5 Takeaways From the 2016 Higher Education Analytics Conference


Did you miss last week’s #HEA16 conference? No worries, we did too! Though here at Zone 5, we make a point to keep our eyes and ears open to valuable Higher Education information, trends and conference highlights, even when we can’t be there in person. With that in mind, here are (Z)5 things to takeaway from the 2016 Higher Ed Analytics Conference:

  1. Reevaluate your SEO.
    Using Google Analytics benchmarking data, @karinejoly showed that organic search is still the primary driver of traffic to higher ed websites. And you’ll reap an additional benefit: those who reach your site via organic search spend more time there—a strong case for devoting resources to your on-site Search Engine Optimization.
  1. Don’t throw darts at the wall.
    A balanced approach to analytics, according to @joshuaddodson, is intentional, contextual and deliberate. It’s important to define where you are and then use the data to identify next steps. “Vanity” metrics — traffic numbers devoid of context — have no place in an effective marketing plan. Balanced measurement is key to implementing your social strategy.
  1. Tell a story with your data.
    Getting campus departments on board with analytics can prove to be a difficult task. Stakeholders are busy; to get their attention you need to create a captivating narrative when presenting your data. Follow @chase_baker’s example: reports should be structured in a clean, simple fashion to highlight key performance indicators, allowing your team to easily spot trends that affect your overall strategy.
  1. Integrate web, social and email analytics.
    Your college’s digital presence extends far beyond your own web site, and that combined wealth of data can lead to insights that can’t be gleaned from a single source. Channel Alec Baldwin’s Glengarry Glen Ross character and “Always Be Measuring.” @lizgross144 advocates using custom URL parameters for additional tracking on social posts. Use Facebook’s Power Editor to manage ad campaigns and create custom audiences from your website. In short, take advantage of the wealth of tools and data at your disposal. Yes, it’s a big attention investment, but a big ROI is the result.
  1. Utilize Google Tag Manager.
    Another great tool from Google that is being used by only 16% of Higher Ed sites, according to @UVMWebTeam. GTM gives you fast, flexible way to future-proof your site analytics — changes to tags and new tags can be made through GTM and do not require changes to website code. Get universal event tracking, better Youtube stats, debug options and version control. There is a bit of a learning curve, but the reward for that effort is the ability to collect granular data about specific user actions with a minimum of effort.

Check out the #HEA16 Storify for more advice on how to make data-driven decisions to help advance your school.

A 25/25 Perspective on #AMAHigherEd

(Image credit: Ty Wilkins @TyWilkins)Last week, I was in the great state of Texas to attend the 25th annual Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education, sponsored by the American Marketing Association (AMA). The conference was held in Austin, known to be a bit weird at times and proud of it.

I felt a little weird myself heading into the conference since I realized the Higher Education Symposium and I were celebrating the same anniversary. I’ve actually spent my entire 25-year career exclusively in higher education marketing so I was contemplating what I would experience in Austin and at the conference itself.

Austin, TX hosted the AMA Higher Education Symposium

Capitol view from UT Austin

The first evening of the conference kicks off with a welcome reception where everyone has a chance to settle in, meet old and new friends, and get geared up for the sessions over the next three days. I walked into the reception with a weird feeling like the one you get walking into a high school reunion not knowing who you might see, what the conversations would be like, etc. After only a few minutes at the reception, I was received with many handshakes and hugs, and that weird Austin vibe quickly went away. The evening concluded with some great Texas BBQ at Stubb’s.

After a morning run on the University of Texas campus, I was looking forward to the first keynote session of the higher education conference. I wasn’t disappointed. And, with all the buzz that morning around #AMAHigherEd, many felt the same way. The session theme focused on how colleges and universities should embrace the unique aspects of their location as they define and communicate their institution’s character. A first for any keynote that I’ve ever attended, it was highlighted by live music by Darden Smith, as well as, stories and poems from real Texas cowboys talking about the importance of place and showing a willingness to brag about who they are and what they do. A willingness to “brag” resonated with many in the audience but not in a negative context. If you have something good to say about your school and are truthful to what that is, go ahead and brag about. As I tweeted during the session, Bragging=Branding.

Ray AMA Higher Education tweet

Following the keynote, I was geared up to attend a few key sessions. One revealed the latest insights on how students and parents go about the college search and selection process and the overwhelming impact campus visits have on their final college decision. Another focused on the art and science of demographics and the importance of knowing and using the right data in making key strategic enrollment and marketing decisions. The last session of my day highlighted the development of a reimagined higher education website for Columbia College in Chicago. Amazingly, Columbia took their old site of over 36,000 content pages down to less than 1,000 with one purpose in mind…to create a site for right-fit prospective students only. It certainly paid off with inquiries increasing 44% in the first month the site was launched. Lesson here? Know who your audience is and create content (“stories”) that are relevant and appeal to them. How weird!

My last day of the conference was highlighted by the keynote from Dr. Ann Weaver Hart, president of University of Arizona. Dr. Hart shared how the University’s “Never Settle” strategic plan was the foundation for creating an all-new institutional-wide branding campaign. Her points affirmed for me what I’ve always believed…that an institution’s strategic plan must be part of or the driving force behind any new branding initiative.

All in all, this year’s #AMAHigherEd conference raised the bar as far as record attendance, the breadth of session content and the chance to have some good times with clients and friends. I’m now looking forward to next year’s conference in the windy city of Chicago. Until then, stay weird Austin!

Keeping Transfers On Track

Last week, the New York State Transfer Articulation Association (NYSTAA) hosted its annual conference at The Gideon Hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York, home of the famous Saratoga Horse Track. The location was indeed a metaphor for the conference theme—“Tracking Transfers…The Race to Graduate.”

NYSTAA and its members are committed to improving the transfer process and experience for both the student and its member institutions.

This was the first NYSTAA conference for Zone 5 2014 NYSTAA Conference Bookletand myself. Over the many years I’ve worked in higher education marketing, the focus has traditionally been helping colleges and universities attract, enroll and retain first-year college students.

I had to chance to sit in on two key sessions. The first was “Perceptions of Community College Transfer Students.” While many students are excelling academically at their community college, they have concerns regarding the transfer process and going from their two-year to a four-year college. Not surprisingly, cost was a major concern followed closely by the quality of academic advising available to them during the transfer process and upon enrolling at their chosen four-year college.

The second session, “Retention Initiatives: From Enrollment Management to Institutional Interventions,” was even more informative. The focus of this discussion was making sure that transfers not only have a smooth enrollment process but that they also have an engaging successful student experience enough to stay and ultimately graduate. As one of the session speakers pointed out, “for many schools, transfer students have been the ghosts in the overall enrollment process.” These schools must continue to monitor and proactively address the needs of transfer students just as much they do with their traditional, first-year students.

In the end, this conference helped confirm for me that transfer students must continue to be a key target audience for four-year schools. With the ever-rising cost of higher education, four-year schools can’t afford to not address the relevant needs of transfer students—from the point of enrollment and, ultimately, helping them to stay on track to graduation.



Spring Ahead in Higher Ed

A couple of weeks ago, we all turned our clocks ahead with an eager anticipation for spring to be upon us given the harsh winter we’ve had. Yet, by the look and feel of the weather outside these days, it appears that a warm spring is very much on a slow pace to reach us.  However, in the higher education world, spring is in full swing and that means it’s another busy time for Zone 5 with our work for our client colleges and universities.

Over the coming weeks, we will be traveling around the country (and abroad) meeting and collaborating with some great clients as we continue to help them to define and communicate their brands to prospective students, parents, alumni and other key audiences.  It’s fun and exciting work since each campus is unique—and working to uncover each school’s brand uniqueness does make for a great and fast-paced spring!

Here are just a few of the campus visits and assignments that we have ahead of us…


First, we’ll be heading to North Carolina A&T State University to conduct campus brand training sessions as part of an internal rollout of the new branding campaign we developed entitled “Aggies Do!” Following the internal rollout, we will be working with A&T on the planning and development of an extensive suite of external branding communications to be launched this fall.

Next, we will be returning to Marshall University in West Virginia. Over the past several months, we’ve been immersed in a brand assessment of Marshall including qualitative and quantitative market research. We will be presenting the results of our assessment and research that will serve as the foundation for the development of a new brand positioning and messaging platform for Marshall. (Oh, and if you haven’t seen the Matthew McConaughey movie “We Are Marshall,” I highly recommend it…even if I’m a little biased!)

We will then travel across the boarder for our annual spring kick-off visit to Algoma University in Ontario, Canada. Our partnership with our friends in the Great White North dates back to 2010.  Each year since then, we’ve had the pleasure of developing Algoma’s integrated recruitment communications. Over the last few months, we’ve also been busy on a new brand identity platform for the University. The new identity will be unveiled formally to the campus community on this April visit as well.

Now, let’s work on the spring-like weather…