Bob Johnson's Blog on Higher Education Marketing

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September greetings. A bright new 2015-16 academic year is underway almost everywhere. Let us all enjoy the feelings that come with welcoming new students, opening new classes, and awaiting fine fall weather. 

In the digital marketing era the website is the most important element for successful student recruitment. See why that is true at "4 Top Marketing Lessons for Student Recruitment" 

My partner Gerry McGovern is interested in what you think about how organizations adapt themselves to the Digital Transformation underway. Take his 60-second survey at 
Conference Event Upcoming

The program for the AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education in November is online now. Add my Digital Marketing Strategy tutorial Sunday afternoon when you register 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 September.
Cartoon of the Month: Marketing to Younger Generations

Check this cartoon for a reminder of why it is not always best for an organization to adopt the language and look of a particular generation in an effort to gain acceptance. See 
Content Marketing: Sorting the Definitions

How much of content marketing is "really just convoluted advertising"? And is producing more content a strategy for effective marketing?

Those questions are posed by David Germano as he reviews the variety of definitions and practices used by people with different marketing backgrounds. Do not miss his link to 40 "anecdotal perspectives."

If you are serious about content marketing have your team read and discuss the article you will find at 
10 Innovative College Presidents: How Does Yours Compare?

Washington Monthly has compiled a list of 10 college and university presidents it believes may well shape the future of higher education. The list begins with Mark Becker at Georgia State University and ends with Cheryl Hyman at City Colleges of Chicago.

The complete list and reasons for selecting each president is at 
Bold and Brassy Landing Page: Best Campus Visit Ever at Best University in the State

Take a moment to visit a landing page for an online ad that "guaranteed" the campus visit to this school was the "best ever." The landing page itself makes the claim that this is the "best university" in the state.

The faculty is "outstanding," the campus is "gorgeous," and the facilities are "first-class." Visit a landing page for potential students that knows no restraints at 
Tuition Discount Rate: Still Climbing at 48 percent for 2014 Private-Sector Freshman Class

How high is too high? NACUBO reports that 89 percent of full-time freshmen in 2014 received a discount of some sort, based on either need or merit. Price sensitivity is cited as a continuing factor. Many if not most private colleges cannot maintain the number or blend of students they seek without substantial price discounting. In 2008 the average discount rate was 39.9 percent.

More details are in the Inside Higher Education report at 

Money Magazine notes that the size of the average discount increases with higher acceptance rates and adds mentions of Freddy Krueger and retail store discounts at 
Writing Effective Headlines: 5 Tips from Nielsen Norman Group

Headlines, whether for email, web pages, or search results, play a key role in marketing conversions.

An August Alertbox tells us that "Headlines are Pick-up Lines" and offers "5 Tips for Writing Headlines that Convert." My two favorites: "Do not succumb to cute or faddish vocabulary" and "Omit nonessential words."

See 3 more tips to help improve your web writing at 
Digital Ads in Higher Education: Not Working Well in the U.K.

Decide for yourself if this translates to online advertising in the U.S. and elsewhere, but do read the results of a recent survey reported in the Journal of Marketing for Higher Education.

Only 26 percent of university-bound students said they trusted higher education ads. Social media did even worse at 14.4 percent trust level. University websites did better at 46.6 percent. Printed publications were trusted by 42.8 percent.

Read more on the survey results at 
College Tag Lines: 88 that Create Poetry

Would college tag lines disappear if someone could figure out how to calculate the ROI from the time and money spent creating them?

Whatever you think of their marketing value, check this enterprising effort to combine 88 higher education tag lines into a single poem. Poetry starts with "Change Your Life. Start Here" and ends with "You're One of a Kind. So are We."

See if your school in included among the 88 when you visit 
Defining Affordability: The Lumina Foundation Makes a New Effort

Policy proposals to make higher education more "affordable" are sprouting from presidential candidates but the definition of how much cost is affordable to how many people is elusive.

The Lumina Foundation is proposing a new formula that asks families to save a percent of disposable income over 10 years along with a student work load while in college of 10 hours per week.

One Lumina goal was a definition that was "easily understandable." See how close you think they came when you start at 
World Without FAFSA: Is That Possible?

An "Economic View" column by Susan Dynarski, a professor at the University of Michigan, in the NY Times argues that more low income students with the ability to complete college would actually attend college if the FAFSA were not required for financial aid consideration. 

Dynarski highlights a bi-partisan proposal in the U.S. Senate that would reduce the present FAFSA to just two questions. Indeed, she questions whether any version is needed at all noting information already available from income tax returns.

The highest anticipated benefit would be an increase in low-income students attending college.

Decide if you agree or disagree after reading the article at 
Comparing Graduation Rates: Pell Grant Students vs. All Students

How do 6-year graduation rates compare at the schools enrolling the highest numbers of Pell Grant students? 

In many cases, the rates are remarkable close. Harvard leads the way with 97 percent completion for Pell students matching the overall rate. At Cornell, there is only a .5 percent difference. Other highly selective schools have rates over 90 percent for both groups. Yale, we must note, was not on the list. 

Perhaps more of note: the 69 percent Pell rate at DePaul University nearly matches the overall 70 percent rate. At a few schools, Indiana Wesleyan is one, the Pell rate is higher than the overall rate.

Review the full list at 
Most Popular Topic in August Newsletter: Prominent "Search" Feature on Xavier Homepage

Xavier University makes a bold departure from the usual home page design by placing a large "Find Activities, Programs, and More..." search box on top of the opening image. See 
Be a marketing champion on your campus.

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

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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.

Subscribe to "Your Higher Education Marketing Newsletter" for monthly marketing news and notes and weekly Link of the Week selections.

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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.

Subscribe to "Your Higher Education Marketing Newsletter" for monthly marketing news and notes and weekly Link of the Week selections.

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Digital Marketing Strategy Tutorial at AMA Marketing Symposium

5 Most Important Web Content Management Principles

At the end of the March "Writing Right for the Web" conference with Academic Impressions we asked the people attending to select from a list of 25 web content management principles the 5 each person thought was most important. 

The survey was developed by the Customer Carewords partnership group and first administered in the fall of 2012. More than 1,000 responses were received from web professionals around the world. Visit SlideShare for a presentation on those results.

Without, as they say, further ado, here are the Top 5 principles from the 27 people from Canada and the U.S. who made selections, with my added comments for each:

"Ensure customers can quickly and easily complete top tasks."

  • This was also the top principle in our international survey. To see one university home page unlike anything you've seen before that is based on top task research, visit the University of Ottawa
  • For student recruitment, top tasks will vary throughout the recruitment cycle from first visit to orientation. One of the best examples of how to present top tasks quickly and clearly is at the admissions page for East Stroudsburg University.
  • Accepting the top task principle is daunting for some. It means a reduction or elimination of welcome messages from presidents and deans as well as "marketing speak" claims to a "dedication to academic excellence" or a commitment to be "a university on the move." Content like that too often just gets between visitors and top task completion.
"Keep content as concise and simple as possible."

  • Keep sentences and paragraphs short, as if you were writing a news article for a newspaper. If you feel the need to use a semi-colon you just might be writing a sentence that's going to be too long.
  • People need to be able to scan your content in 5 seconds or less when a page opens for the main points. Long blocks of dense text prevent this. Strive to keep paragraphs less than 5 lines long.
"Make sure everything has an owner who takes responsibility for ongoing  review and improvement."

  • This is a special challenge in organizations with content creators acting independently in departments across the enterprise. Too often people who have this responsibility do not have on-going access to a web editor for advice and assistance. And too often people who lead departments don't give those assigned web content responsibility the time to actually do the work.
  • At a minimum, make sure content creators in a decentralized system have a monthly opportunity to meet to present challenges and review solutions found by others.
"Make decisions based on evidence and facts, not opinions."

  • "Evidence and facts" can be elusive and are often challenged when "facts" clash with personal "opinion" on what content should be highlighted on a web page.
  • You need research on "top tasks." You can hire someone in the Customer Carewords partnership to do it for you. We'll be happy to do that. But you can also learn much on your own. Start by reviewing the "How To" guide from the Government Services Agency in the U.S.
  • Analytics can help. Do presidents and deans know how many people visit their welcome messages? And how many visitors actually stay long enough to read them?
"Fast and easy content review and removal process."

  • Review is fine, removal is even better. Content creators and editors should have responsibility for removing as well as adding content. "Websites always eat, they never poop" says my partner Gerry McGovern.
  • Consider this argument with your president: Google will penalize in search rankings websites that have large amounts of content that is seldom if ever visited. Find that content on your website. If you can't kill it, Google recommends moving it to a new domain for which search standing is irrelevant.
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 6,550+ 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.

Welcome Messages from Presidents: Very Little Marketing Impact

Last week while looking for a possible new Link of the Week selection I did a search for "presidents' university welcome statements." And then, in a spasm of ongoing torture, visited all the welcome statements that appeared on the first four pages.

If you want to find last bastions of banal content from presidents at just about every type of college and university, force yourself through the same exercise. Do presidents ever ask for the analytics on how many people actually visit and stay on their welcome page long enough to read the message? 

Two major problems are common. 
  • First, the content is almost always presented as dense text unbroken by subheads, bullet points or links. In other words, it is almost always impossible to scan. And that means that very many visitors will not even make the effort to find out what's being said.
  • Second, the content itself more often than not includes a collection of platitudes that might fit just about any college or university. The idea of creating something that contributes to a distinct brand identify does not seem alive and well in the president's office or among those who write these things if the president does not.
Consider these opening comments from three university presidents as a sample:
  • "Steeped in history yet in the lead; demanding but caring; remarkably diverse in its people, its interests, its opportunities for personal and intellectual growth; and rooted in a tradition of service..."
  • "(University name) is clearly a very special place. In addition to the faculty, who are excellent teachers and scholars, everyone at (University name) is eager to help students learn and live well. This is a beautiful campus in an outstanding academic and physical environment."
  • "We take great pride in our history and in the exceptional opportunities we offer to students. That pride shows in everything we do -- indeed, great things happen here every day."
Exceptions of course exist. 

One that stood out started (after just a few lines of text) with a video that turned out to be the president's opening semester message. Congrats to someone at University of Iowa for crafting a short (just over 2 minutes), simple, friendly video greeting from President Sally Mason. Yes, the first 60 seconds or so include the usual words you'll find everywhere. Things improve in the next 60 seconds with visuals of improvement taking place around the campus. Why don't more presidents' welcome pages use video?

Visit President George Martin's welcome at St. Edward's University where the opening headline just might make you want to scan a bit more: "On Becoming Unstoppable." If you do scan the page you'll find 5 subheads for "Highlights and Hallmarks" of the university. And those would be even stronger with links from each section to more information about them.

Links on President Christina Paxson's welcome at Brown University are not especially easy to see, but they do exist. When the president notes, for instance, a "distinctive approach to education" there is a link to "Brown gives students the freedom to direct their education." Without that link to the additional content, a claim to a "distinctive approach" would have little value.

Remedial action for President's Welcome Messages

In 2014 let's hope that some combination of these steps take place:
  • Messages will pass the 5-second rule by being easy to scan for major points that are likely to engage visitors. 
  • If it fits the president's personality, more use of video to deliver the message.
  • Links to more content about major points about the university. Don't just claim, demonstrate the substance behind the claim.
  • Serious editing of the total length and paragraph size.
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 6,500+ people and follow me on Twitter

"Writing Right for the Web" conference in March

March 27-28, Denver: "Writing Right for the Web: Focusing on Student Recruitment" sponsored by Academic Impressions. Agenda and registration at 

Bob Johnson
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