Higher Ed Web Trends for 2021

Month: January 2021

Rosario ChinesBy Rosario Chines|January 25, 2021

When I sat down to write this, I typed and deleted so many clichés about the kind of year we’ve had. Since you’ve also lived through 2020, you already know how “unprecedented” it is, so I’ll assume you won’t mind if we skip that part.

Now, for the real reason I’m here: I just don’t think it’s especially healthy to head into a new year without pausing to appreciate some of the good things that have happened in 2020—and there HAVE been some good things. (Even a few that should benefit the higher ed field for years to come.) So, in an effort to get us all in a positive frame of mind and motivated to tackle the new year with enthusiasm, I thought I would highlight a few silver linings that have resulted from the major events of 2020.

Silver Lining 1

Colleges and Universities Learned How To Be Nimble

Dare I say that higher education is infamously glacial? Well, it’s true. Our institutions each have a wide breadth of processes, procedures, programs, and regulations that tend to make us about as agile as a large oil tanker at sea.

However, when push came to shove this year, your institution’s faculty and staff made herculean efforts and demonstrated the ability to be nimble in an environment that required such speed and institutional agility. You have so much to be proud of.

First, you and your colleagues salvaged the Spring 2020 semester by rapidly and safely closing campuses across the country and disseminating critical information to students, families, and the community. During that period, I spoke with presidents at a few schools who were proud of the fact that they could make swift decisions that directly benefited their students’ health.

Second, your team still enrolled a new student class for the fall. You shifted very important on-campus events, like admitted student days, to virtual environments. You also worked to ensure applicants and their families had their questions answered and could find a place they would call home for the next four years.

Third, your colleagues figured out ways to work together and safely kick off the fall semester by introducing concepts such as hybrid environments, quarantine spaces, mask policies, and more.

These are lessons that you will carry with you for your professional life. Plus, now we’ve learned that higher ed can be just as nimble of an environment as as a tech startup…OK, maybe that’s a stretch, but you definitely moved from an oil tanker to a schooner. Congratulations!

Silver Lining 2

Higher Education Advanced in Online Delivery of Academic Coursework

For this silver lining, I reflect on a discussion I had earlier this year with a vice president at a major public institution/system in the northeast. She relayed to me the story that just a few years ago, as they were upgrading the connectivity throughout campus, the administration wanted to install webcams in classrooms for future use. At that time, the faculty union filed a grievance stating that doing so would undermine their ability to protect the privacy of their intellectual property, the academic coursework. They won that grievance.

Yet, just a few years later, your institutions were literally placed in a do-or-die academic situation and everyone involved rose nicely to the challenge. Before this year, some faculty had never actually used a Zoom, Teams, or Meets environment, but they dug in and found a way. And in an incredibly short time, they gave new credibility to the online delivery of academic coursework.

I like to keep things real and recognize that, in some cases, it was less than ideal—maybe even impossible. Some classes require labs or other in-person experiences, like clinicals and student-teaching, that are invaluable to achieving a successful program. Yet, still, for the vast majority of undergraduate programs, 2020 is a true milestone year for the online delivery of academic content.

(As a side note, for those of you who are in geographic areas where snowfall can happen, I think we just witnessed the end of snow days as we know them for all students from middle school through college. Academic evolution is happening right in front of our eyes.)

Silver Lining 3

Colleges and Universities Learned That Their Campuses are Important

If there is one message that came out of 2020 and the COVID pandemic, it is that the public truly values the student experience your campus provides and that many students want to be on your campuses–even if that means attending classes virtually. And the majority of your campuses delivered on that experience with safety and support in force.

In the late spring, we surveyed the parents of freshman students and asked them how they felt about their students returning to school in the fall. Here’s what they had to say:

You may think this applies exclusively to undergraduate students and programs, but an even more recent survey of domestic graduate intenders also demonstrated a continued preference for in-person learning:

Silver Lining 4

We No Longer Take Our In-Person, Professional Conferences For Granted

As professionals in college admissions, we have had the great opportunity to develop our own skills, connect with friends, and network with new colleagues through a wealth of professional conferences. They range from regional groups to national conferences and cover every aspect of our professional lives. Honestly, as a person who attended my first conference in 1991, it became easy to take these conferences for granted, and I sometimes considered attending them a borderline chore as opposed to a phenomenal opportunity.

Yet 2020 (and possibly 2021) took those precious opportunities away from us. Sure, we have all made an effort to make the best of the situation by participating or presenting in virtual conferences. However, much like students who prefer being on campus, we realize that the in-person experience of being with an incredibly talented group of people for a few days to learn from each other is truly irreplaceable.

My hope for 2021 is that we get to a place where we feel it’s safe to meet, interact, and enjoy each other’s company in person.

Looking Ahead

On behalf of all of us at Spark451, I’d like to wish you all the safest and happiest of holidays as we wrap up 2020. Stay tuned as we continue providing fresh perspectives, original research, and direct guidance through our blog series in 2021.

Meet Feedback, Spark451’s Newest Strategic Partner

Month: January 2021

Spark451 Media RelationsBy Spark451 Media Relations|January 21, 2021

Jeff Bezos once said, “your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.” At Spark451, we’ve spent nearly a decade helping college and university admissions pros like yourself use surveys, focus groups, and other data to craft marketing campaigns that promote your institution’s true strengths and overcome any misperceptions. Now, we’re about to take it a step further through a new partnership with Feedback, a Richmond, Virginia-based agency whose hand-trained data scientists and behaviorists offer voice-of-the-customer ethnographic research and analysis about how people perceive your brand. These fresh insights will allow us to provide you with a new level of data-driven marketing strategies and messaging that truly resonate with your target audiences.

Key institutional benefits will include:

  • Exploring how audiences make decisions
  • Identifying and analyzing brand perceptions
  • Competitor profiles and brand sentiment
  • Channel and influencer identification
  • Understanding whole-community behavior and best practices

“This exciting addition of Feedback’s unique brand of social listening and real human analysis is a perfect match for Spark451’s hyper-personalized approach to persona modeling, lead generation, and brand awareness campaigns,” says Pete Colbert, Senior Business Development Strategist at Spark451. “While we’ve always taken a data-driven approach to marketing for higher education, the additional insights we’ll receive from Feedback will expand our perspective and further enrich our strategic planning, allowing us to develop even more effective campaigns for our college and university partners.”

“While surveys and focus groups showcase how your many audiences (from the prospective student to the friend of the college) speak when prompted, our digital ethnographic approach using actual behaviorists to analyze how discreet audiences discuss, ask, respond, interact, and simply behave in all corners of the internet helps build a more complete picture,” adds Feedback Principal Dean Browell, PhD. “We’re excited to bring more of our solutions to higher education by formally expanding our great relationship with Spark451.”

Learn More at Our Webinar

Join Spark451 and Feedback at our upcoming webinar, “Understanding Your Institution’s Whole Brand: How Better Listening Enables More Impactful Marketing Campaigns,” to get more details about how a unified branding model for enrollment marketing, utilizing both persona modeling and ethnographic research, can yield incredible results for higher education institutions like yours.

Date: February 3, 2021
Time: 2:30pm EST

Reserve Your Spot!

Webinar: COVID + College Search: What HS Seniors Are Saying Right Now

Month: January 2021

Spark451 Media RelationsBy Spark451 Media Relations|January 20, 2021

We all recognize that this admissions cycle is unlike any other. Regardless of how well your school is doing in terms of applications, you need current information to stay on track and plan for the coming months. That’s why Spark451’s Education Research Division surveyed high school students in December 2020. Earlier this month, we proudly shared the hot-off-the-presses results during a 60-minute webinar.

Check out the webinar recording to learn:

  • What students say about where they are in the college application process
  • How COVID has impacted their plans
  • How you can best position your institution in the coming months

You can also download the full presentation!

Access Webinar

The Great Ad Pause: Why it Matters for Higher Ed

Month: January 2021

Ann LevyBy Ann Levy|January 15, 2021

The Google political ad ban began once again yesterday, January 14th. Just like in November 2020, when media giants Facebook and Google both implemented political ad bans to prevent misinformation about the election from spreading, Google has now implemented an additional political ad ban in the week leading up to Inauguration Day. Meanwhile, aside from a brief lift in Georgia for their Senate runoffs earlier this month, Facebook has kept its political ad ban in place since election week.

As a budget-conscious admissions professional, you may be wondering, what does all of this mean for our higher education digital marketing efforts? In general, as we look back to early November, it doesn’t seem like the political pause significantly impacted digital media ad performance for our college and university partners, but we can still glean some valuable insights when we look closely. After all, according to Google’s own disclosure of ad spend from 2018–2020 in the political vertical, between May 31, 2018 and today, there have been a total of 563,267 political ads served across the Google network—which includes giants like Google Display Network, DV360, and YouTube—with a total spend of over $745 million. Talk about influence!

Here, we’ll share a couple observations about how some of our partners’ ads performed during the last ban, and then, we’ll offer some advice to help you navigate your own digital media plans during the next few weeks.

Ad Performance Highlights

Looking back to November 2020, when paid media networks paused political ads, our clients kept running ads because it was both a pivotal point in senior search season and a prime time for graduate search to take off.


increase in impressions during Election Week


increase in clicks during Election Week

In one noteworthy example, a partner school who is our biggest daily spender in paid media, and mainly does targeted ads, saw a 13% increase in impressions and 12% increase in clicks during election week, compared to the week prior. However, the school’s cost per lead also increased significantly week over week, and there were fewer conversions.

Meanwhile, one of our biggest college brands—a nationally recognized university in Virginia—ran an apply campaign that week targeting a large list of prospects (read: a limited and defined audience, but still a very large group). They saw lower clicks, lower conversions, and a higher cost per click, compared to the previous week.

Looking Ahead

While the individual examples above have varying budgets and audiences, when we look at the performance of all our paid media accounts during election season, one thing becomes clear: Reach and impressions saw a slight lift due to less ad spend from the pause. However, overall, the pausing of political ads didn’t have a significant impact on higher education search efforts on digital back in November—and it likely won’t this time, either. Considering this, we advise our partners not to shy away from paid media campaigns in the next few weeks; prospective students are still using digital avenues to stay connected to their networks, and they’re continuing to engage with paid content.

Under normal circumstances, January, as well as the majority of Q1, tends to be a great time to run higher education ads for many reasons, but of course, this year it is even more important to get in front of your digitally focused prospects. In fact, we’re seeing the shift to more digital marketing for higher education firsthand. At Spark451, Q1 2021 is already up by 28% in planned or currently running paid digital media campaigns, compared to Q1 2020. Plus, after the year we all had in 2020, it’s no surprise to us that emotional marketing for a fresh start may be more impactful than ever before.