Increasing Leads Without Increasing Spending

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Pete ColbertBy Pete Colbert|May 26, 2021

Spark451 has been partnering with a small public university and managing their digital media lead generation campaigns since 2018. For the first two and a half years of working together, the university mandated that we drive all inquiry traffic from our ads to an appealing, but standard, admissions inquiry page.

Due to the extremely small size of the institution, they were perfectly happy with the minimal results that emanated from these campaigns. However, the Spark451 team was very confident that we could improve the outcomes.

Launching a More Robust Site

We began suggesting a more effective solution to help the school significantly grow their prospect list. After more than a year of discussion, and a campaign launch in Fall 2020 that produced a grand total of 14 leads from September through December, our partner finally conceded. They took us up on our offer to build a campaign-specific landing page based on our industry best-practices approach, reallocating the budget for the remaining media spend to create a site that would make a greater impact on the audience.

We launched the new landing page in January 2021, utilizing powerful techniques for engaging students. Within one week, we had matched the total leads generated in four months on the prior page. The campaign just wrapped up, and the new page has produced 85 leads—a 500% increase in the same amount of time. And, since no additional money was spent, the cost per lead plummeted from more than $1,400 to just $250.

Expanding on Our Success

Our partner institution is thrilled with the changes we incorporated and with the improved results—which they had been convinced simply weren’t possible for them. We are preparing to begin a new targeted campaign this spring, and the first question they asked was whether we could create a version of our landing page specifically for this campaign, as well!

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We’d love to help you achieve a similar outcome. Reach out if you’re ready to discuss strategies and tactics we can implement to support your enrollment goals.


10 Takeaways From NAGAP 2021

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Mike McGetrickBy Mike McGetrick|May 19, 2021

As expected, the NAGAP 2021 Annual Conference took place online instead of its intended physical location in San Francisco, due to pandemic concerns. This didn’t stop the many passionate and dedicated graduate enrollment management professionals we affectionately call “GEMs” from sharing their experiences and challenges. And, suffice it to say, everyone expressed that it was “quite a year” as they walked a tightrope to make sure that students were receiving care and support that they needed, and that graduate enrollment was the revenue machine that college campuses needed to keep their enterprises afloat. We gained some new perspectives and enlightenment from graduate admissions colleagues, as well as from our Spark451 colleagues who hosted a webinar titled, “The Rise of Behavioral Analytics and Personas in Recruiting.”

1. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) is no longer just a movement. It’s an expectation.

Graduate enrollment managers are seeking new ways to provide access to graduate education for more students, but especially the underrepresented and people of color. One example of this trend is the use of holistic graduate admissions practices, as presented by Joseph Paris, EdD of Temple University. This involves the evaluation of the whole applicant, beyond typical GRE scores and GPA, to include attributes such as professionalism, concern for others, and multicultural competency. In a NAGAP survey, 95% of GEM professionals indicated a stated commitment to DEI from their institution was very or extremely important to them.

2. Domestic graduate enrollment saw an upside with the downturn in the economy.

Of GEM professionals responding to a NAGAP poll, 69% met or exceeded their enrollment goals for Fall 2020, with most of those opportunities being created online. GEM professionals reported using financial aid aggressively to increase headcount, given the current climate.

3. University administrators didn’t let the crisis go to waste.

As a result, underperforming graduate programs were targeted heavily, and 19% of GEM professionals reported the elimination of such programs.

4. Graduate enrollment management professionals are under pressure.

Budget cuts, layoffs, and financial instability at their institutions are sources of anxiety for many in the graduate admissions area. Moving ahead, uncertainty in the ability to recruit students is also a cause for concern. In fact, 45% of GEM professionals indicated that their working situation is very or extremely stressful.

5. We don’t always know what students value.

NAGAP survey findings also showed that what students say they value is often different than what GEM practitioners think they value. Practitioners tended to over-emphasize “successful job placement” and under-emphasize areas such as “accreditation” and “modern, state-of-the-art academic facilities.”

6. International enrollment remains a challenge.

In Fall 2020, the number of international student applications increased, but enrollment substantially decreased. Additionally, institutions reported that over 40,000 international students deferred to a future term. Travel advisories from the CDC and state-mandated restrictions all played a role in this trend. International graduate enrollment managers (iGEMS) will need to manage the situation carefully, bringing in students from abroad while balancing health risks and post-graduation opportunities.

7. Affordability and student debt loom large.

The vast majority of affordability and student debt discussions center around undergraduates, but the implications are enormous for graduate students, who owe a whopping $71,318 each, on average, with roughly 66% of that being directly from their graduate studies. In fact, graduate students borrow 37% of all federal student loan dollars. Institutions need to ensure that their students receive the appropriate value from their degrees to be able to repay those loans. Thankfully, the student loan default rate (at 9.7% for all students) is much lower for graduate borrowers.

8. Digital media has become a must-have marketing channel.

GEM professionals embraced digital marketing more than ever, with 60% indicating an increase in digital marketing spending over the last year. With its efficiency of targeting and trackable analytics, budget-challenged graduate admissions offices are embracing social media marketing, search engine marketing, and the full continuum of digital presence.

9. Graduate students value timely and personal outreach.

In our partner session with Element451, we discussed how we use personalization, behavioral targeting, and automation to create more timely and relevant communications. These techniques yielded a doubling of engagement rates from 40% to 80%. You can access the Spark451 NAGAP 2021 webinar, The Rise of Behavioral Analytics and Personas in Recruiting, here.

10. Virtual is nice, but in-person is what we seek.

The overall mood of the colleagues I spoke with was an appreciation for the convenience of the online conference, but an overwhelming preference to be in person at next year’s enrollment summit. So, with that… I’ll just say I hope to see you all in Chicago at NAGAP 2022 for some deep-dish pizza and a live, in-person experience.

To discuss more about the current state of graduate enrollment, or how Spark451 can help elevate your own recruitment practices, reach out to our team today!


Post-Pandemic Recruitment Planning

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Spark451 Strategy TeamBy Spark451 Strategy Team|April 29, 2021

There is no denying the challenges many institutions have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Higher education experienced an accelerated growth of already-ongoing trends, such as test-optional admissions, value-forward marketing, and outcomes-driven decisions by consumers. Looking past the Fall 2021 enrollment cycle, colleges and universities have an unparalleled opportunity to expand on certain policies and practices implemented due to the pandemic. In fact, we firmly believe that with the right planning, institutions can not only survive—but thrive—long beyond the pandemic.

Here are a few key things enrollment managers like yourself should keep in mind when planning for the long term:

1. Continually innovate ways to identify new leads

In the last year, the shift in test requirements for admission and test-source list availability left many schools scrambling to supplement their normal name purchasing strategy. It will be imperative to expand and pioneer ways in which you build your enrollment funnel with sources outside of the typical name buy.

To get started, meet students where they are—online. Digital media lead-gen campaigns and influencer marketing are both great ways to capture new leads.

2. Promote contemporary career-focused programs

Capitalize on what’s hot. Pandemic-driven lockdown inspired many to explore ways in which they could help not only our first responders, but also help our world overcome the challenge we were collectively facing. This movement really resonated with Gen Z students, who have been described as “highly focused on having a positive impact on the world, which may be even more important than their jobs,” to shift their major and explore new careers in areas such as health care, nursing, public health, even politics. Many are even returning to school for a second degree in those disciplines.

To tap into this movement, try creating a multi-media and dynamic recruitment plan for trending careers. Utilize student outcomes stories and highlight job placements to connect with prospective students through storytelling. Make it clear how the degree programs you’re highlighting provided these individuals the credentials and experience to make an impact in their area of focus.

3. Keep your delivery formats nimble

After a year of hybrid or online learning, students expect institutions to implement virtual delivery formats seamlessly. At the same time, many students are itching to be in person on the campuses they love. When planning for your new normal, make sure you know your specific audiences and have the data to understand which learning methods they desire so you can meet their needs.

4. Don’t completely shift back to “what we used to do”

When the world shut down, so did all traditional recruitment tactics such as travel, campus events, etc. (all of which can carry a pretty hefty price tag). To compensate and carry our institutions over the Fall 2021 recruitment finish line, most enrollment managers reallocated their budgets and invested in non-traditional tactics such as ramped up digital media efforts, unconventional mailing touchpoints, and list buys from newly identified sources.

Now, as the world starts to shift back to a bit of normalcy and traditional recruitment activities resume, be sure to analyze the effectiveness of those non-traditional survival tactics and think twice before jettisoning them for the sake of regaining your travel budget. Leverage performance analytics and showcase the ROI they provided during a time of uncertainty and advocate for additional budget, if needed. In your effort to thrive, consider maintaining a mixed approach of traditional recruitment efforts and your most successful “survival tactics.”

Let's Plan Together

As your enrollment strategy and marketing partners, all of us at Spark451 are here to help you determine specific tactics that will keep your enrollment funnel full of qualified students for years to come.

Reach out so we can discuss specific ways your institution can prepare for the post-COVID recruitment era.


It’s the Final (Enrollment) Countdown

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Bill SliwaBy Bill Sliwa|April 1, 2021

I recently had the great honor of co-presenting at the virtual Indiana ACAC Conference and offering my and Spark451’s collective insights on the student and parent trends we’ve been seeing over the prior eight weeks. A core part of the healthy discussion centered on how critical it is to take action now to meet your institution’s fall enrollment goals. A number of attendees reached out afterward and encouraged me to share some of these tactics with more of you in the field, which is what brings us all together here.

First, a little context: Spark451’s original research continues to show that many current high school seniors are still considering which colleges to apply to and attend. Also, many may be scrambling to adjust their plans once decisions and aid are distributed. These are no longer “late applicants,” rather, they are this year’s norm. Treat them as you would Early Decision applications—develop a fast track system to evaluate them, and if they qualify, get them admitted. Upon application submission, reach out immediately to make sure the family has filed for financial aid. You may even consider throwing your preferred financial aid cut off date in the trash and extending or eliminating it altogether!

Now, here are some proven strategies you can implement right away that have the potential to pay dividends over the coming weeks:

1. Don’t give up on your inquiry pool—engage them

We’ve all seen the news: The big-name schools are receiving more application submissions than ever before. But what these applying students and their families might not realize is that those same schools will not be admitting more students, and there will be plenty of rejection, waitlist, and deferral letters hitting homes and inboxes this month. If you are among the professionals at the some 2,500 smaller, regional schools throughout the country, you might be asking yourself, “What does that mean for me?” A lot of those non-engaged names on your list may soon be looking for an attractive financial aid package at a school close to home. Now’s the time to be sending out engagement communications and action-prompting tools for high school seniors. As examples, Spark451 utilizes tactics like Prospective Student Surveys, Express Applications, and web retargeting ads to re-engage those students and drive in late-cycle applications.

2. Check in with key stakeholders at your feeder schools

School counselors are just as stressed out as you are, or perhaps even more. They are the direct link to the families of your prospective students and can be your greatest ally right now, especially if students are not getting into the schools to which they applied. You’ve built strong relationships with these colleagues over years, so don’t let COVID get in the way of checking in on your friends.

3. Release your summer or fall opening plans as soon as possible

Students are eager for the traditional college experience, on campus and in the classroom. Give them hope by releasing your fall plans as soon as you can. Reassure students, and their families, that their experience at your school will have some sense of normalcy. The best way to do this would be to utilize video assets to show them what your on-campus experience was like before COVID. Also, plan homecoming events now, as alumni will wish to get back on campus as well. Your reopening will be a major event, and we can assist you with executing this.

4. Find a way to get admitted students to your campus safely

COVID has not completely diminished, so it is important that your admitted students and their families know they will be able to visit campus safely. Anti-melt efforts for admitted students are important during this non-traditional time. Get students excited by explaining how your campus will look in the fall, and get their families excited by showing them that their child will enjoy a safe campus experience.

Spark451 is ready and well equipped to assist you in reviewing your current strategies, developing new initiatives and seeing this through to the finish line. Feel free to reach out so we can discuss specific approaches for your institution.


Author's Note

As I put together this blog, I couldn’t help but to reflect more on the most trying year of our careers…

As we enter the traditional ACAC season, it appears that all of the regional conferences will be virtual again, and this concerns me when I think about the missed professional development opportunities for young staff members (some of whom have not yet even had a traditional fall travel experience!). In order to help replace these opportunities with in-house solutions, I suggest having your staff members attend webinars—we have a whole library available here on our blog at spark451.com.

As you review year-over-year reports, I suggest looking at day-over-day reports from this time last year. You may be pleasantly surprised. Evaluate what you did last spring, and reflect on what went right and what did not.

Consider the impact of a second straight spring without college fairs and what you can do to mediate that. Do you have a solid digital marketing plan in place for lead generation and nurturing campaigns? Are you using all of the right platforms? The strategy and digital media teams at Spark451 are happy to audit your activities and provide guidance.

Lastly, check in on your staff—it has been a challenge for them, as well. They may have children at home or in college, a spouse who has lost a job, or family and friends who contracted COVID. Take care of your people, and they will take care of their jobs. The time-honored staff retreats and in-office birthday celebrations are not the same in a virtual format, so make sure to connect on a personal level. Taking care of your staff, and yourself, is critical as the past year has taken its toll on all of us.

I hope you all continue to stay safe as clearer skies are on the horizon. Looking forward to seeing you all again soon.

Bill


Virtual Commencement Vector Graphic

Deliver a Powerful Virtual Commencement Experience

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Spark451 Strategy TeamBy Spark451 Strategy Team|March 16, 2021

Graduation season is just about here! Even though we’re all grateful that national COVID-19 cases are finally dropping, you’re probably still feeling pressure to avoid a risky in-person event. Don’t worry—you can pull off an engaging virtual commencement experience, and we can help.

Spark451’s Virtual Commencement Support Package includes everything you need to deliver an event that is both memorable and special enough to satisfy your hard-working graduates and their families.

Check out the details, and then, reach out to discuss specific plans for your school!


iOS 14 Phone

The iOS 14 Update: How It May Impact Higher Ed

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Nicole PieringBy Nicole Piering|March 5, 2021

This spring, Apple is expected to release a significant update to the privacy settings on its iOS 14. The changes—which favor transparency for end-users over the targeting needs of marketers—could create significant hurdles for digital marketers in the higher education realm and beyond.

To help you understand how the forthcoming update may impact your campaigns, we’ll answer some of the key questions you’re probably asking yourself right about now.

iOS 14 notification examples

So, What’s Happening With iOS 14?

With the new update, whenever users on iOS 14 launch a new app, they will now receive a prompt as part of Apple’s new App Tracking Transparency (ATT) feature that gives them a new type of control over who can access their data. The prompt will alert the user that their data may be collected, and they’ll be asked to choose whether they want to opt in or opt out of this tracking. This prompt will appear across all apps on iOS 14 devices, and we suspect that many tech-savvy users will opt out. (Until now, the default was to automatically opt in all users. In order to opt out, they had to know where to find the option in their settings.)

What Are the Ad Targeting Implications?

As an advertiser, it’s important to remember how much information these apps typically deliver about an individual’s circumstances and preferences. From web browsing history to TikTok videos watched and Facebook ads clicked, these apps track their users across the digital landscape, building demographic and psychographic profiles that can then be used in personalized ad targeting across digital platforms.

Basically, allowing users the ability to opt out of third-party tracking may limit the targeting personas we can build when we advertise. When it comes to Apple users, we’ll no longer have as robust targeting options available to use on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, or on display networks. This change won’t affect those who use Android phones, which are actually more popular worldwide than Apple devices. However, these changes may require digital marketers to get more creative in their targeting for Apple users. For example, in higher education, this may mean relying on alternative targeting strategies, such as creating lookalike audiences based on prior campaign conversion data.

What Else is Affected?

In addition to potential limitations in targeting, the new iOS will change the way we track conversions and report on them. Previously, Facebook utilized a 28-day conversion window and a seven-day view-through window, which means that a conversion could be counted within 28 days of a user clicking an ad or seven days of them seeing one. Now, however, Facebook is shifting to a seven-day conversion window for clicks and a one-day view-through window.

In terms of higher education, this may affect the numbers of conversions counted on select campaigns, as there’s a longer decision-making process within the vertical. For example, it may take a student a few weeks to take a high-value action, like beginning an application or making a deposit, and due to these changing rules, your Facebook ads may no longer receive credit for an action taken outside these conversion windows.

However, we don’t expect to see much change in our typical lead generation campaigns, as users usually take lower-stakes actions, such as inquiring, more quickly. In fact, based on our cumulative historical data, 99% of landing page inquiry submissions occur within the first seven days after the user has clicked an ad on Facebook or Instagram.

And What About the New Conversion Rules?

As if changing the conversion windows wasn’t enough, Facebook will also now require that ad domains are verified within your business manager account. This means each advertiser will have to have a verified domain in order to capture conversion actions, and if that domain isn’t verified, or if an advertiser tries to run ads to another unverified domain, those ads will not run. To ensure your domains are verified and that your ads can run, you may now require assistance from your web/IT team.

In combination with this change, Facebook is also implementing new conversion pixel policies. Previously, Facebook advertisers could track as many events (leads, clicks, applications, etc.) as they chose, but now, there will be a limit of eight per verified domain. Typically, in our higher education campaigns, we only use about three of these events, so this shouldn’t have a negative effect on our campaigns. However, it could pose an issue for institutions that utilize multiple digital vendors or that have different departments running and tracking campaigns at the same time. To help remedy this, Facebook will allow each verified domain to prioritize its eight conversion events. Though, if no action is applied, Facebook will default the ranking based on what they believe is the most relevant to your goals, based on your prior account activity.

How Can You Prepare?

It’s important to understand that these changes are occurring soon and to start strategizing the best ways to work around them. For example, any client utilizing UTM tracking and Google Analytics should be able to link conversions back to Facebook, even if they aren’t tracked within the platform. Additionally, if your CRM is able to capture UTM variables when a user submits a landing page, you’ll be able to effectively report on attribution even with the Facebook limitations in place.

Google will soon be implementing changes as well, as they prepare to end third-party cookie tracking. As these changes loom in the not-so-distant future, don’t hesitate to reach out, and keep an eye out for future blogs. Our digital advertising experts and seasoned enrollment strategists would be happy to help you navigate this new digital frontier.


Adapting Admitted Yield For A Virtual Era

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Megan BrammerBy Megan Brammer|February 17, 2021

Sure, the Super Bowl just passed, but if you’re like most admissions pros, you’re longing for our own big game: Admitted Students Day.

For most of us, ASD has always been the most critical day of the yield season. During those magical few hours, we’d welcome thousands of admitted students and their families on campus to razzle dazzle them and help them feel like they are truly a part of the campus community. Then—like clockwork—the deposits would start rolling in!

Though we’re optimistic about someday returning to those good old days, for now, things are different. Thanks to all the pandemic-related safety precautions, most of us cannot host a mass gathering anytime soon. Instead, we have to find multiple creative ways to help students make the same deep connections to your school and achieve the same enrollment results in a mostly virtual environment. To help you get started, here are several out-of-the box ideas that may help you get students excited to enroll at your institution.

1. Safer, Small Events

Two students with face masks

In the last year, admissions officers have learned how to develop incredibly successful virtual events—from visits, to info sessions, and more. However, Spark451’s original research shows that as many as 60% of students won’t make a decision to enroll without stepping foot on campus in person. So, if your local regulations allow, it would be wise to look for ways to complement those virtual events with smaller, in-person events so you can give certain students an in-person encounter in a relatively safe environment. For example, you may consider inviting 15 or 20 students to meet with select faculty members based on their academic interests, or create unique opportunities for students to connect with current students or hear from campus leadership. Think of it as an a la carte approach to ASD, and let families decide.

2. Seek Insights and Address Concerns in Real-Time

Photo of student completing an Accepted Student Survey on a laptop

Even if you can’t be with students in person as much as you’d like, they still need to know that you’re always there to address their concerns. However, the distance can make it challenging to identify those concerns. Enter: the survey. This simple tool will allow you to quickly gather insights about which topics and issues are most interesting for individual students so you and your team can deliver personalized follow-up in a meaningful way.

We’d recommend sending one survey to admitted students, and another one to their parents, because each audience will likely have slightly different concerns. Based on the feedback, you might want to help a prospective student get in touch with a current student for more info about day-to-day life on campus, and you might find it makes the most sense to connect a parent with an advisor from the financial aid office.

You might even choose to survey guidance counselors as well, as a way of putting out feelers to see if they have students who could be a good fit for your institution.

3. Ramp Up Your Virtual Financial Aid Support

Photo of student completing FAFSA application on an tablet

As you probably recall, the financial aid office was almost always the last group to shut down on Admitted Students Day. Their sessions were always packed, and they had lines of people waiting to connect with them after each one. If there’s one thing we can always count on, it’s that parents need help navigating the acronym-heavy world of FAFSA, CSS, EFC, ISR, and more.

In these uncertain times, it’s even more critical to help families understand the bottom line. Make sure to schedule a steady stream of virtual financial aid info sessions, Q&A sessions, and one-on-one meeting opportunities. Also, think about adding more easy-access resources to your website, such as informative videos and downloadable guides, so parents and students can access them whenever a question comes to mind.

4. Be Ever-Present

Photo of student using a chat bot service

With so many parents juggling working from home, childcare, remote school, and more, it’s worth going above and beyond to make sure you’re there for them whenever they’re ready for you. Often, this will be outside of your regular business hours.

Since night and weekend events have never been more important, it may be worthwhile to get creative with how you schedule your team’s work time. For example, perhaps you can give your admissions counselors the option to take a day off in the middle of the week in exchange for running a live chat feature for admitted students in late evening hours. (When I say late, I mean like 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.—when parents finally get some time to think and those questions start bubbling up.) Thinking outside the box can help ensure you meet parents where they are, while also preventing burnout on your team.

5. Create a One-Stop-Shop Online

Photo of student using a personalized Microsite on a laptop

Even with the most creative scheduling tactics, it’s going to be hard to truly be there for prospective students 24/7, so it’s important to make sure that they can easily access critical resources online.

Create a one-stop-shop with everything they’ll need to know to enroll. Depending on your resources, you can either do this with a personalized microsite or by simply devoting a section of your school’s website. At the very least, be sure to include basic items like a checklist of next steps (enrollment deposit, FAFSA, orientation registration, housing and health forms, etc).

To deepen student engagement, take it a few steps further. Include residence hall room dimensions so students can start planning their packing lists. Add some content on dining hall favorites (“Don’t miss chicken parm Thursdays!”) so they can start picturing themselves on campus. Start developing team spirit by adding some game-day essentials, like the lyrics to your team’s fight song and victory song. You could even connect with your IT department to set up live cams across campus so students can get a true sense of campus life in the spring. The options are endless.

6. Boost Digital Engagement Opportunities

Photo of student scrolling through Spark451 Instagram posts

Social media is always a great way to reach students where they are. In addition to running paid campaigns designed to boost engagement among your admitted student pool, you should also make an extra effort to post organic content that will encourage them to pay attention. Try asking your admissions counselors or tour guides to share some anecdotes or interesting campus shots to liven up your posts.

Pay special attention to platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. All three make it possible to share interesting animated content that students can comfortably explore in a non-invasive manner, as the posts won’t necessarily require a specific call to action. Think of these posts as a way to enhance overall brand awareness of your institution in a positive, controlled way.

7. Swag with a Purpose

Photo of Spark451 branded mug, notebook, bottles, and more

Who doesn’t love a freebie? Since you’re no longer spending money on large campus events, spring recruitment travel, and other traditional yield expenses, consider repurposing some of that budget to develop some promo items that can help foster stronger connections to your school. For example, a celebratory yard sign can be a great way to help make a student and their family feel special, and it gives them a fun way to share their big college decision news with their friends and neighbors!

Final Thoughts

It’s important to remember that all of these efforts are best complemented by a strong admitted yield communications program, with targeted messaging designed to strengthen affinity and nurture students through the process from acceptance to enrollment.

I hope these suggestions have helped to spark some creative ideas of your own. If you need additional help planning out the rest of your yield season, please don’t hesitate to reach out. My colleagues and I are always here to help you determine the best tactics for your institution. We’re rooting for you!


Higher Ed Web Trends for 2021

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Spark451 Design GroupBy Spark451 Design Group|February 9, 2021

The web has long been the number one resource for students seeking information about a college. In 2020, this fact became more pronounced than ever, with students compelled to use the web to replace in-person visits, information sessions, and general fact gathering in their college search processes. The web took center stage as the virtual home for admissions.

As Spark451’s design group, we constantly reflect upon the essentials for successful university websites that are prospective-student focused. There is so much to consider when managing a website, and you can’t skimp on anything. From responsive design to SEO, and content strategy to accessibility, it all matters. As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, colleges and universities were forced to think differently about how they engage with prospective and current students in the digital space. It is in this spirit that we are offering this overview of key higher ed web trends you should be aware of in 2021. Our aim is to prepare you for the unexpected, and to help ensure that users anywhere and of any background can rely on you to give them the information they need to make a great college choice.

Trend 1

Drag-and-Drop Builders

Across the web, more visual and intuitive ways of creating content have become increasingly popular. With the WordPress 5.0 release in early 2019 came a block editor called Gutenberg that completely changed the website editor experience. The technology was slow to be adopted, but in 2020, it went mainstream with a new release and a more robust library of components. Thanks to this drag-and-drop page builder, the building experience is more user-friendly than ever. It offers content managers the opportunity to build their websites without expert knowledge of coding. A version of Gutenberg was also ported to Drupal to compete with the native (and less flexible) Layout Builder within Drupal 8.

How does Gutenberg work? All the content is divided up into individual “blocks.” Gutenberg has many different types of blocks, such as headers, quotes, lists, galleries, and so on. Add-ons like ACF Blocks Suite offer a comprehensive collection of ready-to-use Gutenberg Blocks to help you make a beautiful website.

Gutenberg Builder Example
Wordpress Gutenberg Builder

When you’re faced with unexpected changes or having to add completely new sections of content, a drag-and-drop builder is an easy, visual solution to get your pages up and running in no time. And while we won’t be getting rid of field-based content management any time soon, drag-and-drop builders let us create media-rich landing pages with speed and ease.

Trend 2

Content Is Still King

Users come to your site for a reason: the content! And when it comes to managing that content, you need a strategy. In the COVID era, we shifted our focus to bring events online and create compelling content for live interaction. Many of us even became broadcasters for the first time, mixing live video streams with slides and films into our Zoom meetings and webinars to get our messages across. And if you haven’t done that, you certainly will need to for the better part of 2021.

Another major content trend for the year ahead is the repurposing of existing video content to create new interpretations for shorter snippets and social stories.

And of course, many of you discovered that your site wasn’t as easy to use as it could be, so you had to rewrite and reconfigure your admissions section to be more usable and reader-friendly. (We often use tools like the Hemingway Editor to write more accessible, readable copy that aligns with a ninth-grade reading level.)

Finally, web personalization is becoming even more important in 2021 as students look for colleges that have their needs and interests in mind. We build personalized microsites to help admissions offices build even greater connections to students.

Trend 3

The Need for Speed

In many ways, web design is a balancing act. You want to have beautiful pages with compelling video, breathtaking images, and sophisticated typography, but you also need to ensure the pages load quickly.

In mid-2018, Google began to roll out a “speed ranking” for both mobile and desktop searches. In essence, if your pages were not fast, your page would not rank high on Google searches. This is an existential threat for colleges that rely on Google for up to 80% of their inbound traffic. (To check your site’s speed, go ahead and fire up the Google Lighthouse tools.)

Of course, prioritizing speed isn’t just about Google rankings. If your page doesn’t load quickly, the viewer will act fast and move on. The average human attention span dropped from 12 seconds to eight seconds in 2018, so we have to keep those load times short!

12 SECONDS

The average attention span of a human in 2000

8 SECONDS

The average attention span of a human NOW

Erik Runyon of Notre Dame did us the favor of analyzing the fastest home pages in higher ed. How does your site stack up?

Trend 4

Design Innovation

Web designers are always innovating, bringing novel content structures and components to your pages to elevate the experience for prospective students. Here are a couple we think are important for 2021:

Parallax Scroll Animations – These keep your page dynamic, layered, and engaging, and they’re so simple! Nobody wants to read a wall of text, so mixing in some images helps divide up content and provides some visual interest.

Secondary Navigation: Menu Takeover – Less is more, as they say. The less “clutter” you see in your primary navigation, the better. This menu takeover gives you the opportunity to decrease primary navigation clutter and create an engaging, interactive navigation experience.

Spark451 Website Negative Space Example
Spark451's Web Design & Development page, and its use of negative space.

Negative Space Is Actually Positive – OK, this isn’t really new, but it’s worth repeating. Adding negative space to your designs highlights your newly finessed content so that it is easier to read and understand.

Trend 5

SEO Awareness

If you build an amazing website, but its content doesn’t show up on search engines for important keywords, does it really exist? How can I show up for searches that don’t include my college’s name? These are the questions you will need to answer in 2021, as competition heats up to capture the attention of people who are searching online for undergraduate and graduate education opportunities.

SEO is yet another example of the web design balancing act. We want to give our writers the freedom to use their talents to best express our spirit and quality, but we also have to ensure that what they write can also be appreciated by Google’s web crawlers and machine learning algorithms. It starts with “technical SEO,” which means getting everything right in our code—from semantic elements to proper meta data structure—and extends into the content manager’s domain.

Keyword research helps us understand the words we need to target, and comprehensive knowledge of web standards helps us use those keywords with the proper emphasis for the search engines. (For example, be sure to use your most important keyword in the <title> tags and <h1> tags.) SEO is an expert’s game that can be learned, and we are here to help for those in need.

Trend 6

Power to the Pixels: Conversions, Retargeting, and Tracking

With recruitment and registering online becoming the norm, the ways in which we keep track of those interested users must change. You want to know when someone visits your website and how they interact with it. Maybe they’re interested in learning about your institution or the nursing degree you’re well known for, or perhaps they came to learn about an event you’re hosting that was shared on social media. In these cases, you want to be able to follow up with those visits and clicks to make sure users are getting the information they need and seeing what makes your institution stand out from the rest. That’s where pixels come in.

A pixel is a tiny, invisible digital marker that is placed on your website in order to keep track of a user’s movements throughout. Not only can it tell you how they got to your site in the first place, but it can tell you:

  • The time of day they visited your website
  • Their locations
  • New or recurring visits
  • What browser they used
  • The type of device they used (desktop or mobile)
  • And more…

Web Traffic Statistics
Web Traffic Statistics

With this type of information, you can learn more about what your users are interested in and make smarter marketing decisions. Ultimately, you’ll take these learnings to optimize your digital ad spending so you can avoid focusing on ineffective marketing campaigns.

Trend Imperative 7

Accessibility

We anchor this blog post with the topics of accessibility because, without it, nothing else matters. It is not a trend, per se, but a responsibility and, doggone it, it’s the right thing to do! Equity and access are part of our national discussion on higher education and those ideas reflect the foundational values of our colleges and universities. Everyone belongs on our campuses, and everyone deserves to be able to access our content. Of course, these values are codified into law in Section 508 of Rehabilitation Act, which states that any entity that receives funding from the federal or state government must meet WCAG 2.0 AA accessibility standards.

According to w3.org, “web accessibility means that websites, tools, and technologies are designed and developed so that people with disabilities can use them.” Many colleges have been slow on the uptake of accessibility, but are catching up in 2021 and beyond. Part of the reason accessibility has been tough for designers is that it requires some tradeoffs that may be difficult to follow. For example, some schools have had to use a different shade of their school colors to increase contrast (for color-blind readers), or cut back their use of JavaScript widgets that just can’t be navigated through voice.

At Spark451, we have redoubled our efforts in accessibility, standardizing our approach around the Axe Accessibility testing tools, and adding screen readers and keyboard navigation to our testing process.

In Closing

2020 was a disaster in many respects, but certainly not for higher ed websites, which stepped into the spotlight as the indispensable tools that they are. We wish you the best of luck in using your website to serve your student populations in realizing their higher education goals. And if you should find yourself in need of a web design partner, you know where to find us.


Webinar: Understanding Your Institution’s Whole Brand

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Spark451 Media RelationsBy Spark451 Media Relations|February 5, 2021

If you’ve ever wished you had a better way to uncover and analyze everything that’s said about your institution when you’re not around, check out our latest webinar.

Together with our new partner, Feedback (an ethnographic research agency), we discuss:

  • How the intersection of persona modeling with ethnographic research and “social listening” provides a more holistic approach to marketing
  • How to identify and analyze brand perceptions
  • How to understand whole-community behavior
  • How your target audiences make decisions
  • And more!

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

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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!

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