Bob Johnson's Blog on Higher Education Marketing

August 2014 Archives

Bucknell University... website comments from website developers

New discussion among the University Web Developers community took place this week on the pros and cons of the Bucknell University website launched earlier this year after one member wrote in with a link to the Jakob Nielsen group's critique of the site.

In April and May I wrote about the site here and included notes from Gord Hopkins, another of Gerry McGovern's Carewords partners. Gerry has also written about the site in a New Thinking column.

Enough from Carewords partners. Today in the tradition of "wish I'd said that" I'm going to repeat comments that appeared from four uWebDev members that together get to the heart of why the Bucknell goal (be different from conventional higher education websites) will not increase online marketing strength.

1. Testing for speed

Paul Fairbanks at Gettysburg College noted something I found when testing download speed on a smartphone as part of a competition review project for a client: Bucknell was the slowest to load (more than 6 seconds in my Mobitest). Paul referenced added detail provided by Google Page Speed Insights:
2. Using a website and driving a car

Paul Dempsey at Ursinus College made a useful analogy between "operating" a website and operating a car:
  • "In most cases, we can get in a car we've never driven before and in a few minutes we're able to operate the lights, radio, doors and windows... not to mention the gas, brakes and steering wheel.
  • "The criticism of the Bucknell site is that they abandoned these standards, and that contributes to usability challenges. There were bold design decisions, and the site has an impact. But I think they could have had a similar impact while retaining some of the conventions of higher ed websites, such as a traditional navigation.
  • "Even thought it's over 25 years old, Donald Norman's "The Design of Everyday Things" can be useful in getting us to look at how we interact with things... This can help open up our thinking about how we organize and design websites. I don't always agree with usability purists, but I think there is a balance that needs to be found between design/marketing and the user experience."
3. Reducing stress and frustration

From Michael Bazeley at the UC-Berkeley School of Law:

"As the parent of a new college freshman, I noticed three things about his web experience with university sites, none of which are surprising:

"1. When we would look at sites that were very out-of-box and visually bold, his first reaction was, "Wow, that's a cool site."
"2. When we would sit down together to research majors or look for classes or learn about housing, all we wanted was the simplest, most direct path to that information. We had lots of questions and wanted answers. We wanted web sites to perform as expected, and in-line with our experiences at other web sites. There is a high level of stress when researching and learning about new colleges, and anything that gets in the way of finding the information you want is super frustrating, even off-putting.
"3. You'll ultimately choose your college on the campus visit, costs, etc. A web site is not going to determine where a student goes. The ginormous hero image is not going to make the sell, and frankly, when you've seen one giant university image, you've seen them all. Bucknell mocks the co-ed-under-a-tree look that is so familiar. But I'd argue that the giant, full-screen hero image is quickly taking the crown as the new university web cliche.

"I applaud Bucknell and Kenyon and others that are trying to redefine higher-ed sites. They may well be on the leading edge of where we will all be someday. But these new navigation and UI paradigms are not familiar to us yet. And the very last thing you want as a stressed out prospective college family is to feel confused and frustrated by an unfamiliar university web site."

4. Usability first, not Mobile First

Let's close with these wise words from self-described "web flunky" Brian Smith at SUNY-Albany:

"I mostly agree with what Paul mentioned about the Bucknell design"We should bridge mobile first/full bootstrap with previous higher ed design conventions.

"Overall, it seems like we're all moving toward a mobile first scenario, but perhaps it should be usability first.

"There have been listserv remarks that some people "like" this and "like" that about the Becknell design and that's great, but a designer should really only like it after they see that the general audience really likes it and can USE it.

"It's great when things are DISCOVERABLE on a page, but OBVIOUS is much better. Our mantra is "Don't Make Me Think", which is the title of a very practical web usability book by expert Steve Krug. Krug relies on testing and so do we. Why add to the frustration level unnecessarily?

"Overall, the Bucknell interface sure is interesting and fun, and looks great, and is certainly no tragedy but it's weak in usability.

"I'm hoping we can bridge mobile first designs to higher ed designs that people are somewhat used to."

Most important marketing element: easy task completion

Most important to the marketing impact of a website is not how it looks, but how it works. That's why the auto analogy is key to preventing the frustrations that Michael describes. You have less than 5 seconds when a page on your site opens to capture the attention of a visitor. 

You'll capture attention if people can quickly find and complete the tasks they came to your website to complete. That's the secret to marketing success. Not glitz and glamour. Not extra time and effort to figure out your unique navigation secrets.

For an example of a university home page that gets it right by focusing on just 4 top tasks, visit the University of Ottawa. Truly innovative.

That's all for now.

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Digital Marketing Strategy Tutorial at AMA Marketing Symposium

The August newsletter comes to you from the eduWeb2014 Conference in Baltimore, where I have just done a pre-conference workshop "Advertising Online: Strategy and Tactics for Recruitment Success," Check the presentation and download a copy from SlideShare 

Follow comments and insights from the Tuesday and Wednesday eduWeb sessions on Twitter at 

If you are attending the AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education in November, plan to include my Monday afternoon Digital Marketing Strategy tutorial. See the events at 

More than 110 people attended my ACT Enrollment Planners Conference session on "Affordability vs. Financial Aid: Crafting a New Student Recruitment Message." See what American University, Strayer University, and Wellesley College have in common 

And now here are your marketing news and notes for August.
Best Colleges for Your Money: New Money Magazine Ratings

Using what it says are "unique measures of educational quality, affordability, and career outcomes," Money Magazine is out with new rankings that place Babson College as best in the nation.

Info for each school includes "net price" of the degree and earnings five years after graduation.

Check the Money rankings at 
Words Marketers Must Know: 189 Words that Make People Take Action

Here's a great article that will remind you of many favorites old and new and likely introduce a few new ones as well.

Kevan Lee has visited old and new sources to build his list of 189 words and phrases that will motivate, reassure, and excite people to take the actions you want them to take. Great that he includes David Ogilvy but there is much more as well.

Revitalize your marketing copy after you visit 
More from Moody's: Financial Future of Higher Education

Moody's is back with another review of the financial state of higher education. Not all is gloom and doom, but the future is especially not rosy for the 10 percent of schools that fall into an "acute financial distress" category in both the public and private sectors.

On the bright side are expectations for 20 percent growth in master's degrees and 9 percent growth in associate's degrees. Read more at 
Trust in Advertising: How 19 Information Sources are Trusted

Nothing comes close to "Recommendations from people I know" at 84 percent, but 69 percent of people believe what they find at "Branded websites" while only 37 percent trust "Text ads on mobile phones."

See everything that falls in between in the Nielsen report at 
Email Marketing: 4 Steps to More Responsive Emails Efforts

Email marketing is far from dead unless you are killing yours with old style efforts. 

In "4 How-tos for Responsive Email," Matthew Caldwell reviews four steps to take to make sure your email makes an impact. 

My favorite is Tailor Content to the Consumer. In my secret shopping efforts I find that very few colleges and universities actually use the information collected via online inquiry forms in the emails sent out to cultivate and convert the inquiry. Almost always missing is anything about the academic program of interest.

See three other steps for better email at 
Mobile Marketing: Is your website really ready?

Getting your website ready for the mobile world is more involved than adopting a "responsive" solution. Website Magazine offers useful check points, including the differences between responsive and adaptive design, in "5 Steps to Tell if Your Website is Mobile Ready."

The first step does not get the attention it deserves: "How fast does your homepage download on a weak cellular network?"

Find more on the importance of speed along with four other points at 
Icons on Your Website: Help or Hindrance?

Jakob Nielsen is out with a new report on the advantages and the perils of using icons on a website, with special notice of the relative few that are internationally recognized. One lesson: what works well on mobile will not always translate well to a desktop.

Check the details when you visit "Icon Usability" at 
Career Paths in Admissions: New NACAC Survey

What can young admissions professionals expect if they are thinking about make "admissions" a career choice?

NACAC is out with a new survey on "Career Paths for Admissions Officers: at 
Best Universities in the World: Where are they?

Which countries have the best universities in the world? Read "Americans Think We Have the Best Colleges. We Don't" for a different perspective.

On math skills of university graduates for instance, the U.S. ranks 16th, just behind Korea and just above Australia. Results were based on research done in 2011 and 2014 on math and literacy skills of people age 16 to 29 with a bachelor's degree. More details are in the report at 
Most Popular Topic in July Newsletter: 5 Top Email Marketing Universities

From his secret shopping efforts, Jens Larson picks five emails marketing campaigns that can serve as models for everyone else, starting with Arizona State University and ending with Wellesley College. Find the other three and links to each to secret shop for yourself 
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 topics at and contact me at or 248.766.6425.
Be a marketing champion on your campus.

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

Bob Johnson
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