Insights — How Does Higher Ed Compete In A Cookie-less World?

How Does Higher Ed Compete In A Cookie-less World?

Thought leadership , Digital , Media Planning / April 28, 2022
Sara Wallace
Sara Wallace

As humans, we're prone to the curse of inconsistency. For example, take my love/hate relationship with Alexa. When I'm arguing with my husband about how old Oscar Issac is and where he was born? I love the ease of just asking Alexa (43 & Guatemala, for those interested). When I'm at my kitchen table and need something I left upstairs? I love that our Alexas can act as an intercom and bribe my daughter to bring it down for me. But the moment that thing lights up with a shopping notification or tries to get me to purchase Amazon unlimited music for the ninety-billionth time? Hate's a strong word, but I'm more than annoyed. 

As digital consumers, we're constantly riding the mental line between what we consider convenience and invasion of privacy. We want the world at our fingertips to easily access information without continually feeling like we're being exploited for profit.

Higher ed faces the challenge of balancing relevance and personalization without being overwhelming and invasive at every stage of the enrollment cycle. The marked increase in conversation around privacy settings and the pressure placed on Google and Facebook in recent years to implement or increase targeting restrictions poses a huge threat to institutions that do not have a healthy data infrastructure in place. Marketing and admissions teams are navigating increasingly murky territory with the reliance on Facebook and Google for their digital marketing strategies, both morally and logistically. The looming removal of third-party cookies and growing big tech antitrust legislation only increases the urgency that marketers must take in shoring up their institution's data strategies. So, how is that done effectively and what should be considered? Read on for five considerations when determining the health of your higher ed marketing data infrastructure. 


5 Considerations for Determining the Health of Your Higher Ed Marketing Data Infrastructure

1. Your CRM and CMS are working together

One of the benefits and challenges of a digital marketing strategy is our ability to concretely measure success. We know how users engage with our brand, what they find interesting (or don't), and how we can deepen our reach. Of course, this doesn't begin to scratch the surface of all that we can measure, but often marketing teams become distracted by all this data and prioritize quantity over quality — often without even realizing it.

For example, tracking media performance across multiple channels. We can dig into which channels drive the most clicks or have the highest click-through rate. When we pair that data with deeper metrics like form completions, landing page engagement, or applications, it becomes actionable. The total number of clicks from an ad means more to us when we can translate those clicks into information in the form of contact details or content performance. But to do this well, we need to integrate our CRM with our website through dynamic forms, engagement tracking, and/or campaign tracking.

If you're planning brand-building, reputation, or enrollment campaigns for the new fiscal year, take a step back to determine if these campaigns are being built with landing page UX and CRM tracking. Most importantly, are you and your teams clear on how success is defined? Success can be defined as media metrics, lift, conversion, or more. The clearer you are during planning, the better your reporting will be down the road. 

2. Measurement is integrated and multi-faceted

Leveraging your CRM and CMS for campaign tracking is a huge step in the right direction for deeper insights and measurement of success. You're starting to build a web of digital touchpoints and gain access to information that can help you understand how they are connected as part of a user's experience. If your team is testing new platforms or content this year, it's crucial to evaluate what data can be available to measure performance with the right setup. 

Can you take a media ad click one step further and measure a button click on the landing page, time on site, or content read? The number of clicks on an ad may be high, but if no one stays on the page or clicks more information, how successfully can that ad truly be? Defining the ideal user action at each campaign stage (ad, landing page, email, application, etc.) will make optimizations more transparent and support marcom and admissions in critical conversations with internal stakeholders. 

3. MarCom and Enrollment teams have one source of data truth

Branding and enrollment are inextricably related, not mutually exclusive. While strategies and outreach will vary based on your goal, how an institution presents itself to audiences directly impacts an enrollment campaign's ability to perform. If you're not convinced, look at some of the data shared in Matt McFadden's recent article on how silos hinder the brand experience. As we approach the demographic cliff in 2025 and increased competition in key regions across the country, conflict among internal teams will only impede performance and create less successful strategies. Building a data infrastructure that accounts for marcom and Enrollment needs can include shared reporting in Google Analytics, Google Data Studio, or within your CRM. It can involve list sharing for targeting purposes and alignment or ideation on placement strategies to diversify touchpoints and create media campaigns supporting each other. 

4. Marketing automation exists or is on the horizon

Personalization is one of the latest buzzwords to make its way onto the marketing landscape, especially when referencing outreach to Generation Z and how to engage younger audiences. What should remain the focus of institutions today is how they choose to define personalization and how they choose to execute a personalization strategy. There's still space for automated comms flows and broad-based content outreach at every stage of the enrollment cycle. It ties back to the network being created for audiences and what the mix is between direct connection and automation.  

5. You are diversifying touchpoints with target audiences

Data from our 2022 CMO study indicate higher education's substantial reliance on Facebook (including Instagram) and Google (YouTube) for advertising. So much so that the only other platform not owned by Google or Facebook with more than 30% reported use was LinkedIn — a near must-have for graduate and continuing degree programs. At the onset of the pandemic, many marcom teams doubled down on Facebook and Instagram to connect with audiences, all while Facebook bore the brunt of the data loss from Apple's iOS14 privacy update. The reliance on these platforms will prove to be a detriment to institutions in 2022 as these platforms continue to remove targeting parameters for high school prospects, decreasing the ability to serve relevant content to these undergraduate prospects. 

Beyond targeting restrictions, higher ed marketing experts like Jenny Petty of the University of Montana view Facebook as more of an ethical issue, placing marcom teams on a house of cards. Institutions using Facebook as a primary engagement and advertising tool play a losing game. They are fighting targeting barriers and users' dwindling trust in the platform.

MarCom and admissions teams should be headed into the new fiscal year 2023 with diversification top of mind. Evaluating breakout platforms like Snapchat, Reddit, Discord, or TikTok for owned and paid presence is well worth the time investment. The targeting abilities of these examples offer more flexibility than Facebook and will make institutions less reliant on one partner to support engagement and deliver data.   

So, how did you score? 

Are you or your teams actively working on three or more of these considerations? If so, you're headed in the right direction. If not, there's still time. Activate your teams and resources to ask questions about content, platforms, and data use to determine where to start. For higher ed marketing to remain successful in this ever-shifting landscape, we must remember that the more advanced our digital marketing maturity is, the more human it becomes.

Sara is Vice President of Strategy at SimpsonScarborough and has spent the past 15 years navigating the ever-shifting media, brand, and marketing strategy landscape at agencies supporting higher education, healthcare, retail, and tourism. Previously at Butler/Till, she holds an MA from SUNY Oswego and a BA from Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Sara lives with her husband and daughters in Rochester, NY. Learn more about Sara and the rest of our team here.

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