This blog post is written by Laura Montgomery is the Director of Academic Program Marketing at The New School in New York City.

If you’re on the hunt for some quick-and-easy tips and definitive marketing best practices, there are tons of articles for you out there — but this isn’t one of them. Instead, I’d like to take a short, existential detour to reconsider what we should ultimately use as primary measures of success for paid media campaigns in higher education marketing. In particular, I’m speaking to those direct response, lead generation campaigns designed to support institutional and/or program-specific enrollment objectives. These might be your undergraduate search campaigns, pay-per-click (PPC) ads for graduate and certificate programs, or any other efforts whose key performance indicator (KPI) is the “request for information” (RFI) — aka the inquiry-form submission, or lead.

When measuring the success of these kinds of enrollment-driven campaigns, a common best-practice recommendation is to have all paid clicks drive to a dedicated campaign landing page or microsite. Design your landing page to get visitors to complete one singular action: fill out our form. Whether promising a program brochure, a personalized email from an admissions officer, or some other digital carrot, what we’re looking to get in exchange is a name, an email address, and ideally a few other bits of personal information to efficiently feed our hungry enrollment funnels.

This strategy is apparent the moment you click on a digital ad from the institutions investing substantial budgets to support ambitious enrollment goals, like online schools, part-time MBAs, for-profit universities, and even my own institution. Post-click, audiences encounter clean, concise pages that prominently feature a short RFI form above the fold, bolstered by brief marketing copy, attractive statistics, and one or two photos with smiling faces (whose gazes are often subtly directed toward the large, brightly colored form-submission button).

But while the RFI and associated email address is a convenient currency with which agencies and advertisers can evaluate a campaign’s return-on-investment, is “requesting information” really the action that prospective students want to take? And is that the action we should want them to take?

Marketing studies indicate that millennials and Gen Z value their data privacy and are skeptical towards advertising. For years now, enrollment management professionals have tracked an increase in “stealth applicants” who share no information with an institution until they click the “apply” button. Also consider that the intellectual characteristics most higher ed marketers seek out among prospective students — critical thinking, independent learning, autonomous decision-making — align directly with the behaviors of stealth applicants. Add to this the fact that many of the “conversion-optimized” best practices adhered to by the institutions cited above are based on private-sector B2B and SaaS product-sales pipelines — a very different customer experience from the complex, emotional, and financially impactful journey a degree-seeking student will navigate.

All of this begs the question: instead of funneling prospects into the carefully sequenced and controlled inquiry-to-application conversion plans, shouldn’t colleges and universities be doing more to facilitate prospects’ self-directed exploration and utilize other non-linear forms of communication?

The obvious first step would be to offer up one or more additional “call to action” options on a campaign landing page. For example, below the RFI form on those campaign landing pages, there might be a second button labelled “read more about faculty,” or “check admissions requirements,” or other options that empower the stealth prospect to explore, not just “convert.”

For those who are willing to take a step away from the RFI being the KPI of paid media campaigns: prepare to lay some new groundwork to recalibrate stakeholder expectations and redefine KPI and ROI frameworks. For example, rather than inquiry conversion rates and cost per inquiry alone, it will be necessary to give greater weight and credence to measurements like time on site, page views, scroll depth, and clicks on secondary CTA links. Making this shift will also call for more creative tactics to supplement first-touch prospecting campaigns, especially via retargeting efforts to reach online audiences based on their prior website behaviors rather than via their email address.

Of course, this kind of approach is not without its risks. It’s harder to communicate with a prospective student when you don’t know who they are or how to reach them directly via email. And admissions and enrollment teams will have a tough time planning a class without a good sense of the prospect pipeline. But although encouraging behaviors beyond the RFI may cause short-term campaign ROI metrics to dip, there’s a good chance that long-term engagement and enrollment effects will compensate.

Are you struggling with the same balance between proving campaign-investment ROI versus creating the best possible user experience for prospective students? Drop a comment below or message me on Twitter: @researchfan.


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