Bob Johnson's Blog on Higher Education Marketing

Websites gain marketing advantage with top task design

The secret to making your website an effective marketing tool: clean and simple design that lets visitors complete their tasks as quickly as possible. Experience on the site is more important than "stunning" hero images or other design fads.

For years now I've been a partner in the Customer Carewords team that promotes the use of top task research as the basis of successful website design. Carewords partners work for government agencies, private business corporations, and health care organizations as well as colleges and universities. Top task rules apply everywhere.

What are examples of effective top task use in higher education? Over my years of making Link of the Week selections I've often included top task examples. Now, prompted by a recent query from Anne Lutgerink at Internationalizing Education, I'm collecting here several of the best of those examples.

Key design elements: speed, task visibility, and "care" words

Three elements are key to top task design: Visibility in 5 seconds or less as a page opens and use of words that visitors care about. The rules don't change for mobile, except that the right words are even more important.

Examples from 9 higher education websites

University of Ottawa home page. When it went online early in 2013 this page was a thing of beauty as it gave prominent display to just four topics linking to tasks: "Find a program" and "University fees" for the primary external audience and "News, events and dates" and "Search library" for faculty and current students. Since then the page has fallen victim on occasion to someone's urge to add special events above the task links. It still remains one of the cleanest university home pages.

Victoria University home page: If you must use a carousel on your home page, don't let it drive a key top task lower on the page. In this example, "Find a course" and "Browse for courses" links take the prime upper left position and the carousel starts to the right of the task.

East Stroudsburg University admissions page: Highlighting top tasks on an admissions page is especially challenging as the tasks change as people move through the recruitment cycle. ESU meets the challenge in a simple but effective way: divide the page into 4 recruitment cycle segments and list the tasks for each segment directly to the right. Just about perfect.

Arcadia University study abroad page. The program entry page illustrates how you can use a strong image along with a branding statement and still include just 3 "can't miss" task words as the page opens. So simple. So clean. So seldom done. You can apply the same approach to just about any entry page.

Northern Alberta Institute of Technology academic program page: You won't find any photos here but you will immediately see "Grad Employment Rate" and "Median Starting Salary," two points about academic programs that are of increasing interest to potential students. Quickly following those are "Quick Facts," "Tuition & Fees" and "Entrance Requirements."

Williams College parents page: Open this page to find 6 images with word topics that you can scan easily to see the links to tasks for each topic. The first "Parent Resources" heading includes links to "Information for First-Year Students" and "Information for Returning Students" as well as a link to "Key Williams Contacts." The ability to 'find a person" is one of the most neglected top tasks on many websites.

Middlebury College department of English and American Literatures: Here is an admirable example of how to make it easy to contact your faculty. Each right-sized block for the 30 people listed includes email, phone number, and office hours. Sound simple? On many faculty website pages it isn't.

Rochester Institute of Technology Merit Scholarships: For sure this page will win no beauty awards but it offers in a single place what is so often missing from scholarship pages: name of the award, eligibility (including in some cases specific ACT & SAT scores), amount of the award, and what to do, if anything, to apply.

University of Oregon gift options page: Alumni and other potential donors want to know what their options are for giving to areas that match their special interests. Visit here to see 9 areas of interest that start with "Schools and Colleges" and end with "Athletics."

That's all for now.

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Happy New Year to everyone as we begin 2015. As many of you are likely doing just now, I am busy catching up this week after an extended break. There are many emails to review, including an interesting collection that arrived over the holidays from my most recent cluster of secret shopping schools.

You will see as you scan the items below that I have assembled a collection of items built around the inevitable predictions of what might and might not happen in 2015, from websites to college ratings. 

It is no small measure of our times that the January issue of Money Magazine included an article advising parents on how to best take advantage of merit awards to reduce costs. I expect affordability and tuition discounting to continue as top marketing issues this year. For private sector schools, the challenges are large and the solutions difficult.

The Call for Papers for the eduWeb Digital Summit in July is open until January 30. More about the conference and the paper submission process is at 

And now here are your marketing news and notes for January.
Website Magazine: What Your Website Needs for 2015

Start off 2015 by reviewing 6 elements of website design that might or might not work well for your website. 

Note that two of the headings refer to "stunning images" as a new imperative for successful sites. That's scary. Stunning images that do not relate to tasks that people want to do on your site will not improve your chances for marketing success. Words still count, even if this article downplays their importance.

But do take note of the admonition that responsive design is best done by taking a mobile-first approach. Responsive design that tries to convert an existing large-screen site to the mobile world without first making difficult content reduction choices is not especially effective.

Start a 2015 conversation after everyone reads the website design article at 
College Ratings Systems in 2015: Public vs. Private Sectors

Kevin Carey explores the various elements of the college rating system announced by the Department of Education last month, with attention to the different views of private and public sector schools and lobbyists. Expect dismay and debate on this to increase in 2015.

Three elements are important: affordability, access, and outcomes. It is not yet clear just what will be used to measure each. And it is not yet clear what the relative weightings will be. According to Carey, the private sector is more concerned than the public sector with the impact of the DOE system, a fact that he believes shows why the DOE plan is a "worthy effort."

See "Sizing Up the College Ratings System" at 
Future of Email Marketing: Scan 11 Articles for 2015 and Beyond

By now most people will agree that email marketing is not dead. That prediction has been made too many times in the past decade and email continues to thrive as an important part of a marketing communications program.

But email marketing always is changing. To review what industry experts are predicting and planning, scan the titles and short synopses of 11 "future" email marketing articles 
20 Generous Merit Aid Colleges: Money Magazine Highlights

Money Magazine started off 2015 with an article in the January issue briefing parents on "How to Find a Generous College." Money notes that while selective schools are usually not high on the generosity list many less selective schools do indeed have high academic profiles as measured by test scores. 

Six of the 20 most generous schools give average awards of more than 50 percent of tuition: Dordt College (67 percent), Millsaps College (60 percent), University of Tulsa (52 percent), Illinois Institute of Technology (51 percent), Ohio Wesleyan University (51 percent), Southwestern University (50 percent.) Many others are in the 40 percent range. 

The least generous among this group: St. Mary's College (38 percent), Furman University (38 percent), Denison University (39 percent.)

Find the percent of students who receive merit aid, the average award amount, and the complete list of the percent of tuition covered at 
Important Google Change: Designation of Mobile Friendly Sites

Is your website mobile-friendly according to new Google criteria that likely will soon be used to rank websites?

Google is giving priority to responsive design sites over sites although RD sites almost always take longer to load. But other points will count as well. Expect to suffer if your site requires horizontal scrolling on a smartphone or if the text is too small to read when it first opens. "Don't make them squint," a phrase I often use in web writing workshops, is alive and well.

For more on what makes a site mobile-friendly for Google see the Mobile Marketer article by Chantal Tode at 
Advertising Online: A Future for Wearables?

Will people accept advertising on smartwatches? Yes, it is far too early to consider this in a practical sense but that is not stopping early speculation about the possibilities. An important first point: ads will have to be more closely related to the interests of the person receiving them than just about anywhere else. Direct marketing principles will drive whatever is done. This is likely not a place for brand awareness activity.

Right now relatively few people even say they might buy a smartwatch in 2015. The near-term adoption rate is low enough that advertisers at this point are not paying much attention. Smartphones remain enough of a challenge.

But if you want to be first among your friends and colleagues as a person who can talk wisely about the possibilities and limitations, start with "Will Advertising Work on Wearables," an article by Greg Sterling on Marketing Land at 
Killing the Carousel: A Poem from Terminal Four

While "stunning images" gain in popularity, the plague of web carousels finally is shrinking.

If you need extra ammunition on your campus to eliminate a carousel, direct people to the "The web content merry-go-round," a poem by Terminal Four blogger Vincent O'Malley 

Prediction for the end of 2015: we will go after "stunning images" that completely fill a home page when it first opens. 
Mergers and Acquisitions: Enrollment Marketing in Higher Education

Did you know that Hobson's generates about 3 percent of the revenue of the company that owns it, Daily Mail and General Trust in the U.K.? 

The folks at International Education Advantage plan a series of articles on mergers and acquisitions among companies providing marketing services to higher education. Hobson's is the first of these. Other upcoming possibilities include Chegg, Blackboard, and Princeton Review. 

The Hobson's review is at
Gerry McGovern on Content Priorities: A Short Video Interview

Can you set website content priorities without data on what tasks people using the website want to complete?

Data is best, but in this just under 3 minute interview Gerry suggests alternatives when decisions must be made without data. Check 
Most Popular Topic in December Newsletter: Northeastern University Teen Survey

What do teens think about higher education and a host of other topics? If you recruit teens for college, review this report where "affordability" and "job placement rate and/or average graduate salary" rank highest among choice factors. See 
Be a marketing champion on your campus.

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

Increase the success of your digital marketing strategy. Contact me for details at 

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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.

Bob Johnson
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