Higher education… when “marketing” weakens websites

Higher education marketing: when marketers are a problem, not a solution

Just back on Wednesday from our fifth annual Customer Carewords partners meeting in Dublin, with Gerry McGovern and partners from Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Germany, United Kingdom and of course, Ireland. Always a special two days.

The focus this year was on the growing importance of “top task” completion on websites, especially in the mobile era, and the barriers that can keep organizations from moving more quickly in that direction. 
One partner reported that marketing departments are often a barrier to building effective websites. At first, that was a surprise. But after a bit of reflection, it isn’t hard to understand why. An “effective website” is one where people entering a site can quickly complete the top tasks they want to complete. The focus is on learning what people want to do and helping them do it.
Traditional marketing content: “We are a perfect place and exist only to serve you” 
Few people visit a website to read traditional marketing content. Too many higher education websites still attempt to make a university appear as the higher education equivalent of Disney World. Every faculty and staff person exists only for the success of students and every student is smiling from start to end of the day. That’s just not real. Most people dismiss messages like that.
Most important first task for potential students: find the academic programs available 
Smart online marketers know that what’s most important to build brand strength on a website is delivering a strong visitor experience so that people leave happy and look forward to returning. Consider the top task of more potential students when first visiting a higher education website than any other: learning what academic programs are offered.  
Academic programs: one click from the home page

On your website, can people find your academic programs in one click from the home page?

Not just a link buried among a sea of other links, but in a highly visible location that visitors will see in a 5 to 8 second scan of the page when they arrive?
Visit the Devry University home page. Note that right across the bottom of the page, large enough that can’t miss them, are the titles of the 6 major academic divisions of the university. Run your cursor over each one and the academic programs within each division drop right down. See a program that interests you? One click will bring you to the program.
Marketing as a solution: 8 to 10 most important home page links
Marketers will be especially challenged by the requirements of mobile websites for great simplicity. 
How, for instance, will marketers decide what 8 to 10 links deserve priority placement on the home page of a mobile site to boost student recruitment success? And if those links deserve prominence on a mobile home page, why are the same 8 to 10 links not also most prominent on the “regular” home page?
Marketers must be on the “solution side” of the answer to those questions.
Brand strength begins by identifying the 8 to 10 links that lead to completion of the top tasks that potential students visit the website to do and giving those links “can’t miss” prominence from the home page. That’s effective website marketing.
Brand strength is not built with pictures of campus buildings and smiling students, expressions of commitment to “academic excellence,” or welcome messages from presidents and deans.
Presentations on Top Task Design for Marketing Impact

That’s all for now.



  1. Bob,
    You have often mentioned that prospective students want to find information about academic programs quickly. I’m curious about what your thoughts are regarding what they should find once they select an academic program.
    We have attempted to coordinate our academic program pages so that users have a consistent, accurate picture of each department, along with some features or highlights. But we have faced a number of challenges:
    * While it is easy for our communications office to make basic updates to faculty members and curricular information, it is very time-consuming to support 50 different programs with feature stories or highlights in a timely way, especially with very limited staff and other priorities.
    * Most users appear to avoid feature stories according to our analytics, and these stories become dated quickly. But department pages can look pretty bland and dated without feature content.
    * Poor integration with the academic catalogue, which is not very engaging or easy to navigate.
    * Lack of assistance from most departments in maintaining their own sites, especially as we have moved to a more complex CMS system and taken on more responsibility for content.
    * Difficult to justify supporting majors with very few students, but these are often the programs most eager to attract more students, while more popular majors may have their hands full and not be concerned about marketing.
    In my perusal of other colleges, I have seen very few good examples of academic program sites that are engaging, easy to navigate, consistently formatted, etc. I’m wondering if you have examples that you would point to.
    I’m also wondering if there are any schools that have gone outside the box. For example, I’m wondering if it still makes sense for each academic program to maintain a separate website. It seems like it might be possible to coordinate catalogue, directory, and feature/marketing information at a higher level. This would potentially create a better user experience,make the overall site simpler to maintain, and encourage academic departments to support a common cause, rather than maintaining their own fiefdoms on the web.
    I would love to see future (or past) posts on the subject.
    Jeff Walberg
    Web Content Editor
    Cornell College

  2. Jeff, thanks for the detailed comment.
    We indeed need to talk more about this… perhaps 1:1 by email and later with additional blog posts. Certainly possible to expand on some of the points you raise and questions you ask. I am leaving tomorrow (Friday) for a conference in Australia… some time after the dust settles from that venture I’ll be back in touch. Bob

  3. This is perfect timing–I’m trying to address exactly the same issues Jeff is right now. I’m in the planning/proposal stages of a project to write new program descriptions for all of our academic programs, and the issue of how to generate and maintain proof points, feature stories, or highlights is a concern for me as well.
    Though we’re far from an official decision on the matter, we have been working on the model of having one centralized location for program descriptions, rather than having them live on the academic unit sites. It would provide a lot of consistency in user experience, as well as simpler maintenance, but it would require some change management with academic units, as they would need to reconsider the goals and structure of their sites.
    I would love to be part of a conversation about this, as well as to see posts about it. (If either of you are attending HighEdWeb, that could be a great opportunity to talk.)

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