Bob Johnson's Blog on Higher Education Marketing

December and the holiday season are upon us. Early season greetings to everyone reading this. Thanks for your support throughout the year. Merry Christmas. 

Just over 50 people attended my AMA tutorial at the Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education. I will be taking the session on the road next week to Costa Rica and the Universidad Hispanoamericana. Slides from the original presentation are at 

More than 1100 people attended the AMA marketing symposium this year, a record number. Six lessons I took from sessions and keynotes are at 

And now here are your marketing news and notes for December.
The Common Application: Too Common for Elite Schools?

Was it inevitable that as use of the Common Application became more common, some elite schools would look for an alternative?

A group of highly selective private colleges and universities and a handful of similar public universities is considering a 2016 alternative. Criteria for membership would include a high academic quality enrollment profile and the ability to meet full financial need of potential students. Initial schools in the discussion include Harvard, Yale, Carlton, Williams, Vanderbilt, William and Mary, Illinois, and North Carolina.

More on the possible changes, including other schools in the initial "Coalition" studying the move, in a Chronicle report at 
Marketers Must Read: Northeastern University Teen Survey

Do you still not have clear information on affordability and success after graduation on your website?

Northeastern University has released the latest in a series of higher education reports, in this case based on a survey of 1,000+ teens, over half of whom (54 percent) say they plan to attend a four-year college or university while 11 percent say they plan to attend a two-year school. 

One section of the survey asked teens to identify the factors that were most important to them in selecting a college to attend. Heading the list at 77 percent was "affordability" followed by "job placement rate and/or average graduate salary" at 70 percent.

Download the complete report in PDF format at 
Gerry McGovern: On the Decline in Marketing Value of the (Traditional) Home Page

Marketers spend so much time agonizing over the design and content of a home page as it really was the most important real estate on a website. But it is not.

Very few people, if any, visit a website home page to gaze at the splendor of it all. Most will start a visit someplace else if they can find the desired content through a search. And if they must start at a traditional home page, they do not want revolving carousel images, rotating news releases or anything else slowing down their journey from the home page to what really interests them.

Join Gerry as he expands on why "Every page you have is a home page for someone" 
Tuition Discounting Increases: No Relief in Sight in 2015

Declining enrollment prospects for less selective private sector colleges and universities and regional public universities will force continued reliance on discounting to maintain enrollment. That will in turn restrict revenue growth in nearly 50 percent of higher education schools. That's the prediction in the latest update from the bond raters at Moody's.

Read a brief summary of the report at 
Communicating Online: Keys to Video Usability

Video content continues to increase in popularity and YouTube remains the second most popular social media network. That said, the key to success as always is in the execution.

The Nielsen-Norman usability folk have a new "Video Usability" report on creating successful videos that starts by making a clear distinction between entertainment and informational videos. Blur that distinction in your creative process and you are likely to fail. 

Key points include telling people what to expect in the video and starting strong from the first second. A Penn State video that gets it right is included for review at 
National Survey of Student Engagement: 2014 Report Available

Student engagement with faculty is not related to the selectivity of a college or university: that is the finding for 2014 that the NSSE authors are highlighting on their website. This year 622 schools participated in the survey.

Check to see if your school has participated. Ask to see the results if it has.

You can download the full report at 
Content Marketing: 3 Examples from History

From some presentations, you might almost think content marketing was a recent discovery related only to achieving success in the online world. But is anything in marketing completely new? 

Brian Honigman gives us "3 Lessons in Content Marketing from the Past" (Jello-O, Westinghouse, General Mills) to keep things in perspective and challenge your creativity to match them today at 
Writing Right for the Web: Is Calibri a Better Font than Ariel?

Which Test Won asks readers to pick which of two examples was more effective.

A recent email contest noted that the example using Calibri received 70 percent more clicks than the example using Ariel. People commenting also noted that the Calibri example had more white space between the text lines. 

Presentation makes a difference. See the contest, the results, and the comments 
A Landing Page Challenge: Find the Master's in Nursing Program

If you are investing in online advertising, extend the investment to create a special landing page that repeats and reinforces the message in the ad. Do not, ever, just drop people into an existing page on your website. That is a quick way to kill any chance of a decent ROI on your ad.

Take this challenge: find information on the Master's degree in nursing that Oakland University was advertising online when you visit the landing page for Graduate Admissions 
Bates College: Reviewing a New Home Page

For an entertaining and informative review of Bates College home pages in 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2014, see the review by the always insightful Jens Larson at
Most Popular Topic in November Newsletter: 7 Deadly Sins of Social Media Marketing

By a wide margin, the most visited item was a cartoon on sinful ways of social media marketing, starting with lust and ending with wrath. Sloth, gluttony, pride, greed, and envy complete the set at 
Marketing in Higher Education... A Symposium to Celebrate Success

The 2014 AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education last week in Austin was the 25th anniversary edition. Really... 25 years since Tom Hayes started the event at Xavier University. Tom is still at Xavier, now professor of marketing and chair of that department, and has never missed a symposium.

I had the pleasure of chairing the symposium for 9 years, starting in the early 1990s in New Orleans and continuing until the 2003 Miami event. At the start most people attending were from regional public universities and less selective private sector colleges. For many the symposium in early years was a refuge where people could openly use the "M" word. Once upon a time, only the symposium dared to put "marketing" in a higher education conference title.

Things have changed today. "Marketing" is now an imperative at colleges and universities of almost every type. The symposium is a celebration of success. This year's event drew more than 1,100 people, including many sponsors and exhibitors. I was especially happy to find more than 50 people at my "Digital Marketing Strategy" tutorial.

Congrats to co-chairs Deb Maue and Jason Simon and the planning team for a fine program.

6 Lessons from Symposium Sessions

Adding to my highlights from the 2013 Symposium, here are a few personal points from sessions and keynote talks, in no special order:

  • University magazine content: DJ Stout in the opening keynote noted the need for university magazines to not only celebrate what truly is "special" about each school but to also include the bad as well as the good in content selection. To be part of an effective content marketing strategy, magazines have to move past the traditional PR "all is always happy and well" approach and include the realities that every school faces today. That's starting to happen. 
    • Important lesson: reality marketing is alive and well.
  • Direct marketing principles work on social media: Jon Hinderliter at University of Missouri - St. Louis gave an excellent example of a targeted use of online advertising. After uploading a profile of 300 students in the primary recruitment area around St. Louis who had attended on-campus recruitment events, Facebook found about 400,000 people who matched that profile. Result after initial ads and retargeting: a 37 percent visit increase that surpassed the capacity of the existing program and "forced" the addition of new visit events. 
    • Important lesson: Do more in your core marketing before venturing too far afield.
  • Short forms really do work better: Jon also showed the original and lengthy registration form used for the visit events that had an 80 percent abandonment rate. A new and much shorter form dramatically increased completion. 
    • Important lesson: The longer the form, the fewer people will complete it.
  • Calls to action, everywhere on the website: It is often a challenge to find an inquiry or application call to action on a higher ed website without revisiting the admission page. The website for Notre Dame de Namur University solves that problem with calls to action prominently displayed on not only the home page but just about everywhere else a potential student might be visiting. 
    • Important lesson: The easier you make it for people to take an action, the more will take it.
  • Higher education as a buyers market: Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation, walks with those favoring the disruption of the traditional higher education delivery model. For marketing, Jamie predicts schools will have to focus in the future on a new flexibility that allows people to create educational plans from a variety of sources and methods. Read everything he had to say on the Lumina website. If he's right, only a handful of prestigious schools will have the ability to demand adherence to their education style. 
    • Important lesson: Fear the future and you will lose.
  • Content reduction really is possible: Columbia College Chicago, as part of a major website redesign, eliminated 97 percent of the content on the previous website, from 36,000 pages in 2013 to 944 in 2014. In this mobile era when less is better, major content reduction is critical to marketing success. Kudos to Will Vautrain, Columbia's director of digital and marketing strategy. 
    • Important lesson: If you are redoing your site, start with content reduction, not design glamour. 
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 6,700+ people and follow me on Twitter

2015 AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education
  • Plan now to attend the 26th symposium in Chicago in November.

A November hello to everyone. We are near the end of 2014 and as you will see below it is already time for people to start making predictions for 2015. We join the bandwagon with Items below on 50 failed content marketing predictions in 2014 and 5 social marketing possibilities for 2015.

Seldom do I mention Link of the Week selections in the monthly newsletter but the October 17 site was so unusual that it deserves special notice. Northern Alberta Institute of Technology has a format for academic programs that is remarkably fast, downloading to an iPhone in less than 3 seconds. Speed counts. Speed is possible. Every extra second increases your bounce rate. If you missed the NAIT Link of the Week visit the selected site at 

I will be doing some extra reading this week before my Digital Marketing Strategy tutorial at the AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education next Monday. So far 46 people have registered, including folk from Canada, Egypt, Italy, Mexico and New Zealand. Get a sneak preview of content new for this year at "Surviving and Thriving in Digital Marketing, 7 Tips to Start" at 

And now here are your marketing news and notes for November.
Start November with a Great Cartoon: 7 Deadly Sins of Social Media Marketing

If you wonder sometimes about taking things in the marketing world a bit too seriously start following marketing cartoonist Tom Fishburne as he gleefully pokes fun at many of the pretensions circulating around the marketing world.

Start you experience when you laugh and maybe cry over the deadly sins of social media marketing. Start with lust and end with wrath at 
Social Media Marketing: 5 Trends to Watch in 2015

November is upon us and so also are the early predictions for what to expect in 2015. And thus we have "Top 5 Social Marketing Trends for Brands to Watch in 2015" from our friends at ClickZ.

Two that I think are especially important to note. First, you will indeed have to pay to play for marketing impact on social media as Facebook and others change to force that. Second, despite the ongoing dominance of Facebook, social media will continue to splinter and smaller sites will increase in importance. 

For more on those two and the other three visit the article by Roger Katz at 
New Gainful Employment Rules: 900 Pages to Review

Opinions on the new gainful employment rules from the Department of Education that will determine a school's eligibility to participate in financial aid programs vary from still too harsh and restrictive to excessive concern over the possibilities of more legal challenges from the for-profit sector. 

To decide for yourself, use the full 900+ page report available from the Federal Register 
Online Advertising: The Native Advertising Playbook

How well can you integrate advertising into search results and news feeds so that more people will not treat your ad as an unwelcome "interruption" in a web visit? In effect, how well can you make your ads seem more valuable and increase click rates?

That is the challenge reviewed by the Internet Advertising Bureau in The Native Advertising Playbook at 

Pay special attention to the 6 examples of native advertising types in Section 3 of the report and 6 questions to ask to see if your campaign qualifies as native advertising, with special attention to where you place your ads and how well you target them.
Teens and Social Media: How Popular is iFunny?

Have you been to iFunny yet? I had not until reviewing again the E-Expectations survey results from Noel-Levitz last week. iFunny was the 8th most popular social media site for college-bound teens answering the 2014 survey.

Retargeting ads were following me when I visited iFunny at 
Content Marketing: 50 Prediction Failures for 2014

Joe Pulizzi, founder of the Content Marketing Institute, has been assembling annual content marketing predictions since 2009. A genuine evangelist for the subject, one of his strong points is a willingness to admit how difficult it is to make accurate predictions.

Some of the predictions might, of course, still happen. And there are some places where Joe claims partial credit. Predictions are assembled from experienced content marketing specialists. You can send your predictions to Joe for 2015 for possible adoption.

If content marketing is important to you, be sure to visit "How I Missed on Every 2014 Content Prediction" (all 50 of them) at 
Report Affirms Suspicions: College Attendance Correlates with High School Financial Level

The National Student Clearing House Research Center is out with a new study on three high school factors that influence eventual college enrollment: percent of minority enrollment, location, and income level.

Not surprisingly, most predictive is the income level of the students, measured by the percent eligible for free or lower priced lunches. Read a story from the Chronicle of Higher Education and link to the full report at 
Is Your Website a Rice Cooker or Tea Pot?

Websites can be as intuitive to use as a teapot. Or they can be as complicated as a rice cooker. James Monsees makes a compelling case for "Putting 'Intuitive' Back into Website Design" in a UX Magazine article at 

For greater marketing success, make this article required reading before you start to revise your website. The more time people have to take to figure out how your website works the more visitors you will lose, guaranteed. Be sure your website has the simplicity of a tea pot. 
Wake Forest MBA Program: No Longer for Full-Time Students

Wake Forest University has an MBA program ranked 58th by US News that no longer will accept full-time students, after five years of falling enrollment from 123 to 98 students.

Over the same time span, enrollment of working professionals in programs designed especially for them has increased from 242 to 304 students. The change is not to an online format. Part-time students will still sit in campus classrooms. More details in the Inside Higher Ed story 
Most Popular Topic in October Newsletter: Protest Against Creighton University Ad Campaign

A new advertising campaign at Creighton University was withdrawn after attacks by students and others that the campaign failed to respect the values of the Jesuit sponsors. Just before the end of the campaign detailed arguments against it were presented in the student newspaper 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 choices at and contact me at or 248.766.6425.
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.

Bob Johnson
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