The 5 Secrets for Marketing and Enrollment Growth: Data (The First Secret)
Once upon a time, in a reality far in the distant past, higher education was a stable, respected and revered societal institution. Controversy and alterative models have softened the once rock-solid foundation of our educational traditional education system. Students used to send in paper applications, call to schedule visits to a campus, and mom, dad, or another adult influence lovingly pushed their graduating high school seniors to the next step in life. Then, a bucket of water was splashed in the face of higher educational traditionalism—in the form of online education, the emergence of the adult student and very specific regulations regarding informational transparency.
No longer could colleges and universities use their informational leverage to entice a student to call or visit their campus. *GASP*All the information had to be posted online. Students suddenly knew everything about your college or university before even thinking about contacting you.
The buying power, once in the hands of college admissions representatives, is now in the hands of the student. Open access and diversity matter more than elitism and traditionalism. Convenience is king.
Marketing and enrollment activities have become significantly harder to initiate and optimize and new online universities have entered the market as the adult student has become the most significant stakeholder in the educational process. Now, traditional colleges and universities are catching up as they move programs online to cut costs and reach the adult student.
This article is the first of a five-part series, where we will share the five secrets to scaling marketing and enrollment in today’s educational marketplace.
Secret #1 – The Foundation: Today’s smartest college and university administrators let data lead the way
Simply put, higher education has gone scientific. You might be saying to yourself, “What does that have to do with scaling marketing and enrollment activities?”
The answer: Everything!
When scaling marketing and enrollment activities, the first question you have to ask is: Do I know my cost-per metrics? What is my cost per lead, cost per application, cost per enrollment, cost per start (or any other point that you track before your census date)? Without understanding your cost-per metrics, you have absolutely no frame of reference from where to begin. Once you define those metrics, you have to look at your budget and decide what the acceptable amounts are. Are you willing to accept high cost leads or not?
Now begins the “cultivate and capitalize” process. Every marketing initiative you put into place needs to be defined by its intent—either to cultivate and nurture your brand over the long term or to capitalize on interest in the short to medium term.
Data Must Have Meaning: Testing Methodology
Professional marketers have always used testing-driven methodologies. Before the internet, for example, direct marketing campaigns often sent multiple versions of mailers in an effort to refine their messaging via A/B split testing. The difference today is mostly a matter of volume and speed.
The volume of the data can actually become an obstacle to meaningful analysis. You have to know which data points are meaningful and understand the causal factors that generated them. For example, we have seen large advertising campaigns use website traffic as a primary objective. This might make sense from a layman’s point-of-view, but all clicks are most definitely not created equal. Some clicks are worth thousands of times more than others. This becomes extremely clear when you use paid search advertising, such as Google Ads. Some clicks may cost a nickel while others can go for hundreds of dollars.
So which data matters most? And how can you measure it and use the knowledge you gain to maximum effect?
CPE: Higher Ed’s True North Metric
In modern higher education marketing, our marketing objective is enrollment of qualified students. This leads us to our holy grail metric: Cost Per Enrollment (CPE). From CPE, we can work backward to analyze the effectiveness of every other step in the marketing funnel. What Lead-to-Enrollment (L2E) rate do we need? What is an acceptable Cost Per Lead (CPL)?
Like clicks, leads vary enormously in quality. Your best lead sources (referrals and organic website leads) can convert into enrollments at around 20%, depending on your programs and market. Your worst lead sources, meanwhile, may convert into enrollments at less than 1%. Does that mean you should cut those low performers? Maybe, but it depends on CPE. You have to measure accurately and then do the math.
At every step of the way, if you keep your core CPE strategy firmly in mind, the data will lead you to the answers. Successful institutions have adopted a testing mentality. Competing with these lean market leaders requires either the use of disciplined data science or improbable levels of blind luck.
Let’s talk about higher education marketing strategies, followed by the effective measurement of the same.
Every marketing effort can fall into one of two buckets: capitalize or cultivate. Your strategy is designed to either capitalize on a share of existing market demand or cultivate new demand.
Most marketing tools and advertising media fall clearly into one bucket or the other.
Search marketing—making your website appear in paid or organic search results—falls almost entirely under the capitalize strategy. Search marketing has been a dream-made-flesh for marketing teams in companies from a wide variety of industry sectors. Having built their careers segmenting populations into target markets on the basis of demographics, income, interests, location and mailing lists, marketers were astounded in the early years of the 21st Century to discover potential customers self-identifying by means of a search box on Alta Vista, Excite and Netscape.
The problem with search marketing, however, is that you can’t use it to generate new demand.
You can capitalize on a share (a really good share if you do it well) of the people who search for your product, and then you hit a ceiling. There may be large numbers of people who need your product, but who do not know they need it. Will those people search for you on Google? This is where cultivation comes in.
Traditional media can be excellent for cultivation. Imagine that a university wants to enroll more students in a Master’s program. They could, for example, run television ads—or streaming ads, or streaming radio—on programs that match a certain target demographic. People receptive to this message may be people who were already thinking about seeking an MA or MS (capitalize), or they may be people who had not yet considered going back to school until the TV spot addressed their needs (cultivation).
In today’s hyper-content culture, the most successful marketing strategies usually involve a mix of different media. In fact, most universities who study the question will find their students were touched by the institution via many different media channels before enrolling. This then, becomes another highly desirable, if elusive, key performance indicating metric: attribution modeling.
We will never know the exact benefit derived from each dollar of marketing spend. When done well, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Even then, measurement of each customer influence is a physical impossibility. This is why we need a model.
Attribution modeling divides messily into calculations derived from data you have and into inferences about data you do not have. In the digital sphere, we have an abundance of data. You can cookie website visitors and keep track of every time they encounter your brand on any digital platform and on any device. Google, Microsoft, Bing and others offer elaborate models, placing weighted values on each customer touch point. But how do you measure the value of a person seeing your sign every day? What is the value of your students wearing your logo?
Dedicated marketers gather all data available and seek to validate their measurement against results, in a never-ending quest for better clarity.
What data matters and where is it?
Starting again with CPE, let’s work backward to determine our data requirements and sources.
To derive CPE, we need to know spend (by marketing source) and the number of enrollments. If we also have a lead count, we can determine CPL and lead-to-enrollment conversion rate. These data come from the customer relationship management system used by the enrollment team.
If you know your CPE by marketing source, you have your number one decision making tool. Prioritize your budget accordingly.
How many visitors did you have? How long did they stay? Which pages did they visit? Where are they located? What are their demographics? How many of them submitted leads? These questions and many more can be answered by Google Analytics. This free tool is easy to install (just paste a snippet of code on your web pages), and incredibly robust. Large eCommerce sites like Amazon or Ebay require more sophisticated solutions, but for most colleges and universities, GA does a fantastic job.
It can also be extremely useful to be able to offer information or to receive some communications directly from Google. For this reason, they offer Google Search Console, which can alert you if Google sees problems with your site or allow you to request indexing of new pages.
One key piece of data-driven marketing can be an opportunity to use the data you gather to enable continuous incremental improvement. Your website can perform better. You probably have at least one idea right now. Maybe you think a new offer could drive more leads, or a better headline might communicate your message more effectively. Google Optimize is a free tool that allows you to test one version of a webpage against another. Send half of your visitors to version A and half to version B. Google Optimize will handle the logistics and even give you a statistical analysis of the results.
Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Adroll and others offer sophisticated advertising platforms. These ads can be driven by search and also via display placements. They can, thus, function as both capture and cultivation strategies.
One of the most valuable aspects of paid search advertising is the data that can be harvested from it. You probably assume that you can get excellent data about clicks, lead costs, etc., from these platforms. But most people don’t realize how valuable online advertising data can be when it comes to understanding messaging, customer geography, demographics, new product ideas and competitive intelligence.
For example, let’s assume that your ad agency brought you three new ideas for a slogan. You could run pay-per-click ads using each of the three slogans as a headline and judge them on the basis of which achieved the best click-through rate.
Organic Search: Content is King
Have you ever wondered why Google won the search engine war? Whatever happened to Lycos, Webcrawler, Alta Vista, Excite, Looksmart, Dogpile, Inktomi, Ask Jeeves and the rest?
Google won for one simple reason: They lead you to what you are looking for. They do this by identifying the best website content via the use of data. You probably know that Google gives websites credit for inbound links from other websites. But did you know they also watch behavior? Your website visitors interact differently with satisfying content than with disappointing content. If your visitors, for example, visit lots of pages in your site, Google will see that as a signalthat your site has quality content.
The actual details are a tightly-held trade secret, but Google says they have roughly 1,000 of these “signals” that indicate the quality of your website for a given search term.
Facebook, meanwhile, uses a different approach to determining quality: engagement. While Google rewards relevance to search intent, Facebook promotes content that exhibits social proof. If many people click to like/love/wow/sad/mad on a post, FB will disseminate that post more widely. Likewise, when you engage with a post via sharing it, or commenting on it, Facebook assigns the post more credibility.
Landing Page Content
Naturally, you may wish to tailor your content to specific search intent. It can be difficult to build matching web pages in your website to optimize for each potential keyword phrase. Furthermore, it would probably make for a poor user experience (which Google hates). You are probably better off simply working to fill your main website with deep and broad content that satisfies your visitors. But, when it comes to pay-per-click landing pages, you can customize to match content to keywords at an extremely granular level. In fact, if you don’t do so, you will probably be at a competitive disadvantage. What’s more, PPC landing pages offer an excellent opportunity to run multivariate tests of content. Advertisers have achieved success by creating and testing ever increasing numbers of landing pages. For this reason, several companies now offer tools to make iteration and testing of landing pages easy and fast. Some of the leaders are Instapage, Clickfunnels and Unbounce.
Social media is another area that needs your attention. You can’t test the model if you aren’t extending your reach on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and others. The necessity for a quality social media reach is to create original and meaningful content that your leads, current students, and alumni can all benefit from. Social media is absolutely essential for brand recognition and as a means for sharing the impact of your alumni. But, don’t just have social media, manage your social media (and all media for that matter).
Control the narrative around your brand. Do you respond to every review your college or university gets—both the bad and the good? No? You should. Do you have someone that scours the internet for anyone who says anything about your institution? No? You should. Potential students today will read reviews about your educational quality, about your processes, and about how employees have felt working at your institution. If you let negative reviews sit without responding, you can bank on the fact that you are losing something—reputation, interest, respect…something.
Social media, like search marketing, comes in both organic and paid varieties.
Many schools work hard to ensure that they make frequent organic Facebook posts. We’ve heard advertising agencies say things like, “We’d like to see your marketing team make at least one post every day.” This is usually a waste of time. Quality matters more than quantity. The only posts that will be disseminated widely are the ones that garner engagement. You may have tens of thousands of likes on your Facebook page, but your posts won’t be shown to more than a few hundred people unless they are clicked, liked, shared and commented upon. When it comes to organic social media, quality trumps quantity.
Social media advertising, however, is the opposite. You can show your post to not only the people who have liked your page, but also to millions of others based on a rich suite of targeting tools.
Lay Your Foundation and Grow
Once you have laid the foundation, you can begin the optimization process. Without data, and lots of it, you’ll be stepping up to the plate with a blindfold on.
This is the first installment of a five-part series on the secrets to modernizing and scaling marketing and enrollment management in a postsecondary environment.
Author Perspective: Administrator