Bob Johnson's Blog on Higher Education Marketing

Taking advantage of a lower tuition price: an ethical affordability element

During a discussion on content strategy at our last "Writing Right for the Web"  conference someone asked if it was ethical to create content comparing the tuition of one school with that of its competitors.

I don't see anything unethical about collecting public data from the schools you compete with to gain a marketing advantage. But do many schools do this? And what type of schools are most likely to do it?

With the growing focus on "affordability" in college choice, it makes marketing sense to exploit a price advantage, especially to offset a weakness in brand strength.

The research was basic: a Google search for "compare tuition costs" followed by a review of schools that appeared on the first 5 response pages. The result: 13 colleges and universities that compare their tuition (and sometimes total costs) with those of a group of competitors. (I excluded one school that had a comparison page but was still using data from 2011. If you don't update content like this, kill it.)

Here are the results by type of institution:

Flagship public university: 1

Other public universities: 4

  • Eastern Washington University posts costs and savings vs. other public universities in the state on a "Tuition, Costs and Fees" page.
  • Eastern New Mexico University has a "Tuition Comparison" page that includes 5 New Mexico public universities, two publics in Texas, and two private universities.
  • University of Wisconsin - Superior includes three public universities, the College of St. Scholastica and "Typical MSNCU 4-Year University" at "Compare Tuition and Costs.
  • Texas Women's University compares itself with three other Texas public universities, including UTA, on the "Tuition and Fees Cost Comparison" page.
Community colleges: 5

  • Elgin Community College hosts a "Tuition Comparison" page that includes public universities and 6 private colleges and universities in Illinois.
  • Austin Community College asks visitors to "Compare Costs" with 3 public universities in Texas and with an "average private university."
  • Guilford Technical Community College uses an interactive "Tuition Comparison Calculator" so you can individually compare GTCC costs with a mix of 15 public and for-profit universities and not-for-profit schools in North Carolina.
  • Nicolet College includes the Wisconsin flagship university, two regional publics and what we'll assume is an average "private college" cost on a "Comparing Cost of Tuition" chart.
  • State College of Florida offers associate and bachelor's degrees at community college cost levels and offers a "Tuition and Fees Comparison" chart that includes traditional 4-year publics as well as University of Phoenix and Keiser University.
For-profit universities: 2

  • Strayer University includes a "Leading the Way in Making Education More Affordable" chart to compare itself with four other for-profit universities. The chart comes near the end of a page on "Tuition Reimbursement and Tuition Management for New Students."
  • Western International University, part of the Apollo Group, has a "Tuition Comparison Guide" that compares costs with Arizona State, Western Governor's University and three other for-profit schools.
Not-for-profit private sector: 1

  • Linfield College compares per semester and per credit hour costs in adult degree programs with 16 public, private, and for-profit schools in Oregon and Washington on a "Tuition Comparison Chart."

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.

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ACT Enrollment Planners Conference in July

I'll explore more on how colleges and universities are creating affordability content on their websites at a session on "Affordability vs. Financial Aid: Crafting a New Student Recruitment Message." Check the program and plan to join us in Chicago.

5 Most Important Web Content Management Principles

At the end of the March "Writing Right for the Web" conference with Academic Impressions we asked the people attending to select from a list of 25 web content management principles the 5 each person thought was most important. 

The survey was developed by the Customer Carewords partnership group and first administered in the fall of 2012. More than 1,000 responses were received from web professionals around the world. Visit SlideShare for a presentation on those results.

Without, as they say, further ado, here are the Top 5 principles from the 27 people from Canada and the U.S. who made selections, with my added comments for each:

"Ensure customers can quickly and easily complete top tasks."

  • This was also the top principle in our international survey. To see one university home page unlike anything you've seen before that is based on top task research, visit the University of Ottawa
  • For student recruitment, top tasks will vary throughout the recruitment cycle from first visit to orientation. One of the best examples of how to present top tasks quickly and clearly is at the admissions page for East Stroudsburg University.
  • Accepting the top task principle is daunting for some. It means a reduction or elimination of welcome messages from presidents and deans as well as "marketing speak" claims to a "dedication to academic excellence" or a commitment to be "a university on the move." Content like that too often just gets between visitors and top task completion.
"Keep content as concise and simple as possible."

  • Keep sentences and paragraphs short, as if you were writing a news article for a newspaper. If you feel the need to use a semi-colon you just might be writing a sentence that's going to be too long.
  • People need to be able to scan your content in 5 seconds or less when a page opens for the main points. Long blocks of dense text prevent this. Strive to keep paragraphs less than 5 lines long.
"Make sure everything has an owner who takes responsibility for ongoing  review and improvement."

  • This is a special challenge in organizations with content creators acting independently in departments across the enterprise. Too often people who have this responsibility do not have on-going access to a web editor for advice and assistance. And too often people who lead departments don't give those assigned web content responsibility the time to actually do the work.
  • At a minimum, make sure content creators in a decentralized system have a monthly opportunity to meet to present challenges and review solutions found by others.
"Make decisions based on evidence and facts, not opinions."

  • "Evidence and facts" can be elusive and are often challenged when "facts" clash with personal "opinion" on what content should be highlighted on a web page.
  • You need research on "top tasks." You can hire someone in the Customer Carewords partnership to do it for you. We'll be happy to do that. But you can also learn much on your own. Start by reviewing the "How To" guide from the Government Services Agency in the U.S.
  • Analytics can help. Do presidents and deans know how many people visit their welcome messages? And how many visitors actually stay long enough to read them?
"Fast and easy content review and removal process."

  • Review is fine, removal is even better. Content creators and editors should have responsibility for removing as well as adding content. "Websites always eat, they never poop" says my partner Gerry McGovern.
  • Consider this argument with your president: Google will penalize in search rankings websites that have large amounts of content that is seldom if ever visited. Find that content on your website. If you can't kill it, Google recommends moving it to a new domain for which search standing is irrelevant.
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 6,550+ people and follow me on Twitter

Strategic Recruitment Communication conference in June

June 25-27, Orange County, CA: "Building a Strategy Recruitment Communication Plan," sponsored by Academic Impressions. Review the agenda and register.

April has arrived at long last and I can already see the tips of tulips here in Michigan even if the snow is not yet gone. May similar good fortune bless everyone reading this newsletter.

The call for papers for the AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education in November in Austin is open now at 

Now that my Writing Right for the Web conference is over, I will be working next on an Academic Impressions conference set for June 25-27 in Orange County, CA: "Building a Strategic Recruitment Communications Plan." Agenda info and registration are at 

Also review the programs for the ACT Enrollment Planners conference in July and eduWeb2014 in August. Links to both are at the end of the newsletter.

Special good wishes to everyone who will be counting enrollment deposits from now until May 1.

And now here are your marketing news and notes for April.
The 2014 Higher Education ROI Report: Check Your Standing

For a second year PayScale is out with the "College ROI Report." Harvey Mudd College again leads with a 20-year net ROI of $980,900. You can sort schools by states, public and private sectors, majors and more.

Compare the ROI stats of your school with your competitors when you visit 
5 Reasons People Leave Your Website

Two points stood out for me in this article from Website Magazine. First was the difference in conversion rates between pages that take 1 second to download and those that take 5 seconds to load. Have you tested your most important pages yet for speed?

Second was yet another reference to the "Uninteresting Content" that still plagues so many sites despite the emphasis on content marketing. The first rule of a good content strategy: attention to the top tasks people using your site want to do. That is not reading press releases, mission statements, or welcome messages from presidents and deans.

See more on speed and content and the other 3 reasons people leave your website at you visit
Digital Marketing Value: A New Infographic

What can we expect to change about digital marketing in 2014? That is the focus of this new overview of the state of digital marketing today. In a nutshell: increased attention to higher conversion, more effective re-targeting ads, more personalized websites based on big data use, and more attention to analytics.

Email marketing is still listed as the most effective acquisition tool, well ahead of SEO and content marketing. See more for your strategy discussions at 
Major Brand Abandons Facebook: Start of a Trend or Just an Aberration? 

A food brand has decided to abandon Facebook based on recent changes that diminish unpaid brand reach so that more advertising is required to maintain strong brand awareness.

Chuckle a bit as you read "A Breakup Letter to Facebook from Eat24" at 
Mobile Marketing: Facebook at 1 Billion Active Mobile Users

The mobile juggernaut continues with Facebook reporting it has just reached one billion active users on mobile devices around the world, an increase from 945 million in December. The FB goal: a presence on 4 billion mobile phones.

More on Facebook, mobile, and the growing advertising presence on Instagram and elsewhere, 
Online Conversion Rates: Achieving Unicorn Status

Here is an article by Larry Kim that challenges everyone to think past the conventional wisdom that a conversion rate of 2 to 4 percent is especially good. When you get to 3 to 5 percent above your sector average you can claim unicorn status. For Kim, "Everything You Know about Conversion Rate Optimization is Wrong."

Two important points: make offers that differ from those of your competitors and pay special attention to when and how you ask people to give you their personal information. In higher education, we really do have to offer more than "information" to get people to complete online inquiry forms. At the same time, everyone cannot be offering 10 Tips to Writing a Successful Admissions Application.

Get creative about how to achieve unicorn status after you read 
Price in the Marketplace: Shifting College Costs from Higher Income to Poor Families?

The Huffington Post headline makes a point that is not what PR pros in higher education wish for: "Colleges Are Quietly Shifting the Burden of Tuition Increases to Poor Families." 

Main feature of the article notes shifts in net price at Bates, Trinity in Hartford, Notre Dame, Skidmore, Hofstra and others to show overall pattern of decreased net tuition cost for higher income families where parents are skilled at obtaining merit scholarships. Public sector universities are included. At least one school, Hofstra, admits the shift is taking place as part of a strategy to increase academic profile.

Check the Huffington Post story and comments in response at 
MBA Employment is Increasing

US News has reported that based on data from 126 ranked MBA programs, employment 3 months after graduation as increased from 73 percent in 2010 to 81 percent in 2013.

Employment rankings are not the same as quality rankings. See the top 10 MBA programs in the employment sweepstakes starting with SUNY-Albany and closing with Rice University when you visit 
Content Marketing: The Scary Part

The content marketing infographic from Marketing Profs has some good information, but one phrase seems especially scary: the linking of "solid content strategies" with "regularly pumping out great content."

The "pumping out" part is what scares me. Websites, in the smart words of my partner Gerry McGovern, "always eat and never poop." Will the people responsible for "regularly pumping out great content" also be responsible for removing content just as regularly? If not, content marketing threatens to add even more bloat to already constipated websites.

See more in the "What Will Content Marketing Look Like in 2014?" infographic at 
Early April Humor: Bird Flight Media

Are you looking to broaden the scope of your marketing mix?

Add the services available from Bird Flight Media to your list of possibilities. Why pay someone in a plane to pull your banner far up in the sky when bird banners can get so much closer to people? Be sure to watch the video when you visit The Official Supplier of Advertising Birds 
Most Popular Topic in March Newsletter: Best and Worst Email Subject Lines

A report by Jens Larson on how colleges and universities used email subject lines in the 2013-2014 recruitment cycle was the favorite link in March. Compare his four best schools with others that did not quite measure up at
Conference Presentations in June, July, August

June 25-27, Orange County, CA: Academic Impressions Conference, "Building a Strategic Recruitment Communications Plan." Agenda and registration at 

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 coming soon in April 

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.
March greetings to everyone. And best wishes for success to everyone who is heading into the deposit collection recruitment stretch for your new freshman class in March and April. 

Today I expect to finish the new recruitment focused edition of my two-day conference on Writing Right for the Web, set for March 27-28 in Denver. Check the agenda at 

The Call for Papers for eduWeb14 is extended until March 21. Visit to submit your session for review.

How effective is your online marketing? My April 1 Master Class will help you answer that question. From the first impression you create on your website to your ongoing electronic communications will impact conversion success at each stage of the recruitment cycle. Register to join us 

And now here are your marketing news and notes for March.
Net Price Calculators: How Results Differ Among 16 Schools

Inspired by an inquiring mind, an enterprising VP for enrollment completed 16 Net Price Calculators to see how his school compared to both private and public sector competitors. Four different financial and academic profiles were used.

The experience and the results, as you might expect, varied greatly. Check the results and the reasons and plan a similar competitive intelligence study of your own. Visit 
Email Subject Lines: The Best and the Worst in the 2013-2014 Recruitment Cycle

Everyone in higher education marketing should read the report by Jens Larson about his secret shopping experiences during the current recruitment cycle.

Jens gives plaudits to Bates College, Oklahoma State University and the universities of Chicago and Oregon for doing an excellent job. He has reviewed hundreds of emails to bring you a selection of what he thinks works well and what does not work nearly so well at 
"Honest University Commercial": 3 Million+ People Have Watched This

You will lose track of how many things in this nearly 3 minute video parody of higher education advertising will drive you mad. But 3 million people and climbing have at least clicked on the YouTube link since it was first posted. Add 125,000 likes and 9,374 comments as I type this.

This is another piece in the negative PR world that has a lesson for higher education marketing efforts. Watch the video at 
MBA Marketing: New Approaches to Product, Price, and Place

Repeat the four Ps of marketing as often as you want but attention to Product, Price, and Place often ranks much lower than attention to Promotion. And that is why it is good to see three MBA programs at three very different types of universities adopting innovative approaches to better fit the interests (and schedules) of potential students.

Changes at Benedictine, Cornell, and Villanova universities are reviewed in an in-depth article by Inside Higher Education at
Pew Research Center: Yes, Attending College is Worthwhile

This new survey report from the Pew Research Center will give heart to anyone who can use statistical reinforcement of the value of a higher education degree, particularly from the perspective of recently graduated Millennials. 

A key variable: graduates in some majors are more convinced of the value of their time and money than are others. Engineering and science majors are the most satisfied.

See a summary of 6 key findings at and move from there to a copy of the full report.
2014 Mobile Behavior Report: Smartphones vs. Tablets and More

Strengthen your online communication strategy with an in-depth knowledge of how and when people actually use their mobile devices.

The top activity on both phones and tables: accessing email. People are much more likely to visit Twitter from a tablet than a smartphone. The reverse is true for Pinterest. On mobile, people prefer to use Facebook on a mobile app. The reverse is true for Twitter. Overall, mobile apps are popular in comparison to mobile-ready websites.

For more, including age, gender, and income information download the 35-page report 
Text Messaging and Student Recruitment: New Approach at Drexel Online

Drexel Online, a place with strong marketing savvy, has recently adopted an approach to text messaging that I have not seen elsewhere: in order to submit an online inquiry form, you must agree to receive text messages along with phone contacts.

Drexel tells me people can opt out after receiving the first message. This is a new effort and results on how many people are opting out are not available. See the inquiry form at 
Simplifying Financial Aid: New College Board Reports Recommends Process Changes

The College Board has just published a "Back to Basics" report that focuses on reducing or changing the data needed to complete the FAFSA and still arrive at a reasonable measure for need-based aid. One key point in the recommendations: get realistic information on college costs in the hands of first-generation families, especially likely Pell Grant recipients, as soon as possible.

Will these recommendations find favor at your school? Answer that question after reading the Chronicle article at 
Website Readability Test Tool: Check Your Site Today

On the web, simple is most often better. The University of Cambridge university research site home page is written at a 10th grade level.

Will your site do as well? Use the free Readability Test Tool and find out at 
Viral Marketing: Examples from Oberlin College and McMaster University

Can you make viral marketing a fruitful part of your marketing toolkit?

Cameron Pegg thinks you can and writes about that in a CASE article that includes examples of successful Oberlin College and McMaster University efforts. Pay special attention to the infographic on how to create a "viral marketing culture" when you visit 
LinkedIn for Student Recruitment

Graham Edwards has written an interesting piece on how to use LinkedIn for student recruitment. Not advertising, but how to best take advantage of the new LinkedIn university page feature as you build your presence there.

My personal best bet: use this to show parents of traditional age students how your alumni are doing out and about the world after graduation. Graham has more ideas at 
For-Profit Sector: 22 State Suits Focus on Improper Marketing

Suits are in progress in 22 states against 10 for-profit schools. Four Federal Government divisions have also filed suits. Just four schools are attracting most of the attention, often based on loan practices and claims about employability and earnings after graduation. 

Even marketers who do not work in the for-profit sector should pay attention. Will anyone ask universities to prove their claims to "academic excellence" anytime soon? The winds on what is acceptable and what is not are changing.

See who is attracting the most attention when you scan the chart at 
Most Popular Topic in February Newsletter: 8 Web Design Elements You No Longer Need

The runaway top topic last month from UX magazine discusses website features you can safely dispense with starts with drop-down menus and carousels and adds six more elements to review at 
Conference and Master Class Presentations in March and April

March 27-28, Denver: "Writing Right for the Web: Focusing on Student Recruitment" sponsored by Academic Impressions. Agenda and registration at 

April 1, Philadelphia: "Critical Online Steps to Boost Enrollment: Speed, Simplicity, and Top Task Completion," an eduWeb Master Class. Review the program and register at 

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

Bob Johnson, Ph.D. 
Bob Johnson Consulting, LLC
February greetings to everyone, with fervent hopes that those of us in a certain part of the U.S. are about to see the end of the Polar Vortex as the new month opens. As one college president wrote on Twitter not long ago, it seems as if our Canadian friends have conquered Michigan. I am ready to trade citizenship for normal temperatures if that is what it takes.

Despite the weather, we move forward. The 2014 conference year starts with "Writing Right for the Web: Focusing on Student Recruitment" on March 27-28. Expect new tips, techniques, and examples exclusively from student recruitment sites for recruiting both traditional and online students. Details are at

I am looking forward to preparing a customized Web Writing webinar that focuses on top task completion for my newest client, the International Development Research Centre in Ottawa.

For an in-depth review of online marketing elements, register for the first eduWeb Master Class on April 1, "Critical Online Steps to Boost Enrollment: Speed, Simplicity, and Top Task Completion." Register at 

The Call for Papers for eduWeb2014 in August is open from now until February 28. For details and plan to join us to share your wisdom and experience.

And now here are your marketing news and notes for February.
Marketing Online: Social Media Update 2013

The good people at Pew Internet gave us a December 30 update on how people are using social media, noting that 73 percent of adults are using social media at varying levels of engagement.

Facebook remains the leader by a wide margin: 71 percent of adults use it, up from 67 percent in 2012. Second but far behind Facebook are LinkedIn at 22 percent and Pinterest at 21 percent. Twitter and Instagram come along next.

For detailed demographics on age, ethnicity, gender, income, and education level start your visit 
Public Relations: How College Pricing is Like Holiday Retail Sales

It is always a good thing to get outside our bubbles and see what the public might be reading about important issues in higher education. If you agree, take a few minutes to read how Pro Publica reports that colleges and universities are following a "J.C. Penney strategy." 

Specific mentions include American University and Drexel University.

The article notes one important difference between retail and higher education: it is easier to compare retail price levels (TVs are used as an example) whereas you most often have to wait until after acceptance to learn just what a higher education price will be.

More in an article that might make you cringe at 
Student Recruitment Costs: Benchmark Data from Noel-Levitz

People ask about this all the time: what is a reasonable amount to spend for student recruitment? The answer of course will vary with individual schools but the Noel-Levitz "2103 Cost of Recruiting an Undergraduate Student Report" is a good place to start.

Visit to see that the median cost was $2,433 in the private sector, $457 in the four-year public sector and just $123 for community colleges.
Competition Research: Net Cost Data

How does your net cost compare to those of your most serious competitors?

Jon Boeckenstedt at DePaul University is doing a fine job presenting IPEDS data on various topics in a way that is easy to understand and work with. In this case, you can sort net cost data by region, state, level of selectivity, and Carnegie classification. You'll also see net cost as a percent of family income and percent of students with Pell Grants.

Compare your school with your important competitors when you visit 
Jakob Nielsen on Higher Education Websites

Jakob was back in January with a relatively rare Alertbox focus on higher education, based on reviewing 57 university sites in the Canada, Taiwan, the U.K. and the U.S.

Many of the 10 specific advice points might seem obvious but alas they are not uniformly practiced. My two favorites were "Make it easy to view a list of majors and programs" and "Beware the perils of making your website cool." 

Check your site against the Nielsen recommendations at 
NACAC Report: State of College Admissions 2013

The 11th annual report on what matters most in making college admissions decisions is available now.
The lead item in the NACAC press release: grades are the most important element in admissions decisions, with relatively little weight reportedly given to income level.

Start with an outline of what NACAC considers the most important results and download the complete report at 
Web Design: 8 Design Elements We Do Not Need Anymore

Planning to revise your website anytime soon? Before you get too far along read an article by John McKinney on "8 Design Elements Whose Time Has Come" for abandonment. John starts with drop-down menus and carousels and ends with mobile sites.

Do not miss the demise of Skeoumorphism when you visit 
Website Dead Zones: Welcome Messages from University Presidents

Most welcome messages from university presidents violate just about every major rule of how to present web content: dense text unbroken by subheads, bullet points, or links is the norm. In other words, they are impossible to scan quickly in search of something of interest.

The message itself: most often straight from the "Book of Higher Education Platitudes."

See my report after a Google search, and links to three that break the norm, at 
Mobile Marketing: An Infographic to Review for 2014

If you are updating your mobile marketing strategy this year, print a copy of this infographic for everyone involved. You'll find info on device and operating system popularity, mobile advertising, the most popular social media apps and much more at 
ABA Proposes Major Changes for Law Schools 

The American Bar Association is proposing changes in pricing and accreditation rules. 

Coming along soon after the first approval for an ABA accredited law school to offer online courses, you have to believe that current market place conditions for most law schools are helping to break barriers. More on the latest changes at 
Most Popular Topic in January Newsletter: Gerry McGovern on why "Speed Saves" on the Web

People will love your brand on the web if you let them complete top tasks quickly. And they will not like your brand if content that tries to tell visitors on how great you are hinders task completion. More at 
Conference Presentations in March and April

March 27-28, Denver: "Writing Right for the Web: Focusing on Student Recruitment" sponsored by Academic Impressions. Agenda and registration at 

April 1, Philadelphia: "Critical Online Steps to Boost Enrollment: Speed, Simplicity, and Top Task Completion," an eduWeb Master Class. Review the program and register at 

Plan a custom presentation on your campus. Host a workshop on any of my conference topics. Review the 2013 list 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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