Back in December of 2019, we were working on a UX consulting project for my undergraduate alma mater. I earned my bachelor's degree, like so many others, at a small liberal arts college (now university) in the midwest. Anyone paying attention knows the challenges small institutions have faced the past fifteen years. And unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic that's sped up the reshaping of our world is bringing several times the magnitude of hurt to these small colleges than the last recession did.
In the course of our work, we nearly always do a competitor audit. Analyzing how your competitors' websites are structured, what their digital messaging is centered around, and how their content is managed can be enlightening.
Now, calling out places by name or badmouthing people isn't a good look. Bravery would probably never work in higher education again if I did those things. But blunt honesty is also something severely lacking in our discourse around these topics. And, in the immortal words of The Doors, "the time to hesitate is through." Because when we take what is happening in higher education at face-value, just like I tweeted on April 17, 2020,
"The digital strategy (UX, Content, Social) decisions made in #HigherEd this year will be the deciding factor in which institutions stay open for another 50 years and which are forced to quietly fade away."
After analyzing three competitors to the university we were helping, I kind of fell into looking at close to 160 different small-to-medium-sized institutions across the country. I started in Pennsylvania and worked my way west and north. I covered a lot of ground, but there are still over 5,000 institutions in the U.S. alone.
These small community colleges, private liberal arts universities, and regional state school satellites looked remarkably similar. The most current-looking sites all used the usual conference presentation suspects: hero drone videos of campus, carousel sliders with a lack of relevant information to prospective students, and no clearly defined user paths to get into the admission flow.
Worse, they all looked the same — like they all worked with the same WordPress chop-shop agency from 2013 to get their new websites live. So to recap, these websites were: slow, dated, lacking clear user paths, and generic-looking.
What could be worse when a worldwide pandemic forces everything to go remote-digital than for your flagship marketing piece and central repository for business-crucial information to be indistinguishable from your direct competitors'?
We saw this coming
When I left my last full-time university job to start Bravery the year was 2012. I was in higher ed digital marketing through much of the previous recession, survived staff reductions, worked in Advancement, then IT, then Advancement again, and ended in Enrollment Management. I helped guide digital marketing in the mid-aughts and early '10s.
At the same time, I worked toward a master's degree entirely online. We knew the digital shift was coming. No, let me rephrase that. The digital transformation arrived in the late-90s, and the majority of institutions resisted or ignored it.
During the 12+ years I've been attending higher education marketing conferences as both an internal worker and now a services provider, the conversations haven't moved all that far. Back in 2010, Michael Fienen was talking about homogeneity in higher education websites. I've been trying to explain how we can do better since 2013.
Why are we not better yet?
If we take an objective look at the industry, our stagnation is due to digital marketing decisions in higher ed catering to egos, leadership that doesn't understand digital, and agencies that templated their processes and "strategy" 5+ years ago.
The writing has not only been on the wall, but university marketing staff everywhere have been waving their arms and screaming as loud as they can for years about what needs to happen. For those of you in this position and reading this post, let me commiserate. If you are in leadership at a university, I cannot emphasize this enough: LISTEN TO YOUR MARKETING STAFF.
Furthermore, while every institution is figuring out staffing reductions, furloughs, and where to save money, you have an opportunity to pull ahead of your competitors. Every school is scared, every school is reducing marketing spend, every school is confused about what to do for some reason.
Now is not the time to reduce your marketing staff. Now is not the time to stop spending on marketing. The higher ed marketing and advertising spaces are very quiet. This is your chance to speak out above that lull. Opportunities like this don't come along that often.
What you can do
Going back to the start of this post, the institutions that will be around for another 50 years or more after the pandemic crisis is under control are those that realize their current digital strategies aren't made for a digital world. And they'll fix it.
I do conversion rate optimization (CRO) all day for clients who already get this. What you need to understand is that your university website is no longer just your primary marketing piece — it's pretty much your only marketing piece. Your campus can't sell itself because you're no longer able to bring prospects there. Virtual tour products are just a glorified Google Street View and don't serve to extend any sense of energy or culture that a real visit does.
Your admission reps can no longer host a booth at recruitment events, your student ambassadors aren't giving campus tours. And yet so many university websites still have information about on-campus visits, a dozen homepage news stories that your prospects don't care about, and spotlight stories that lead to dead ends.
Do these things next:
- Audit your website and remove things that get in the way of prospective students getting into your admission flow.
- Keep your marketing people on staff, if you have them. This includes Social Media Managers, Content Strategists, and Web Designers.
- Set aside everything you think you know about higher education marketing and focus on digital methods with proven results.
And if you need help figuring this out, we're here. I've talked a bit recently about how our work pays for itself very quickly. It's because we only focus on the digital things that perform. If you work with Bravery Media on a redesign, UX consulting, CRO, SEO, or content strategy, we take your investment in us seriously.
As we've started saying around here, it's time to #LeadWithBravery.