Bob Johnson's Blog on Higher Education Marketing

What makes an effective digital marketing strategy? 

Just about a month from now I'll be for the third year presenting a tutorial on Digital Marketing Strategy at the AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education. As in past years, the various ways to advertise online will be a primary focus. But this year I'm starting with 7 key points to keep in mind as you ponder the best way to "go digital" for marketing success.

Here are the areas that I think are important to develop strategy and tactics that will work whether your interest is in enrolling students or raising money. Wise minds can disagree on many of these so I expect interesting questions and comments in November. 

1. Embrace "Big Data"
  • Not everyone likes the name and many people are still caught up in discussions over privacy. Get over that. The data available today allows marketers to send advertising messages to people who are most likely to value the message and respond to it. Everyone with a direct marketing impulse appreciates that. Sending the right message to fewer people is good strategy. "Big data" lets us do that.
2. Use a CRM System
  • Yes, a CRM system is expensive. And yes, a CRM system isn't easy to use right out of the box. But my secret shopping projects continue to tell me that colleges and universities are not doing a very good job of tailoring conversion communications to the special interests of new inquiries. That's especially evident in the almost complete lack of attention to the desired academic major collected on an inquiry form. 
  • When I ask people why that's absent the most common answer is "We don't have the software to personalize response." A CRM system will remove that handicap and increase conversion rates.
3. Be Wary of Responsive Design as "the" Mobile Solution
  • When responsive design first burst upon the scene just a few short years ago it was a web developer's Holy Grail. Imagine being able to "publish everywhere" once on a variety of platforms without having to create separate content and separate programming from large to small screen devices. 
  • Yes, responsive design can be great. But only if you start with a "mobile first" mentality that recognizes the need to remove most of the original content on your large screen website. Say 50 percent to start. More in reality. If you don't do that hard work first, your big, bloated, difficult to navigate website will be just the same on mobile. Maybe worse.
4. Be Smart about Content Marketing
  • Somewhere there is a great cartoon I've lost that has one person telling another early in the day: "I can't wait to get up and find some brand content to read today." 
  • Creating a more frequent flow of old-style marketing content or traditional press releases does not a content strategy make, on social media or elsewhere. First and foremost, content has to be driven by what is important to the people you wish to enroll. And that doesn't mean finding 8 new ways to tell someone about how dedicated you are to their success.
  • Content strategists know this. Many colleges and universities haven't yet made the transition. When I see more up front content about "affordability' and how to realistically pay for education, I'll know that content marketing is advancing. 
5. Focus on Top Tasks
  • If you know the top tasks potential students (and ditto for donors) want to do when they come to your website, you're on the way to knowing how to implement content strategy.
  • Identify tasks first, then follow with the content needed for task implementation. Successful marketing no longer depends on preaching. What's needed now is attention to successful experiences in giving people what they need to know (from their perspective) to make a decision. 
  • Again, greater attention to affordability questions and more priority for the importance of academic program information will tell me that strategy is moving in the right direction.
6. Respond Rapidly
  • Some schools get this, some do not. When you get an online inquiry, for instance, don't test people's level of interest by waiting weeks to send a first response. Responding in 24 hours is best. By phone if you asked for and received that information. By email, otherwise.
7. Make Sure Landing Page Links Work
  • To keep the ROI on your advertising low, create a landing page with links that people will follow. Then don't check to make sure the links are working when your ad launches. 
  • Sound obvious? Two weeks ago this Sunday that was the case for a series of NY Times print ads from UCLA. Just today it happened again with a well-placed online display ad from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism for the online Integrated Marketing Communications Program. Both had a link to videos. Neither link worked.
  • The best strategy in the world is handicapped when attention to basic tactics is missing.
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 6,670+ people and follow me on Twitter

Digital Marketing Strategy Tutorial at AMA Marketing Symposium

Fall greetings once again to everyone north of the Equator. Here in Michigan it is fresh apple cider season. Always makes for a great October.

Wherever your location, may your marketing strategies and recruitment activities bring you success in this increasingly competitive environment.

Join several hundred bright, inquisitive, experienced higher education marketers this November at the AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education in Austin. Review the program details, register, and join me for my Monday afternoon Digital Marketing Strategy tutorial at

Do you have a friend or colleague who should be reading the newsletter and the weekly Link of the Week selections? Have them visit to subscribe in just a few seconds.

And now here are your marketing news and notes for October.
LinkedIn Enters the Ratings Game: Ranking Schools by Career Success in Professional Areas

Making new use of the data available from the legions of members, LinkedIn is now rating top schools by career outcomes in 8 professional areas: Accounting Professionals, Designers, Finance Professionals, Investment Bankers, Marketers, Media Professionals, Software Developers and Software Developers at Startups.

While most of the usual suspects leading in rankings are here, some of the results might surprise you. First for Investment Bankers is Georgetown University. First for accounting is Villanova University.

Explore a new tool for future students at 
Adwords Success: "Demystifying Adwords" Infographic

Check the points you think are important to online advertising success against what is included here, particularly the notes on landing pages: relevancy to your key words, download speed, and the experience people have on the page. 

Where will you get the best advertising ROI? Retargeting.

More on these points and others at
Ad Campaigns Withdrawn at Two Universities: Best Laid Plans and All That

No matter the advance research and creative work, advertising campaigns sometimes run afoul of key constituents and are pulled. Consider the Suffolk and Creighton university examples.

The Suffolk campaign positioned the university as a non-elite school for regular people against other more selective schools in the Boson area. New university leadership seeks to expand enrollment activities beyond the Boston area, from Maryland to Maine. The anti-elite campaign is out. Details at

At Creighton, some students and alumni felt the "Be More" campaign violated the core values of this Jesuit university. See the editorial reaction in The Creightonian at just before the campaign was pulled.
Large Images on Your Website: A New Nielsen-Norman Group Report

Really big images on university website home pages are a spreading craze these days. See, for instance, the new University of Oxford website at that once featured a clear array of highly visible task links on the home page.

Before you let people talk you into the splendor of it all, review and discuss the new "Image-Focused Design: Is Bigger Better?" report from the usability folk at the Nielsen-Norman Group. The report is based on a review of a new Southwest Airlines home page but is relevant to higher education as well.

Do not make the mistake of using large images that obstruct the path to speedy top task completion. 

The report is at 
Americans 16 to 29: Reading Habits and Technology Use

From Pew Research Internet Project comes valuable information about the 16 to 29 age group critical to enrollment success.

Some enticing pieces: 98 percent of young Americans believe that the Internet makes it easy to find information, but 62 percent believe that there is important info not available online and only 57 percent believe it is easy to tell the difference between good and bad information.

For more details useful to your recruitment communication planning visit 
Website Design Success: 3 Key Principles

If you have website responsibilities on your campus you likely have conversations about what needs to change and what does not on a regular basis. 

This article from a creator of website design for Fortune 500 companies promotes three major principles: give priority to function over beauty, make frequent small experiments, and seldom if ever invest in an expensive, comprehensive remake of a site. Alas, most website planning does not follow these guidelines.

For more ammunition to support those principles in your campus conversations, check the article from Conversion Rate Experts at 
New in Social Media: Will Ello hurt Facebook?

A social media network that launched in April is not yet open to the public but is being positioned as a Facebook challenger in large part because of an anti-advertising stance and privacy guarantees.

Two key differences: Ello is making a promise not to use advertising and has an identity policy that does not require people to use their real names. Ello says it is "Simple, beautiful, and ad-free." It even has a "manifesto" that decries social networks that sell data so advertisers can "show you more ads."

Ello is in invitation-only beta mode, with one report of 38,000 requests per hour to join. If you have not already heard of it, start out with the article at and link on to the Ello "manifesto."

Also interesting is the AdAge report at 

If you are a true social media zealot, go direct to Ello to request an invitation at 
World-Class Universities: Times Higher Education defines criteria for Top 200 Schools

What makes a university a world-class institution according to the Times Higher Education in the U.K.?

Six criteria include recruiting 20 percent of staff and 19 percent of the students from another country as well as standards for total income and research income per academic. California Institute of Technology tops the most recent World University Rankings.

See more on the criteria and link to the full 2014-2025 list of the top 400 schools 
Bonuses for Admissions Recruiters: Is Degree Completion OK?

A court ruling is asking the Department of Education to provide a stronger reason for not allowing schools to pay extra to admissions recruiters based on the percent of students recruited who complete their academic programs. The decision favors the position of for-profit colleges.

See the rationales from the judge who made the decision and the DOE at 
A Top 10 Advertiser: Apollo Group for University of Phoenix with $53.7 Million for Adwords

The Apollo Group is in 10th place on the AdAge list of Top Google Adwords advertisers in 2013. See the Top 10 and more at 

Apollo is far from the top. That spot goes to Amazon at $157.7 million.
Most Popular Topic in September Newsletter: 10 Surprising Social Media Facts

How fast do you need to respond on Twitter? How important are words and photos? What is the best time to post on Facebook? Those questions and more answered at 
Conference Presentation in November

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.
As you read this newsletter I am getting ready to leave on Friday for our annual Carewords partners meeting in Barcelona with Gerry McGovern and 20 or so other folks who do website analysis based on our top task approach to website content and design. 

Read about what we do and how we do it at 

And a note on mobile from a recently completed Carewords survey of future university students: about 75 percent said they most often used desktop or laptop computers to access the client website. About 21 percent most often used a smartphone. The few remaining were using tablets. 

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 

How are you dealing with the growing "affordability" issue on your website? See how American University, Strayer University, and Wellesley College are meeting the challenge 

And now here are your marketing news and notes for September.
Social Media Marketing: 10 "Totally Surprising" Facts

Test your social media marketing expertise and see how many of these 10 facts you already knew or at least suspected were true. 

The infographic includes the most popular time for RTs on Twitter to the best days to post different types of content on Pinterest to the belief of most marketers that words are more important than visuals. The full list is at 
Competitive Intelligence: Where Do You & Your Competitors Lose Admitted Students?

Here's a new resource from the NY Times that lets you type in the name of U.S. colleges or universities to see how many of their admits were also admitted to other schools and how many of those were lost to those schools.

The system is not complete. Not every school is available. The database includes 104,000 students who applied for admission since the 2012-13 academic year, is limited to high school graduates, and is not a random sample of accepted students. 

But chances are good that your school is included in the mix of Ivy League schools, flagship and regional public universities, community colleges, and liberal arts colleges. You are likely to find interesting information on relative brand strength among a host of schools. Purdue University, for instance, trumps IU-PU Indianapolis, Ball State University and Butler University but does not do well against University of Michigan - Ann Arbor or University of Wisconsin - Madison. 

See if your school and your competitors are listed when you visit 
Advertising to Teens: Get Ready for Snapchat Ads

When people talk about where teens are active on social media, Snapchat almost always comes up. Facebook is still tops but Snapchat is indeed among the leaders

You have a chance to test the impact of Snapchat advertising this fall. To decide if you want to add this to your marketing mix, check the business deck that Snapshot was showing this summer around the advertising world. It features the best ways to use Snapchat for maximum impact, including how to create and use a business account.

The "Snapchat business deck" is at 
US News Ratings: Detailed Review of How Northeastern University Rose from 162 to 49

If discussion on how to improve your US News ratings happens on your campus, you must read about the extraordinary effort at Northeastern University that moved the school from a 162 position in 1996 to first break into the top 100 in 2006 and to advance since then to 49 in 2013. Research, patience, and perseverance played a role. 

For the details of what worked for Northeastern read the Boston Magazine article 
College Ratings Systems: Welcome the New York Times

The NY Times plans to enter the college ratings game this month with a new approach that rates schools by the extent of the economic diversity of their students.

Will this matter to people when selecting a school to attend? That is hard to say. But the data assembled in a single easy-to-compare location might pose a PR challenge for schools where reality differs from declared goals. 

Read more about what to expect at 
Website Colors: What Colors Convert Best?

Gather some friends and have everyone pick the colors that they think will best motivate people to take the desired action steps on your website. Then visit to see what works best.
Content Strategy for Mobile: Debunking 5 Myths

Dave Lloyd nailed it in this article that explores 5 myths that are out and about the land by people claiming special expertise in a supposedly new arena. Dave's overall point: what is "best practice" for mobile is not much different than what is "best practice" for a larger screen device. 

My favorite myth, "Responsive design is a mobile content strategy," was almost beaten by "Mobile users want only short content." Review those myths and others at 
College Ratings in 1911: A Bureau of Education Score Sheet

When you need a break from campus talk about the U.S. ratings take time to visit "A Classification of Universities and Colleges with Reference to Bachelor's Degrees" in a Chronicle article that reprints public and private college and university ratings from 1911 from "Class I" to "Class IV" schools.

You'll find many familiar names here. Some of the standings will surprise you; many will not. I had fun tracking through Jesuit universities. None were in Class I but several were in Class II. Boston College and Holy Cross were ranked ahead of Georgetown University. 

The list was compiled by a "specialist in higher education" at the "Bureau of Education" in Washington. Check the ratings at 
Recruiting International Students: More on Using Paid Agents

Using paid agents to help enroll international students is a customary practice in Australia and the U.K. but has been controversial in the U.S and remains so despite the NACAC decision to not oppose the practice.

The great majority of the 27,000 international students who responded to a recent survey reported satisfaction with their agent experience. Satisfaction dropped as fees increased, but not below 75 percent.

Find more on survey results and a link to download the original report from the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education in the U.K. at 
Bucknell University Website: Notes from 4 Higher Ed Web Developers

Bucknell launched a new website earlier this year based on innovative design and navigation elements that deviated from the approach most often taken by higher education websites. Creating a distinctive site was the goal from the start. The goal was met. 

Read comments from web developers at Gettysburg College, UC-Berkeley School of Law, Ursinus College, and SUNY-Albany at 
Most Popular Topic in August Newsletter: 189 Words that Convert

By a huge margin, the most popular item last month was "The Big List of 189 Words that Convert: Write Copy that Gets Your Customer's Attention Every Time." If you missed it, 
Conference Presentation in November

November 10-13, Austin, TX: AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education, Monday tutorial 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 highly rated topics for 2013 and 2014 topics are at and contact me at or 248.766.6425.
Bucknell University... website comments from website developers

New discussion among the University Web Developers community took place this week on the pros and cons of the Bucknell University website launched earlier this year after one member wrote in with a link to the Jakob Nielsen group's critique of the site.

In April and May I wrote about the site here and included notes from Gord Hopkins, another of Gerry McGovern's Carewords partners. Gerry has also written about the site in a New Thinking column.

Enough from Carewords partners. Today in the tradition of "wish I'd said that" I'm going to repeat comments that appeared from four uWebDev members that together get to the heart of why the Bucknell goal (be different from conventional higher education websites) will not increase online marketing strength.

1. Testing for speed

Paul Fairbanks at Gettysburg College noted something I found when testing download speed on a smartphone as part of a competition review project for a client: Bucknell was the slowest to load (more than 6 seconds in my Mobitest). Paul referenced added detail provided by Google Page Speed Insights:
2. Using a website and driving a car

Paul Dempsey at Ursinus College made a useful analogy between "operating" a website and operating a car:
  • "In most cases, we can get in a car we've never driven before and in a few minutes we're able to operate the lights, radio, doors and windows... not to mention the gas, brakes and steering wheel.
  • "The criticism of the Bucknell site is that they abandoned these standards, and that contributes to usability challenges. There were bold design decisions, and the site has an impact. But I think they could have had a similar impact while retaining some of the conventions of higher ed websites, such as a traditional navigation.
  • "Even thought it's over 25 years old, Donald Norman's "The Design of Everyday Things" can be useful in getting us to look at how we interact with things... This can help open up our thinking about how we organize and design websites. I don't always agree with usability purists, but I think there is a balance that needs to be found between design/marketing and the user experience."
3. Reducing stress and frustration

From Michael Bazeley at the UC-Berkeley School of Law:

"As the parent of a new college freshman, I noticed three things about his web experience with university sites, none of which are surprising:

"1. When we would look at sites that were very out-of-box and visually bold, his first reaction was, "Wow, that's a cool site."
"2. When we would sit down together to research majors or look for classes or learn about housing, all we wanted was the simplest, most direct path to that information. We had lots of questions and wanted answers. We wanted web sites to perform as expected, and in-line with our experiences at other web sites. There is a high level of stress when researching and learning about new colleges, and anything that gets in the way of finding the information you want is super frustrating, even off-putting.
"3. You'll ultimately choose your college on the campus visit, costs, etc. A web site is not going to determine where a student goes. The ginormous hero image is not going to make the sell, and frankly, when you've seen one giant university image, you've seen them all. Bucknell mocks the co-ed-under-a-tree look that is so familiar. But I'd argue that the giant, full-screen hero image is quickly taking the crown as the new university web cliche.

"I applaud Bucknell and Kenyon and others that are trying to redefine higher-ed sites. They may well be on the leading edge of where we will all be someday. But these new navigation and UI paradigms are not familiar to us yet. And the very last thing you want as a stressed out prospective college family is to feel confused and frustrated by an unfamiliar university web site."

4. Usability first, not Mobile First

Let's close with these wise words from self-described "web flunky" Brian Smith at SUNY-Albany:

"I mostly agree with what Paul mentioned about the Bucknell design"We should bridge mobile first/full bootstrap with previous higher ed design conventions.

"Overall, it seems like we're all moving toward a mobile first scenario, but perhaps it should be usability first.

"There have been listserv remarks that some people "like" this and "like" that about the Becknell design and that's great, but a designer should really only like it after they see that the general audience really likes it and can USE it.

"It's great when things are DISCOVERABLE on a page, but OBVIOUS is much better. Our mantra is "Don't Make Me Think", which is the title of a very practical web usability book by expert Steve Krug. Krug relies on testing and so do we. Why add to the frustration level unnecessarily?

"Overall, the Bucknell interface sure is interesting and fun, and looks great, and is certainly no tragedy but it's weak in usability.

"I'm hoping we can bridge mobile first designs to higher ed designs that people are somewhat used to."

Most important marketing element: easy task completion

Most important to the marketing impact of a website is not how it looks, but how it works. That's why the auto analogy is key to preventing the frustrations that Michael describes. You have less than 5 seconds when a page on your site opens to capture the attention of a visitor. 

You'll capture attention if people can quickly find and complete the tasks they came to your website to complete. That's the secret to marketing success. Not glitz and glamour. Not extra time and effort to figure out your unique navigation secrets.

For an example of a university home page that gets it right by focusing on just 4 top tasks, visit the University of Ottawa. Truly innovative.

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 6,640+ people and follow me on Twitter

Digital Marketing Strategy Tutorial at AMA Marketing Symposium

The August newsletter comes to you from the eduWeb2014 Conference in Baltimore, where I have just done a pre-conference workshop "Advertising Online: Strategy and Tactics for Recruitment Success," Check the presentation and download a copy from SlideShare 

Follow comments and insights from the Tuesday and Wednesday eduWeb sessions on Twitter 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 at 

More than 110 people attended my ACT Enrollment Planners Conference session on "Affordability vs. Financial Aid: Crafting a New Student Recruitment Message." See what American University, Strayer University, and Wellesley College have in common 

And now here are your marketing news and notes for August.
Best Colleges for Your Money: New Money Magazine Ratings

Using what it says are "unique measures of educational quality, affordability, and career outcomes," Money Magazine is out with new rankings that place Babson College as best in the nation.

Info for each school includes "net price" of the degree and earnings five years after graduation.

Check the Money rankings at 
Words Marketers Must Know: 189 Words that Make People Take Action

Here's a great article that will remind you of many favorites old and new and likely introduce a few new ones as well.

Kevan Lee has visited old and new sources to build his list of 189 words and phrases that will motivate, reassure, and excite people to take the actions you want them to take. Great that he includes David Ogilvy but there is much more as well.

Revitalize your marketing copy after you visit 
More from Moody's: Financial Future of Higher Education

Moody's is back with another review of the financial state of higher education. Not all is gloom and doom, but the future is especially not rosy for the 10 percent of schools that fall into an "acute financial distress" category in both the public and private sectors.

On the bright side are expectations for 20 percent growth in master's degrees and 9 percent growth in associate's degrees. Read more at 
Trust in Advertising: How 19 Information Sources are Trusted

Nothing comes close to "Recommendations from people I know" at 84 percent, but 69 percent of people believe what they find at "Branded websites" while only 37 percent trust "Text ads on mobile phones."

See everything that falls in between in the Nielsen report at 
Email Marketing: 4 Steps to More Responsive Emails Efforts

Email marketing is far from dead unless you are killing yours with old style efforts. 

In "4 How-tos for Responsive Email," Matthew Caldwell reviews four steps to take to make sure your email makes an impact. 

My favorite is Tailor Content to the Consumer. In my secret shopping efforts I find that very few colleges and universities actually use the information collected via online inquiry forms in the emails sent out to cultivate and convert the inquiry. Almost always missing is anything about the academic program of interest.

See three other steps for better email at 
Mobile Marketing: Is your website really ready?

Getting your website ready for the mobile world is more involved than adopting a "responsive" solution. Website Magazine offers useful check points, including the differences between responsive and adaptive design, in "5 Steps to Tell if Your Website is Mobile Ready."

The first step does not get the attention it deserves: "How fast does your homepage download on a weak cellular network?"

Find more on the importance of speed along with four other points at 
Icons on Your Website: Help or Hindrance?

Jakob Nielsen is out with a new report on the advantages and the perils of using icons on a website, with special notice of the relative few that are internationally recognized. One lesson: what works well on mobile will not always translate well to a desktop.

Check the details when you visit "Icon Usability" at 
Career Paths in Admissions: New NACAC Survey

What can young admissions professionals expect if they are thinking about make "admissions" a career choice?

NACAC is out with a new survey on "Career Paths for Admissions Officers: at 
Best Universities in the World: Where are they?

Which countries have the best universities in the world? Read "Americans Think We Have the Best Colleges. We Don't" for a different perspective.

On math skills of university graduates for instance, the U.S. ranks 16th, just behind Korea and just above Australia. Results were based on research done in 2011 and 2014 on math and literacy skills of people age 16 to 29 with a bachelor's degree. More details are in the report at 
Most Popular Topic in July Newsletter: 5 Top Email Marketing Universities

From his secret shopping efforts, Jens Larson picks five emails marketing campaigns that can serve as models for everyone else, starting with Arizona State University and ending with Wellesley College. Find the other three and links to each to secret shop for yourself 
Conference Presentation in November

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

Bob Johnson
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