The competition for students in higher education has never been more intense. But, the playing field is not exactly leveled for a fair fight.
Flagship state universities and private schools with multi-billion-dollar endowments reap the benefits of broad name recognition and vast resources. It helps even more if your college or university has a successful sports program competing regularly in the bright lights of the NCAA basketball tournament or the College Football Playoff.
It's great to be a big fish. But smaller schools without the exposure of a UNC or a Clemson have to rely on traditional marketing methods and channels to reach their target audience.
With the web being the great equalizer that it is, a great college website and the right digital marketing strategy can help any school bridge the name recognition gap and meet its academic recruiting goals.
The question is: Is your school making the most of its digital resources?
Not every website is created equal. And, the older your site is, the greater the odds that it will not meet the high expectations of today's digitally native users. A newly re-designed site geared for full accessibility and mobile use will better meet the needs of your prospective students and your school's marketing staff.
But, there's no reason to toss out the baby with the bath water. If your site is not reaching your audience, but still meets most technical and accessibility requirements, there are a number of ways to fine-tune its performance.
For best results, it helps to have a steady approach that centers around content,
technical SEO, and paid search efforts. There are even fixes that can yield short-term
improvements. But before you undertake any of these efforts, you need to know as much
as you can about your audience.
Analytics: Build Your Information-Gathering Toolset
There are numerous ways to gather and parse information about your site visitors. Google's suite of products—Google Tag Manager (GTM), Google Analytics (GA), Search Console, and others—offers some of the most robust solutions.
Information gathering starts with the ability to track user behavior on your site. This is accomplished via bits of code known as tags. Tags are like a buoy system in the digital ocean. But, while ocean buoys are deployed to regularly send wind gust or wave height information, tags are programmed to send information about the actions users take on your site.
There are all sorts of tags, created to track a vast number of things. A tag management system like GTM allows you to custom-design, deploy, and manage tags on your site. In turn, this powers other intelligence-gathering apparatuses, including GA, Google Ads, and Search Console.
Google Analytics – All digital marketing initiatives should lead back to your website. As such, website tracking data in GA can help you measure the efficacy of all your digital marketing efforts, from social media to email marketing. This is accomplished through analysis of user acquisition data (what other sites/platforms your users are coming from) and user behavior data (on-site user activity).
Search Console – This analytics application can help you track the performance of each individual page on your site. Insights from Search Console data will help you identify high- and low-performing content. This information is useful during a content audit and other content strategy processes.
Google Ads – Formerly known as Google AdWords, this platform aggregates your paid search campaign data, helping you to evaluate campaign performance and optimize your ad budget.
There is a multitude of additional digital marketing resources that can further help schools gain insight into their target audience. While you might not need the latest, hottest tool or service, it never hurts to know what new capabilities are being rolled out.
Anything that helps you build a solid data foundation is a step in the right direction.
Short-Term Website Fixes
Once you have your data collection and analysis platforms up and running, you can begin assessing your weaknesses. This should inform your strategy for optimizing your site's performance.
If you're starting from scratch or know that your site is subpar when compared to your peers, there are a few tasks that can achieve short-term gains for your site.
- Non-branded PPC campaigns – To boost enrollment in a particular program or department, you can initiate a non-branded paid search campaign targeting one or several strategic keywords. For example, your ads targeting terms "top political science programs" and "best undergrad poli sci school" will help drive traffic to your school's political science department page.
- Update Meta Description and Title Tags – These elements provide important signals to search engines about the content contained on a given page. Missing, duplicate, or incorrect meta data can confuse search engines and result in the exclusion of your content from search results. Fixing problematic meta descriptions and title tags can help boost the ranking potential of your pages relatively quickly.
- txt file and XML sitemap updates – Pages on your website won't appear in search results if they are not discoverable
by search engines. An up-to-date XML sitemap accurately defines the outline of your
site, while a robot.txt file provides guidance on what content is important for search
engines to crawl. If some of your pages are not being indexed (discovered) by search
engines, updates to these files should correct the problem.
Steady Approach to Digital Marketing
Of course, you'll want to do more than just play catch up. To maximize the value of your site and get it to peak performance, you'll need to map out a comprehensive digital marketing program.
Your school's marketing needs are unique to your institution and can differ from your peers dramatically. As such, your digital marketing program has to be customized to achieve your school's objectives.
That said, any good digital marketing plan should mix in content, technical SEO, and paid search elements.
Higher ed websites tend to be large and experience a lot of content turnover. If there's no master plan for the creation, updating, and retirement of content, complications are likely to follow. A good content strategy will include the following:
- Keyword Map – Mapping your strategic keywords to specific website pages is a sound first step in developing a broad content strategy. The list of keywords that end up unassigned to a page is the beginning outlines of your content development needs.
- Content Audit – Pursued on an annual basis, a content audit can provide insight into how well the site is meeting user needs. The results of the audit can fill out the remainder of your content strategy for the year. The audit should be used to identify outdated content for deletion, pages that could be optimized to better meet needs, and additional pages that may need to be written.
- Clear Governance and Workflows – To help keep content development on track and aligned to the overall content strategy, it’s key to implement clearly defined workflows and a transparent governance process. GatherContent is an excellent collaborative platform for content governance.
There are a lot of aspects to technical SEO. Due to the high degree of technical expertise required, many schools choose to outsource these tasks to a third party.
That said, there are a few things that can be done in-house to keep your site optimized for search engines. One of those is a monthly or quarterly sweep of some key SEO elements.
The sweep should cover things such as broken URLs, duplicate content, missing/bad meta data, and missing canonical tags. Resolving such issues as they're found will help keep your site in front of as many eyes as possible.
And, as mentioned previously, keeping your XML sitemap and robot.txt file updated is always good for business.
Paid search ad campaigns can increase the flow of traffic to your website, supplementing your organic users—people who got to your site via a search result. These ads, shorthanded PPC for "pay per click," appear at the top of search engine results pages. Thanks to the prime placement, paid ads tend to be pretty good at bringing in high-value visitors.
There's a somewhat complicated bidding system that governs how paid ads are displayed. But, the short of it is, your account is charged when someone clicks on one of your ads—just like the acronym suggests.
Branded campaigns are an effective way to increase your school's name recognition. As mentioned earlier, non-branded campaigns can help you market your top programs and departments.
The key with search ads is to make sure that the copy and branding match the landing
page to which the ad is sending your paid traffic.
Beacon Knows Digital Marketing
Take advantage of Beacon’s complimentary website audit and see how your higher ed site measures up. For help charting your school's digital marketing needs and resources, contact Beacon online or give us a call.
Mark Bochkis joined Beacon in 2018, bolstering the Digital Marketing Services team roster. In previous roles, he’s helped higher education and healthcare clients with website redesigns and multi-channel digital campaigns, managing content development, SEO, social media, and other digital marketing efforts. A skilled communicator and passionate marketer, Mark takes pride in understanding his clients, identifying differentiating brand attributes, and developing content with a consistent and clear brand tone and voice. Mark is a proud alumnus of the University of Maryland, where he earned a B.A. in Communication/Public Relations.