Bob Johnson's Blog on Higher Education Marketing

May 2014 Archives

Higher education marketing: overly focused on "branding"

This morning I've been working on my last presentations for the Academic Impressions conference on strategic recruitment communications in June: "Future Trends in Higher Education Marketing." And so just before the Memorial Day weekend I'm sharing some points that came to mind today.

The Monsters University website: funny, painful, and accurate

Searching about the web brought me back once again to the memorable and ever-so-accurate Monsters University website. You really should go visit this... again, if you already have. 

Don't miss the video message from the Academic Dean. Laugh. Weep. We will know that higher education marketing is truly advancing when we can say that marketing like this is a thing of the past.

The wisdom of St. Michael's College

Other notes that have been circulating in my brain this morning:
  • We are spending too much time and money on "branding," often without the resources to sustain a campaign that actually has the ability to make an impact.
  • We are still weak in the basics: limiting "search" names bought to those with high conversion potential and investing in CRM software to take advantage of what we know about prospects, for instance. 
  • Too few presidents and boards have a sense of market place reality similar to what moved St. Michael's College to adopt a strategy of intentional shrinkage.
Some things that I hope will change, in no special order of importance:
  • We'll learn how to make use of "Big Data" opportunities to focus on smaller numbers of potential students who are more likely to enroll. Enrollment conversion will increase.
  • More schools will make an essential investment in CRM software and train admissions staff to use it well. Enrollment conversion will increase.
  • Specialized mobile apps will be a strong feature of sophisticated marketing programs that in the mobile world some things are best done as apps especially design for the mobile world, with special attention to academic programs. Enrollment conversion will increase.
  • "Department store" universities will start to disappear and marketing efforts will focus on special programs that remain as the academic product line is reduced.
Think you can't afford to invest in CRM software and a customer relationship management program? Shift resources from "branding" and "promotion" until you can. 

Your goal: to take the detailed information from ACT and SAT "self-report" students and convert it into effective inquiry response communications. Enrollment will increase.

What will never change:
  • The power of personal contact, whether in person or by email, text, or telephone. Higher education is an expensive purchase for nearly everyone. Personal contact that starts with early inquiries will increase conversion.
And now, back to finishing that presentation.

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.

Blowing the doors off university website design: innovation run wild at Bucknell

A couple of weeks ago someone posted a request on a higher education listserv... Could anyone recommend a firm to create a website design that would "blow the doors off" other university sites?

One of the first people to respond used a new Bucknell University site as an example of innovative university website design. 

While the Bucknell site is indeed different, it isn't an example of a clean and simple site that makes it easy for future students to complete the top tasks that bring them to the site. Quickly finding content about academic programs and affordability was not a design priority. Last week I wrote about Bucknell and sites following a similar design path as well as two others taking a much different and visitor-friendly approach.

Opinion from Gerry McGovern and Gord Hopkins

I also sent a link to Bucknell to my Carewords partners and asked for their thoughts. After his visit to the site, Gerry McGovern wrote a column, "Revenge of the brochureware billboard designers." Gord Hopkins at Neo Insight in Ottawa sent a detailed critique and I'll share some of those points with you now. 

Open the Bucknell home page and view it as you read along.

Gord's Reaction Points

"Very confusing design. So much is hidden and there are many confusing elements:
  1. Dates on the left -- what are they for? What will happen if I click? What does 'Now' mean?
  2. What does the clock icon in the top right mean? Nothing happens on roll over. (You have to click the clock to get inside.)
  3. There is a line stating 'What do you want to see?' just before the banner with a close symbol far right. No indication of what to do with this feature or how to get it to help me specify what I want to see.
  4. The 'Everything Directory' looks like a dirty magnet but there is no menu associated with it. It's really an A-Z index -- why not call it what it is?
  5. Huge amount of real estate is taken up with a picture that does not help me with any task but pushes potentially valuable links below the fold to the point where the website has to tell me to scroll down. That effectively says ignore the top stuff and scroll to the stuff that might be useful.
  6. It invites me to Customize this homepage but there is no link to let me do that.
  7. It is not clear why some of the rectangles at the bottom of the page look like they are greyed out or inactive and why others are highlighted and say ON. When I click one of the greyed items it says it is changing page content but all that seems to change is that the indicator changes to ON. What is the purpose of this? How do you actually get to this content that they asked me to scroll down to?
  8. If I click on something of interest, like 'Learning at Bucknell,' it simply removes that option unless I close the confusing customization part.
  9. If I finally figure out how to get to some content, I have to both scroll vertically and horizontally and it is not clear what I will get if I ask to print the page."
Clean & simple vs. Cute and clever

The main take away here: if you want to spend the time, you can figure out how the Bucknell home page works. But web visitors are very impatient. If they can't connect in less than 5 seconds with content related to a top task and move along to complete that task, many will leave. 

"Cute and clever" fails against "clean and simple." A "cute and clever" home page does not help you grow your brand strength, it just proves you can be cute and clever.

Clean and simple: University of Ottawa

To see a different approach to website design that gives center-page priority to just four top tasks, visit the University of Ottawa home page. The proverbial full disclosure: Neo Insight did the top task research essential to deciding what links were most important.

The innovative emphasis here on just four links truly does "blow the doors off" university website design.

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.

May greetings with the hope that the deposit expectations of everyone here in the U.S. were met on May 1 and that any summer melt is remarkably small. 

Now that May is here it is time to plan your summer conference schedule. Let me recommend three choices to consider for June, July, and August. Hope to see you at one or more.

June 25-27 will bring "Building a Strategic Recruitment Communication Plan" from Academic Impressions. Details are at

On July 23-25 the always excellent ACT Enrollment Planners Conference convenes in Chicago. Check the program for sessions of interest at

The eduWeb Conference for 2014 runs from August 4-6 in Baltimore. Start your exploration with a strong selection of pre-conference workshops at

And now here are your marketing news and notes for May.
Snapchat and Student Recruitment: Reports on a big University and a small College

Time magazine reports on how 6 schools are using Snapchat, including efforts in student recruitment by the University of Michigan and Tennessee Wesleyan College at 
Gerry McGovern on a University Website and "Billboard-on-the Highway" Web Design

Most people visit websites to complete a task as quickly as possible. Organizations, including universities, and marketing agencies often cannot resist the impulse to broadcast great things about themselves. The result more often than not is an obstacle in the path to task completion. And that is a marketing liability.

If you are fighting the good fight for a clean and simple website as a key to marketing success, circulate "Revenge of the brochureware billboard designers" by Gerry McGovern at on your campus.
Search Marketing Success: New Matt Cutts Google Video

The most important point that Matt Cutts makes in this video: do not follow so-called gurus as they jump from one magic solution for better search results to another six months later. 

That makes great good sense to me. Focus on a clear presentation of the content that people want to find on your website. And focus on the basics: page title tags, for instance, are still important. So are the link paths you build within your site.

More from the primary Google person on what counts in search at 
Decoding Financial Aid Award Letters: An Alert from National Public Radio

Early in April National Public Radio asked whether we expect too much of normal human beings to understand financial aid award letters. 

Given the upscale demographics of NPR listeners, I found it especially interesting that this topic was picked as of likely interest to listeners. If NPR finds deciphering financial aid award letters a challenge, what can we expect from first-generation students and their parents?

The marketing lesson: pay attention to the points raised here, make revisions, and gain a competitive advantage when future awards are made.

Read an article on the show or listen to the show itself when you visit 
Writing Right for the Web: Research on "The Ideal Length of Everything Online"

Great article here on the ideal length of Twitter and Facebook posts, blog posts, email subject lines and more. Do you know if the ideal length of a Facebook post is 100 characters or just 40 characters?

Your online marketing success may depend on the answers you find at 
Wise Marketing Move: A Liberal Arts College Plans to Be Smaller

We should have more stories to read like this one. St. Michael's College in Vermont has adopted a strategy to achieve success by shrinking in size. That seems a realistic interpretation of how liberal arts colleges will survive and thrive over the next decade and perhaps beyond.

Too many colleges are trapped in a dilemma: a desire to maintain or restore enrollment levels while shrinking a high tuition discount rate. For anyplace without unusual brand strength, that is a difficult goal. For many, it is an impossible goal.

Read more about the wisdom at St. Michael's at 
Tuition Comparisons Online: How 13 Colleges and Universities Do It

Community colleges and regional public universities are doing it the most, but there is one flagship state university in this group as well. And one private college is doing it for adult online programs.

Do you compare your tuition with those of your competitors to gain a marketing advantage? See how 13 colleges and universities compare themselves with the competition at 
Credit for Experience: An Important Affordability Element

The willingness of schools to award credit for experience will be an increasingly important element in helping people make an affordability decision on what college to select.

One approach that anyone can adopt is in place at Lipscomb University, where a faculty team conducts intensive student interviews and compares notes to determine how many credits to award. Credits are given for 22 majors in a College of Professional Studies. 

Students pay $1,500 for the interview and can earn up to 30 credits for a tuition savings of as much as $15,000. Read more about the Lipscomb approach at 
Advertising Online: Advice from an Old-Time Marketer

Denny Hatch has been a leader in direct marketing for decades. He is an expert on getting the best possible ROI from advertising dollars. And the state of online advertising today does not make him happy.

If you have questions about the success of your online advertising, see what Denny means when he writes that "the dabblers who buy ads and place ads on the Internet today do not know squat about advertising" at 
University Websites: Review of 5 Site Designs that Help and Hinder Top Task Completion

The move to adapt to mobile viewing is creating new approaches to website design. But are those approaches helping people actually do what they want to do at the site?

One Canadian and one U.S. university are doing an especially good job of using words rather than images in the transition from big screen to mobile viewing. As a result, the most important links are easy to see and act upon.

Five university websites in Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. are reviewed at 
College Campuses: Are they Obsolete? 

The future importance of college campuses was the topic of a debate at Columbia University on "More Clicks, Fewer Bricks: the Lecture Hall is Obsolete."

What I found most interesting was the input from the audience of an Indian student recently enrolled in a new online international degree program who hoped for close personal relationships with other international students that she could not get in a traditional format.

More at 
Most Popular Topic in April Newsletter: 5 Reasons Visitors Leave Your Website

This Website Magazine article starts with the need for speed in page downloads: anything over two seconds and you are losing visitors, rapidly. See the conversion speed chart and four other important reasons 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.

Bob Johnson
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