Strategy into Action - What TERMINALFOUR's Web Survey Tells Us

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College and University Website Management and Organisation

TERMINALFOUR recently published the third edition of its Higher Education Web Survey, which provides a glimpse of current thinking about university and college websites based on data from 298 institutions in six countries.  The survey offers opinions and insights on social media through website management to organisational responsibilities. 

However, four responses highlight contradictions in the translation of strategy into action that question the effectiveness of the current shift from websites being about content publishing to being able to further institutional goals. 

Most respondents (73%) say their institution has a published strategic plan with 80% isolating student recruitment as their web strategy’s primary objective. On the other hand, 72% of respondents operate without published digital/web marketing strategies and they use site visits as the principal outcome measure, 44% of respondents.

Deconstructing Higher Education Website Management and Digital Marketing

In this post, we parse what the survey reveals about the role of and the ability to use web content management and digital marketing systems effectively in fulfilling university and college strategic objectives. To add context and better understand the results, we spoke to Piero Tintori, TERMINALFOUR’s CEO who provided further insights from discussions with survey participants and higher education organisations, in general.

A response that so solidly identifies student recruitment as the primary goal of respondents’ web strategies needs deconstruction. 

The degree of competitiveness in recruiting students varies between the six survey countries (Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, United Kingdom and United States). In some countries prospective students have many higher education choices, in others the options are narrower: in some markets there is a surplus of places, in others a surplus of applicants. 

Within particular markets, not all institutions need to ‘recruit’: many universities have acceptance rates or offer ratios less than 100%. More specifically, some programmes don’t need to recruit: typically engineering, medical and veterinary courses have more applicants than available places. Even programmes that need to recruit may have specific rather than general objectives - increasing the number of international students or students with set prior experience or qualifications.

There isn’t a uniform need to recruit, institutional circumstances are more nuanced. University and college website home pages actually reflect the nuance. They don’t exist just for student recruitment. They address prospective students, current undergraduates and (post) graduates, alumni, staff, faculty, the media, government, business and research partners. 

In fact, it is the diversity of internal and external audiences that makes constructing effective higher education websites so complex. And, given that sites explicitly recognise this complexity, it is perplexing to see student recruitment identified as the primary goal.

TERMINALFOUR’s survey confirms that translating strategic goals into digital/web marketing plans is a problem: 72% of respondents operate without published plans. This result reflects the common experience that enumerating specific actions, defining desired outcomes and being able to apply the appropriate human and financial resources is the hard part. 

Translation is important, because the plan is the link between strategy and execution. Further complicating matters, as conversations with post-secondary marketing and communications staff reveal, is the fact that marketing and website budgets can be inconsistent, micromanagement is common and web skills and knowledge levels can be variable.

Strategy implementation is made more complex because it’s a process not a project. Effective execution requires stakeholder negotiations, experimentation with approaches, careful measurement of results and consistent funding. And, timely feedback needs to inform a digital/web marketing plan's specific actions to remain relevant. 

The survey results also highlight outcome measurement has room for improvement.  We know that most university and college websites have installed Google Analytics and many have configured it to collect reasonably ‘clean’ data.  But, as the survey reports, the most popular outcome measure (that is, a measure that can confirm strategic goals are being met) is “number of visits”. This is a default metric that Google Analytics can readily report.  As Avinash Kaushik likes to say on his web analytics blog Occam’s Razor Blog: All data in aggregate is "crap"

If the digital/web marketing plan is defined in sufficient detail, specific measures attach to each goal to provide relevant Key Performance Indicators that stakeholders will recognise and trust to show that the desired outcomes are being achieved. Carefully defined metrics also usually prove to be the ‘persuader’ in stakeholder negotiations.

Google Analytics imposes a discipline on digital/web marketing plans, because Google Analytics’ origin is in e-commerce. Its approach is tilted towards measuring ‘conversions’ and tracking behaviours that lead to conversions.  Forcing a digital/web marketing plan to explicitly identify conversions or similar specific visitor behaviours delivers evidence-based conclusions about how effective a plan is.

Reconstructing Higher Education Website Management and Digital Marketing

The four results we’ve discussed prompt the following actions:

  • Develop a written digital/web marketing plan. It doesn’t matter if it gets published, it matters more that everyone unambiguously understands the intended outcomes of the process of which they form a part.
  • Establish specific measurable outcomes for each of the actions you want different audiences to perform. Outcomes facilitate the recognition of success or failure.
  • Set quantitative targets. You need to understand to what extent different elements of the digital/web marketing plan impact the outcomes.
  • Set up tracking on your CMS and implement Google Analytics to understand if your chosen actions/behaviours have taken place and whether your targets are being met.



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