A Data-Based Digital Marketing Strategy for Higher Education

The answer is always in the data. That couldn’t be more true for higher ed marketers looking for an edge in recruiting.

A finely-tuned, data-based digital strategy is not just a priority, it’s a prerequisite for colleges and universities hoping to connect with and engage today’s prospective students. Higher ed marketing programs that purposefully leverage their school websites and digital data stand a much better chance of rising above the noise of an ultra-competitive and crowded marketplace.


Higher education websites are becoming increasingly attuned to user needs and expectations. Just as importantly, they’re getting better at driving the actions that turn prospective students into actual (paying) students. With the right insight, an investment into better user experience pays off with more conversions — more completed admission applications. And those insights — the ones you use to guide your UX strategy — are most easily gained by analyzing your website user data.

But data can be overwhelming. You have to know what to look for. What are the important data points? And how can you use them to optimize your digital marketing strategy for higher education recruitment goals?

KPIs for Your Higher Ed Digital Marketing — The Basics

A fundamental understanding of website and webpage performance can be captured by analyzing some key metrics:

  • Users — the number of both new and returning visitors to your site
  • Sessions — the number of interactions with your site from a unique visitor
  • Pages per session — the average number of pages your users visit while they remain active on your site
  • Session duration — the average amount of time your users spend exploring or using your site
  • Bounce rate — the percentage of users who leave your site after viewing only one page

Using these data points allows you to piece together a clear story about specific pages, entire sections or the full breadth of your website. That story can either validate your marketing strategy or point to opportunities for optimization and improvement.

For example, you might find that some pages on your site attract a fair amount of traffic, but that an unusually high number of those visitors don’t stick around. If these users are not spending time on-site, that’s an indication they’re not finding what they need. Or, perhaps something is scaring them off.

Either way, that’s a signal to investigate further.

Website data analysis reveals a considerable amount of useful and actionable information — not just in identifying trouble spots, but in fixing them as well. You can easily ascertain which programs are most popular with your prospects and which don’t receive enough attention. You can design and evaluate the effectiveness of the digital campaigns you create to boost your academic offerings. And you can optimize your strategy by spotting and rectifying problem pages and bottlenecks at any stage of your enrollment funnel.

Data-built Campaigns

Undoubtedly, embracing a data-driven approach elevates and standardizes your higher ed digital marketing strategy. At the very least, it gives you a starting point for your next campaign.

By looking at past campaign data, for example, you could estimate how many website visits are needed to generate the necessary number of RFIs and application submissions to meet your campaign goals. Analyzing old campaigns makes it easier to calibrate your strategy to the scope of the campaigns you’re planning.

You also want to more broadly evaluate user behavior on your website. When building and evaluating campaigns, data-oriented higher ed marketers want to know three things:

  • Where your users are coming from and how they are getting to your site
  • What your users do when they get to your site (what are the dominant user pathways?)
  • The minimal steps needed (path of least resistance) for users to achieve the goal(s) of your campaign

User Traffic Sources

Your prospective students are not a homogenous group. Each sub-group, or persona, has distinct traits and characteristics, including how they navigate the internet and access your website.

For example, your typical high school senior wears out her phone battery hanging out on Instagram or Snapchat. A working mom going back to school to advance her career is more likely to be found on Facebook or LinkedIn. But since the working mom doesn’t have that much time for social media, targeting her via this medium may be a waste of time. She does, however, spend a considerable amount of time on her laptop, conducting research for her job. So banner or display ads might be the tactic better suited to capture her attention.

Increase the effectiveness of your campaigns by becoming familiar with the digital habits of your student audiences and matching the right marketing channels to each group.

Creating the Enrollment Funnel

You want to know about user behavior before they reach your school site. But you also want to understand how your users navigate your website once they get there. For that, higher ed digital marketers analyze the dominant user pathways — the pages and the order in which they are accessed — taken by your audience groups.

User pathway insights help you to create an optimal user experience for your campaign audience. You don’t want to overwhelm your prospects with too much information and too many steps. The goal is to create the shortest route possible for conversion.

Tracking Conversions

How do you know if your enrollment funnel is too long or too short? You analyze how effective you are at enticing your audience to complete your campaign goals.

Your campaign should feature conversion points, or instances where you ask users to take an action — fill out a form, download a resource, take a survey, etc. These conversion points should lead to the main step you want your audience to take — submit an admission application.

Conversions are a great indicator of user engagement. How you distribute and present those conversion opportunities along the user journey can greatly influence behavior. If your campaign is generating conversions at Step 1 and Step 2, but not Step 3, that’s a signal for you to check out what isn’t working.

Analyze, Draw Insights, Optimize

Use data to help you build your campaigns. And lean on data to optimize how your campaigns run.

Is a typically reliable source not bringing in the traffic you expected? Digging into your campaign data can help you understand whether your message is just not reaching the audience or if the audience has left the arena. If it’s the former, you can calibrate your approach. If it’s the latter, it’s likely time to find a new reliable source of traffic.

Regularly review and analyze the performance of your campaigns. Investigate the breakdowns and bottlenecks and identify potential solutions. The goldmine of data you retrieve will help you draw insights, which you can leverage to further refine your campaigns.

Data Boosts Your Higher Education Digital Marketing Strategy

Looking at data and analyzing key metrics is an integral part of marketing campaign planning. You need real data to understand user behavior and website performance, and to design and calibrate an efficient enrollment funnel.

There’s always more to know with data. Learning how to harness your school’s treasure trove of website data insight fully can help you target your digital campaigns more effectively and sharpen your overall higher education digital marketing strategy.

Ready to talk about your next project?

At Rowland we take pride in being knowledgeable, experienced, and accessible. We're ready to talk about how we can help you meet your higher ed marketing goals.