Bob Johnson's Blog on Higher Education Marketing

April 2014 Archives

Marketing strength in website design: don't try to "Blow the doors off"

Last week on a Listserv for university web developers someone asked for recommendations for design firms whose work would "blow the doors off" typical higher education websites. The request caught my attention. What were university websites that fit the "blow the doors off" definition?

I'll confess to membership in the "less is better" and "clean and simple works best" school of website design. That comes from marketing experience, usability research, and membership in the Carewords partners group
  • The websites that best build brand strength are the websites that let people complete their top tasks as quickly as possible.
One "blow the doors off" answer came along right away... a new home page at Bucknell University. I visited and was disappointed. This page certainly does not give priority to top task completion. It does use a design style growing in popularity in the mobile era. And it sure throws a lot of stuff at visitors when the page opens.

You have less than 5 seconds to make a first impression. The Bucknell site wastes those seconds on a large graphic image. 
  • A large image when a page opens may capture the interest of a few. For most, it is just an obstacle to get past.
Next came news of a new home page at the University of British Columbia. And then a Carewords partner sent word of a change at University of Oxford to what was once one of my favorite sites for easy linking to tasks from the home page. Alas, no more.

(Don't miss the detailed 9-point critique of the Bucknell site from Gord Hopkins, Carewords partner and Chief Technology Officer at Neo Insight in Ottawa in a follow-up blog post.)

"Clean and simple" beats "Blow the doors off"

These designs may win creativity awards for being "cool" and "blowing the doors off" conventional university websites. In the marketing world, they fail against the clean and simple top task approach introduced last year at University of Ottawa. Based on research to learn the top tasks of site visitors, Ottawa gives page prominence to just 4 links placed in the center of the page. 

In the mobile world, "clean and simple" is even more important

The need for a strong first impression in seconds is greater on a smartphone. These new sites fare even worse in that environment.

Compare the first three mobile sites here from Oxford, British Columbia, and Bucknell with with two sites that follow from Ottawa and UC - San Diego. You'll see right away that images are most important for the first three. Links are most important for the next two. For marketing strength on your website, give priority to links that get people as quickly as possible from the home page to top task completion within the site.

photo (43).PNG
University of Oxford

If you came to the website to celebrate Shakespeare you'll love this site. If you did not, perhaps you'll check the other four images in the carousel. More likely you will not. Very few people come to a home page to review what's in the carousel.

photo (45).PNG
University of British Columbia

Exactly what is happening here? Visit the home page on a large screen for a truly unusual home page approach. You just can't get the full flavor of things on a smartphone.

photo (46).PNG
Bucknell University

Yes, sustainability is important. But I suspect that not very many people are traveling to the Bucknell home page to learn about how sustainability is being advanced by that school.

And is there a university that does not profess a commitment to sustainability? That commitment does not rank high as a point of marketing distinction that sets one school apart from another.

photo (48).PNG
University of California, San Diego

Visit the UC - San Diego home page and you'll see that the university had to make a critical decision re what came up first on mobile: the large image or the links to the left of the image.

Folks at UC - San Diego know that most visitors move rapidly from the home page via one of 6 links on that page. And thus a wise decision: give priority to the links.

photo (47).PNG
University of Ottawa

Four links dominate the Ottawa home page when you visit on a PC or a tablet. If you had to give prominence to only 4 links on your home page, how would you make that decision? Ottawa based their choice on the results of top task research

Two of the links are focused on student recruitment: "Find a program" and "Estimate costs." For potential students, that's critical information most want to find quickly.

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 6,575+ 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.
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 Woman'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.

Join 6,550+ people and follow me on Twitter

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.

Bob Johnson
Blog Contents
Recent Entries Categories Monthly Archives