Bob Johnson's Blog on Higher Education Marketing

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Xavier University Story Continues: Creating the Most Distinctive Home Page in Higher Education

Last week I presented the first two answers to questions I sent along last year to Xavier to learn more about how they decided to position a "Search" box and the dominant feature of the university's home page. 

Here today are the next two answers from Rob Riesland, Director for Web Services in the Marketing and Communications Office. If you missed the first two questions and answers, you can start with those first if you wish.

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What did you do to ensure that your "search" function worked well enough to make this change?

Nailing the search was the key to making this work. We decided to enhance our current Google CSE (free version) by implementing our own, manually-maintained autocomplete script on top of the Google search. This gives us the fine-grained control that we desire.

To start off with, we automatically added every academic program to the search suggestions. The analytics tell us that this is one major area that prospective students are looking for. We also added all of the university offices, in their own category, with a lower priority than the academic programs.

We also added general search terms. We have been tracking search for years and know what people are looking for during different times of the year. We set minimum annual and monthly thresholds for search counts and used that data to add important search terms to the suggestions. This data is reviewed on a regular basis, with slightly lowered thresholds each time, and new items are added as needed.

Lastly, we told everyone on campus what we were doing, asked them to search for items that are important to their department, and let us know if there is anything we need to do differently. We did not receive much feedback from this round, but I think it was an important part of the process.

Over the past few months we have added several items to the search as needed. This is an important ability that allows us to adjust as needed and as requested by the departments on campus.

How will you measure success going forward? Who is responsible for monitoring results?

We measure success in two ways:

Are people using the results? We have extensive analytics on the search box and we track if people are using the search suggestions or if they default to the standard search. It should be noted that we also display up to 4 suggestions on the traditional results page, in case people make it that far.

We are also looking at user behavior over time, tracking how many site visitors, especially external, use the search vs the traditional navigation techniques.

The new information architecture of the whole site requires regular review and looking at the search box will certainly be part of that. This process will be run by the Office of Marketing and Communications, in collaboration with other departments on campus.

Marketing Opportunity: Learning more about Top Tasks and Carewords

There is of course, great marketing opportunity here. 

I'll be looking forward to learning more about what "new" or first-time visitors search for most often. That's a key indicator of the top tasks that website visitors want to complete. And creating a website that let's people complete their top tasks as quickly and easily as possible is more important to marketing success than anything else on the site. 

Especially important: Are visitors searching for content that is not already on the website? And if it is present, what happens when visitors land on the page with that content?

This is also a fine opportunity to learn more about the language people, especially future students, use. Those are the "carewords" that will engage people throughout a website.

That's all for now.

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Xavier University's "Search" Home Page: A Clear Path to Top Task Completion 

Higher education marketers often discuss how a college or university can differentiate itself in a crowded marketplace. That differentiation almost never takes place on the first contact many potential students have with a school: the home page. 

Last year when searching about for a Link of the Week selection I decided to visit Jesuit university home pages in alpha order to see if I could find anything special among them. After visiting more than 20, I opened the Xavier University home page... and was amazed. Imposed over an image of a campus photo was the largest search box I had ever seen on a higher education website.

Visitors were urged to "See where Xavier will take you" and to "Find programs, activities, and more...." No attempt to guide people to where the university felt they should go first. Just a clear path to complete the top task that brought them to the site.

Genius. A home page that immediately set Xavier University apart from all others. It became the July 24 Link of the Week selection.

IMG_0913.PNG4 Questions: a Tale of Web Management

And so I sent off four questions about the website to Doug Ruschman, AVP for Marketing and Communications. And Doug sent my questions to Rob Liesland, Director for Web Services in the Marketing and Communications Office, Rob, said Doug, had the original idea and guided much of the work to bring the idea to reality. 

Today you'll find answers to my first two questions. Next week I'll add the other two answers. If you ever despair that true innovation in higher education website design is not possible, reread the tale that Rob tells here.

Giving such prominence to the "Search" feature on your home page is unusual in higher education. Why did you decide to do that? What do you expect to gain from it?

When planning for the updated site we knew we were looking for something different. We looked at many sites within Higher Ed and saw a lot of the same designs that schools have been using for the past few years.  We also looked at trends outside of Higher Ed and it was obvious that search was becoming a more prominent navigation tool (Google, Amazon, Facebook).

We had already decided that our primary audience was going to be prospective students, but even with our audience narrowly defined there were still quite a few resources that we wanted them to have quick access to. The search box was a natural fit for this goal. It would allow us to give them instant access to the part of the site they are interested in, without all of the clutter and clicks. To be clear, we also knew that many users were familiar with industry standards and included the necessary navigation items in the header and content in the body of the page.

The search box also had the added benefit of allowing us to include other audiences' destinations without negatively impacting the prospective student experience, so items that had previously been on the homepage could also be included as suggestions.

Who was involved in the decision to make "search" so prominent? How long did it take and what questions were raised about the change?  

The decision to make search so prominent was decided upon within our planning committee, which consisted of members of the Office of Marketing and Communications. We probably spent 2-3 months planning and discussing this particular feature as the new information architecture for the site was coming together. Certainly the whole time was not spent on this item, but it was included in the big-picture planning.

Once this direction was chosen we had multiple meetings with key figures on campus to discuss the idea. During these meetings we would often discuss the transition that Amazon has gone through over the years, from a department-based website where one would click to narrow the results, to a search-based website, where one would search specifically for their destination. I think this really resonated with folks.

There were no questions raised about the change and there has been no internal or external backlash, that we have seen. This has been a sign to us that we have gone in the right direction and that people are ready for the change.

Questions for next week:

What did you do to ensure that your "search" function worked well enough to make this change?

How will you measure success going forward? Who is responsible for monitoring results?

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 7,130+ people and follow me on Twitter.
June greetings from Houston. I am here at the Academic Impressions conference on Improving Your Student Recruitment Communication Plan that starts today.

In April I started a new secret shopping project to continue reviewing how colleges and universities are responding to an online inquiry. My potential 2016 freshman selected 5 schools. All were in the private sector.

The response to date is the strangest I have yet received in two years of similar projects. So far, no emails have arrived from anyone. One college sent 5 print pieces in April and May. Another has sent a view book. And a third has sent a postcard encouraging a summer visit. From the other two, nothing has arrived either online or in print.

Was it the time of the year? April is a hectic month in the final conversion effort for 2015. I just might try again with a new name in June. Can you afford to ignore inquiries made on your website because they did not arrive at the right time of the year? 

More on this project as the year unfolds.
Upcoming Conference Events in July

The 5th Writing Write for the Web: Improving Your Online Content conference with Academic Impressions takes place in San Diego July 13-14. Check the agenda, including a post-conference workshop on creating and presenting "academic" and "affordability" content, at 

Registration is open for eduWeb Digital Summit in Chicago in July. Check the program details, including my 3-hour pre-conference Digital Marketing Strategy workshop, at

Invite a friend or colleague to subscribe to this newsletter. Just 30 seconds at 

And now here are your marketing news and notes for June.
Cartoon of the Month: 5-Point Creative Checklist for Your Ad

Rigid adherence to creative checklists can make you forget the point of it all and kill your advertising. Check the Cartoon of the Month at 
Branding: Is it a Waste of Money?

Is spending big bucks on branding the marketing equivalent of searching for the Holy Grail or Unicorns?

A Forbes magazine article suggests that for colleges and law firms the usual brand promotion efforts will not alter what people think of a brand based on the experiences they have with it. Read more on "Why Most Branding is a Waste of Money" by Robert Wynn 
Freshman Admissions: Why Yield Rates Fall 

No one presents data better than Jon Boeckenstedt, in a way that normal human beings can understand. A recent effort sheds light on the history of declining yield rates in college admissions from 2001 through 2013. 

One reason is an increase in "soft" applications. Some schools boost application levels to look more selective than they might otherwise appear. Drexel University recently opted out of this race to illusion. 

Use Single School Statistics to compare your application, admit, and enroll levels since 2001 with your primary competitors at 
Web IQ Quiz: Answer 12 Questions from Pew Internet

Compare how your knowledge of the web and Internet compares with that of others by age, gender, and education after you answer 12 questions posed by the Pew Research Center
Content Marketing: 6 Potential Pitfalls to Guard Against

Content marketing can be great. Or it can be not so great. John Unger discusses 6 potential mistakes to guard against. The first and sixth are my favorites: Failure to pay attention to first sentences and content that is too promotional.

More on those pitfalls and 4 others from Website Magazine at 
Brand Delusions: A 15 Minute Reality Check

Do people on your campus have delusions about your brand? 

See what you think after a 15-minute webinar on June 10 from Gerry McGovern on how to bring a better sense of reality into your brand discussions. Register at
Public Universities: Arms Race for Out-of-State Students

Just how fierce is the marketing competition among public universities for out-of-state students who will pay high out-of-state tuition rates? 

Fierce indeed, as a list of the top 50 public universities offering merit scholarships to students without financial need will show. Small individual scholarships can lead to a large increase in net tuition revenue. Not all awards are small. Schools with average awards of $10,000 or more include UT-Dallas and the University of Alabama. University of Vermont, Shepherd University, and UC-Boulder average more than $9,000 per student.

For more details download the New America Education Policy 26-page PDF at
Survey on Digital Governance: Take the Survey, Get the Results

My friends at J.Boye are conducting a short online survey to learn more about how digital governance works within organizations. To receive a copy of the results take the survey 
Insane Honesty in Marketing: Disney World Marketing Might Not Be Best

Do you practice Disney World Marketing, where everything is wonderful all the time? Or do you really want to differentiate yourself from everyone else?

Review the possible benefits of a more realistic approach that builds trust and believability when you read "The Power of Insane Honesty in Content Marketing" at 
Internet Trends: 2015 Report from Mary Meeker

As you speculate about what the online future might bring, especially the continuing move to a smaller and more mobile environment, add the latest annual report from Mary Meeker to your reading list. This is a must read for anyone interested in online advertising.

Start at 
Consuming Content: How Generations Do Not Differ

Generations differ quite a bit on the devices they use to access the web but they are remarkably similar in the type of content they prefer, regardless of device. 

Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials all favor blogs, images, and comments as their top 3 sources. Each generation counts quizzes, webinars, and white papers among their bottom 5 sources.

What is the best length for articles? Each generation favors 300 words.

Check more details at 
Mobile-Friendly Websites: Great Advice from Nielsen-Norman Group

A new Alertbox outlines significant differences between working on a website on a small smartphone screen rather than a laptop or desktop that responsive design by itself does not overcome.

Elements reviewed include the much shorter time of visits to small screen sites, the typing challenge, and connectivity limitations. See more to help you succeed on the small screen 
Most Popular Topic in May Newsletter: Telling a Good Story 

What makes a good story? And what can kill one? That's the focus of "Story Telling to Engage and Persuade." If you missed this infographic based on Emory University research 
Be a marketing champion on your campus.

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

Increase your marketing success with these services. Contact me for details at 

Communication Audits
Expert Marketing Communication Website Reviews
Top Task Website Design Research with Gerry McGovern
Writing Right for the Web: Webinars, Conferences, and Campus Workshops
Competitive Website Reviews and Secret Shopping Projects
Higher Education Marketing News and Notes for April

Were you as surprised as I was at how many higher education "experts" at first refused to comment on the record last month on the Sweet Briar College closing? And at how many later fumbled around looking for reasons why the decision was incorrect and Sweet Briar just should have tried harder? 

For me, the bottom line at Sweet Briar was a steadily rising discount rate that passed 63 percent. That sends a message about brand strength in the marketplace, no matter the endowment dollars left. Trustees made a difficult but correct decision.

Join us in Houston June 1-3 for Improving Your Strategic Recruitment Communication Plan. I am looking forward to my sessions on "values messaging" and "affordability and financial aid." Details at 

The fifth Writing Write for the Web: Improving Your Online Content conference with Academic Impressions takes place in San Diego July 13-14. Check the agenda at

Early registration is open for eduWeb Digital Summit in Chicago in July. In honor of this 10th anniversary meeting, eduWeb is having a contest to award free registrations to 10 people who work at a college or university. Contest details are at 

The J.Boye Philadelphia 15 conference happens May 5-7. Register with the discount code HigherEdMarketing20 for a 20 percent discount. Speakers and topics are at 

Invite a friend or colleague to subscribe to this newsletter. Just 30 seconds at 

And now here are your marketing news and notes for April. 
Cartoon of the Month: Tech Fantasies and Marketing Success 

Are you infatuated each year with the latest tech marvel from SXSW? 

Our Cartoon selection this month reminds us to step back and try to puzzle out whether or not the latest tech wonder really fits with our marketing plans. See 
What Makes People Leave Your Website? 10 Possibilities to Review

If you want more people to love your website, do a mini-audit based on these 10 reasons from Wordtracker on what might be driving visitors away. The list starts with an area I'm convinced does not receive the attention it deserves: Slow Loading Speed, especially on mobile. 

Another favorite: "Simplify Purchase Forms" that for higher education translates to "Simplify Inquiry Forms." See those and 8 more at 
15 Great Landing Page Examples

Gina Soskey at HubSpot has gathered a great list of 15 landing pages, some long and some short, at 

Pay special attention to the sign-up forms and note how their creators have resisted the temptation to conduct demographic surveys and ask a "how did you hear about us" question. The longer the form the fewer people will complete it.
College Presidents: 600+ Respond to a Survey on Current Issues

Inside Higher Education commissioned this survey of college presidents on topics that included their financial models, proposed government ratings, race relations, and sexual assault on their campuses and others. 

Notable result: a major difference in confidence in their current financial models over the next 5 years and the next 10 years. The crystal ball is showing storm clouds although most think the financial impact of the 2008 recession is over. 

Start with a summary article and link to download the complete 24-page PDF at 
The End of College: An Atlantic Magazine Essay 

If you follow the higher education disruption literature you probably know that Kevin Carey has a new "technology will destroy college as we know it" book out. 

The president of Wesleyan University has an excellent essay in Atlantic Magazine on why Carey may be a little too deep into the disruption Kool-Aid. I say that as no special fan of traditional higher education. But if you are interested in the debate be sure to read this critique by Michael Roth at 
NY Times and Apple Watch: A New Brevity Alert

Predictions for sales of the new Apple Watch are high (maybe too high?) and marketers are scrambling to figure out how to take advantage of this tiny new mobile screen. One thing is certain: the need for skill at brief communications that use carewords to get attention will be higher than ever before.

The NY Times knows that. Special teams are at work to present news stories in one powerful sentence. Readers will be able to go from there to read more on iPhone and iPad. Can higher education press releases also play in this arena? That will take some new skill.

Start planning for the mini-screen world. Review the NY Times effort at 
University of Phoenix: More than 50 percent Enrollment Decrease

Yes, the for-profit sector is in trouble. At the University of Phoenix enrollment has decreased from 460,000 students 5 years ago to a present 213,000. Revenue has decreased from nearly $5 billion in 2010 to perhaps $2.7 billion this year. And of course stock prices have dipped more than a bit.

Is there good news? Tightened admission has contributed to lower loan default rates. But there is no doubt that Phoenix and the for-profit is no longer an investment darling. More from CNN Money at 
Content Strategy: Is Content Blindness in the Future?

Ad Age recently reported on a panel session of ad agency folk concerned about the rush to produce content as part of an in-bound marketing strategy. What is the problem? Resistance by those expected to consume the content to anything they think is overtly pushing a product or service. 

Can marketers resist the urge to embed old-style marketing in on-line content? More on the possibility of content blindness and how to avoid it at 
Email Marketing: Alive and Well

Here is a great infographic to send to any colleagues who do not believe attention to email marketing is important. Among other research reports: 77 percent of people, including Millennials, prefer to receive permission-based email and consider it a trustworthy source of information.

A critical factor: email must be relevant to the person receiving it. That is an important message for colleges and universities that send the same emails to everyone making an enrollment inquiry. When you ask people to name the academic programs that interest them and then ignore that information in response emails you make is less likely that people will continue to pay attention.

More on how to create and sustain a successful email communications stream 
Presenting a Value Proposition: 4 Mistakes to Avoid

If you are talking about adding "value" content to your marketing communication plan, be sure to check the advice from Website Magazine on "4 Value Propositions Worth Re-Thinking."

My favorite here: words are more important than video. Video plays a key support role, but present your case first in short, easy to read text. See more at 
A Higher Education Value Proposition at the Home Page: Augustana College

I have found only one higher education home page that opens with value content.

See it for yourself at the home page for Augustana College in South Dakota at
Most Popular Topic in March Newsletter: 4 Expert Tips for Landing Page Copy

Very pleased to see the high interest in this topic as there is no better way to kill advertising ROI than by sending people to a poor landing page. Check "4 Expert Tips..." at 
Be a marketing champion on your campus.

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

Increase your marketing success with these services. Contact me for details at 

Communication Audits
Expert Marketing Communications Website Reviews
Top Task Website Design Research with Gerry McGovern
Writing Right for the Web: Webinars, Conferences, and Campus Workshops
Competitive Website Reviews and Secret Shopping Projects
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.

Bob Johnson
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