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Higher Ed Marketers: Stop Thinking about Leads and Start Thinking about Students

By | August 12, 2014

Higher Education MarketingHigher education marketers, I have some tough love for you. Stop thinking about Google’s algorithm. Stop thinking about lead aggregators. Stop thinking about Facebook’s Edge Rank.

 Start thinking about your students first.

As more and more prospective students turn to non-branded search to answer the questions they have in their journey to enrollment, the colleges that win big at the end of the day are the ones who meet the needs of the prospective students searching for information and help them through to enrollment.

I challenge you to put yourself in the searcher’s shoes whenever you make decisions about your digital strategy or changes to your website. When prospective students get the right information at the right time and don’t run into speed bumps along the way, they will be more likely to find you at the start of their journey and convert at the end.

Optimizing the Student Journey

Higher education marketers who focus on leads often get stuck on digital tactics affecting the end of the digital funnel, because that’s where they see the leads convert. But if we take a step back and focus on students in the top of the funnel, we see even more leads make it through to the end without dropping off. Check these five examples of how you may be neglecting part of the prospective student’s search experience throughout the digital marketing funnel:

  1.  You’re Missing Content for Prospective Students Researching Options

 If I’m in high school and I’m thinking about becoming a teacher, my first search probably isn’t going to be for the “___________ degree program” that your school offers. It’s going to be, “what do I need to do to become a teacher?” or “what degree do I need to become a teacher?” If all you’ve done is optimize your site for your degree program name, you are missing opportunity at the beginning of the searchers’ journeys to become the authority in their minds. Be sure to create informative content on your website or blog to answer research queries (what?, why?, how?, etc.) that align with the degrees you offer students.

2. You’ve Neglected The Mobile Experience

One in four searches online are conducted on a mobile device. If a prospective student finds you from a mobile device and lands on a page that isn’t mobile optimized, you can bet that he or she will bounce and won’t be back again. Go the extra mile to make sure your entire site and your landing pages are mobile responsive. Be mindful of the mobile experience for students.

3. You Don’t Find Time For Social Media

When a student is doing research on your school, you can bet they are going to check out your social media accounts. Do your social accounts show what students experience at your school? Do they prove your academic excellence by touting awards, notable faculty, and prominent alumni? If you answered “no” to any of those questions, then you have some work to do. Not only is social media ideal for attracting potential students online, but it is essential to nurturing leads. If you ignore this channel, don’t be surprised that prospective students ignore you!

4. You Don’t Truly Nurture LeadsEducation Digital Marketing Funnel

People are busy. Lead nurturing is all about sending the right messaging at the right time without interrupting people’s lives (read: without being annoying and creepy), to create demand for an education at your school. If you think you are nurturing your leads but aren’t sure if you are sending the right messaging at the appropriate time, then you need to take another look at your strategy. Fixing messaging and timing in your lead nurturing efforts can greatly increase your enrollments. You can’t fix your messaging and timing without truly understanding the needs of your students.

5. You Don’t Utilize Big Data

By analyzing big data in student recruitment to understand the touch points and content that lead students to convert, you can make your digital marketing to recruit new students incredibly efficient. With big data, you can create a seamless experience for students as they progress from lead to enrollment. You can also use social data to better understand your online audience and communicate more effectively with it. Expect students to pay more attention to you when you speak their language.

Mapping out the digital student journey can help you identify pain points for the prospective student as well as points of success for your marketing team. It’s worth stepping back and taking an empathetic look (at least once a year) at the student journey to make sure that you’re doing everything possible to appeal to your students’ needs online while minimizing friction in the student journey.
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PPC for Higher Ed on a Budget

By | July 31, 2014

What you need to know to get the biggest bang for your SEM dollars

Without fail, at the beginning of each fiscal year, my customers at colleges and universities come to me with a myriad of statements and questions. They want to know which engines they should run on; what’s new in the world of paid search, PPC, SEM (or whatever the kids are calling it these days); and what they should do. As a higher education marketing agency, we can give them an answer if they first answer two simple questions: What is your budget, and what are your goals? It might sound generic, but usually this opens the gateway to a lengthy conversion about how to prioritize PPC spend and how to get the best ROI from paid search.

Whether you are giving this a go internally or working with an agency, here are a few things you need to consider:

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  1. What is a realistic budget for my paid search strategy? In the world of higher education, there are countless ways to spend money. A lot of money. Sure, you could spend your entire marketing budget on display and display along (for the record, I do not condone that), but chances are you won’t see the best return. Determine a minimum and a maximum you are willing to spend. From there, you can decide how extensive your strategy will be.
  1. What am I hoping to achieve from my PPC strategy? Oftentimes, the answer I get will be “more students” or “better qualified students,” and that’s great. But consider what you’re seeing work well in other channels to drive these students. Do on-campus visitors enroll at a much higher rate? Do students who have requested more info get personalized messaging and 1:1 attention? Depending on what works well for your school, you may want to tailor a landing page to that step in the funnel. On the other hand, your school may have recently undergone a major branding initiative. In this case, you might want to get the message across and display may be the best avenue for you.
  1. Which programs are important to our university? This is very important. If you are spending money on programs that are at full capacity or have a tremendous reputation as is, you may be wasting your money. Consider focusing on programs that need some extra help or awareness.
  1. What is search volume like for our programs? Are you offering an Associate to Bachelor’s to Master’s Degree in Applied Socioeconomic Reform and Policy Management? Guess what? Nobody is looking for that. Be sure to see what kind of traffic you can expect by program. If you’re allotting funds to a program that is not going to spend, you may have to make up that budget later on (perhaps when interest is down a bit). Similarly, if you have complicated or unique programs, think about what potential students who are interested would be looking for. Those may be the right terms to go after.
  1. I know what to focus on – but how do I divide up my budget? This can differ depending on your goals. If your goal is to generate as many leads as possible, I typically recommend a search to display ratio of 80/20 (all good things follow the 80/20 rule, right?). This is, at the very least, a good place to start. See what your conversion rates are and if you are limited in any areas. Shift budget from there. We can make an educated guess up front, but nobody has a crystal ball. Be on your toes and willing to make adjustments.
  1. When do I stray from AdWords and AdWords alone? In general, AdWords is the best place to start. It’s a great way to learn and gauge results. But if you can’t spend all of your budget wisely, it may be time to expand. Consider taking your top performers and placing them into Bing Ads. If results are as good or even better, consider expanding further. If you’re looking to go the route of LinkedIn or Facebook advertising, proceed with caution. This is a whole new world with different metrics and targeting. Keep in mind that leads will likely cost more. But, again, if you are branding this could be a great route to go.

Whatever you choose to do, simply be sure you feel good about your plan of action. As long as you have a reason for spending the way that you are, you’re in a good position to make changes and improvements as you go. Don’t be afraid to ask for a little help along the way!

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The C-Word and Higher-Education Marketing

By | July 22, 2014

Being involved in higher-education marketing provides me with the opportunity to attend great conferences and seminars each year. I try to attend a variety of shows, ranging from technology focused to academic, and a variety of tracks. At each event in in the last two years, it has been increasingly difficult to avoid the “C-word.”

Putting potential vulgarities aside, the C-word I am referring to is “customer” (although in some circles, calling the student body by a four-letter obscenity would garner the same reaction as calling them “customers”). My ears first perked up when listening to a talk from the admissions team at Wayne State University at Salesforce.com’s non-profit track at the Dreamforce event. The speaker asked the question, “How many in the room have heard the word ‘customer’ at an executive meeting?” About 40% of the hands in the room shot up. I had the pleasure of witnessing a similar survey take place at the Deshpande Symposium held at UMASS Lowell. The audience at the Deshpande symposium had a much more academic focus, and audible groans came at the mention of the word.

The focus on customers got me thinking about trends in higher education I see at Fathom when talking to universities on a regular basis:

1. Universities Focusing on Impact and Outcomes

There’s a big push, not just at for-profits but at all universities, to show impact and outcomes:

  • Impact is becoming more important in the grant-writing process at research universities
  • Outcomes are a component of state funding
  • Both are hot-button issues at non-traditional, online, and for-profit schools for some time

Some are concerned that this focus on impact, usually measured in commercial terms, is as at odds with the mission of knowledge creation and transfer. The consensus among university leadership seems to be that to bridge the gap, there needs to be a balanced approach in the curriculum – one that not only empowers tenured faculty to continue to lead the mission of creating deep knowledge and transferring it but also relies more on infusing a set of problem-solving skills that usually come from faculty with industry experience. The reality is that the vast majority of the student body—in, say, a STEM program at a state school—will not go on to work in academia. These students benefit most from this kind of blended approach, and when they go on to succeed it reflects positively on the university. To this end, universities are putting more energy and creativity than ever into their tech transfer programs. Proof of this investment is all of the business incubators and accelerators popping up on campuses across the country and world.

2. Universities Increasing Investment in Student Management Technologies

When executive leadership at a university says the institution needs to be more “customer-centric,” more often than not they are talking about enhancing the student experience – usually by way of pairing technology and process. The entire experience of requesting information from a university, researching a school, setting up a campus visit, applying, acceptance, and paying tuition is happening online for many students. This major shift follows the way today’s college-bound students prefer to consume information. Unfortunately, the preference to transact digitally has outpaced many universities’ ability to build the systems and infrastructure that truly allow an institution to manage digital student information in a highly effective and efficient way. We see major universities cobbling some technology together, but very few I have spoken with utilize a majority of the features available within their current technology, let alone optimize the customer or student-facing processes that the technology enables.

3. Universities Doubling Down on Digital Channels

As college-bound student preferences continue to change, we are seeing even reluctant universities participating more in the digital channels to better tell their story and take control of student enrollment. Fathom’s Education Quarterly Standard deconstructs this trend more completely, but from a 30,000-ft. view we see increased participation in online advertising of all kinds, and much more social media and content strategy expertise and creativity—all to engage with and attract potential students.

These three trends are tightly interwoven with the recurring theme of “students as customers.” Despite skepticism, these changes aim to make the academic experience more useful. One thing is for certain: There has never been a more exciting time to be involved in higher education.

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High-Schoolers Try Digital Marketing: A Fathom Internship

By | July 3, 2014

High school marketing internshipFor two weeks, I worked with two high school seniors who are interested in learning about the digital marketing industry. I’m approaching my year anniversary at Fathom, and I was excited to train the girls, Natalie and Susie, on agency life and the day-to-day routine of a digital specialist at our education marketing agency division.

During the first week, I gave the girls a brief introduction to the PPC, SEO, and Social best practices of the Education team. Each day, they came to work, reviewed a training presentation from our Associate Development Program’s manual, and completed a task that corresponded with each.

“Caroline explained how there were different branches of the company, such as Retail, Education, Healthcare, etc. We learned what PPC and SEO [specialists] are, and how to work on query reports. I feel more comfortable using Microsoft Excel, and now know how important keywords, titles, and descriptions are for paid ads and organic ads…”*

From creating mock ad copy to making SEO recommendations, Natalie and Susie learned the basics of digital marketing. For the last week, the girls worked on a social calendar for a client. They were able to peruse Pinterest and various blogs to find fun and relevant posts to include in the calendar. I explained how important it is to stay top-of-mind by posting regularly and keeping your viewers engaged with appropriate social etiquette.

“We made [a client’s] social calendar. It was really fun because we got to be creative for a real client! We really enjoyed making posts for [the client] since our generation is all about social media.”

I was happy to have Natalie and Susie for the past two weeks because I know they learned a lot about the industry and Fathom’s best practices. While a senior shadowing project is intended to focus on the students’ workplace experiences, I found myself benefiting from the program as well.

It’s refreshing to work with younger students who are interested in the digital marketing industry. I’ve been in the workforce for just under a year, and I realize how beneficial it is for these girls to learn about the ever-changing world of marketing and have a leg up when starting marketing classes in college. Plus, Natalie and Susie were able to experience our fun and driven attitude.

“One thing that Natalie and I couldn’t stop admiring was the friendly people around every corner. Caroline not only made us feel at home, but she helped us understand every task that she assigned to us. And most importantly, she made us laugh.”

*Quotations are from Fathom intern Susie Joseph.

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Get deep analysis and take advantage of the latest marketing trends in higher education:

Edu Standard, 2nd Edition

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5 Ways to Share Financial Aid Information via Higher-Ed Social Media

By | June 26, 2014

According to an annual study conducted by UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, financial aid is a top concern among incoming freshman and their families. A few key results found by this survey include the following:

Financial Aid Options

  • 75.5% of students surveyed were accepted to their first-choice college but only 56.9% decided to enroll. Over 62% of the students who chose to
    attend elsewhere said that they were offered a better financial aid package by the school that was ultimately chosen.
  • 48.7% of students (surveyed in 2013) considered financial aid to be a “very important” factor in their college decision. This is up from 33.7% in 2004.
  • Many first-generation college students rely heavily on their high schools and/or higher education institutions to help guide them through the financial aid process.

It’s not surprising that financial aid plays a significant role in the overall college decision-making process; however, it is important to note that as the concern over college expenses increases, so does the potential for losing out on new enrollments.

While it is certainly not feasible for universities to financially support every student who is accepted, it is possible for schools to create and promote information that touches on major financial aid options, providing guidance for students trying to navigate the financial aid process. Below are five ways to share important financial aid information through a school’s social media channels:

1. FAFSA on film (or YouTube)

Each year, many incoming freshman begin their path to college by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). With funding on the line, this task is especially intimidating for students (and parents) who are new to the financial aid process. Don’t just explain this process in writing. Show students what to do. Consider putting an educational online video on YouTube that walks students through the process of filling out a FAFSA form so they gain a clear idea of what to do or can follow along and fill out their own form.

2. Scholarships, grants and loans, oh my!

When you were eighteen years old did you know the differences between a scholarship, a grant and a loan? Providing general information about each type of financial aid can help students determine which options are right for them. And once a basic understanding has been reached, make sure that a list of scholarships (both internal and external), grant opportunities and loans is available to look through. Putting this list on a school’s main site is a start, but creating a Facebook app can help colleges reach their audience faster. Additionally, colleges can bring upcoming application deadlines to attention by posting about them, including links that send students to an app or a page on-site where they can apply if interested.

3. A penny saved on Pinterest is a penny earned

Finding financial assistance doesn’t need to be all forms and no fun; show students the lighter side of cutting back on the cost of college with some money-saving tips on Pinterest. Colleges that already have a Pinterest page can consider adding one or more of the following boards to the mix:

  • DIY dorm room décor
  • Free events on campus
  • Inexpensive ways to have fun around town
  • Simple meals that taste great

This is also a great way to get a college’s social community involved. Schools can ask current students to share their most creative money saving tips and post them for incoming freshman to see.

4. Tweet if you like financial aid!

According to the Pew Research Internet Project Twitter use among adults is on the rise, especially for those in the 18-29 age group. Colleges can combine this social trend with the growing concerns about tuition costs by creating a specific Twitter handle dedicated to fielding questions and posting information about financial aid. If a stand-alone handle is not possible, the creation and promotion of a financial aid hashtag may be a way to compromise. Students will know how to tag their questions or concerns while tweeting, and popular topics can be curated and turned into content for the main site or a blog post.

5. Tales (or blog posts) from a work study student

Many new students who qualify for work study programs are unsure about securing a job and then keeping up with school work after finding one. Insights from students who have been through similar situations can help ease anxiety over this financial aid option. Colleges with established blogs can ask current students participating in a work study program to post about their experiences – offering tips to incoming freshman and potentially answering any questions left in the comment sections. Additionally, the following topics could be discussed on a school’s blog and linked to from previous work study posts:

  • How to write or update a resume
  • Job interview tips
  • Budgeting basics for college students

These are just a few ways that education social media can be used to inform new students about financial aid and begin to ease anxieties over college expenses. Which questions or concerns regarding financial aid are most prevalent among your higher-ed community of current and prospective students?

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Get deep analysis and take advantage of the latest marketing trends in higher education:

Edu Standard, 2nd Edition

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