School of Athens by Raphael

Is the digital marketing strategy for most US colleges fatally flawed?

I’ve recently discovered why the digital marketing strategy for most colleges and universities in the US is fatally flawed. Many of the CMOs in higher education don’t know how to measure the results of their digital marketing campaigns or digital PR programs with metrics that matter.

I uncovered this fatal flaw while co-authoring an upcoming eBook entitled, “Measurement 101 for Higher Education,” with Katie Delahaye Paine, the CEO of Paine Publishing.

Greg Jarboe and Katie Delahaye Paine

Now, Katie has already written an eBook entitled, “Measurement 101 for Nonprofits.” And you would think this would suffice, since most colleges and universities are nonprofit entities. State universities and community colleges are usually (if not always) nonprofit. Many private colleges are also nonprofit.

But, it turns out that most charitable nonprofit organizations, from local food kitchens or the American Red Cross, already know how to “follow the money.” Unfortunately, most colleges and universities are still using the wrong metrics – ones that measure outputs, not outcomes.

This is the kind of fatal flaw, also known as “Hamartia”, which is possessed by Aristotelian tragic heroes and heroines. It is a flaw which causes an otherwise noble or exceptional character to bring about their own downfall and, often, their eventual death.

Am I being overly dramatic? Let me answer this rhetorical question by asking another question: “What happens if a college, university, community college, graduate school, conservatory, or institute of technology can’t follow the money?” In other words, what happens if CMOs in higher education know how much traffic their website gets, but don’t know which channels generate the best leads?

Well, for starters, they wouldn’t know how to improve their digital marketing campaigns or digital PR programs to put more butts in seats. And, increasingly, this is becoming an existential threat.

For example, only 37% of institutions had filled their classes by the traditional May 1 date last year, according to the “2019 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Admissions Officials.” And 52% had still NOT achieved their goals by July 1 – despite pushing back the deadline for putting butts in seats.

In fact, an article by Scott Jaschik entitled, “2019 Survey of Admissions Leaders: The Pressure Grows,” which was published by Inside Higher Ed in September 23, 2019, reported that a majority of the 336 admissions leaders who answered the survey said they were very concerned about filling their classes.

The survey also found:

  • 81% of college admissions directors said that students admitted from the waiting list make up less than 5% of the class.
  • 81% believe they are losing potential applicants because of concerns about debt.
  • 65% of admissions directors said they were seeking more out-of-state students.
  • 58% are concerned about maintaining current levels of international students.

And there is another concern that can be added to the list of factors contributing to a looming college enrollment crisis. According to a story by Nikolas DeCosta-Klipa entitled, “How two (very different) Massachusetts colleges are taking on the same fast-approaching threat,” which was published by on January 9, 2020, institutions in New England are facing a so-called “demographic cliff”.

DeCosta-Klipa reports that the US population is shifting both south and west — and declining in New England. In addition, the already slowing national birth rate experienced a precipitous drop-off around 2008, when the Great Recession hit, and it has generally continued to decline ever since. In other words, the pressures on colleges to fill their classes will ramp up even further around 2026, when the “baby bust” generation that was born in 2008 turns 18.

“The number of college-aged students will drop almost 15% in five years,” President Marty Meehan, who leads the five campus University of Massachusetts system, told “It’s significant.”

Meehan, a former Massachusetts congressman who became a higher education administrator, has been raising alarms that New England is “ground zero” of this “existential threat.” And he thinks most colleges and universities are not adequately preparing, as evidenced by the recent spate of closures and mergers in the region.

Marty Meehan, President of the University of Massachusetts

All of this increased pressure on admissions directors will quickly turn into increased pressure on CMOs in higher education to generate more leads in order to produce enough tuition revenue to remain viable. And, if you don’t know how to measure the results of your digital marketing campaigns or digital PR programs with the metrics that matter, then your budget will be the first to be cut and your career will be dramatically shortened.

How to improve your digital marketing strategy

So, if you are a CMO in higher education or you hope to become one in the next five years, then what do you need to do today? Well, according to Katie, you should start at the end. In other words, start by asking yourself: “What does success look like?”

Katie says, “Unless senior leadership agrees on what constitutes success, failure, and how they will be measured, you can waste a tremendous amount of time accumulating data that you are unable to use. Therefore it’s important to start with an internal conversation about how the organization works and what the desired outcomes are.”

I agree. And the desired outcomes aren’t three-letter acronyms like GRPs or AVEs. Those are outputs. The desired outcomes are engagement, inquiries, and revenue.

Katie adds, “You might need to bring in a consultant to facilitate a meeting to get consensus on what you want to measure. Or you may need to bring in a measurement expert to help you clarify what you want to measure and why.”

Hey, they didn’t teach this stuff in college when you got your Bachelor’s degree. And the still don’t teach this stuff in far too many universities if you go on to get your Master’s degree.

Measure what matters: Leads, not website traffic

Once you have a clear understanding of your organization’s actual goals, then take a look at the so-called “Goals” in Google Analytics. What you see – or don’t see – may surprise you.

Many marketing and communications professionals – in the private sector as well as in higher education – think that website traffic is a useful metric or KPI because sessions (aka visits) and users (aka visitors) come “fully assembled” in Google Analytics reports.

Well, these metrics are useful – if you happen to work for a media company that can monetize more visits and visitors by serving up more ads on your website. But, website traffic isn’t particularly a useful metric or KPI for higher education organizations, because sessions and users rarely measure what matters.

So, you will probably need to focus on other metrics and KPIs that should be labeled “some assembly required.” Why? Because Conversion Reports don’t come “fully assembled” in Google Analytics. You need to set up Goals and assign a Goal Value to each one before you can report conversions, which can measure what matters.

So, you need to take a look in Google Analytics at what you need to do – if Goals aren’t set up yet – or redo – if someone else set up your organization’s Goals a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Now, the Goals that you need to create or edit should measure how well your website fulfills your target objectives. A Goal represents a completed activity, aka a “conversion,” that contributes to the success of your college or university. As you can see in the Google Analytics template below, your Goals could include:

  • Revenue (e.g. register online or schedule a visit).
  • Inquiry (e.g. submit an online application or form).
  • Engagement (e.g. Play a video or share to a social network).
Goal setup template in Google Analytics

Defining Goals is a fundamental component of any digital marketing strategy. So, don’t delegate this to a junior data analyst. Having properly configured goals allows Google Analytics to provide you with critical information, such as the number of conversions for your website. Without this information, it’s almost impossible to evaluate the effectiveness of your digital marketing campaigns and digital PR programs.

Goals can be applied to specific pages your users visit and the events they trigger while they are there. When you set up a Goal, you have the option of assigning a monetary amount to the conversion. Your organization’s continued success or very survival increasingly depends on your ability to “follow the money.” When a Goal is completed by a user, this amount is recorded and then added together and seen in your reports as the Goal Value.

Even in higher education, every action a user takes can be translated into a dollar amount. One way to help determine what a Goal Value should be is to evaluate how often the users who complete the Goal go on to enroll as students. For example, if 10% of people who sign up to visit your campus go on to apply online, and your average tuition is $10,000, then you might assign $1,000 (i.e. 10% of $10,000) to this Goal, which is an objective that users complete when they reach the final schedule a visit page. In contrast, if only 2% of people who submit a form to request information go on to apply online, then you might assign $200 to that Goal.

How keyword research can improve your digital marketing strategy

Once you’ve set up your Goals and assigned a Goal Value to each one, you are ready to measure the results of your digital marketing campaigns or digital PR programs with the metrics that matter. And as you measure your results over the coming year, don’t be surprised if organic search is your best channel.

And, even if organic search isn’t your best channel yet, I’m very confident that it can contribute even better results two years from now.

Why am I so confident that the vast majority of the 4,298 degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the US can increase their organic search traffic and improve their Goal Value from this channel? Because the vast majority are still using out-of-date keyword strategies. Many are still using short-tail keywords to optimize pages to increase their website traffic instead of using long-tail search terms and phrases to optimize their pages, sites, articles, and content to increase leads.

Now, there are dozens of tools for conducting keyword research. Some are provided by Google for free and others are offered by third-party vendors for modest monthly or annual subscriptions. Some are better suited to paid search, and others to organic search or specialized search.

For example, Google Trends analyzes the popularity of top search queries across platforms, regions, and timeframes. For example, enter the terms, “Dickinson College”, “Franklin & Marshall College”, and “Gettysburg College”, in the Explore box at the top of the page – separated by a comma. The default results will show you web search interest in these terms in the US for the past 12 months.

Now, click on the “Past 12 months” tab and select the “2004 – present” option for these same terms. Although all three of these institutions are among the 2020 Best National Liberal Arts Colleges, according to US News rankings, search interest in their brand names was higher 15 years ago than it is today. This insight should have a dramatic impact on their keyword strategies. Going forward, each college needs to optimize more pages their sites for non-branded search terms instead of continuing to rely on branded ones.

Google Trends in the United States 2004 – present

Google’s autocomplete feature gives you another way to find relevant and valuable search terms for SEO. When you start a search on Google, you can quickly find info with search predictions. Search predictions are possible search terms related to what you’re looking for and what other people have already searched for.

For example, if you search for the term, “liberal arts colleges”, and scroll down to the bottom of the page of Google results, then you will see what Google’s autocomplete feature says are searches related to liberal arts colleges:

  • Best liberal arts colleges in the US
  • Liberal arts colleges vs universities
  • Liberal arts colleges in California
  • Liberal arts colleges in New York
  • Large liberal arts colleges
  • Best liberal arts universities
  • Best liberal arts colleges in the world
  • Number of liberal arts colleges in the US
Searches related to liberal arts colleges

Now, if you are trying to increase the organic search traffic and improve the Goal Value for one of the best liberal arts colleges in Pennsylvania, then you shouldn’t use terms that include “California” or “New York”, even if your President and Admissions department wants you to target students from one or both of these states. Why? Because the people who typed “liberal arts colleges in California” or “liberal arts colleges in New York” have signaled their search intent. And it isn’t a liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. So, why optimize pages on your site for non-branded search terms are relevant to other institutions, but not yours?

As I mention in an earlier post entitled, “What is the best keyword research tool for SEO? (It’s your brain!),” just because a tool can show you that a keyword is popular doesn’t mean that it is relevant or valuable. You still need to analyze the “search intent” of each keyword to understand the goal and objective of the people making the query.

And even the best SEO tools on the market still can’t analyze search intent. Only an experienced search engine optimizer can do that. Why? Because only someone who knows the Goals of your college or university and understands your estimated Goal values can determine which keywords, search terms, and long-tail phrases are worth the candle.

For example, Connie McNamara, the Vice President of Marketing and Communications at Dickinson College hired me to teach an on-site workshop on “SEO Strategy and Keyword Research” for her entire team in February 2018.

Dickinson College SEO Strategy and Keyword Research Workshop

During my presentation, I quoted David Ogilvy, the most sought-after wizard in the advertising business, who once said, “Even a blind pig can sometimes find truffles, but it helps to know that they grow in oak forests.”

I added that keyword research tools can help you find oak forests. But, you still need to analyze each of the thousands of trees in the forest to discover the truffles – i.e. the keywords, search terms, and long-tail phrases that are used by your prospective students.

I also defined short-tail keywords as search terms with that are only one- or two-words long. Now, it’s tempting to target “short tail” keywords that get over 5,000 searches a month, but these popular search terms account for just 42.4% of the search volume in the United States, according to a study done in March 2017 by Ahrefs.

I then defined a long-tail keyword as a search phrase that contains at least three words. And long-tail keywords often convert better. But, roughly 40% of all searches are coming from billions of long-tail keywords that have less than 50 searches per month.

So, what was my recommended strategy for balancing the popularity of short tail keywords and the more valuable search intent of long-tail keywords? I told Dickinson’s marketing and communications team, “You can have the best of both worlds by collecting what I call, ‘Russian nesting dolls.’ These are two-word search terms that are nested inside three-word phrases.”

For example, “early decision” is nested inside “early decision colleges.” So, if Dickinson optimized one of their pages for the less popular three-word phrase, then their content could be found when someone searched for either the two-word term or the three-word phrase. However, if they optimize their page for just the more popular two-word term, then their content wouldn’t be found if someone searched for the three-word phrase because their page would be missing a “key” word.

I realized that this keyword strategy is counter-intuitive. But, it worked.

In December 2017, before I taught my on-site workshop on “SEO Strategy and Keyword Research,” I used SpyFu to discover that 3,000 pages of were showing up in the top 50 search results on Google for 6,000 different keywords. And Dickinson was getting 29,000 clicks a month from their organic rankings on Google. So, that was their baseline.

In December 2019, two years after I taught my workshop, I used SpyFu again to discover that 4,000 pages of were showing up in the top 50 search results on Google for 10,000 different keywords. And Dickinson was getting 89,000 clicks a month from their organic rankings on Google. So, their organic search traffic more than tripled.

Move-in day at Dickinson College in 2019

What about Dickinson’s Goals and Goal Value? Well, this liberal arts college in Pennsylvania isn’t trying to triple its enrollment. Its Goal is to remain as selective as possible at a time when some elite schools are going deeper into their wait lists. And, according to first-year admissions data, applications to Dickinson increased from 5,941 in 2017 to 6,426 in 2019. At the same time, the college’s acceptance rate went from 49% to 40%. So, the increase in applications has enabled the Admissions department to improve Dickinson’s selectivity. These results show that even with the value of a liberal-arts education in question in the wider world, demand for a Dickinson education remains strong. 

In other words, this counter-intuitive digital marketing strategy works even for the 37% of colleges and universities in the US that aren’t as concerned about filling their classes.

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