From Bravery Media, this is Appendix B, short conversations about the toughest issues in higher education. My name is Joel Goodman. With me is Kristin Van Dorn. Kristin, what are we talking about today?
Kristin Van Dorn
Well, today we’re gonna talk about paid media and how having an outdated website threatens the success of your paid media
Oh, big topic because we know how much institutions love to dump money into paid advertising.
Yeah, and I think in previous episodes or in Hot Takes, we’ve talked a little bit about how sometimes paid media feels like a workaround for a website that’s not really functioning. And part of that is because the website has many different audiences, so people get territorial and you need lots of different information on the website.
So striking the right balance between marketing copy and just basic communication copy can be really difficult. It’s a contested space, but oftentimes paid advertisement, you have free reign to do what you think is best. And so it’s really easy to dump your focus into an area where you don’t have to politically have any kinds of fights or any kinds of challenges to what you wanna be able to say.
Yeah, we’ve run into this a lot, whether we’re just doing research projects or we do a deep dive into a university website or, uh, even as we’ve gotten into uh, actually doing full redesigns, we come across these, approaches to web marketing that are all centered around. Paid advertising.
And a lot of times, the challenge for us is, you know, especially if we’re not going in to do a full redesign, we have to try and help the institution come to terms with the fact that if you’re just spending a lot of money on advertising and the place that people land after they click on those ads isn’t usable. Content isn’t accurate or doesn’t match what you’ve put in your ads, or even the feel of it doesn’t feel familial; all that money going into ads is not working as efficiently as it could.
And so, at best, it’s just not hitting its full potential. At worst, you’re just wasting that money, and you’re not getting close to what that efficient yield from paid advertising could be giving you.
Yeah, I think one of the biggest challenges is making sure that. The journey from a paid campaign into your website feels continuous. And if it doesn’t, it creates this slow drip of disappointment on the user experience. And what that can inevitably end up doing is eroding trust before a student has even thought about getting to an application or an RFI form. And it can. Feel so disjointed or out of whack that a student is likely to give up on their journey before they’ve even gotten to the rich information that you want them engaging in.
Yeah. I think, going back to what you said a few minutes ago, there’s this issue where it feels easier to just go with the thing that you can control. To my mind, the reason that’s the case is that leadership doesn’t do a good enough job of making sure the right people are actually in charge.
There isn’t enough empowerment for the marketing offices to really own the website. They kind of give lip service to it. But then, when a VP or vice-chancellor has a pet project or the president has a pet project that needs to go on the website, all of that falls apart, and so what do our colleagues in higher education do in those instances?
Well, they go the path of least resistance because we’ve all learned that this path of least resistance is a lot of times where you can get more work done. To me, it’s bad stewardship. Right?
And it’s not bad stewardship necessarily on the part of the marketing offices. It’s bad stewardship and bad leadership by those who have control over letting people do the work that they’re actually trained for. And they’re actually experts on.
I mean, I’ve been in that position when I worked on campuses; I felt like I had to fight tooth and nail for. Anything that just seemed rational, and I did it, but, I burnt out, and then I quit higher ed and started an agency because it’s exhausting when everything has to be a fight. And so those that want to, that feel the, the pressures of needing to maintain their salary, their benefits, their job, um, where apparently I didn’t, I just took a leap and jumped out. You know, for many people, that’s not something they can do. you have to find a way to stop feeling angry and tense and tired and exhausted. And a lot of times that is just going the easy route and finding the things that you can have control over for better or worse.
Yeah. I think another challenge is that it is hard to imagine spending equal amounts of money and equal amounts of time on your outfacing website and your portal and intranet environments. And I think what happens is, is that portal environments or intranet environments get ignored or handed off to staff members within a department to sort of manage themselves.
It quickly becomes unruly, or it’s not exactly what people are looking for. Um, it’s not paid with the same attention and care as the front door website that you have. So everyone wants their stuff on the main website. They don’t want their stuff on the internet ’cause no one can find it. No one can access it from their phone.
There’s all these hiccups involved in the technicalities of that intranet environment or that portal environment. And I think if universities wrapped their mind around how important it is to communicate to internal audiences. Differently than they communicate to external audiences.
They could really balance these two technical environments in a different way and be able to give everything that internal audiences are looking for, like, provide that environment for them while still maintaining a site that’s focused on recruitment and marketing in a way that’s gonna best represent their institution.
Yeah, I was just thinking, it’s so interesting when you look at larger businesses that are the size of like a full university, you know, they have a couple hundred employees. Those employees don’t have any say over what goes on the corporate website. They, they don’t even approach having ideas about it because they have other jobs to do and they know what their jobs are.
And it’s such a distinct difference because, in higher ed, everyone thinks they know your job. Right? But if I tried to walk into a classroom, well, I mean, maybe that’s not true — I have taught college classes before — but if your typical web director decided to walk into a biology classroom and just take over and start telling people, telling the students all about stuff, they’d be escorted out probably. If you have security, probably escorted from that classroom.
But to your point, I think a lot of times that it’s this, uh, detachment from the actual campus experience, the community experience. Because a need is not being met for these people who think their stuff needs to go on the, on the main website, and instead of meeting that need or listening and trying to give them a better experience in how they learn, how they disseminate the things that are important to them across campus. They’re just kind of coddled a little and said, “Yeah, I’m sure we can find a spot on the homepage for you. Sure. Why not?” You know?
And that’s not good for any of the actual institutional goals that the website’s supposed to be doing.
In my experience working with a number of different clients and running usability studies, what’s fascinating is how often current students don’t even see the homepage as your website. They often go directly to a portal page, and they’re like, this is my website, or. They look at those two environments as being one and the same.
So how would you find this? And they’re like, well, I’d go to this portal page, or I’d go to this intranet page, and they direct you right to the places that they’re used to using and finding information. But the feeling is, is that a lot of current students are using the university website. And how do you begin to educate staff members and faculty and leadership on the fact that. Their homepage or their externally facing website just isn’t that important to current students.
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No, it’s a really difficult challenge. I have a lot of ideas on this that we might have to save for another conversation. Um, because they’re more systemic changes to how we approach serving our audiences with digital products. And I just don’t know that higher ed’s ready for it.
And it’s nothing radical; it’s just a huge departure from what we do in this industry. Regardless of all of that, though, it is important that we look at what audiences our websites are serving and make sure that that lines up with the external marketing approaches.
You know, paid media, social media advertising, social media, just posting, making sure that that messaging lines up, that the information lines up, that all of that is accurate because. Otherwise, this disjointed journey comes into play and ruins the whole thing. And I think it’s a stewardship issue.
You end up not putting money into the things that it needs to be put into, and you end up wasting it on stuff that is not nearly as effective as it should be.