Surveying Higher Education About Online Marketing

A few months ago, I wrote about how many higher education marketers need to become better educated in the basics of online marketing if they wanted to truly reach their audience. Fortunately for higher education, the eduWeb Conference also recognizes this need. I attended as an expert panelist and my agency exhibited, during which we asked attendees to complete a lengthy survey about their online marketing plans and challenges. The majority of respondents (66.7 percent) target their online marketing efforts toward undergraduates. Here are our survey results.

Tactical Plans

Acknowledging the obvious bias in the attending audience, our survey confirms a shift in higher education marketing focus toward online, with social media, search marketing, and video advertising tactics gaining the most ground. But this shift is still slow and modest. Perhaps this is because almost half the respondents (45.2 percent) said the biggest challenge to executing online marketing projects is having the budget to do so. When asked what percent of the school’s total marketing budget online represents, the majority of respondents said less than 10 percent. Why, then, isn’t more money allocated to online marketing?

The most popular online marketing tactic utilized in the past year among higher education marketers was e-mail marketing, with almost all (90 percent) respondents engaged in e-mail marketing activities. In the year to come, however, the shift will be toward social media marketing, with 76 percent of respondents saying this is an online tactic they plan to utilize. For either time period, search engine marketing only has the attention of little more than half the marketers, with 51.6 percent using it in the past year and 60 percent planning for it this coming year (a later response reveals this to specifically be search engine optimization as opposed to pay-per-click).

Other tactical shifts include video marketing and advertising (from 25.8 percent to 66.7 percent); mobile advertising (from 9.7 percent to 20.0 percent); online public relations (from 58.1 percent to 46.7 percent); and general online advertising (from 45.2 percent to 56.7 percent). Budget allocation to pay-per-click search engine advertising was rated least important by 41.7 percent of respondents. They seem leery, too, of paid-lead-generation Web sites — 25 percent rated this tactic least important.

Information Gathering

How is higher education gathering information on the online research and usage behavior of prospective students? The most popular tactic appears to be use of online polls or surveys (62.5 percent), followed by questions on application forms and independent research agencies (40.6 percent) and questions on entrance forms (37.5 percent).

Of those who poll their students online, 34.5 percent found prospective students directly type the university URL into the browser to find the institution, indicating preexisting awareness of that institution. According to respondents, student search behavior seems to indicate that only the name of the school — as opposed to field of discipline, majors/degrees offered, or faculty name — generates prospects. I don’t believe this to be true. Instead, student polls are likely not asking granular enough questions about the subject matter of their keyword searches.

As for prospective students’ search engine preference, 100 percent of our survey respondents said their students ranked Google as most popular. Yahoo ranked second with 62.5 percent, followed by MSN with 50 percent. Ask was rated least favorite.

Hurdles and Challenges

Our respondents have multiple hurdles. As stated earlier, the number one obstacle is not enough budget: 43.3 percent said their current annual online marketing budget is less than $10,000, which is pitiful. Other obstacles include limited knowledge and staffing (33.3 and 32.1 percent, respectively). Most schools (51.6 percent) are operating with online marketing staffs numbering less than five; 32.3 percent have a staff of one.

When asked what top takeaways they hoped to gain by attending the eduWeb conference were, attendees said:

  • Expand their online marketing and advertising knowledge in a general sense (ideas, strategy, tactics, buy-in): 42 percent
  • Learn more about social media: 33 percent
  • Get information on Web site development and improvement (from strategy to content): 29 percent
  • Brainstorm new ideas: 25 percent
  • Learn about new technologies, tools, and vendor products: 21 percent
  • Network with peers: 17 percent
  • Better understand search engine optimization, Web analytics, and e-mail marketing: 17 percent, 13 percent, and 8 percent, respectively

Let’s hope eduWeb helped.

View the complete survey results.

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