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Don’t Take Digital Data at Face Value

As the old saying goes, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Yet another old saying declares, “Numbers don’t lie.”

When it comes to reporting digital data, we know both statements are true, sometimes. Based on our extensive work with business schools in the digital space, we want to highlight how digital data sometimes can suggest one thing, while digging a bit deeper reveals a different picture.

What the data says: The number of people looking for an MBA on Google is rising.

Using Google’s Keyword Planner tool and our own custom list of top MBA related search terms, we can see the trend for those keywords rising since 2014. So, the number of people searching for an MBA (and therefore the market size) is increasing, right?

Not necessarily. A common mistake is assuming each of those searches is made by a unique user, when in reality there could be the same number of (or fewer) actual people out there searching for an MBA program. With the amount of information available to searchers on any given MBA program, conducting multiple searches throughout the decision-making process is commonplace. This can lead to what seems like conflicting data where program interest may be stagnant on the school side but searches for that program are reportedly growing each year. This is why it is important to view Google’s search trend data as less of a stand-in for unique searchers and more of a representation of changing search habits in your target audience. All that said, the flattening line above is a worrisome indicator for the year ahead: It indicates, at a minimum, it may continue to get tougher to get in front of your candidates when they are searching.

What the data says: Year over year, search conversion rates are down.

When doing year-over-year comparisons in your AdWords account, it is easy to look at a decrease in conversion rates and think the account is underperforming and changes need to be made. However, just like in the last example, it might also be affected by users doing more searches during their journey. Between laptops, tablets, voice assistants, and smartphones, it is easy for users to do 5-6 related searches before converting, when in the past they may have converted on the first or second search. Below is a representation of what the search journey of an MBA searcher looks like today, in terms of the typical “terms” they use as they work their way towards conversion:

We know from the extensive work we do in funnel management, having a reduced conversion rate compared to years past could very well be a sign that it takes several levels of engagement to convince today’s MBA student to request more information with all the options available to them. This is why we look at several metrics when measuring the “success” of an AdWords engagement rather than only looking at lead conversions.

What the data says: Impression share for your weekend or evening MBA program is at 90%.

Impression share is one of the more useful measurement tools available to search marketers. It allows us to see exactly what percentage of the total audience searching for a program is being exposed to our ads, which can inform everything from geographic targeting strategy to budget forecasting. An impression share of 80-90% means you are reaching the maximum number of searchers for your program, doesn’t it?

Well, it does and it doesn’t. Yes, a campaign full of keywords built around an evening or weekend program with 90% impression share is reaching most of the users searching for those keywords. However, you have to make sure that you are covering all variations for your programs, even if those keywords do not match the exact name of your program. In the current search environment, it is not enough to just bid on ‘Part Time MBA’ related keywords alone. Searches for keywords like ‘Evening MBA,’ ‘Flex MBA,’ and even ‘Online MBA’ all fall under the umbrella of part-time programs, and every market’s search trends are different. So, when looking at impression share, we make sure it is covering all variations of keywords that could relate to our client’s program, not just the keywords that match the exact program name (hence the large keyword database!)

Final thoughts

To be clear, this is not an indictment of the data collected in Google AdWords or provided by Google’s trend tools: That data does not lie, but the human factor sometimes gets in the way of how that data is interpreted. That is why we work hard to put digital – and all data – in the right context, to ensure our clients get the truth about their situation, not just the easiest story to tell. Our clients will tell you that this is the key to their institution making decisions that lead to results. If you are curious to know more about how we approach digital marketing strategies and reporting, send us a note and we will set up a time to talk soon.