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How Coronavirus Is Impacting Digital Search

In this period of unprecedented public health and economic uncertainty, we extend our best wishes to you and your communities for strength and support.

We’d like to share with you recent data and observations of how the Coronavirus is impacting digital search behaviors and website activity in the graduate business programs market. This data includes a few graduate programs that are not offered through a business school but target the same market. We will continue to monitor trend indicators and will keep you updated as we assess the rapidly shifting demand for graduate business and related graduate programs.

Search Trend Data

Digital search data can be a valuable real-time source of understanding how consumer behavior is changing during this pandemic. Although large scale national search data typically has a one month lag in its availability, we have very current search data from a cross-section of our client base to provide a timely update of how the market is changing. We have compared week over week search data for organic and paid search activity to graduate business websites for the most recent two weeks, i.e, the weeks ending March 10 and March 17. While this is a sample, we believe it is very likely representative of the larger market trends.

Organic and Paid Search Traffic Trends

We have seen on average a 20% decline in website visits to graduate business and working professional graduate program websites over the past week (ending 3/17). The range of these declines varies by website but is generally from 15% to 30% down over the prior week.

We have also seen a decline of 20% in search impressions (i.e. searchers seeing a digital ad based on their keyword search) across paid search campaigns on Google. We note that there is a wider range of variation across individual clients for paid search impressions than what we see in the organic search traffic to websites mentioned above. Interestingly, while clicks on paid digital ads are down 10% to 20% from March 10 to March 17, conversion rates (i.e. those searchers who submit their contact information) are not down proportionately. In fact, in some cases conversion rates have improved on a week to week basis.

What do we make of this preliminary data?

Not surprisingly there has been a significant decline in the volume of searches for graduate programs and visits to graduate program websites over the past two weeks. However, and this is important, it appears that those searchers who remain in the market are perhaps more motivated and may be further along in their consumer journey for a career-enhancing or career-changing graduate program. We caution, of course, that this is preliminary data in a rapidly changing market.

Our advice to clients is to not overreact by pulling back sharply on your digital marketing spend. Digital marketing media spend may (likely) be reduced without cutting budgets because it is based on a pay-per-click payment model. As fewer people are searching and therefore fewer people clicking on ads, there will be a natural market-based reduction in media spend. Given the potentially higher motivation of searchers, however, we recommend not cutting your media budget, particularly if you have a media budget that was not reaching the full market of digital searchers before this downturn.

Lastly, we know this is a time when people working from home are spending more time online and many are very concerned about their jobs and careers. It is well understood that graduate education, particularly the MBA degree, can be countercyclical in its demand patterns. It remains to be seen if the expected downturn in the economy may result in future increased demand for professional graduate degree programs.

We’ll continue to share our data and observations as we all navigate the uncertain days ahead.