Bob Johnson's Blog on Higher Education Marketing

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

The August newsletter comes to you from the eduWeb2014 Conference in Baltimore, where I have just done a pre-conference workshop "Advertising Online: Strategy and Tactics for Recruitment Success," Check the presentation and download a copy from SlideShare 

Follow comments and insights from the Tuesday and Wednesday eduWeb sessions on Twitter at 

If you are attending the AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education in November, plan to include my Monday afternoon Digital Marketing Strategy tutorial. See the events at 

More than 110 people attended my ACT Enrollment Planners Conference session on "Affordability vs. Financial Aid: Crafting a New Student Recruitment Message." See what American University, Strayer University, and Wellesley College have in common 

And now here are your marketing news and notes for August.
Best Colleges for Your Money: New Money Magazine Ratings

Using what it says are "unique measures of educational quality, affordability, and career outcomes," Money Magazine is out with new rankings that place Babson College as best in the nation.

Info for each school includes "net price" of the degree and earnings five years after graduation.

Check the Money rankings at 
Words Marketers Must Know: 189 Words that Make People Take Action

Here's a great article that will remind you of many favorites old and new and likely introduce a few new ones as well.

Kevan Lee has visited old and new sources to build his list of 189 words and phrases that will motivate, reassure, and excite people to take the actions you want them to take. Great that he includes David Ogilvy but there is much more as well.

Revitalize your marketing copy after you visit 
More from Moody's: Financial Future of Higher Education

Moody's is back with another review of the financial state of higher education. Not all is gloom and doom, but the future is especially not rosy for the 10 percent of schools that fall into an "acute financial distress" category in both the public and private sectors.

On the bright side are expectations for 20 percent growth in master's degrees and 9 percent growth in associate's degrees. Read more at 
Trust in Advertising: How 19 Information Sources are Trusted

Nothing comes close to "Recommendations from people I know" at 84 percent, but 69 percent of people believe what they find at "Branded websites" while only 37 percent trust "Text ads on mobile phones."

See everything that falls in between in the Nielsen report at 
Email Marketing: 4 Steps to More Responsive Emails Efforts

Email marketing is far from dead unless you are killing yours with old style efforts. 

In "4 How-tos for Responsive Email," Matthew Caldwell reviews four steps to take to make sure your email makes an impact. 

My favorite is Tailor Content to the Consumer. In my secret shopping efforts I find that very few colleges and universities actually use the information collected via online inquiry forms in the emails sent out to cultivate and convert the inquiry. Almost always missing is anything about the academic program of interest.

See three other steps for better email at 
Mobile Marketing: Is your website really ready?

Getting your website ready for the mobile world is more involved than adopting a "responsive" solution. Website Magazine offers useful check points, including the differences between responsive and adaptive design, in "5 Steps to Tell if Your Website is Mobile Ready."

The first step does not get the attention it deserves: "How fast does your homepage download on a weak cellular network?"

Find more on the importance of speed along with four other points at 
Icons on Your Website: Help or Hindrance?

Jakob Nielsen is out with a new report on the advantages and the perils of using icons on a website, with special notice of the relative few that are internationally recognized. One lesson: what works well on mobile will not always translate well to a desktop.

Check the details when you visit "Icon Usability" at 
Career Paths in Admissions: New NACAC Survey

What can young admissions professionals expect if they are thinking about make "admissions" a career choice?

NACAC is out with a new survey on "Career Paths for Admissions Officers: at 
Best Universities in the World: Where are they?

Which countries have the best universities in the world? Read "Americans Think We Have the Best Colleges. We Don't" for a different perspective.

On math skills of university graduates for instance, the U.S. ranks 16th, just behind Korea and just above Australia. Results were based on research done in 2011 and 2014 on math and literacy skills of people age 16 to 29 with a bachelor's degree. More details are in the report at 
Most Popular Topic in July Newsletter: 5 Top Email Marketing Universities

From his secret shopping efforts, Jens Larson picks five emails marketing campaigns that can serve as models for everyone else, starting with Arizona State University and ending with Wellesley College. Find the other three and links to each to secret shop for yourself 
Conference Presentation in November

November 10-13, Austin, TX: AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education, Monday workshop on "Digital Marketing Strategy." See the program at 

Plan a custom presentation on your campus. Host a workshop on any of my conference topics. Review the 2013 and 2014 topics at and contact me at or 248.766.6425.
Be a marketing champion on your campus.

Bob Johnson, Ph.D. 
Bob Johnson Consulting, LLC
Summer is upon us above the equator and the visit season is in full swing at residential campuses. May everyone reach their goals and perhaps just a few more.

So too is the conference season still before us. If you have not quite decided where to go review these events. 

On July 23-25 the excellent ACT Enrollment Planners Conference opens in Chicago. Check the program for sessions of interest, including my pre-conference workshop on "Essential Keys to Successful Online Recruiting," at 

The eduWeb Conference for 2014 runs from August 4-6 in Baltimore. Start your exploration with the strong selection of pre-conference workshops, including my own "Advertising Online: Strategy and Tactics for Recruitment Success," at

If you are attending the AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education in November, plan to include my Monday afternoon Digital Marketing Strategy tutorial. See the events 

And now here are your marketing news and notes for July.
Digital Challenges Survey 2014: Just One Question

Answer Gerry McGovern's Digital Challenges Survey at that only asks for your open-ended response to this question: "In becoming more customer-centric and embracing Digital / Internet/ Web what are the key challenges an organization faces?"

We have well over 100 responses so far. Answer the question to receive a copy of all the responses.
US News Rankings: The Cost of Moving Up

Do people on your campus, maybe even your president and board members, talk about moving higher in the U.S. News and World Report rankings?

If so, purchase a copy of a new research report demonstrating that it is expensive indeed, with no guarantee of success, to move appreciably higher. Annual variations of up to four places are considered "noise" you can ignore, whatever the trustees might think. 

Start with an Inside Higher Ed article at and link from there to download the full report.
Email Marketing: 5 Schools that Excel

Jens Larsen at Eastern Washington University just might do more secret shopping that I do. See his recommendations for five colleges and universities that excel at email marketing programs for student recruitment at

The schools vary from as large as Arizona State University to as small as Stephens College. Follow the links to each inquiry page and start secret shopping to compare your own results against the Fabulous Five.
A New FAFSA: Just 2 Questions?

Exactly why the FAFSA form to evaluate income for financial aid has to contain more than 100 questions has always been a mystery to me. Two senators, a Republican and a Democrat, are moving to the other extreme in introducing new legislation so that schools can calculate need with answers to just two questions.

Are they insane? Decide for yourself. Start at and link along to the press release from Lamar Alexander's office. The two questions proposed: What is your family size? What was your household income two years ago? 
Online Enrollment: NCES States by State, Region for Fall 2012

How popular is "distance" education around the U.S.? If knowing the details is important for your planning and strategy efforts download the NCES PDF at for any state that interests you, divided by 2-year and 4-year school types and size of institution.

By region, the percent of students taking some but not entirely online courses varies from a low of 8.1 percent in New England to a high of 16.5 percent in the Southeast. The Plains states lead with the highest percent of students taking only online courses at 23 percent.
If You Like Advertising, You Need to Know AdFreak

Be sure to follow "The Best and Worst of Advertising, Branding and Design" from AdFreak 

If you think that highly paid agency talent guarantees great advertising, some examples here will have you shaking your head.
Tuition Discount Rate: Still Ugly for the Private Sector

NACUBO is out with the latest survey of tuition discounting practices. The average continues to rise to a new high of 46.4 percent for full-time freshmen in 2013.

For schools that are increasing in enrollment, Chief Financial Officers cite 7 responsible elements, with 57 percent for "better recruitment and marketing" to 23 percent for "new athletic programs."

See the other five elements and more on the continuing debate over tuition discounting as a viable strategy at 
Beware the Social Media Bubble: Are You Ready for Change?

Doug Miller is new media manager at DePaul University and an astute observer of all things in the social media world.

In a recent interview Doug stressed the importance of not fixating on a single social media tool in the future but planning for flexibility. Social media is not about to disappear but chasing new shiny objects each time one appears can destroy any chance of a coherent social media strategy.

For more on surviving and thriving after the bubble bursts start at 
Best University System in the World: Not in the U.S.?

If you rank the math skills of bachelor's level university graduates around the world, the U.S. ranks 16th, just behind Korea and above Australia. The top three countries: Austria, Belgium, and Finland.

The U.S. does have more "great" universities than any other single country. See more on a new way of evaluating and comparing higher education around the world at 
SEO: 5 Critical Rules for Success in 2014

Despite the despair of some black-hat SEO specialists, you can still do things that increase your chance of ranking higher in search results than competitors that do not do them. 

Take a check on your practices with a review of 5 key points from Website Magazine. My favorites are two that are still lacking in higher education: "Write for your audience" and "Speak their language." 

How to measure progress? One way is to note the diminishing use of "Prospective Students." That in-house term seems to be less common today. Perhaps someday we will banish it.

You can find more on my favorites and three others at 
Blog Promotion Tactics: 9 Tips from Experts

Looking for a variety of tips from blog experts on how you might gain more exposure for blogs written by your students and faculty? 

Copy and distribute the infographic on "The 9 Most Powerful Blog Promotion Tactics from Top Marketing Experts" at

Actually, you will find far more than 9 tactics as each of the nine includes several individual steps. Not all will work for every blog but chances are good that everyone will find something to use to gain a wider audience and more impact for your school.
Most Popular Topic in June Newsletter: The Future of Higher Education Marketing

Monsters University, St. Michael's College, CRM software and more were included in my May 23 blog post at 
Conference Presentations in July, August, and November

July 23-25, Chicago, IL: ACT Enrollment Planners Conference, "Affordability and Financial Aid: Crafting a New Student Communication Message," and a pre-conference workshop, "Essential Keys to Successful Recruiting Online: Speed, Simplicity, and Top Task Completion." Details 

August 4-6, Baltimore, MD: eduWeb2014 Conference. Program details, including my pre-conference workshop, are at 

November 10-13, Austin, TX: AMA Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education, Monday workshop on "Digital Marketing Strategy." See the program at 

Plan a custom presentation on your campus. Host a workshop on any of my conference topics. Review the 2013 and 2014 topics at and contact me at or 248.766.6425.
Be a marketing champion on your campus.

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

Email marketing: 5 schools that do an unusually fine job

Back today with the last two questions from my interview with Jens Larson, manager of student communication strategies at Eastern Washington University. Look below for 5 schools that do especially good work with email communications for student recruitment.

If you missed Jens's advice on how to achieve "delicious" email success in the first part of our interview, that's just a click away.

For more insights from Jens, sign up for notices of new posts on his own blog "U of Admissions Marketing." If email marketing is important to you, plan to attend Jens' workshop at eduWeb14 conferece: "Where Did All the Email Strategists Go? The Contrarian's Guide to Winning at Email Marketing."

To make it easier to start secret shopping here, each link below goes direct to an undergraduate online inquiry page. Enjoy!

4. For people who want to do a bit of secret shopping and experience a strong email campaign for potential students, what universities do you recommend?

  • Always start with competitors. Once that's done, the following institutions can provide inspiration, although secret shoppers need to look beyond higher ed to find the cutting edge of email.
    • Arizona State University. I haven't had them on my secret shopping list for a while, but they tend to keep emails short, often with just one clear button or link and just a line or two of text. Super simple. University of Nevada Reno is very similar in this regard, too.
    • Full Sail University. It's a for-profit, but they make an effort to highlight their students' work and successes.
    • Stephens College. The level of personalization--which is remarkable in the industry--and their steady rate of emails keep them at the top of my inbox. At last count, they've sent several dozen emails in one recruitment cycle, and very few feel spammy.
    • University of Chicago. Their emails typically have twice as much text as most higher ed emails, but they also have twice as much personality. Interestingly, elite institutions seem more likely to showcase institutional personalities via email. Perhaps they have more confidence? Better strategy?
    • Wellesley College. It's the second all-girls institution on the list, but niche schools like Wellesley often have a better understanding of their audience and recruitment goals, and it shows in this email campaign. Their print campaign is also some of the most amazing copywriting in higher ed. But be nice with your info requests. Their print campaign is an expensive one.
  • No campaign will ever be perfect given time, cost, and technology constraints, but elements from those five schools together would be an almost unstoppable campaign.

5. What is the most common mistake you see universities making in an email campaign?

  • The most common mistake is not valuing email enough, which shows itself in two ways.
    • First, it shows up in poor campaign planning coupled with desperate emails. Too many times the response to missed targets and bad planning seems to be, "Quick! Send another email." By that point, it's too late.
    • Second, it shows up in poor resource allocation. Just because email is relatively inexpensive doesn't mean it's not valuable. In fact, it's often the case that it's more valuable than nearly any other channel on campus. But email isn't as sexy as social media or dynamic web interfaces, so it's usually just tacked on to someone's job. 
  • So I look at the positive: one institution's mistake is another institution's competitive advantage. Which is just another reason to attend the eduWeb Conference.

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 6,600+ people and follow me on Twitter

eduWeb2014 conference in August

August 4-6,  Baltimore, MD, CA: Review the conference program and register.

Early bird registration discount until June 28.


Higher education marketing.... how to get maximum success in your email communications

Today I'm starting another two-part interview around an important marketing topic for higher education: crafting successful email communications. 

Jens Larson, manager of student communication strategies at Eastern Washington University, knows that email is far from dead in today's communication mix. At eduWeb14 he'll be doing a workshop on "Where Did All the Email Strategists Go? The Contrarian's Guide to Winning at Email Marketing

Here are Jens' answers to my first three questions. The next installment follows tomorrow and includes his picks of 5 universities that really do email well. For today, let's start with what makes an email campaign "delicious."

1. You say in your workshop description that an updated email campaign has "potentially delicious" results. Can you elaborate on the two or three elements that are most important to get a "delicious" result?

  • One: Emails should add value to recipients' lives. Quality, targeted, and personalized content does this. Personality--such as humor or touching success stories--can do this, too. So can content that lets recipients feel like they're an insider who's communicating with real human beings.
  • Two: Emails should be easy. Easy to open. Easy to scan. Easy to understand. Easy to take action.
  • Three: Emails should track beyond the CRM. Knowing how emails lead to website engagement, call campaign success, and campus visits lets institutions improve emails, landing pages, websites, events, and phone scripts in one beautiful synthesis of data.

2. What do you think is the best way to measure ROI of an email campaign?

  • I'm going to hedge on this: the best ROI measurement depends on the goal, the audience segment, and the role of cumulative actions in the campaign.
  • But to avoid too much hedging, here are some of my favorite email ROI measurements:

·         Channel attribution. As a true ROI sales metric, channel attribution lets you compare conversion costs and conversion success rates across platforms and campaigns.

·         Engagement. Usually a long-term or soft goal, engagement is the primary ROI metric for nurture campaigns and for identifying high quality leads.

·         Time-to-conversion. Much like a website's frequency and recency metrics, time-to-conversion lets marketers determine how many touches (and their frequency) it takes before recipients complete the desired action.

  • Perhaps the easiest takeaway is that we have to move beyond opens and click through rates to get to true ROI analysis.

3. Any thoughts on the frequency of contact with potential students after they first identify themselves?

  • Don't be slave to a schedule. Be slave to the content. I'd rather send one great email per month that adds value than four mediocre ones that don't.
  • In my ideal world, I vary email send rates based on an individual prospect's engagement with the content I'm sending. Of course, that means a CRM has to handle engagement metrics well, and most don't, at least not yet.
  • But from data as well as from focus groups with future and current students, it's pretty clear that institutions underestimate how many touch points it takes to get students to complete specific actions or remember key steps in any kind of months-long process.

A Sample Communication Schedule

Week 1: Once a day (not all email)

Week 2-3: Two or three times per week (not all email)

Week 4-8: Once a week

  • The schedule above is a bit myopic since it will burn through a list pretty quickly. I'd rather nurture prospects with engaging, less frequent emails than with huge blasts of generic content. But to pull that off, an institution needs strong copy writing, great strategy, well-implemented technology, and lots of room to be creative.

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 6,600+ people and follow me on Twitter

eduWeb2014 conference in August

August 4-6,  Baltimore, MD, CA: Review the conference program and register.

Early bird registration discount until June 28.

Bob Johnson
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