Bob Johnson's Blog on Higher Education Marketing

September 2009 Archives

Branding... dead in the digital era?

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Branding: Traditional Campaigns are Dead.

"Branding is dead" is one of the subheads used by Augustine Fou in a recent ClickZ article, "A New Definition of Digital."

For traditional marketers, that's pretty scary stuff. Many still don't accept it.

For more than 15 years, colleges and universities throughout the land have been spending major dollars on efforts to establish or change brand identities. Some have had success. More have not.

Here's Fou's point:

    • "Most people's first impressions of a brand are what they find in search results or what they read from other people in reviews. Hence, branding as we know it is dead." 
    • And first impressions, like the "curb appeal" impact when searching for a home, are hard to change. 

Yes, Everyone has a Brand

Just about every institution, of course, has a brand identity with someone. And it isn't all that hard to learn what it is. Just tap people on the shoulder and ask them to tell you what you are. Record the answers. Smile or cringe at the results.

If you enroll traditional students and take the ACT or SAT, checking brand image is even easier. Check the quantity and quality of self-reported test scores.

Why Brand Campaigns Fail in Higher Education: Old Reasons 

Most brand campaigns over the years suffered from two problems:

    • Not enough resources to run the campaign long enough.
    • An impatient, unrealistic expectation that what people think of their "brand" will change significantly with a few months of concentrated advertising.

Before the advent of the digital world, presidents and trustees might at least dream that a stream of one-way messages about the wonders of their university might indeed result in more applications of higher quality, more alumni donations, and more favorable press stories.

Why Brand Campaigns Fail in Higher Education: New Reason

Today, in the digital world, the impact of one-way messages is dead.

People have too many ways to check on any organization or product that might interest them. The online world is filled with RateMyProfessors websites where people can get first-hand information about professors at a university. Yes, some professors are arrogant and selfish, concerned more with their own careers than helping students. 

Fortunately, if you pay close attention to RateMyProfessors, you'll see that good and great professors outnumber the wicked ones. But you won't find that in many admissions viewbooks or at many college websites. Bad for the brand image.

We've been in the "reality marketing" era for about 10 years. A few places in higher education were early adopters.

    • One of the pioneers in student blogs, Lewis and Clark, names their blog spot "Real Life" and has never feared entries that might not be PR perfect. 
    • Muhlenberg College for at least 12 years has had a web page explaining "The Real Deal on Financial Aid." If Muhlenberg wants someone special to enroll, that person gets a "preferential" finanacial aid package. Must be true. Says so on the website.

My friend Brian Niles at TargetX campaigns relentlessly for "authenticity" marketing, another way of talking about "reality marketing." How do you convey authenticity? Trust students to speak about the real experiences of attending their college or university.

Brand in the Digital Era

Let's get back to Fou:

    • "Start with a true understanding of consumer habits and expectations -- digital -- and you will quickly find yourself cutting or placing a lower priority on marketing tactics that are one-way, or shout messages at consumers disrespectfully, or hit a ton of people many times (reach and frequency).
    • "Instead, you will gravitate toward techniques that cultivate genuine and open dialogue with customers, where brands humbly listen and learn, and then respond with new features and innovations continuously to better match the needs of the customer."

In the digital era, your brand depends on your abililty to "match the needs of the customer" and "continuously" change. As Brian says, doing that requires a "revolution" in higher education. It will be interesting to see how quickly that revolution moves along.

That's all for now.



Just back late last night from Gerry McGovern's 3rd annual meeting for Customer Carewords partners, this year in Belfast.

The partners are an international group. People attended from 8 countries: Canada, Denmark, Holland, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, United Kingdom, and United States.

While my notes are still fresh to mind, here are some highlights we shared from our experiences this year working with universities, corporations, and government agencies to improve their websites.

Website Tasks:

    • People who are responsible for websites are often ashamed or bored by the "top tasks" that people who use websites want to do. A "top task" on Intranets, for instance, is often "finding people" within the organization. At many sites, that isn't easy. But making it easy isn't new or exciting. Too often it doesn't get fixed.
    • People who are aware of "pain points" on a website often don't know which ones to fix first. One benefit of Carewords research is the identification of top tasks so that web leaders can first fix the ones that are most important to people who use the site. Priority is set based on fact, not opinion.
    • Primary pain points most often result from navigation, search, and out-of-date content.

Task Performance Index

    • Our Task Performance research measures the time it takes people to complete key tasks and gives each one a TPI or Task Performance Index ranking.
    • Most tasks we measured over the past year were in fact done well (61 percent), many were not done quite so well (32 percent) and some were disasters (7 percent.)
    • Fixing the disasters first becomes the key goal.
    • We give a person 6 minutes to complete a task. If it can't be done by then, it likely can't be done at all.

The Value of Search

    • Checking for the Top 100 search terms used on a website can also help pinpoint what's most important to people who use the site. Be sure to look back for 12 months so that seasonal variations don't skew the results.
    • Check for variations in the words people use to search for the same thing and total the similar items. One of my favorite combinations is "premed" and "pre-med" and "premedicine" for future students trying to learn more about medical school.


    • Website usability is improved by a simple A to Z site map that new visitors and members of your organization can easily find and check. Don't hide the site map.
    • Almost all our usability testing is now being done remotely. We watch people from afar while they work on a computer. The people we are watching are more relaxed. The client cost is lower.

That's a snapshot of what we've learned since our 2008 meeting. Carewords research has been ongoing for about 15 years now. Sharing the results from new clients improves the process and expands everyone's knowledge. Well worth the trip over the Atlantic.

Task Completion is #1 

What's been constant over the years is the emphasis that people place on task completion. That's the most important lesson from our work. We don't expect it to change.

Contact Us

If you're at a college or university and don't think your website is performing as well as it might, I'll be happy to explore Carewords options with you. Starting with an email to is usually easiest.

If you're at a corporation or government agency, check the contact information for other partners. 

That's all for now.



WordPress for "Very Readable" Web Content at Charleston Southern

After the recent blog post here about Alfred University and The Johns Hopkins University using WordPress to format magazines for online reading, John Strubel, director of integrated marketing at Charleston Southern University, sent along this note that's worth repeating:

  • "Wordpress offers a nice selection of 'magazine' style formats. It's very readable and easier to navigate than the pdf providers. I encourage any university relations/development department to consider the cost-effective options. We've also been able to connect to archives and cross-promote other online publishing platforms, etc."

Charleston Southern had indeed made a strong entry in what those of us fond of online reading can only hope is a growing movement. Really folks, the effort is well worth it to get results like this that are far better than anything I've yet seen using a "flip" tech approach.

Love your readers. Don't just "flip" the print version of your magazine to your website. 

Read the current issue of "CSU Magazine" and see for yourself.

Web Writing Webinar in December

Join me December 8 for my next "Writing Right for the Web" webinar. Check the outline and register soon.

That's all for now.




Web Content: Skilled Writers are an Essential Asset for Success

Slowly, every so slowly, web content editor and writer positions continue to expand in higher education. You can't call the progress "inexorable" but each step in this direction is a victory for those who understand the importance of effective online engagement in marketing.

This position at Alma College isn't new. Alma is replacing Amanda VanLente, who has left after several years of fine service.

More position descriptions like this are online at the blog. If you are trying for approval of a similar spot on your campus, perhaps these will help your effort.

If you have a special interest in "Writing Right for the Web," join me December 8 for my next webinar. Check the outline and register soon.

Web Content Writer

    • Description: Alma College seeks a marketing and public relations writer responsible for writing content for the Alma College Website; keeping Web content current, fresh and accurate; developing, maintaining and updating office and department Web pages in a timely fashion; assisting the Web Editor in implementing and maintaining a systematic content review schedule for department and office Web pages; and completing other priority projects as assigned.
    • Qualifications: Bachelor's degree in communications, journalism, English or related field. Strong writing, thinking, interviewing and people skills. Strong organizational skills to manage multiple projects under deadlines. Ability to work collaboratively with office colleagues, faculty, students and staff across all disciplines. Experienced preferred in writing for the Web, news publications or comparable publications.

Send application letter and resume to:

Mike Silverthorn
Director of Marketing and Public Relations
Alma College
614 W. Superior St.
Alma, Mich., 48801-1599

Application materials also may be sent electronically to or by fax to (989) 463-7102. Inquiries about the position may be directed to: Mike Silverthorn at (989) 463-7327.

That's all for now.

Writing Right for the Web: Online Magazines in Blog Format

The discussion/debate continues among those responsible for website content: quite a few favor a "flip" technology solution to get printed publications online. Proponents note that creating a "flip" book from a print publication like an alumni magazine is easy to do. And some add that it replicates the original print design in the new online format.

Fortunately for people who actually might want to read online publications, there is another school of thought that says "flip" techniques create something that is just not reader friendly on a website.

Since my first "Writing Right for the Web" session about 4 years ago, I've taken a clear stand on this one: PDFs and flip techniques are an evil way to place things online if we really expect people to read them.

Alfred University, The Johns Hopkins University

And in that spirit, recognition should go to those who move in a different direction, Each of these examples uses blog software (Wordpress in this case) to create an interesting, entertaining, and readable online magazine. 

You'll note, of course, that these two universities are quite different in size and resources. Where there's a will, there's a way, is there not? 

Congratulations to the responsible people at Alfred and Johns Hopkins.

And if you have people on your campus interested in learning more about "Writing Right for the Web," invite them to join you at my next webinar on December 8. Read the content outline and register soon.

That's all for now.



Late summer greetings to everyone. From the chatter on Twitter, it seems that the arrival of new freshmen on campuses across the country has been a marvelous event. Special congratulations to everyone who helped carry freight from cars to dorm rooms.

Check at the end of the newsletter for new fall presentations, including a conference in Denmark, a December webinar for "Writing Right for the Web," and the continuation of the "Bob$100" discount for the October Aslanian adult student recruitment conference.

Plan to attend the AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education and register for an updated and expanded "Marketing Communications in a World without Paper" Sunday tutorial. A highly rated summer version from eduWeb09 is the first one on SlideShare at

Check my blog for notes on Heather Mansfield's "10 Twitter Tips for Higher Education" at

Join me on Twitter at

For everyone here in the States, best wishes for a fine Labor Day weekend.

And now here are marketing news and notes for September.
Forbes Magazine 2009 College Rankings

Forbes released 2009 rankings in early August, based on "the quality of the education, the experience of the students, and how much they achieve."

While most of the usual suspects fill out the top spots, Forbes calls attention to unexpected additions at the highest levels, including Centre College and Union College. At the top of the list: West Point.

My favorite criterion: 25 percent of the ranking is based on student evaluations at That beats the "reputation" factor in another popular report.

Start the full report at
Evaluating Social Media Results

You should not worry if the people who sign on to your social media sites or read your blogs do not actively participate with comments and other contributions of new content. Most people just read,without joining or actively participating. And that, of course, has marketing value by itself.

By far the largest category for social media participation is from Spectators (79 percent), while Creators (24 percent) and Critics (37 percent) lag far behind. Indeed, only 51 percent will actually join a social media site where they are spectators.

What is the marketing lesson? Do not over promise active results when you start new social media ventures. For the details, check the latest research at the Groundswell blog site at
Drexel Gets First Place: Top University Websites for Search Engine Optimization

Find methodology you can use to test your own school as you review "Top SEO College Websites 2009" at

The writer gives most colleges and universities an "F" grade for SEO and includes four reasons why he thinks more schools do not do better. The first: over reliance on "brand recognition" to bring traffic to the website.

The increase in the importance of online education does seem to motivate some schools to do much better than others. The "Top Three" here: Drexel University, University of Phoenix, and Capella University.
Google Analytics Basics

Just getting started in web analytics? Thinking of using Google Analytics?

"Google Analytics 101" by Ron Jones at Search Engine Watch is a good place to start. The link at will take you to Part 2 and you can track back from there to Part 1.

Better use of analytics is an essential step to getting higher impact from your website. Pay special attention to the "bounce rate" (percent of people who leave a page without going further) at your admissions entry page and at each important page after that. Be sure that you filter out results for first-time visitors from those who are returning visitors.

Google advises that a bounce rate between 20 and 35 percent is acceptable.
Best Ad Sizes for Online Advertising

AdAge reviews what works best and why at

Special note: flash-based ads were the least effective of every type tested.
Time Magazine Picks Top 50 Websites

No college or university websites made the Time list, but the academic world is represented by selection #9, Academic Earth. That is a website for free college courses and lectures from 7 "leading universities."

Browse the full 50 to learn more about the expectations that some of these sites will create for users of higher education websites. The Times list is at,28804,1809858_1809957,00.html

And visit the clean and simple Academic Earth home page at
Mobile Web Help from MIT

Expect more and more people to access your website from iPhones and similar smartphone devices. And more and more schools are developing special mobile-friendly web content rather than forcing people to navigate and use their regular websites.

Review in detail the strong effort from MIT at or access it from a mobile browser at

Not only MIT can do this. For a smaller school alternative, visit the Azusa Pacific University example at

MIT will help you get started. Contact Information Services & Technology at
Old School Marketing: 5 Tips for Better Envelope Copy

Still using mail to prospect for potential new students? Then "mystique" and "relevance" are especially important first impression goals.

Learn more at
7 High End Twitter Analysis Tools

If you are very interested in Twitter, take time to explore the tools profiled at and you will likely find something of interest.

Scroll down to the end of the report for more links to other Twitter tools.

If you are not that interested in Twitter, keep reading.
National Merit Scholarships End at UT Austin

What is the future of merit scholarships in the present economy?

The move by University of Texas at Austin to stop funding over 200 National Merit full-tuition scholarships reflects new pressures to focus scare funds on need-based awards. That is the rationale given to explain why UT Austin is dropping out of the National Merit competition and rolling those funds over to students with financial need.

What is the marketing impact of fewer National Merit scholars? UT Austin does not believe it will be great. Current brand strength is sufficiently strong that the SAT and GPA components of the academic profile are not expected to suffer.

Teens and Twitter: Age is Not the Problem

New research on how people use Twitter makes an important point. Yes, the "great majority" of teens do not use Twitter. But then, neither do the "great majority" of adults use Twitter.

A key finding: Teens use Twitter at a higher rate than people from 25 to 44 years of age.

Another key finding: the reason most adults and teens do not use Twitter is simple: they can do the same things elsewhere on other sites that they prefer. Not using Twitter, it seems, is not related to age.

See the in-depth details at
Distance Learning Gains Faculty Support

A detailed report from the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities brings good news to marketers who recognize that student interest at every age level is shifting in favor of online learning.

Professors, both senior and junior, are more willing to entertain teaching online courses than ever before. That is an important message for the not-for-profit sector as for-profit competitors continue to expand their online offerings.

Of course there is a caveat. Faculty do not think they are receiving enough support for the effort it takes to develop and introduce new online courses. Read an outline of the report at and see where senior enrollment and marketing professionals might give support and encouragement to people willing to expand product in this key area.
Web Writer Position at Alma College

Alma College is taking applications for a web content writer position within the marketing and public relations office. Details for the position are at
My Upcoming Presentations in 2009

Share questions and answers with people like yourself who are building a competitive edge in higher education marketing. Join me for one or more of these events.

October 21-22, Chicago, IL: Aslanian Group Seminars: Competing for Adults Students, "Branding and the Web: The Value of Your Official Website in the Social Media Era." Download conference brochure at Save $100 when you enter "Bob$100" in the discount code box as you register.

October 26-27, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin System, Adult Student Recruitment & Retention Conference, "Key Website Features for Adult Student Recruitment." Conference information is at

November 3-5, Aarhus, Denmark: J. Boye Conference: Aarhus09, "Improving Higher Education Websites: Lessons from the Student Experience." Conference program and registration at

November 15-17, Boston, MA: AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education, "Marketing in a World without Paper: Creating a Recruitment Communications Plan in an Online Future" (3.5 hour Sunday afternoon tutorial). Details at

December 8, Webinar: "Writing Right for the Web." Program details soon from Academic Impressions at

Increase ROI from your online marketing. Expand the writing, editing, and search marketing skills of people on your campus. Host a campus workshop on online marketing.

Contact me at
That's All for Now

Be a marketing champion on your campus.

Bob Johnson, Ph.D. (
President and Senior Consultant
Bob Johnson Consulting, LLC
Bob Johnson Consulting, LLC

Increase your online marketing success with these 6 services.
• Customer Carewords Research with Gerry McGovern
• Writing Right for the Web On-Campus Workshops
• Marketing Communications Website Review
• Competitive Website Reviews
• Content Copywriting Services
• Usability Analysis

Start now at

Bob Johnson
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