Bob Johnson's Blog on Higher Education Marketing

October 2014 Archives

What makes an effective digital marketing strategy? 

Just about a month from now I'll be for the third year presenting a tutorial on Digital Marketing Strategy at the AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education. As in past years, the various ways to advertise online will be a primary focus. But this year I'm starting with 7 key points to keep in mind as you ponder the best way to "go digital" for marketing success.

Here are the areas that I think are important to develop strategy and tactics that will work whether your interest is in enrolling students or raising money. Wise minds can disagree on many of these so I expect interesting questions and comments in November. 

1. Embrace "Big Data"
  • Not everyone likes the name and many people are still caught up in discussions over privacy. Get over that. The data available today allows marketers to send advertising messages to people who are most likely to value the message and respond to it. Everyone with a direct marketing impulse appreciates that. Sending the right message to fewer people is good strategy. "Big data" lets us do that.
2. Use a CRM System
  • Yes, a CRM system is expensive. And yes, a CRM system isn't easy to use right out of the box. But my secret shopping projects continue to tell me that colleges and universities are not doing a very good job of tailoring conversion communications to the special interests of new inquiries. That's especially evident in the almost complete lack of attention to the desired academic major collected on an inquiry form. 
  • When I ask people why that's absent the most common answer is "We don't have the software to personalize response." A CRM system will remove that handicap and increase conversion rates.
3. Be Wary of Responsive Design as "the" Mobile Solution
  • When responsive design first burst upon the scene just a few short years ago it was a web developer's Holy Grail. Imagine being able to "publish everywhere" once on a variety of platforms without having to create separate content and separate programming from large to small screen devices. 
  • Yes, responsive design can be great. But only if you start with a "mobile first" mentality that recognizes the need to remove most of the original content on your large screen website. Say 50 percent to start. More in reality. If you don't do that hard work first, your big, bloated, difficult to navigate website will be just the same on mobile. Maybe worse.
4. Be Smart about Content Marketing
  • Somewhere there is a great cartoon I've lost that has one person telling another early in the day: "I can't wait to get up and find some brand content to read today." 
  • Creating a more frequent flow of old-style marketing content or traditional press releases does not a content strategy make, on social media or elsewhere. First and foremost, content has to be driven by what is important to the people you wish to enroll. And that doesn't mean finding 8 new ways to tell someone about how dedicated you are to their success.
  • Content strategists know this. Many colleges and universities haven't yet made the transition. When I see more up front content about "affordability' and how to realistically pay for education, I'll know that content marketing is advancing. 
5. Focus on Top Tasks
  • If you know the top tasks potential students (and ditto for donors) want to do when they come to your website, you're on the way to knowing how to implement content strategy.
  • Identify tasks first, then follow with the content needed for task implementation. Successful marketing no longer depends on preaching. What's needed now is attention to successful experiences in giving people what they need to know (from their perspective) to make a decision. 
  • Again, greater attention to affordability questions and more priority for the importance of academic program information will tell me that strategy is moving in the right direction.
6. Respond Rapidly
  • Some schools get this, some do not. When you get an online inquiry, for instance, don't test people's level of interest by waiting weeks to send a first response. Responding in 24 hours is best. By phone if you asked for and received that information. By email, otherwise.
7. Make Sure Landing Page Links Work
  • To keep the ROI on your advertising low, create a landing page with links that people will follow. Then don't check to make sure the links are working when your ad launches. 
  • Sound obvious? Two weeks ago this Sunday that was the case for a series of NY Times print ads from UCLA. Just today it happened again with a well-placed online display ad from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism for the online Integrated Marketing Communications Program. Both had a link to videos. Neither link worked.
  • The best strategy in the world is handicapped when attention to basic tactics is missing.
That's all for now.

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Digital Marketing Strategy Tutorial at AMA Marketing Symposium

Fall greetings once again to everyone north of the Equator. Here in Michigan it is fresh apple cider season. Always makes for a great October.

Wherever your location, may your marketing strategies and recruitment activities bring you success in this increasingly competitive environment.

Join several hundred bright, inquisitive, experienced higher education marketers this November at the AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education in Austin. Review the program details, register, and join me for my Monday afternoon Digital Marketing Strategy tutorial at

Do you have a friend or colleague who should be reading the newsletter and the weekly Link of the Week selections? Have them visit to subscribe in just a few seconds.

And now here are your marketing news and notes for October.
LinkedIn Enters the Ratings Game: Ranking Schools by Career Success in Professional Areas

Making new use of the data available from the legions of members, LinkedIn is now rating top schools by career outcomes in 8 professional areas: Accounting Professionals, Designers, Finance Professionals, Investment Bankers, Marketers, Media Professionals, Software Developers and Software Developers at Startups.

While most of the usual suspects leading in rankings are here, some of the results might surprise you. First for Investment Bankers is Georgetown University. First for accounting is Villanova University.

Explore a new tool for future students at 
Adwords Success: "Demystifying Adwords" Infographic

Check the points you think are important to online advertising success against what is included here, particularly the notes on landing pages: relevancy to your key words, download speed, and the experience people have on the page. 

Where will you get the best advertising ROI? Retargeting.

More on these points and others at
Ad Campaigns Withdrawn at Two Universities: Best Laid Plans and All That

No matter the advance research and creative work, advertising campaigns sometimes run afoul of key constituents and are pulled. Consider the Suffolk and Creighton university examples.

The Suffolk campaign positioned the university as a non-elite school for regular people against other more selective schools in the Boson area. New university leadership seeks to expand enrollment activities beyond the Boston area, from Maryland to Maine. The anti-elite campaign is out. Details at

At Creighton, some students and alumni felt the "Be More" campaign violated the core values of this Jesuit university. See the editorial reaction in The Creightonian at just before the campaign was pulled.
Large Images on Your Website: A New Nielsen-Norman Group Report

Really big images on university website home pages are a spreading craze these days. See, for instance, the new University of Oxford website at that once featured a clear array of highly visible task links on the home page.

Before you let people talk you into the splendor of it all, review and discuss the new "Image-Focused Design: Is Bigger Better?" report from the usability folk at the Nielsen-Norman Group. The report is based on a review of a new Southwest Airlines home page but is relevant to higher education as well.

Do not make the mistake of using large images that obstruct the path to speedy top task completion. 

The report is at 
Americans 16 to 29: Reading Habits and Technology Use

From Pew Research Internet Project comes valuable information about the 16 to 29 age group critical to enrollment success.

Some enticing pieces: 98 percent of young Americans believe that the Internet makes it easy to find information, but 62 percent believe that there is important info not available online and only 57 percent believe it is easy to tell the difference between good and bad information.

For more details useful to your recruitment communication planning visit 
Website Design Success: 3 Key Principles

If you have website responsibilities on your campus you likely have conversations about what needs to change and what does not on a regular basis. 

This article from a creator of website design for Fortune 500 companies promotes three major principles: give priority to function over beauty, make frequent small experiments, and seldom if ever invest in an expensive, comprehensive remake of a site. Alas, most website planning does not follow these guidelines.

For more ammunition to support those principles in your campus conversations, check the article from Conversion Rate Experts at 
New in Social Media: Will Ello hurt Facebook?

A social media network that launched in April is not yet open to the public but is being positioned as a Facebook challenger in large part because of an anti-advertising stance and privacy guarantees.

Two key differences: Ello is making a promise not to use advertising and has an identity policy that does not require people to use their real names. Ello says it is "Simple, beautiful, and ad-free." It even has a "manifesto" that decries social networks that sell data so advertisers can "show you more ads."

Ello is in invitation-only beta mode, with one report of 38,000 requests per hour to join. If you have not already heard of it, start out with the article at and link on to the Ello "manifesto."

Also interesting is the AdAge report at 

If you are a true social media zealot, go direct to Ello to request an invitation at 
World-Class Universities: Times Higher Education defines criteria for Top 200 Schools

What makes a university a world-class institution according to the Times Higher Education in the U.K.?

Six criteria include recruiting 20 percent of staff and 19 percent of the students from another country as well as standards for total income and research income per academic. California Institute of Technology tops the most recent World University Rankings.

See more on the criteria and link to the full 2014-2025 list of the top 400 schools 
Bonuses for Admissions Recruiters: Is Degree Completion OK?

A court ruling is asking the Department of Education to provide a stronger reason for not allowing schools to pay extra to admissions recruiters based on the percent of students recruited who complete their academic programs. The decision favors the position of for-profit colleges.

See the rationales from the judge who made the decision and the DOE at 
A Top 10 Advertiser: Apollo Group for University of Phoenix with $53.7 Million for Adwords

The Apollo Group is in 10th place on the AdAge list of Top Google Adwords advertisers in 2013. See the Top 10 and more at 

Apollo is far from the top. That spot goes to Amazon at $157.7 million.
Most Popular Topic in September Newsletter: 10 Surprising Social Media Facts

How fast do you need to respond on Twitter? How important are words and photos? What is the best time to post on Facebook? Those questions and more answered at 
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.

Bob Johnson
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