We tapped a group of experts with years of experience helping some of the best-known colleges and universities deliver engaging digital experiences to discuss key web strategy takeaways. Members of the expert panel included:
Muzel Chen – Senior Digital Strategist, Mediacurrent
Diane Kulseth – Senior SEO Consultant, Siteimprove
Steve Persch – Technical Product Marketing Manager, Pantheon
If you missed our webinar or want to watch it again, check out the full recording:
The live audience came ready with their most pressing questions on topics from personalization and SEO best practices to harnessing analytics and breaking down the communication barriers between Marketing and Admission departments. Below is a summary of what was discussed on the webinar.
Is personalization dead?
Diane Kulseth: I’ve seen some higher education institutions using personalization effectively by auto-populating forms. That can be really helpful to keep things seamless for the experience for the student. At the same time, we’re talking to a generation that’s getting more and more skeptical of the internet.
There’s a misconception that adopting new technology will automatically save you time. Technology, like personalization, can save you a lot of time but it will also take time to implement correctly.
Steve Persch: Technology buying decisions are often made on the assumption that by buying a tool, you will get to spend less time doing a certain task. I think a similar motivation leads a lot of people to buy personalization. They think getting a more powerful measuring tool will fix their problem, but it actually gives you more to measure and requires more of your time.
Muzel Chen: There’s also the issue of how do we use personalization effectively? Students want to get information right away and personalization can reduce these obstacles in navigation and process.
Personalization can mean many things, but in the context of higher ed, we can personalize content for an audience based on their common demographics and behaviors. But it also depends on your medium: are you trying to personalize in social media? Website? Email? Text message? Audiences have different expectations from each marketing channel, which is predicated by the amount of PII (Personally Identifiable Information) they have disclosed to those channels.
Depending on the context and level of personalization, they can range from convenient to creepy, and striking that right balance can be tricky. But when it works, visitors experience a higher level of engagement because of the convenience and they feel the institution cares about them.
SEO Best Practices for Subsites and Domains
When thinking about a redesign, I know websites should have ONE main goal, but how do you handle a few different audiences without creating microsites? For example, prospective vs. current students?
Muzel Chen: Some of these issues are mitigated by dedicating an area in your architecture for those specific audiences. But there are situations where it feels the content is servicing all audiences or only one exclusively. These situations typically result in microsites which can be difficult to manage.
An easy way to address those needs is to start with an audience-neutral page, have the audience self-identify, and place those audience-specific pages at a deeper level. For example, common pages where this occurs are: campus living, parking permits, and health services. These top-level pages will have content that speaks to all audiences and grows in detail as the visitor goes deeper into your site. The details can then begin to diverge by audience type.
Do you see any trend of separate sites vs. subsites for academic departments (or other smaller units) within a university or college?
Muzel Chen: Over the last decade, it’s been very common for higher ed to have subdomains (separate sites) for each individual department or school. But, these sites grow out of hand and become difficult to manage especially when there’s not any established governance for tracking content updates across all of the subdomains.
More institutions are starting to transition to the subfolder (or subsite) practice. It’s easier to see the big picture of all your sites and manage them all within their content management system.
How can one build a culture of importance for SEO across a decentralized organization (i.e., schools, departments, and offices, like Admissions, all run their own websites)?
Diane Kulseth: I think the biggest part is tying it back to what it all means. Whether it’s donor relations, increased revenue for the university, or admissions, tie it back to their goals. That’s first and foremost and all of that helps the website and it helps your students. It helps your donors. It helps your prospective parents of students to be able to better navigate the website.
SEO is great for SEO’s sake and building great traffic, but it’s also really helpful for all your other marketing initiatives to make sure that people are able to get where they want to go on a seamless web experience that loads properly and is easy to navigate with strong information architecture.
Marketing Strategy and Analytics
What are some of the challenges you’ve seen higher ed leaders face when implementing marketing technology?
Muzel Chen: Reporting. I often see data collection tools being misconfigured. Or collecting lots of data without really defining its purpose. Everybody wants to get access to analytics data, and once that’s provided, they use it once and never touch it again. Suddenly, you have 100 users and nobody is providing insights. Without data, all planning comes down to guesswork.
Steve Persch: You almost need Google Analytics for your Google Analytics to track who’s using it.
Which analytics data seems to be the most valuable to higher ed? I realize this is likely very organization or campaign dependent, but anything generally useful that may not be obvious?
Diane Kulseth: First and foremost, you want to have your reports on RFIs or requests for information and your applications, and then connect that to enrolled students within your CRM or admissions platform.
Beyond that, once you start digging deeper, it’s really important to start looking at insights like when people are coming to this page from an advertising campaign, are they actually engaging with the page for a substantial amount of time? Are they going elsewhere? How are they responding to your marketing messages? Can you get even more granular and start looking at the demographics behind them? Are these men, women, what are their age ranges? What other insights can you glean from your different tools? I think all of that can be really helpful, but again, start with your basics: RFIs, enrollments, and applications.
Overcoming Department Silos
Do you have any tips for how Admissions and Marketing can work together?
Steve Persch: Shifting to an iterative or agile mindset for your website is especially difficult when so much of a university operates on a semester or year-long calendar. There’s an expectation that you need the web plan for the next year or 10. Saying we’re going to do small experiments and get feedback week by week is challenging to accomplish in the higher ed ecosystem. However, I think that you need to find a way to do it with strong cross-departmental relationships across those silos.
Muzel Chen: We talked about analytics access as one of the technology challenges, but as far as a people challenge, what I see most often is communication. A lot of departments are still siloed — especially marketing and admissions.
A good starting point here is setting up a meeting cadence where you can share common challenges to solve and opportunities to pursue. For example, an ideal project is to link marketing and admissions data, which tracks the visitor as they leave the main site and enters the application process. Marketing could validate their campaigns by reviewing the application data, whereas admissions could personalize the student experience by using marketing’s data.
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