Why Higher Ed Digital Advertising Tactics Disrespect Students

Robert Kadar and Steve Roth write that there’s more to recruitment than lead generation.

August 15, 2022

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

In higher ed marketing, a pernicious and misconceived tactic known as lead generation is rampant and has been for over a decade. If you are in higher ed, you’ve likely seen ads on your social media feed that direct you to a webpage with a “request more info” form on top, some headline copy and not much else. This is because many marketing departments and agencies believe their main responsibility is to convert ad clickers into leads, for admissions teams to turn into applicants and enrolled students.

The problem: our experience across years of data from multiple institutions, schools and programs shows that 85 to 90 percent of enrolled students have never submitted a lead form, paid or organic. That’s just not how most real prospects get information on programs. They visit the website (and others) and do their research, maybe call or email with questions, then apply.

The leads focus often gets quite absurd: an ad click takes prospects to a landing page that only has a lead form; there’s no pesky, distracting (useful) information getting in the way of that marketing goal, or even a single link to the program’s website. This tactic does successfully deliver “forced” leads. On its face that makes marketing departments and agencies look good to the powers that be. But forced leads have very poor conversion rates to applications and enrollment—not surprising, because those ad clickers/lead submitters have never even visited the program’s website.

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

Higher ed marketers have been dealt a difficult hand: they can only interpret and act on the data they can see. Most colleges and universities have no way to assess what’s going on under the hood—they haven’t connected their marketing lead data with application and enrollment data—a difficult feat given the silos between marketing and enrollment departments and their use of different database systems. Also, as anyone who is a CRM expert knows, it is extremely difficult to attribute the original ad-click source of students. The amount of data syncing, cleaning, tracking and processing can be like climbing Mount Everest with your hands tied. It took us years to solve what seems like an obvious and simple problem.

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

When social media platforms and Google search became the main channel for higher ed advertising, ad-tech companies began to sell not only their tools (e.g. landing pages, automated email, marketing CRMs), but also their methodologies. When the department we worked at 10 years ago purchased the popular CRM Hubspot, it was considered best practice for a landing page (LP) to be transactional, not informational. Once a user clicked your ad, the recommendation was to make the LP conspicuously display the “request more info” form on top of the page (front and center in the users’ eyes) with almost no other content or links to other webpages. The underlying and untested theory was: force the user to fill the form. Make it the only way to contact you. Don’t let them escape. No navigation links needed. Promise a “free brochure” or special information in exchange for their personal info. Email, call and text them quickly and sell them further!

Why were we treating our prospective students as consumers of cheap gadgets with forceful sales tactics? Because the ad-tech tools were mainly for that purpose, but we didn’t understand the different audience types. Purchasing a degree is a life-altering decision: it takes years to complete, and loans that can take decades to pay off. When you look at the actual behavior of prospective students, it won’t surprise you how rational they are. People who click on ads for grad 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.

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What can we conclude? To quote the legendary ad guru David Ogilvy, “The customer is not an idiot; she is your wife.” Prospective students prudently take their time researching your programs’ offerings in addition to many others. They are not naïve, impatient or easily persuaded by glitzy ads and copy. They spend many months researching and deliberating. Undergraduate and especially graduate students aspire to acquire a quality and reputable degree that they can take pride in for the rest of their lives. They know the degree will become a part of their identity.

Digital marketing plays an essential role in communicating with prospective student—your university’s online assets are their main sources of information. So what can we do better? Here are a few 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, well-organized information on courses and degree requirements, faculty, financial aid, location and facilities, ranking and reputation, etc. Not everything has to be a headline.
  • Don’t dictate how they should communicate with your college. Give them many options to reach out—email, phone, text, open house and info-session registration. They will ultimately choose what works best for them.
  • You can’t control their steps toward applying, so don’t waste time trying. Their online actions are clear: prospects don’t follow a linear path. It’s not a traditional marketing funnel or “pipeline.” It’s more like they hop on many stepping-stones across a stream before getting to the other side. They go back and forth and sideways on those 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 (such as your location, affordability, reputation and job outcomes). They are going to make the best decision for themselves. You can only differentiate yourself with what you have, and there’s 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 application outcomes. A count of started applications (paid source versus organic) is a very good metric for marketing departments and agencies.
  • Listen to and learn from your admissions and enrollment 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 makes your college stand out.

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

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

Smart brands know not to extract. Too many universities are engaging in counterproductive marketing—delivering a lot of leads and phone calls and turning off just as many potential students. Great universities have prospects who sell themselves to the university, not the other way around.

When we first began our career in higher ed marketing, we were under the spell of the lead generation approach. When we assembled the data, we were shocked. Because we believe in letting the data drive decisions and treating prospective students with the utmost care and respect, we felt it was our responsibility to write this essay. We in higher ed marketing can do better by following Ogilvy’s mantra. Not only will we do the right thing for students, we will deliver much better results for our institutions.

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Robert Kadar is the senior director of marketing at Yeshiva University. He has held marketing and advertising positions with St. John’s University, Cardozo School of Law and the City University of New York. Steve Roth has been practicing and consulting on direct marketing, direct mail and web advertising since 1991.

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