Appendix B
Episode 053 -

Making the most of higher ed marketing budgets

Text reads: Appendix B. A Bravery Podcast. It's on top of a generative AI render of a 1980s economy car speeding down a road next to a beach.

Hosts Joel Goodman and Kristin Van Dorn discuss strategies for higher education marketing offices to maximize their budget during challenging times. They emphasize the importance of optimizing internal processes, evaluating tech stacks to eliminate overlapping functions, and re-examining media buys to ensure they are producing results.


Joel Goodman
From Bravery Media. This is Appendix B. My name is Joel Goodman. With me is Kristin Van Dorn. And we are going to talk about some ways that higher ed marketing offices can. Make their money go a little bit farther. I’m not talking about necessarily saving money I’m just talking about getting more value out of the money that is being spent.

And you know, it’s a This year’s been tough Kristin FAFSA delays an enrollment cliff everyone’s freaked out about in the next couple of years…

Kristin Van Dorn
Then on top of it, you have less money from the federal government because the pandemic is essentially over, but so they’re not providing additional public funds anymore.

And enrollment’s down at a lot of institutions. So it’s, it’s a hard time. We’ve been, we’ve been seeing it across the industry, and so I think the, I think what we wanted to do on this episode is really, talk through some of the ideas that we have around how marketing offices can do better with a little bit less money, you know, it’s, it’s the doing less better, but it’s more like doing better with less, because, uh, a lot of times that I think the inclination in our industry is just to throw money at the problem.

And so when there’s no money, do we just burn people out? Do we, you know, what, what, we have to figure out ways to optimize what we’re doing internally. So, uh, yeah, what’s your first idea?

Well, so my first idea is to evaluate your tech stack closely. Because I’ve seen multiple institutions have tech that they have subscription services for, that have overlapping functions and features, or that they get sold a really great product contract by a vendor demo that just looks awesome, but it turns out that they never took the time to build into their workflows all of the bells and whistles that that tech comes with.

And so consequently, you’re just leaving functionality on the table, or your tech stack is overlapping in functionality, and you could easily just move some things around, shift to other products, and have something that’s much more clean and delineated.

I totally agree. We see this a lot in the content management space. And I think we see this a lot in some of these web tools that are sort of, uh, they’re site scanners, they’re doing maybe accessibility scanning, and they’re doing, supposedly SEO monitoring and that sort of thing.

If you’re going to spend the money, especially you’re going to spend a lot of money, cause a lot of these products are, I mean, they’re, they’re not 20, 30, 40 grand a year, if not more than that, get everything out of what you have and cut stuff that’s overlapping.

Make the decisions, you know, make the decision to go with a product that does everything or to cut the expensive ones and find a way to, even if you’ve got to duct tape and chewing gum it, right? Like put together a few cheaper products that allow you to get things that are valuable.

Because, so I think the other thing Kristin is, even those products that have all those bells and whistles, like maybe you could get use out of them. But if you’ve had that for a year or two years or 10 years, and you’re still only using a quarter of the features there, there’s something else that does those things that you use better and probably cheaper.

That’s the thing about these products is that often the ones that everyone knows about, they have all these bells and whistles, but the truth is, institutions don’t have the capacity to really take full advantage of them. So you’re better off doing some investigation, looking at their competitors, and seeing which ones pare it down.

Like maybe we only offer these three features. But they’re the three features that you exactly use. And those are better options for you than going with something that’s a little bit bigger, a little bit more expensive, but that you’re never going to get around to fully investing in.

Yeah. I think there’s an interesting other side to this too. It’s that when you’re evaluating your tech stack, look at the tools that you’re paying for and decide or evaluate or ask for some help to figure out, you know, what you could actually be doing in-house without that software.

So I think about the accessibility scanners, right? They do accessibility checks on your website. Unless you are a very distributed web team with a lot of editors across campus and you haven’t put the proper tools in place in your CMS or your CMS doesn’t support the, you know, ways to say like, Hey, you need to have alt text here, and you know, those kinds of standard things. Or you don’t have the workflows in place that most likely that big enterprise CMS you’ve bought says are there and you haven’t used very well, you probably don’t need the accessibility scanning software out there. You do that once when you launch, and you make sure that the site was built properly, and then the rest comes with training your staff internally and using those workflows better.

And so you don’t need to spend that $20,000 for accessibility scanning, broken link checkers, that same sort of thing.

You can get free versions of broken link checkers to check that stuff out. I think a lot of times, institutions dump a lot of money into marketing tech that’s meant to offset a lack of training internally rather than just fixing the problem and training your staff and your people to understand what is going on and what they should be working toward.

Yeah, having a subscription to a service doesn’t mean that you are accomplishing that goal. So, having a subscription to Hotjar doesn’t mean that you’re knowing and learning how people are using your website and that you’re fixing the problems that they’re running into on a routine basis. It’s just that you’re carrying along a subscription.

That is all that is standing in for. Having a subscription to SiteImprove does not mean that you are a more accessible, web-friendly campus. It just means that you have a product that checks for the bare minimum to meet legal requirements for accessibility, but it does not make your site more accessible.

Very true. What else you got?

Okay. So the next one is to look at your media buys. And to look at what kind of legacy media buys you’re committing money to every semester or every month that is not returning results. This happens pretty frequently that we have just systems in place where we don’t want to upset the apple cart and have the one thing that’s been holding everything together, go away and the rest of the stack of cards crumble.

Um, so I think people get a little nervous about pulling some things. And also, at a time when you’re already facing enrollment challenges, or you’re already facing FAFSA delays, it may feel like you won’t be able to fairly attribute the results of your efforts to change things up. Who knows if you saw the dip because you took out ads in TikTok versus if it’s just the time of year or the time in this particular economic cycle when you’re going to see less engagement in the first place?

So, I just think that it’s important that we continue to evaluate where we’re putting our money and consider that it might not be optimized and play with it a little bit, tinker. Or consider putting a lot more effort into one specific place rather than diversifying.

Yeah you should be preparing for a downturn all the time by optimizing your stuff. But like, organic reach is always going to produce more value than what you’re doing with paid media. And so if you haven’t invested in developing your organic traffic and your organic leads, then, you know, this is, this is the start to optimizing on that front.

Have you seen that book, um, or read the book, How to Keep House While Drowning?

I have not, but I liked the

Okay. It’s a great title, but the idea behind it is that we put a lot of moral ideas behind being a clean person,

Sure. Yeah.

But that being clean or messy is morally neutral. We should stop beating ourselves up when things get disorganized or are no longer useful in the way that we tend to use our houses or our spaces. But there’s some neat little rules in there. Like when you feel like things are disorganized in your house, you run around with a laundry basket, clear all the laundry, you take all the dirty dishes out, and then you take out all the trash.

And if you do those three things, most of the time, your living room will feel much more livable. Right.

Um, I think we could look at our websites the same way. We have been living in this glut of content, and content is so easy to create right now with large language models. Um, not necessarily good content. Good content is always hard to create, but easy content is right there for the taking, right? But it means that, If we’re worried about how well things are going or how organized we feel, maybe taking that laundry basket around your website and getting rid of the things that no longer are needed, that no one’s using, that haven’t seen traffic in two years, that just doing the spring cleaning that every website needs, that could make a big difference, not only in your effectiveness with your audiences, but also your search engine optimization.

Just recently, there’s been some more study on how Google is refining its search and trying to address issues of spammy content. And the big change that came out in March was helpful content. It was this big push to make sure that sites that are creating mass amounts of content, that all that content is helpful that, and I mean, this is to address spam, right?

So if you land on a site that’s like, You’ll never believe what happened to this person that fell down the well, like 30 years ago. And you click through the story, and every click is supposed to be like driving their ad sales or whatever. Like, yes, this is Google’s way of addressing that. But if you have a bunch of pages on your website that has a phone number and that’s it, or two lines of text or an image, or, you know, like just these dead-end pages where there’s nowhere to go after, there’s no meaningful content in the first place, now is the time to start shearing those out of your site because Google is paying attention to the pages that are not helpful to users. And they’re downgrading your site based on the information that’s on those pages specifically.

Alongside that, working on site speed optimization, I talk about it way too much, probably, but site speed optimization is one of those things that will grow your enrollment. It’s going to increase your conversion rates, which means you’re going to have more leads, you’re going to have more inquiries, you’re going to have more applicants. It’s easy and doesn’t cost very much, and you can probably do it in-house. If you have a dev team that knows what they’re doing, you can talk to them. And if you don’t, you can definitely pay someone to do it. Or you can learn how to do it.

And that’s the second thing. I think it’s investing again in the staff that you have, investing in professional development, investing in upskilling your staff to understand things like conversion rate optimization, how not just to do prompt engineering with AI, but to integrate it in different ways into business processes and find ways to think with it versus just talk at it, or type at it.

But also, upskilling in the ways that you do research, upskilling in the ways that you evaluate your website or, how you do market research and, and figure out where you’re at from a brand position.

These are things that, uh, it’s hard to do when you’re in the middle of putting out fires and everything else. But, if you can’t afford to hire people to do it anymore, you need to make sure that your staff is getting skilled to do it. And if you haven’t been providing those opportunities, look for places to develop their, to develop their skills, develop their expertise a little bit farther into, into other areas.

Yeah, and I think we’ve seen a lot of turnover in higher education and we’ve seen a lot of change in our staff over the last few years. I think it’s important to take stock of where people are at. Just because they applied and were awarded a job doesn’t mean that they do the exact same thing that the person who previously held that job does. It doesn’t mean that they should be, either. So, taking a close examination of what each person on your team is doing and how you’re best utilizing their skills and toolkits is going to be really helpful and kind of preparing for more digital transformation or getting them to where they need to be most effective in the next couple of years.

Additionally, if you have gaping holes on your team, and maybe you have a hiring freeze, maybe you need to negotiate with your leadership about what it would look like to hire a consultant in the interim to hold on for a year or two till you feel like you have a better sense of what your team really needs.

It’s just helpful to have someone to still kind of manage the position without paying the overhead of salary, without, paying for benefits, you know. Like there are ways to make your budget work. The tricky thing usually is that when people give up staff members, it’s hard to get those salary lines back. So if universities, on the whole, could be more flexible about really taking stock of the jobs that need to be done and who’s best suited to do them, and at what point, knowing that this changes over time and that it’s nice to have full-time staff members that can respond within a pinch when things go wrong, but that it might not be right now that that’s the best use of your funds. I mean, those are serious conversations to have.