Bob Johnson's Blog on Higher Education Marketing

January 2015 Archives

Websites gain marketing advantage with top task design

The secret to making your website an effective marketing tool: clean and simple design that lets visitors complete their tasks as quickly as possible. Experience on the site is more important than "stunning" hero images or other design fads.

For years now I've been a partner in the Customer Carewords team that promotes the use of top task research as the basis of successful website design. Carewords partners work for government agencies, private business corporations, and health care organizations as well as colleges and universities. Top task rules apply everywhere.

What are examples of effective top task use in higher education? Over my years of making Link of the Week selections I've often included top task examples. Now, prompted by a recent query from Anne Lutgerink at Internationalizing Education, I'm collecting here several of the best of those examples.

Key design elements: speed, task visibility, and "care" words

Three elements are key to top task design: Visibility in 5 seconds or less as a page opens and use of words that visitors care about. The rules don't change for mobile, except that the right words are even more important.

Examples from 9 higher education websites

University of Ottawa home page. When it went online early in 2013 this page was a thing of beauty as it gave prominent display to just four topics linking to tasks: "Find a program" and "University fees" for the primary external audience and "News, events and dates" and "Search library" for faculty and current students. Since then the page has fallen victim on occasion to someone's urge to add special events above the task links. It still remains one of the cleanest university home pages.

Victoria University home page: If you must use a carousel on your home page, don't let it drive a key top task lower on the page. In this example, "Find a course" and "Browse for courses" links take the prime upper left position and the carousel starts to the right of the task.

East Stroudsburg University admissions page: Highlighting top tasks on an admissions page is especially challenging as the tasks change as people move through the recruitment cycle. ESU meets the challenge in a simple but effective way: divide the page into 4 recruitment cycle segments and list the tasks for each segment directly to the right. Just about perfect.

Arcadia University study abroad page. The program entry page illustrates how you can use a strong image along with a branding statement and still include just 3 "can't miss" task words as the page opens. So simple. So clean. So seldom done. You can apply the same approach to just about any entry page.

Northern Alberta Institute of Technology academic program page: You won't find any photos here but you will immediately see "Grad Employment Rate" and "Median Starting Salary," two points about academic programs that are of increasing interest to potential students. Quickly following those are "Quick Facts," "Tuition & Fees" and "Entrance Requirements."

Williams College parents page: Open this page to find 6 images with word topics that you can scan easily to see the links to tasks for each topic. The first "Parent Resources" heading includes links to "Information for First-Year Students" and "Information for Returning Students" as well as a link to "Key Williams Contacts." The ability to 'find a person" is one of the most neglected top tasks on many websites.

Middlebury College department of English and American Literatures: Here is an admirable example of how to make it easy to contact your faculty. Each right-sized block for the 30 people listed includes email, phone number, and office hours. Sound simple? On many faculty website pages it isn't.

Rochester Institute of Technology Merit Scholarships: For sure this page will win no beauty awards but it offers in a single place what is so often missing from scholarship pages: name of the award, eligibility (including in some cases specific ACT & SAT scores), amount of the award, and what to do, if anything, to apply.

University of Oregon gift options page: Alumni and other potential donors want to know what their options are for giving to areas that match their special interests. Visit here to see 9 areas of interest that start with "Schools and Colleges" and end with "Athletics."

That's all for now.

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Happy New Year to everyone as we begin 2015. As many of you are likely doing just now, I am busy catching up this week after an extended break. There are many emails to review, including an interesting collection that arrived over the holidays from my most recent cluster of secret shopping schools.

You will see as you scan the items below that I have assembled a collection of items built around the inevitable predictions of what might and might not happen in 2015, from websites to college ratings. 

It is no small measure of our times that the January issue of Money Magazine included an article advising parents on how to best take advantage of merit awards to reduce costs. I expect affordability and tuition discounting to continue as top marketing issues this year. For private sector schools, the challenges are large and the solutions difficult.

The Call for Papers for the eduWeb Digital Summit in July is open until January 30. More about the conference and the paper submission process is at 

And now here are your marketing news and notes for January.
Website Magazine: What Your Website Needs for 2015

Start off 2015 by reviewing 6 elements of website design that might or might not work well for your website. 

Note that two of the headings refer to "stunning images" as a new imperative for successful sites. That's scary. Stunning images that do not relate to tasks that people want to do on your site will not improve your chances for marketing success. Words still count, even if this article downplays their importance.

But do take note of the admonition that responsive design is best done by taking a mobile-first approach. Responsive design that tries to convert an existing large-screen site to the mobile world without first making difficult content reduction choices is not especially effective.

Start a 2015 conversation after everyone reads the website design article at 
College Ratings Systems in 2015: Public vs. Private Sectors

Kevin Carey explores the various elements of the college rating system announced by the Department of Education last month, with attention to the different views of private and public sector schools and lobbyists. Expect dismay and debate on this to increase in 2015.

Three elements are important: affordability, access, and outcomes. It is not yet clear just what will be used to measure each. And it is not yet clear what the relative weightings will be. According to Carey, the private sector is more concerned than the public sector with the impact of the DOE system, a fact that he believes shows why the DOE plan is a "worthy effort."

See "Sizing Up the College Ratings System" at 
Future of Email Marketing: Scan 11 Articles for 2015 and Beyond

By now most people will agree that email marketing is not dead. That prediction has been made too many times in the past decade and email continues to thrive as an important part of a marketing communications program.

But email marketing always is changing. To review what industry experts are predicting and planning, scan the titles and short synopses of 11 "future" email marketing articles 
20 Generous Merit Aid Colleges: Money Magazine Highlights

Money Magazine started off 2015 with an article in the January issue briefing parents on "How to Find a Generous College." Money notes that while selective schools are usually not high on the generosity list many less selective schools do indeed have high academic profiles as measured by test scores. 

Six of the 20 most generous schools give average awards of more than 50 percent of tuition: Dordt College (67 percent), Millsaps College (60 percent), University of Tulsa (52 percent), Illinois Institute of Technology (51 percent), Ohio Wesleyan University (51 percent), Southwestern University (50 percent.) Many others are in the 40 percent range. 

The least generous among this group: St. Mary's College (38 percent), Furman University (38 percent), Denison University (39 percent.)

Find the percent of students who receive merit aid, the average award amount, and the complete list of the percent of tuition covered at 
Important Google Change: Designation of Mobile Friendly Sites

Is your website mobile-friendly according to new Google criteria that likely will soon be used to rank websites?

Google is giving priority to responsive design sites over sites although RD sites almost always take longer to load. But other points will count as well. Expect to suffer if your site requires horizontal scrolling on a smartphone or if the text is too small to read when it first opens. "Don't make them squint," a phrase I often use in web writing workshops, is alive and well.

For more on what makes a site mobile-friendly for Google see the Mobile Marketer article by Chantal Tode at 
Advertising Online: A Future for Wearables?

Will people accept advertising on smartwatches? Yes, it is far too early to consider this in a practical sense but that is not stopping early speculation about the possibilities. An important first point: ads will have to be more closely related to the interests of the person receiving them than just about anywhere else. Direct marketing principles will drive whatever is done. This is likely not a place for brand awareness activity.

Right now relatively few people even say they might buy a smartwatch in 2015. The near-term adoption rate is low enough that advertisers at this point are not paying much attention. Smartphones remain enough of a challenge.

But if you want to be first among your friends and colleagues as a person who can talk wisely about the possibilities and limitations, start with "Will Advertising Work on Wearables," an article by Greg Sterling on Marketing Land at 
Killing the Carousel: A Poem from Terminal Four

While "stunning images" gain in popularity, the plague of web carousels finally is shrinking.

If you need extra ammunition on your campus to eliminate a carousel, direct people to the "The web content merry-go-round," a poem by Terminal Four blogger Vincent O'Malley 

Prediction for the end of 2015: we will go after "stunning images" that completely fill a home page when it first opens. 
Mergers and Acquisitions: Enrollment Marketing in Higher Education

Did you know that Hobson's generates about 3 percent of the revenue of the company that owns it, Daily Mail and General Trust in the U.K.? 

The folks at International Education Advantage plan a series of articles on mergers and acquisitions among companies providing marketing services to higher education. Hobson's is the first of these. Other upcoming possibilities include Chegg, Blackboard, and Princeton Review. 

The Hobson's review is at
Gerry McGovern on Content Priorities: A Short Video Interview

Can you set website content priorities without data on what tasks people using the website want to complete?

Data is best, but in this just under 3 minute interview Gerry suggests alternatives when decisions must be made without data. Check 
Most Popular Topic in December Newsletter: Northeastern University Teen Survey

What do teens think about higher education and a host of other topics? If you recruit teens for college, review this report where "affordability" and "job placement rate and/or average graduate salary" rank highest among choice factors. See 
Be a marketing champion on your campus.

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

Increase the success of your digital marketing strategy. Contact me for details at 

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