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Colleges use websites to draw in new students

Thick packets of glossy brochures, application forms and other printed recruiting materials are a thing of the past for colleges and universities.

“The website is a recruitment tool—and probably our most powerful recruitment tool,” says Heidi Marcin, Finger Lakes Community College’s marketing director.

Prospective students need only curiosity and online access to research college or university programs these days, and more and more of them have done so down through the years. According to reports from the E-Expectations research group, 62 percent of college-bound high school students surveyed in 2014 preferred to research colleges and universities online—about a 4 percent increase over 2013. At the same time, the percentage that chose to use print media or the telephone to look into colleges dropped by about the same amount—to 38 percent.

Greater Rochester’s institutions of higher learning have spent years beefing up their websites and established presences on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media sites in order to adapt to such changes.

“E-mail and print campaigns don’t have the same impact they once did, especially as were getting into the Gen Z folks, so we’re trying to meet them where they are,” says Scott Clyde, executive director of college enrollment for the University of Rochester.

Back in 2008, Finger Lakes Community College went so far as to give its newly formed marketing department oversight of its website.

“We saw that this was going to be a big deal, and it went from IT to marketing,” Marcin says. “In the last five years, our digital efforts have grown around 40 percent, making digital marketing a central focus of our overall marketing strategy.”

In addition to giving prospective students information on their programs and other advantages, educational institutions’ websites and social media platforms can also gather information on those individuals’ desires—though within limits. They can’t obtain personal information from those who access their sites without permission.

“We wouldn’t be collecting specific information unless you offered it to us on some sort of form to register for an event, or sign up for an interview,” Clyde says.

On the other hand, macro-level data can flow in whenever anyone accesses a university’s admissions page.

“You can tell if there’s dozens or hundreds of folks on the domain at any given time,” Clyde explains. “You can tell if it’s domestic or international access, whether they came from a mobile device or a desktop, or even their phone.”

The traffic to FLCC’s admissions page can also bring a wealth of information.

“We can track how many people searched for us online, put our actual web address into a browser window, came to us from a digital ad, came to us from our social media properties,” Marcin explains.

Information of this kind can be used to shape a college’s online or social media presence in a variety of ways.

“It’s helpful to understand what the behaviors are of the folks coming to the site, so that we can design flexible content to fit the visitors’ needs,” Clyde explains.

For example, the amount of time that those who click on a web page spend there can indicate how effective the page is at drawing and keeping the interest of those who access it—and that’s just one measure of the page’s success.

“We can then tell if the content on that page—whether it be an image, whether it be a phrase about some call to action, or even the videos that are up there—if they’re working,” Clyde says.

Should a video or other element of the University of Rochester’s admissions website not draw appropriate attention, Clyde and his staff might take action—for example, by moving it to a more prominent spot on its page.

FLCC’s research has led the college to pay particular attention to its “Areas of Study” page, which lists all of its degree programs.

“We know that that is a highly trafficked area for prospective students, so we’ll want to make sure that we keep putting good content there that’s relevant to that audience,” Marcin explains.

Even the terms people put into the search engine on FLCC’s admissions page can result in changes, according to Marcin. Growing interest in tuition information, for example, could indicate the need to make such information more easily available. As it makes such changes, the college has to keep technical matters in mind.

“If we are making a technical change to the website, we want to check for compatibility with Google Chrome,” Marcin says. “We know that’s the most popular browser.”

Burgeoning mobile device usage has already driven FLCC to make deep changes to its website in order to accommodate those who view its content on smaller screens.

“We actually redesigned our website two years ago to make it responsive so that everyone can get to content on a mobile device,” Marcin says. “That was quite an undertaking—our website is thousands of pages—but it was a must-do.”

Local educational institutions have also sought to optimize their websites, for example, by organizing content to make it clearer and more attractive.

“If you had looked at our website even three years ago, you’ll notice that the amount of copy is less,” Clyde explains. “Folks want to get in, get their information and get out.”

Though such institutions also use social media to engage with prospective students, there doesn’t seem to be as much of an emphasis on recruiting through the platforms.

“It’s not used as much for recruitment, as it is brand development and general college interest development,” says Donna Rae Sutherland, associate director of marketing at Genesee Community College.

At the same time, GCC does monitor the traffic to its Twitter account in order “to see what’s working, what they click through, what are their interests,” Sutherland explains.

Valuable as the macro-level data that GCC and other institutions can gain from their websites and other platforms, it does present some difficulties, in part because the sites are accessible to everyone.

“While we certainly design our website for prospective students and families, we have a lot of other audiences that come to the website all the time,” Marcin says. “We have future students, current students, parents, alumni, community members.”

Prospective students who are seeking more detailed information on educational institutions’ programs and other important matters generally can sign up online to obtain it. For example, those on the University of Rochester’s admissions page need only create a MyROC account in order to arrange to visit the campus, sit down for an informational interview or even begin applying to enroll. Clyde and his staff use the information thus gained to guide recruiting efforts.

“International students might want to learn about other international services and support offices that we have on campus,” he says. “We would push tailored content to those students.”

Whatever institution is involved, the main aim of such efforts is to bring in students.

“We want them to inquire, we want prospective students to visit, and we want them to apply,” Marcin says.
Mike Costanza is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

3/24/17 (c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-363-7269 or email madams@bridgetowermedia.com.

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