Lead generation has distorted admissions advertising (opinion)

When conventional wisdom is accepted without proof, bad things happen.

In higher education marketing, a pernicious and misguided tactic known as lead generation is rampant and has been for over a decade. If you’re in higher education, you’ve probably seen ads on your social media feed that direct you to a webpage with a “request more information” form at the top, a few headlines, and not much else. other. Indeed, many marketing departments and agencies believe that their primary responsibility is to convert clickers into leads, to turn admissions teams into applicants and enrolled students.

The problem: Our experience over years of data from multiple institutions, schools, and programs shows that 85-90% of enrolled students have never submitted a contact form, whether paid or organic. That’s just not how most real prospects get program information. They visit the website (and others) and do their research, can call or email with questions, and then apply.

The focus on leads often gets pretty silly: a click on an ad takes leads to a landing page that only has a lead form; there is no embarrassing and distracting (helpful) information that gets in the way of this marketing goal, or even a single link to the program’s website. This tactic successfully provides “forced” leads. At first glance, this makes marketing departments and agencies look good in the eyes of the powers that be. But forced leads have very low conversion rates to applications and signups, which isn’t surprising since those people who click on the ads/submit leads have never even visited the program’s website.

So why are universities spending millions of dollars on ads every year using a tactic that doesn’t work?

Higher education marketers have had a tough time: they can only interpret and act on the data they can see. Most colleges and universities have no way to gauge what’s going on under the hood—they haven’t connected their marketing lead data to application and enrollment data—a difficult feat given the silos between marketing and registration departments and their use of different database systems. Also, as any CRM expert knows, attributing the original source of student ad clicks is extremely difficult. The amount of data syncing, cleaning, tracking, and processing can be like climbing Mount Everest with your hands tied. It took us years to fix what seems like an obvious and simple problem.

Why has the belief in lead generation spread? Here’s what we think happened.

When social media platforms and Google Search became the primary channel for higher education advertising, ad tech companies began selling not only their tools (e.g., landing pages, automated emails , CRM marketing), but also their methodologies. When the department we worked in 10 years ago bought the popular Hubspot CRM, it was considered best practice for a landing page (LP) to be transactional and not informational. Once a user clicked on your ad, the recommendation was to have the LP prominently display the “request more information” form at the top of the page (front and center in the eyes of users) with almost no other content or links to other web pages. The underlying and untested theory was: force the user to fill out the form. Make it the only way to contact you. Don’t let them get away. No navigation link needed. Promising a “free brochure” or special information in exchange for their personal information. Quickly email, call and text them and sell them more!

Why were we treating our future students like consumers of cheap gadgets with high-pressure sales tactics? Because ad-tech tools were primarily for that, but we didn’t understand the different types of audiences. Purchasing a degree is a life-changing decision: it takes years to get it and loans that can take decades to pay off. When you look at the actual behavior of prospective students, you won’t be surprised at how rational they are. People who click on ads for graduate programs typically don’t start an application until six months later. An average applicant has dozens of page views on the university website before applying.

What can we conclude? To quote legendary advertising guru David Ogilvy, “The customer is not an idiot; it’s your wife. Prospective students carefully take their time to research your program offerings in addition to many others. They are not naive, impatient or easily persuaded by advertisements and glitzy texts. They spend many months researching and deliberating. Undergraduate and especially graduate students yearn for a quality, reputable degree that they can be proud of for the rest of their lives. They know that the diploma will become part of their identity.

Digital marketing plays a vital role in communicating with prospective students – your university’s online assets are their main sources of information. So what can we do better? Here are some recommendations on how to communicate with prospects:

  • Instead of trying to extract information from prospects, give them information – make it easy for them to find everything they want and need to make the decision to come to you. The best sales pitch is clear, detailed, and well-organized information about courses and degree requirements, faculty, financial aid, location and facilities, ranking and reputation, etc. Not everything has to be a title.
  • Don’t tell them how to communicate with your college. Give them plenty of options to contact them: email, phone, text, open house, and sign up for an information session. They will ultimately choose what suits them best.
  • You can’t control their steps to the app, so don’t waste time trying. Their online actions are clear: prospects don’t follow a linear path. It is not a traditional marketing funnel or “pipeline”. It’s more like they’re jumping over many stepping stones across a stream before they get to the other side. They come and go on these stones, such as applying and then joining an open house or watching a video of your program on YouTube for the third time.
  • Tell them everything that makes you great (like your location, affordability, reputation, and business results). They will make the best decision for themselves. You can only differentiate yourself with what you have, and there is no reason to hide it.
  • Stop measuring the success of your work by the quantity and quality of your leads. It’s a dead end. Find other key performance indicators (KPIs) that demonstrate how marketing influenced app results. The number of applications launched (paid source versus organic) is a very good indicator for marketing departments and agencies.
  • Listen and learn from your admissions and registration staff. They are your eyes and ears on the target audience. They can tell you what prospects are looking for, what motivates them, and what sets your college apart.

Tell prospects who you are, what you have, and why it’s great — and provide easy access to the information they need — and you’ve done most of the work marketing can do. Programs (the “product”) will always be the primary driver of marketing performance.

A myopic focus on leads and high-pressure call center tactics not only work for most schools, they can easily devalue your university’s reputation. None of us like our personal information requested in exchange for content that should be available for free from the start. Shouldn’t information about your program be publicly available on your .edu website? How many times have you been annoyed when called by an aggressive salesperson? How many times have you ignored these calls? Prospects know full well that submitting a lead form will get them spammed; those who do anyway are most likely… not very good prospects. The numbers bear this out.

Smart brands know not to extract. Too many universities engage in counterproductive marketing, delivering lots of leads and phone calls and turning away so many potential students. Great universities have leads that sell to the university, not the other way around.

When we started our career in higher education marketing, we were in love with the lead generation approach. When we collated the data, we were shocked. Because we believe in letting data guide decisions and treating prospective students with the utmost care and respect, we felt it was our responsibility to write this essay. We in higher education marketing can do better by following Ogilvy’s mantra. Not only will we do the right thing for students, but we will get much better results for our institutions.

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