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80/20 Digital Marketing Reality

Based on our work with many institutions, we are sorry to report it is not uncommon to find examples of schools spending $100,000 + on a single digital campaign that resulted in no more than a handful of inquiries. Do the ROI math on that.

There are three basic reasons this is happening in a surprising number of situations:

  • The money is spent on poorly conceived strategies that have led to bad display ad placements, inappropriately targeted keywords, and other such misfires.
  • Increased competition, driven by more sophisticated digital marketers in the higher education space, has led to most institutions losing up to 40% of their market visibility in the past year. That means 4 out of every 10 people who used to see your institution when searching online no longer see you.
  • Most institutions have not made peace with the reality they are simply not spending enough money on digital advertising to have a chance of competing with the growing number of institutions that have accepted the reality that, in digital marketing, you literally have to pay to play. It is a new cost of doing business in higher education. Institutions that don’t factor this into their models will find themselves first marginalized and soon out of the game.

What to do?

The third point above is a longer conversation. Again, most institutions have to seriously rethink their business and pricing models to include significantly higher costs of lead acquisition in the digital age. At Eduvantis, we spend a fair amount of time introducing institutions to the data, models, and metrics that demonstrate and contextualize this point.

The immediate response for most institutions is to at the least seriously up their game in terms of the sophistication with which they approach digital marketing. Our experience analyzing many institutions is that Pareto’s Principle—more popularly known as the 80/20 rule—is alive and well: 80% of what schools invest in digital marketing creates little impact and 20% of what they do is responsible for most of the enrollment impact they do achieve.

Here is the catch: Most institutions do not have in place the things it takes to actually know which of their hard-earned dollars is actually making a difference. The good news is that, in the days of “Mad Men,” advertisers literally didn’t know what was actually producing results, which spawned the old adage, “Half of my advertising dollars are wasted, I just don’t know which half.” In the digital age, things have changed. Here’s what you can do.

The easiest way to determine what has historically given you the best results is to look at the past performance of your Google Analytics conversion goals. (If you haven’t set them up or don’t know if they are set-up correctly, click here.) For most institutions, it makes sense to track prospect and/or other website visitor actions, such as inquiries, information session signups, applications started, and applications submitted (sometimes more challenging if you use Hobson’s Apply Yourself, but it is possible to find ways around this system.) These conversion goals in Google Analytics can then be mapped back directly to measure your direct and indirect marketing efforts.

When analyzing your conversion efforts, we recommend using the “secondary dimensions tab” or the “reverse goal path” in Google Analytics to analyze the referral source, traffic source, landing page, keywords, and other points of origin that led to conversions. At Eduvantis, we recommend exporting all of your conversion data into Excel to make it easier to sort. After you have gathered your conversion data, sort all of your conversion sources and look at where the majority of your conversions originated over the past 1, 2, and 3 years. Using this approach, you will easily be able to isolate the 20% of your efforts that generated 80%+ of your conversion results. These are where you should focus and invest in your marketing efforts.

For most of our clients, these are organic search, paid search, and increasingly paid social media, which can be isolated all the way down to a specific keyword set or target. The least effective digital ads from a conversion standpoint are general display placements (like on popular news websites.) Over time, we recommend our clients use simple referral tracking source codes for all of their digital efforts to make attribution modeling with Google Analytics possible (finding the source and touch points leading to conversions.) It is always better to focus your budget and efforts on finding ways to make your most effective tactics work harder for you.