Bob Johnson's Blog on Higher Education Marketing

January 2013 Archives

Student recruitment follies... chasing high-performing PSAT takers

It happens every year. College-bound students take the PSAT exam in October and colleges and universities buy the names of people they wish to contact. Nothing wrong with that. Except that far too many schools still buy far too many names in a frantic scramble to boost inquiry numbers. I'd like to think that direct marketing expertise in higher education has grown since the early 1990s. This is the time of year that makes me wonder.

Successful direct marketing starts with list selection

The first key to successful direct marketing is selecting the right people to contact. That should almost always result in fewer rather than more people being contacted. Marketing-oriented people pay attention to what test takers say about themselves when they register for PSAT, SAT, ACT exams. They only buy the names of people who are a strong match with the profile of students likely to enroll. 

In this case, the future student is the high scoring son of Bob Green, a friend who has been in the direct marketing business for the last 30 years and is now president and creative director at The Verdi Group. His son has received since January 14 a deluge of email from nearly 60 schools competing to be "first in the mailbox" with their contacts. Some of the schools have already sent more than one email. New ones are still arriving.

First contact emails: "A pretty dull group..."

What was sent? Bob Green's first professional reaction: 

  • "Very few of them told us anything interesting about their schools, most of which we'd never heard of. As a marketer it was an interesting experience to be on the consumer end of the solicitation. There were no promotions of any kind, no attempts to grab a cell number or to offer a text option, and very few offers of video. All in all, a pretty dull group, speaking as a marketer!"
Most of the emails offered similar information about how to master college admissions. Consider the impact of getting nearly 60 offers in a few days with these titles:

  • "5 Just-Released Ideas for Getting Into the College of Your Choice"
  • "What the Nation's Best Students Know About Getting Into College"
  • "The Choice is Yours: A Quick Guide to Selecting Your Ideal College"
  • "Achieve Admissions Success: 6 Strategies for College Acceptance"
  • "ALL ACCESS: Behind-the-Scenes Admissions Secrets You Can Use Today"
Bob also reports that about a third of the schools asked his son to answer the same 6-point "quiz-like" questions about himself. All of the ones I read also were eager to get the name and email contact for parents of this high-achieving lad so they could tell those parents how impressed they were with his PSAT performance.

What's especially sad about this recruitment version of the Oklahoma land rush is the "sameness" of it all. The receiving students end up wondering why all these schools they've never heard of are suddenly interested in their success. It just doesn't ring true.

Here's a recommendation: instead of trying to be first with the same message that everyone else is sending, try a different approach. Relax. Let the flood waters of the first round recede. And then send something that is genuinely different. But first, be more selective in the names you purchase.

That's all for now.

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Student Recruitment... 8 emails in December from 3 schools

We saw in the update for November that fewer of our six schools were sending new email contacts. That trend continued in December, with a slight reduction in total email received. While three schools made contact, most of these were again from just two sources: the "private college in upstate NY" and the "private university in Massachusetts.

OK, let's have a look at the messages sent in December as a January 15 application deadline grew near.

  • December 1: From the "private college in upstate NY" comes a reminder that the Early Decision and Early Action deadline is "midnight tonight!." To take advantage of the "Fast-Forward Application" that I can complete in only an hour I'd better send in that app by midnight. I'll know by admission status before the holidays. Other reminders: no application fee and no essay required.
  • December 2: "Exciting news" from the "private college in upstate NY." The admissions director has been able to get me "one more day" to complete the "Fast-Forward Application." 
  • December 2: An email arrives from the "private university in Massachusetts" that profiles in text and video a senior student who loves organic chemistry and was one of four student in the U.S. selected for an internship at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. At the end there is a discrete link to apply for admission.
  • December 3: Our "most selective university" is back for the first time since October 29 with another invitation to join a December 4 chat event. If I can't make the event, I'm invited to a Facebook site. Although brief, this is another email that would benefit from spacing between paragraphs.
  • December 5: I've mentioned before that I suspect two different offices at the "private college in upstate NY" are sending emails to the inquiry pool. Today's email, also from the director of admissions, is in a different format (clear & easy to read) than the "Fast Forward Application" series. The subject line and text asks me to call if I need any application help. A link to a page where I can get FAFSA help is also featured.
  • December 8: At the "private college in update NY" the admissions director is still "eagerly awaiting" my application as I've been "handpicked" to "thrive" at this school. Unlike the December 5 message, the text in this series is too small and cramped for easy reading.
  • December 14: An unusual email arrives from the "private university in Massachusetts" to let me know that I have a personal financial aid counselor available who will help me with financial planning. When I follow the link I find photos of the counselors, including email and phone number to make a contact. That's different than anything else received.
  • December 14: The subject line from the "private college in upstate NY" tells me that the admissions director is "still eager to hear" from me. The tone of this email is calmer than earlier ones in this group. The director wishes me well this year, reminds me of the "Fast-Forward Application" benefits, and suggests I might want to finish my app today because it is, after all, "so quick and easy."
That's all for December.

Nothing unusual for December, other than one email with a special emphasis on contacting a financial aid counselor. January beckons and we have so far received 10 emails from four schools. The pace did indeed pick up as January application deadlines drew near. And yes, I'll bet you can pick the two schools that were most active since January 1.

I'll likely have the next summary written up next week.

You can commission a similar secret shopping project.

I've just started a new secret shopping project for a client in the Mid-West. While I'll blog and tweet about some general observations from that work, specifics are reserved for the client.

Contact me at to arrange your own (and truly secret) secret shopping review to see how you stand vs. your competitors when someone makes an inquiry online. One hint based on this new venture: more schools just might reduce the number of "stealth" applicants if they would only make the inquiry form easy to find.

That's all for now.

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Apollo Group (parent company for UPhoenix) ranks 62nd in AdAge Top 100 Advertisers

How do you parcel out your higher education advertising budget among various media?

Each year Advertising Age ranks the top 100 U.S. advertising spenders. The report is issued mid-year and repeated in December. This 2011 amount is up from $584.7 million in 2010. 

Here's how the "measured media" spend (almost all of it for University of Phoenix) was divided:
  • Magazines... $3.7 million
  • Newspapers... $400,000
  • Outdoor... $6.7 million
  • TV... $59.3 million
  • Radio... $800,000
  • Internet... $91.5 million
Internet and TV dominate

For a university whose enrollment continues to trend toward online students, this distribution isn't a surprise. Radio and newspapers have about vanished. We suspect other for-profit universities (and some not-for-profits as well) have deep advertising pockets but none made the Top 100 list.

To see on ad from the current TV series, take this trip through a corporate parking lot.

This campaign was developed by a new agency, Arnold Worldwide's Boston office, after Apollo ended a three year relationship with its previous agency in San Francisco. AdAge wrote about the search in a May article last year.

That's all for now.

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A Happy New Year to everyone. Here we are in 2013, ready for another year of change and challenge in higher education around the world. Best wishes to all of you as you seek to navigate to success these next 12 months.

Spending time at the conferences that best fit your interests is an important part of learning new navigation skills and hearing from friends and colleagues about what has worked best for them and what has not. Three of my favorites the first half of the year are down below at the end of the newsletter.

One of those, eduWeb, the Call for Papers for the 2013 eduWeb conference in Boston opened today and will run until February 15. Visit for details.

My secret shopping series on email inquiry responses from 6 colleges and universities is winding down. For a new report last week that includes the application deadline that was not really a deadline visit

And now here are your marketing news and notes for January.
Kiplinger's Magazine: 2013 Public Sector Best Value Schools

January brings the new Kiplinger edition of the best values in public universities. The first 100 start with University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and end with Missouri University of Science and Technology.

The report includes not only in-state and out-of-state total costs and costs after need-based financial aid, but also average loan debt. The debt leader among the first 100 schools is University of New Hampshire at $34,194. The lowest average debt was at North Georgia College and State University at $10,128.

Check for your school when you visit
University of California: A Video to Fan the Flames of Logo Change

The University of California will not be using its new logo after all, given the huge negative response to the new symbol. That announcement came in mid-December. Logo change is never easy, from the internal deliberations to the first public exposure.

One thing you do not want to do is create a special promo video that seems to (literally) dismissively brush aside the old in favor of the new in an effort to shed light on a university that few believed was in the dark before the new logo appeared.

Watch the official UC promo video at for an example of how not to introduce a new logo.
New from Mobile Marketer: The Classic Guide to Mobile Marketing

As a marketer, you cannot escape the mobile element today. One good place to refresh and renew is with the new 5th edition of the Classic Guide to Mobile Marketing, released in late December. The collection of short articles includes several on the challenges of advertising successfully in the mobile world.

Download your copy of the 46-page PDF at
MOOCs Search for Business Model

If you thought the providers of Massive Open Online Courses were oblivious to the potential of making a financial profit, read the Wall Street Journal article outlining the interest of venture capitalists to invest large amounts of money in the expectation that profits will indeed be realized.

The path is not yet clear. But initial steps are underway and those who venture are optimistic. Learn more from the WSJ at
Advertising ROI: 10 Landing Page Tips to Increase Inquiry Conversion

As many of you know, I collect examples of the landing pages that follow after an online ad. Often those landing pages seem designed by people who are afraid of receiving too many inquiries. The inevitable result: too much money spent on creative and media buys is wasted.

To increase your conversion rates, check "10 Ways to Optimize for Lead Generation" from Website Magazine. The first tip: "Focus on Simplified Design." In the higher education world that means do not ever take a potential student to a regular website page.

Read more about the value of simple design and 9 other steps to increase your inquiry pool at
False Information Reported Again: Tulane MBA Admission Stats

Will we have more revelations in 2013 of false information reported to US News and elsewhere to gain ranking points?

In late December Tulane became the fourth well-known school in 2012 to make a public admission. This case involved GMAT scores and application numbers for the MBA program. Details from Inside Higher Ed are at
Online Advertising: Debating the Value of Banner Ads

In a December column for AdAge, Jeff Rosenblum was direct in his opinion that banner ads are "worthless real estate" bought my marketers who do not know how to use them online.

On major point: banner ads in traditional marketing work best to move a person to action when there is already awareness of a brand and appreciation of what it has to offer. Many marketers, on the other hand, buy online banner ads to create initial brand awareness. And in that case, most people ignore banner ads.

Do you agree? Be sure to read the comments to his article as well as more of the Rosenblum analysis at
Mobile App for Admission and Financial Aid: New at Harvard University

If you have the resources, a mobile app can still be a better way to cover specific tasks for mobile visitors than a responsive remake of your regular website. At Harvard, a new mobile app is available for smartphone users: Harvard College Admissions and Financial Aid.

Review 6 mobile apps that cover things from the university as a whole to the Law School, the School of Public Health, and the arboretum when you visit
Trustees & Higher Education: My School is Good, Others Not so Much

Trustees at U.S. colleges and universities seem to agree with much of current public opinion about higher education: cost is too high and schools are not doing a good job of preparing people for career success. Those are some results from a survey of trustees taken by the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities.

Thanks change when AGB asked trustees to differentiate between their own school and others. In that case, for instance, 45 percent felt their schools were doing a good job of career preparation compared to only 18 percent who felt that other schools were doing the same.

Download the 18-page PDF report from AGG at
Wish I Had Said This: Deb Maue on MOOCs, Napster, and Higher Education

Today starts an occasional new feature for the newsletter: a direct link to something I have read that I wish I had written.

This item is for deniers who still think that the way higher education is delivered is not about to go through serious change much faster than many anticipate. Deb has picked up on an important recent event. The American Council on Education is undertaking a study about whether or not it is OK to give credit for MOOC courses. That's the end of the story. The end game is upon us.

Deb tells us how MOOCs are the Napster event of higher education at
Most Popular Topic in the December Newsletter: NSSE Student Survey Results for 2012

The most visited item in the December newsletter let people download a copy of the 2012 undergraduate report on student engagement. Get your copy and see if your school participated at
Conferences and Webinars in 2013

Look for presentation details in the February newsletter.

In the meantime, do plan to attend one or more of my favorites: J.Boye Web and Intranet Conference in May, ACT Enrollment Planners Conference in July, and eduWeb Conference also in July.

Expand the marketing skills of people on your campus. Host a campus workshop on any of my conference presentation topics or "Writing Right for The Web." Scan the presentation topics at

Contact me at or call me at 248.766.6425 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 248.766.6425 FREE end_of_the_skype_highlighting.
That's All for Now

Be a marketing champion on your campus.

Bob Johnson, Ph.D. (
Bob Johnson Consulting, LLC
Student Recruitment Emails... Winding Down in November as a Deadline Shifts

Since my last report on email inquiry responses received since June in our secret shopping venture, the frequency has started to decline. Only three of our six schools sent a total of 10 November emails. Six of these came from the volume leader, our "private college in upstate NY." Three others came from the "private university in Massachusetts." 

The decrease continued in December, with only 8 emails that month. So far in 2013 there has been one email.

To keep the length of this update in hand, we'll just review the November responses here. December email will follow soon.

Let's get started on November:
  • November 2: The "private university in Rhode Island" makes one appearance this month with an email extending the Early Action application deadline until November 9 as Hurricane Sandy has likely made it "impossible" for many people to meet the regular deadline. As with most email from here, neither my name nor the name of the person sending the email is used.
  • November 3: A "day in the life of..." video (nicely done in less than 2 minutes) highlighting the success of a 2006 alumnus is the main feature of an email from our "private university in Massachusetts." A quick click of a cursor to start a new paragraph would make a 10-line text block under the video much easier to read.
  • November 9: The "private college in upstate NY" continues to promote the advantages of the "Fast-Forward Application," including automatic scholarship consideration if I apply by November 15. To help, the admissions director notes that since I'm an "extremely busy" and talented student, she's already started the application for me.
  • November 13: A reminder that the "Fast Forward" deadline is only two days away arrives from the "private college in upstate NY."
  • November 13: After the subject line that "1,125 career mentors will work for you" at the "private university in Massachusetts" is a photo of a 2004 business majors and 16 lines of text with quotes about her experience at the school. A disconnect here... the photo looks just like the one in the November 3 email that went to a video about the person in the picture. Click here and you go to a video with several student testimonials rather than more about the featured graduate.
  • November 15: "Fast-Forward Application Tonight!" is the subject line message in this early AM email from the "private college in upstate NY." In the text I'm reminded that "This opportunity won't last forever..."
  • November 16: The "Fast-Forward Application" opportunity might not last forever, but it will last past the November 15 deadline. That's the news in today's email from the "private college in upstate NY" telling me that the December 1 deadline for non-binding Early Action and or a binding Early Decision is "fast approaching."
  • November 25: An email from the "private college in upstate NY" reminds me to apply by December 1 for the "full benefits" of the Fast-Forward" application. 
  • November 28: Another "day in the life of..." video is the main point of today's email from the "private university in Massachusetts." Again, well done in well under 2 minutes. As with each email in this series, links to apply and to visit social media sites are prominent.
  • November 29: The subject line says this is an "Urgent" message from the "private college in upstate NY." The admissions director is reminding our "smart and savvy" student that she can only "guarantee" those "Fast-Forward" application benefits if an application arrives by December 1, including the automatic consideration for the $9,000 per year Presidential Scholarship.
A Note on the November Results

It was obvious in November that two of our original 6 schools are far more interested in this 2013 graduate than the others, at least measured by the ongoing email contacts. And the difference in approach is interesting as well. 
  • Our "private college in upstate NY" has one goal: get our student to complete the "Fast-Forward" application to receive special benefits noted in each email by first one deadline and then a second. One thing learned so far: a "deadline" is not always a "deadline."
  • The "private university in Massachusetts" featured video and print stories from alumni and students. No campus visit invitations this month. Overall, a more relaxed approach. 
Which is more effective? Without knowing precise conversion stats from each place, we won't know the answer to that question.

That's all for now.

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Bob Johnson
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