Higher Ed’s High-Tech Headache

How do you do more with less? That was clearly on the minds of attendees at this week’s American Marketing Association Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education conference in New Orleans. As with other industries, many higher education institutions find themselves under pressure as they struggle to keep up with disruptions brought forth by the rapid pace of change in information technology and a change in attitudes toward higher education in the wake of the economic downturn. Tectonic shifts are moving the ground rapidly under the feet of an industry that’s traditionally been slow to change. Marketers are struggling to keep up.

Existential threats
The challenges higher education institutions face are existential: Flat tuition revenues and increased debt from a massive brick-and-mortar build-out in the ‘90s have pinched budgets, while rising college costs, cuts in government subsidies and soaring student debt have more parents and students comparison shopping. Is a given college worth the money? How much will I earn with a degree from this school? What’s the average starting salary from graduates of this school? How much debt will I take on and can I pay it back? What’s my return on investment? More than ever, marketers need to communicate value.

Higher education also has the movement toward online education to contend with, and the question of how online courses and free classes offered by the popular massive open online courses (MOOCs) from upstarts like Coursera and Kahn Academy will affect the demand for and structure of the traditional four-year brick-and-mortar education.

Disruptive technologies
Rapid technological change is sweeping the higher education landscape. College Web sites, normally slow to change, are straining to keep pace with the move to mobile and a student population that is increasingly doing college research online. This year, one in four prospective students did all higher education research online, and one in six education search queries came from smart phones — up from one in 83 in 2009, says Mike Mascott, head of education industry at Google. During a session at the conference, Mascott gave attendees a sneak peek at Google’s upcoming quarterly report on trends in higher education.

Today, he says, “Ninety percent of all media interactions now come across screens.”

Colleges now have not one Web site to worry about but two. The relatively new concept of responsive design frameworks, which enable Web sites to automatically adapt to different screen sizes, are a must, says Mascott. But that’s not enough in a market where the percentage of higher education search queries coming from iPhones and Android smart phones is rising so quickly that it could soon become the predominant method by which students view college Web sites. “You really have to have a mobile version of your site,” rethink what to present to the mobile user and keep it simple, he says.

Video is also hot, driven by for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix and other big players. Google reports that the use of education videos on YouTube increased 70% over last year.

According to a Google-commissioned survey of prospective students, most say they want to know about the features of the school, it’s culture and environment, and see testimonials. By contrast, what they sometimes get when they click a search link is a lead form to fill out for more information.

Marketers also need to close the loop, when possible, using customer relationship managment, analytics and other IT tools and best practices in integrated, end-to-end, data-driven marketing efforts that help ensure that those efforts are getting results. That’s not happening at all schools. At some, marketing efforts are fragmented, with data from marketing, institutional advancement and admissions departments residing in different functional silos. Data sharing faces cultural resistance. Even when everyone is on the same page, however, organizations face budgetary and technical hurdles in integrating that data.

I saw many tactical tools and approaches on display, using social media, analytics and mobile, but in one presentation the marketing people admitted that they weren’t able to integrate data from admissions to tell which prospective candidates brought in by marketing programs actually applied and which were accepted. While presenters spoke about successes in online video, social media and other technology-focused initiatives, others in the audience wondered aloud where they would get the staff time and money to fund such efforts.

And while I heard much talk about analytics, most of it here focused on free tools available online from Google, with Google Analytics, Facebook and others. “Higher education is ten years behind the market when it come to the use of analytics,” said one attendee. Another said that, with data in isolated in departmental silos, she and colleagues at other colleges often rely on their IT groups to provide at least some basic statistical information. Meanwhile, for-profit colleges such as the University of Phoenix are investing heavily in search, mobile, social media, analytics and other marketing tools.

I did run across one non-profit, Excelsior College, that has invested in business intelligence and building predictive models to help it target marketing dollars to those prospects most likely to enroll. But the online distance learning college has no brick-and-mortar campus overhead, which may help to explain how it has been able to make the investment.

What’s generating the most interest right now in searches are small, non-profit schools, traditional non-profit schools with online programs, and the MOOCs, Mascott says. That there’s opportunity for the small players is good news, he says. For the vast majority of non-profit higher education institutions that don't fit that profile, however, staking out a differentiated value proposition, integrating marketing efforts, and using technology to efficiently find and establish a dialog with prospective customers could be a key to survival.


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