The most common mistake is not valuing email enough, which shows itself in two ways.
    • First, it shows up in poor campaign planning coupled with desperate emails. Too many times the response to missed targets and bad planning seems to be, "Quick! Send another email." By that point, it's too late.
    • Second, it shows up in poor resource allocation. Just because email is relatively inexpensive doesn't mean it's not valuable. In fact, it's often the case that it's more valuable than nearly any other channel on campus. But email isn't as sexy as social media or dynamic web interfaces, so it's usually just tacked on to someone's job. 
  • So I look at the positive: one institution's mistake is another institution's competitive advantage. Which is just another reason to attend the eduWeb Conference.

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 6,600+ people and follow me on Twitter

eduWeb2014 conference in August

August 4-6,  Baltimore, MD, CA: Review the conference program and register.

Early bird registration discount until June 28.


Higher education marketing.... how to get maximum success in your email communications

Today I'm starting another two-part interview around an important marketing topic for higher education: crafting successful email communications. 

Jens Larson, manager of student communication strategies at Eastern Washington University, knows that email is far from dead in today's communication mix. At eduWeb14 he'll be doing a workshop on "Where Did All the Email Strategists Go? The Contrarian's Guide to Winning at Email Marketing

Here are Jens' answers to my first three questions. The next installment follows tomorrow and includes his picks of 5 universities that really do email well. For today, let's start with what makes an email campaign "delicious."

1. You say in your workshop description that an updated email campaign has "potentially delicious" results. Can you elaborate on the two or three elements that are most important to get a "delicious" result?

  • One: Emails should add value to recipients' lives. Quality, targeted, and personalized content does this. Personality--such as humor or touching success stories--can do this, too. So can content that lets recipients feel like they're an insider who's communicating with real human beings.
  • Two: Emails should be easy. Easy to open. Easy to scan. Easy to understand. Easy to take action.
  • Three: Emails should track beyond the CRM. Knowing how emails lead to website engagement, call campaign success, and campus visits lets institutions improve emails, landing pages, websites, events, and phone scripts in one beautiful synthesis of data.

2. What do you think is the best way to measure ROI of an email campaign?

  • I'm going to hedge on this: the best ROI measurement depends on the goal, the audience segment, and the role of cumulative actions in the campaign.
  • But to avoid too much hedging, here are some of my favorite email ROI measurements:

·         Channel attribution. As a true ROI sales metric, channel attribution lets you compare conversion costs and conversion success rates across platforms and campaigns.

·         Engagement. Usually a long-term or soft goal, engagement is the primary ROI metric for nurture campaigns and for identifying high quality leads.

·         Time-to-conversion. Much like a website's frequency and recency metrics, time-to-conversion lets marketers determine how many touches (and their frequency) it takes before recipients complete the desired action.

  • Perhaps the easiest takeaway is that we have to move beyond opens and click through rates to get to true ROI analysis.

3. Any thoughts on the frequency of contact with potential students after they first identify themselves?

  • Don't be slave to a schedule. Be slave to the content. I'd rather send one great email per month that adds value than four mediocre ones that don't.
  • In my ideal world, I vary email send rates based on an individual prospect's engagement with the content I'm sending. Of course, that means a CRM has to handle engagement metrics well, and most don't, at least not yet.
  • But from data as well as from focus groups with future and current students, it's pretty clear that institutions underestimate how many touch points it takes to get students to complete specific actions or remember key steps in any kind of months-long process.

A Sample Communication Schedule

Week 1: Once a day (not all email)

Week 2-3: Two or three times per week (not all email)

Week 4-8: Once a week

  • The schedule above is a bit myopic since it will burn through a list pretty quickly. I'd rather nurture prospects with engaging, less frequent emails than with huge blasts of generic content. But to pull that off, an institution needs strong copy writing, great strategy, well-implemented technology, and lots of room to be creative.

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 6,600+ people and follow me on Twitter

eduWeb2014 conference in August

August 4-6,  Baltimore, MD, CA: Review the conference program and register.

Early bird registration discount until June 28.

Social media marketing: the perils of digital flash-mobs and chasing shiny new objects

Here's the second installment in my interview with Doug Miller, New Media Manager at DePaul University, on the social media bubble and how to thrive in the social media world in the future. 

My questions were based on Doug's upcoming workshop at eduWeb2014 on the same topic. Note that the early bird registration discount runs until June 28.

If you've come upon this article before reading Doug's answers to my first two questions you can double back here for the first installment.

3. What's the most important lesson you've learned from community management?

  • The most important lesson I've learned from community management in higher education in a digital context is that community management is almost a misnomer. To assume that we can institutionally control how and when community emerges and develops in these new digital environments lacks an understanding of how communities form and perpetuate online in a modern digital context.
Adapting to digital flash-mobs

  • The modern community online is a digital flash-mob that coalesces (and just as quickly disperses) around a hashtag, notion or meme, not a formally-fixed attendance-sheet of loyal acolytes. It takes a nimble environment to track and trace these subtle shifts. The most that can be done is to create an environment whereby the barrier of entry for participation is acceptably low and expectation of the benefits of the relationship clearly outlined.

  • Then it is best to let the community show (by tracked behavior) where the interest lies (which is often counter to common logic about what "should" be done in communities.) The reason engagement is such a sought after metric is that lurking is so easy to do and active participation so easy to avoid. The social contract of the modern digital community should not be a burden to accept, and participation metrics need to extend beyond overt displays of forced affinity or compliment fishing.

  • The last thing I would say I've learned about community management in a modern digital context is that appropriate public discourse can and should be regularly modeled and distinguished from more intimate environments - because in many ways we are all still learning how to be public online. For me there is no such thing as public vs. private online, there is only public and less public (intimate) and privacy, in the sense many of us have grown up imagining, is only an option in digital contexts via non-participation.

4. Any special obstacles you see that keep universities from effectively using social media?

  • The primary obstacle I see keeping universities from effective participation in digital social networks is in failing to distinguish the strategic from the tactical. Many schools have enough smarts to realize that there are strategic lessons to be learned by the way digital social tools operate and simply translate that into physical presence in a particular digital platform rather than understanding systems of digital social networking holistically.
Pressure to chase the latest shining social objects

  • Instead of attempting to understand what it is about visual digital social objects that have become so popular and easily shareable or strategically integrating that popularity into institutional behavior, the tendency is to cave to the pressure to chase after whatever social platform happens to be en vogue at the moment and simply be present in that platform - assuming mere presence to be the primary factor in determining success. We also tend to use outliers as benchmarks for expected performance which falsely deflates return on investment and makes justification of strategic resources self-limiting. 

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 6,575+ people and follow me on Twitter

eduWeb2014 conference in August

August 4-6,  Baltimore, MD, CA: Review the conference program and register.

Early bird registration discount until June 28.

The "social media bubble" and what it means for higher education marketing

Doug Miller describes himself as a "social curator, content creator and digital media educator." He's currently New Media Manager at DePaul University.

At this year's eduWeb conference Doug is leading a workshop on "Bursting the Social Media Bubble: How to Leverage Social Media Before it Leverages You." You can find his workshop details on the eduWeb conference site.

I sent Doug four questions about the impending burst of the bubble and what people in higher education might do to take best advantage of it. Here are his answers to the first two questions. The other two will follow tomorrow. 

1. Tell us more about the "social media bubble" and how much further it has to go before it pops.

  • Change is a constant when it comes to technology. Technologists are so acclimated to this evolution that many believe its progress to be predictable along a consistent line, as in the case of Moore's Law. In looking at the current state of the use of social digital platforms in higher education, it is certainly change that has brought us to where we are as an industry, but change as a tactical response to a strategic problem. We are now aware of the undeniability of the impact of social digital tools on the way so many of our myriad facets do business, yet we are often still struggling to think of them strategically rather than tactically.

  • From advertising and brand recognition to admissions, enrollment, customer service, retention, pedagogy, alumni services, advancement and fundraising - every aspect of our diverse vertical has felt the seismic shift precipitated by the promises of these digital tools, techniques and trends. Yet, as quickly as much of our industry has been moved to action, we take no solace in such regular, predictable phenomenon as Moore's Law because we often find our strategy mired in the search to predict which platform will be the destination for the next great social media migration. These are the beginnings of the bubble that must (and will) burst.

  • There are those for whom this tactical search has yielded success. Certainly, we love our case studies and to lift them up as benchmarks rather than outliers - such and such school experiences success on such and such platform - and then we make efforts to replicate such efforts across the industry. But not every tool or tactical response is appropriate for every school or strategic scenario.
The bubble that will burst...

  • That is the bubble that will burst - not that tools and platforms will no longer be social, not that users won't gravitate toward digital social objects and be curators and generators of them - but rather that the search to find the next most popular tactical tool will prove itself unsustainable as a strategic approach. The social media bubble is about how we respond as an industry to these trends, not about the lifespan of a particular set of tools or tactics. 

2. How about an example of "data gathering tools" that the "big brands" use that will also work for universities?

  • What digital social tools provide more than connectivity is data about users. There is no shortage of references of businesses, brands or governments using these new lenses to make predictive assumptions about consumers and set strategic initiatives for how to engage them.

  • Higher education is no exception, except that our methods for gathering data often exist in siloed environments or legacy systems that routinely don't provide the same bigger picture perspective. A good example of this is what we call "social CRM" or constituent relationship management inclusive of data from digital social media platforms.

  • Even schools with departments and divisions active inside social media platforms don't always tie that data back to institutional knowledge or outcomes in a constructive and meaningful way. Could you imagine if Target's pharmacy did not easily share data with the children's clothing department about consumer sentiment as expressed through social digital platforms? How good would they be at predicting that their shoppers are pregnant then?
Tools that can help you survive and thrive...

  • Many schools are beginning to see the value of integrating data from the social graph into larger strategic discussions, not just as a bullhorn for broadcasting the same old messages, but as a prism through which user behavior is better understood. Social media management tools like Hootsuite and Sprout Social allow for greater perspective about the behaviors of users in aggregate, but it takes social plugins and data tracking on an individual level from systems like Salesforce, NationBuilder, or other "Social CRM" platforms to take higher education where it needs to go to approach these issues strategically.

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 6,575+ people and follow me on Twitter

eduWeb2014 conference in August

August 4-6,  Baltimore, MD, CA: Review the conference program and register.

Early bird registration discount until June 28.

Bob Johnson
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