Lead generation in the education vertical is in a state of flux today, as schools wean themselves off of older tactics, tidy up their online activities and focus more keenly on quality over quantity. Despite the fraud, over-shared leads and reputational concerns afflicting the vertical, schools are still ramping up their spending. The “2013 EDU Advertising and Marketing Survey” conducted by ForProfitEDU.com and Edufficient.com found that 54.2 percent of responding schools say they plan on increasing their lead-gen spend in 2013 from their spend in 2012, while just 7.2 percent of schools say they plan to rein back spending.
With more spending comes more challenges and opportunities. To help schools successfully navigate today’s waters and the coming tides, we spoke with some experts to get a pulse of the education lead-gen vertical and the key trends that players in the industry need to pay attention to.
Mobile, of course
The blooming adoption of mobile devices seems to be affecting every nook and cranny of the world, and the education lead-gen realm isn’t impervious to this wave. “In an always-connected world, reaching potential students when and where they are ready to engage is critical,” says Jeremy Mayes, marketing director for Escoffier Online. He notes that being successful in today’s EDU lead-gen environment requires a mastery over mobile advertising and the post-click experience, which includes mobile usability.
Steffan Berelowitz, CEO of Bluetrain Mobile, notes that many of his company’s higher-education clients are responding to the dramatic increases in traffic from smartphones and tablets they’re seeing.
These schools a hardly exceptions: HigherEdExpert.com’s 2013 “State of the Mobile and Responsive Web in Higher Ed” survey found that 95 percent of respondents without a mobile solution (e.g., mobile website, responsive website, native mobile device apps, etc.) plan on implementing one in the near future, up from 74 percent who said the same in last year’s survey. Of this segment, 85 percent say they plan on implementing a mobile solution less than a year from now.
“Our higher-education customers typically prioritize lead generation as a top goal for their dedicated mobile websites, and many of them have adopted the use of specially tailored mobile landing pages to capture new leads,” Berelowitz says. He points to the example of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), which created a mobile-optimized landing page integrated with Google ads, which were part of their “Is Food Your Life?” campaign. Meanwhile, Baruch College recently launched a mobile landing page to attract students to its summer programs and existing MBA and EMBA mobile-optimized sites.
Since today’s prospective student pool relies so heavily on their smartphones and tablets for a number of everyday activities, not to mention their search for colleges, schools that fail to provide a mobile site will suffer the consequences. “The moment a smartphone-reliant candidate lands on your dense desktop website and is overwhelmed by tiny text may be the moment you lose their attention for good,” Berelowitz says. “Schools are recognizing these painful realities and investing in providing engaging mobile experiences designed to meet the needs of their audiences and convert leads.”
He adds that responsive Web design will continue to grow in significance. The HigherEdExperts.com survey found that 51 percent of respondents with a mobile solution have already adopted a responsive Web approach, up significantly from the 15 percent who said they did last year.
Frances Gutierrez, project strategy coordinator at MediaWhiz, points to a major action schools need to take as part of a well-rounded mobile strategy: “At the top of this strategic plan is to begin growing a network of mobile affiliates in order to have established partnerships within the mobile space and gain a sizeable competitive advantage.”
Compliance and transparency
According to the survey from ForProfitEDU.com and Edufficient.com, 51.5 percent of schools say they’re concerned about the potential compliance issues or violations that may surface due to their lead providers and sources. This concern is a weighty one, according to Patrick McKenna, CEO of DMi Partners.
“Schools must continue to focus on compliance and ensure they are getting full transparency with the companies they are working with in terms of where ads are being placed,” he says. “This will help optimize their campaigns and ensure all elements in the process are compliant across the board.”
In a recent Q&A, Joeri Weyenberg, vice president of marketing for Kaplan University, noted that the education industry has made progress when it comes to dealing with fraud and compliance risks, thanks to buyers using more sophisticated tactics.
“Yet there is still a long way to go,” he said. “Call center-generated leads remain an issue. Adware issues are emerging, and there is a trend to shift from CPL fraud to click and impression fraud. Interestingly though, there are two tracks emerging in the education lead-gen space over the last year: there are those lead sellers who embrace change, transparency, technology and innovation; and there are those who are reluctant to step on the bus. The bus is leaving and stepping on it is not optional.”
Transparency to consumers will also become increasingly important in the future, according to McKenna. “Advertisers, media companies and analytical firms alike must be able to stay ahead of the privacy curve,” he says. “By providing transparency to consumers while securely maintaining all data – whether it’s personally identifiable data or Web usage data – media companies will be able to continue to invest in their content and advertisers can ensure they are getting the right message to the right consumers at the right point in time.”
“Compliance is not just CAN-SPAM and lead scoring anymore,” Gutierrez says. He adds that while schools view lead scoring as a valuable tool, “the trend in education lead-generation compliance is toward comprehensive compliance platforms that include the ability not only to quickly identify noncompliant affiliates but to integrate company and regulatory marketing guidelines with the reporting capabilities necessary to properly engage in efficient remediation.”
Out with the old (tactics)
Pardon the puns, but old-school approaches to lead gen in the education vertical just don’t make the grade anymore. “Colleges and universities have been able to avoid sophisticated marketing for generations because the demand has always been so plentiful, especially for the prestigious schools,” says Chris Cullen, managing director at Infinia Group. “As the information advantage has shifted to the prospects, who are now more educated consumers than in the past, higher-education providers have had to follow suit.”
This shift has meant that weapons such as viewbooks, alumni networks and older PR strategies have been dulled in what has become a buyer’s market, according to Cullen.
Data, CRM and targeting
Cullen also notes the plays higher-education institutions are taking from businesses’ playbook, particularly when it comes to using customer relationship management (CRM) software and data. “College administrators are finally discovering what leaders in business had already discovered before them, and they have opened up to marketing strategies that have worked in other verticals,” he says. “Data-driven marketing and intensive CRM tools are certainly not a new trend in the business world, just new to higher education.”
Data and CRM tools also empower schools to better seek out the “right” students. “This includes the proper mix of affluence, academic capacity and demonstration, and behavioral and ethnic diversity,” Cullen says. “In the past, it was more a process of just selecting from whoever chose to apply. Now colleges are building sophisticated national and global profiles of the most advantageous student population and they are building efficient communications pathways to reach out to the right prospects and progress them through the selling cycle. In other words, ‘the hunter has become the hunted.’”
Text is (almost) dead; long live video
While declaring the death of written text might be too dramatic, the shift toward video consumption is a trend that demands the attention of buyers and sellers in the education vertical. “YouTube is the world’s second largest search engine for a reason – in a lot of cases, people prefer video,” Mayes says. “More and more educators and EDU marketers are adopting video, and that’s a trend that will only accelerate as production costs and difficulty continue to drop.”
A trend on the horizon is the use of outbound marketing to nurture prospective students, according to McKenna. “A lot of the focus today is in targeting messages on the front end to initiate interest. If we apply that same methodology to outbound marketing by leveraging behavioral and demographic parameters, it will provide additional targeting, triggering and segmentation opportunities to create a better message and target the right people at the right point in the buying cycle.”
Mayes recollects how companies debated about the necessity of a website back in the mid-90’s. A similar trend might be happening today, as players in the education vertical lag in the use of mobile apps. “Apps offer an incredibly easy and cost-effective channel to provide prospects with high-quality content and information –and, when the time is right, to capture their request for information about a formal education.”
By Jason Hahn