Google Analytics 4 for Higher Education: A Better Tool for High-Stakes Recruitment

Updates from Google are not usually top of mind for busy higher education marketing professionals. As such, it wouldn’t be surprising if a recent announcement regarding the planned sunsetting of its Universal Analytics (UA) offering flew under your radar. However, the phase-out of UA could have a profound impact on your school’s marketing and recruiting efforts for years to come.

Forward-looking digital marketing teams across all industries are heeding Google’s advice and embracing Google Analytics 4 (GA4) — the newest version of the data intelligence platform. While there is still a little time left (support for UA will stop July 1, 2023), there’s plenty of motivation to make the switch to GA4 sooner rather than later. And if your school’s marketing team is counting on data analytics to inform its digital marketing and student recruitment strategies (as it should), you have even more reasons not to wait.

Why Should Higher Ed Marketers Care About the UA/GA4 Change?

The pool of high school seniors considering post-secondary education continues to shrink. This reality places even greater importance on identifying and understanding the digital habits of prospective students who engage with your school. Sophisticated higher ed marketers understand that real-life, real-time user engagement data is the best source of intelligence on your key target audiences. They know how to harness that data to shape and tell your prospects’ stories.

Good data analytics helps you to uncover new opportunities, customize your approach to distinct groups of users and optimize their experiences on your digital properties. However, the ability to track your prospective students’ journeys and engagements across your higher ed digital network — to collect the primary data — is a critically important precondition for effective data analysis. And that’s the best argument for prioritizing your school’s transition to Google Analytics 4.

Quotation marks
Universal Analytics was built for a generation of online measurement that was anchored in the desktop web, independent sessions and more easily observable data from cookies. This measurement reality is quickly becoming obsolete. Meanwhile, Google Analytics 4 operates across platforms, does not rely exclusively on cookies and uses an event-based data model to deliver user-centric measurements.

Russel Ketchum, Head of Product Management for Google Analytics

Bottom line, early adopters of GA4 in higher education are figuring out how to leverage enhanced tracking abilities to collect and analyze more relevant and meaningful data. In the process, they’re bringing into focus a more unified picture of their prospective students’ experiences — a view that spans the entirety of their schools’ vast digital networks (websites, apps, etc).

But as with any new software, there’s bound to be a learning curve and kinks to work out. That’s all the more reason to initiate the transition to GA4 as soon as possible.

Start the Google Analytics 4 Migration Now

The change from UA to GA4 will not be quick or easy. The migration process is highly technical and even experienced Google Analytics users can expect a period of adjustment to the new platform. But help is available, including this detailed migration guide from Google.

Besides, putting this decision off will only place your school’s marketing staff and recruiting goals at a disadvantage. After all, the deadline is set. The countdown has begun. The old platform is going to be retired.

The only prudent course of action is to maximize your ability to master the new platform and minimize your learning curve.

Don’t Wait to Migrate, Run GA4 and UA Together

Google Analytics users will have the ability to collect user data in both Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4 up until the July 1, 2023 UA end date. There are two big reasons to take advantage of this opportunity to double down on data.

First, installing GA4 will allow you to begin collecting data even before you complete your migration. And you’ll want to collect as much data in GA4 and UA as possible prior to the UA sunset date.

“Google intends for you to run GA4 side-by-side with UA and, instead of merging the data, just cut over to GA4 as soon as it has 13 months of historical data,” says Charles Farina, Head of Innovation at Adswerve.

Establishing a concurrent data sample will allow you to validate your data in GA4 and easily identify measurement differences between the platforms. Unfortunately, it won’t be possible to migrate past UA data into GA4. That said, you’ll still be able to export and save historical UA data in raw formats (CSV, TSV, Excel, Google Sheets, etc) up to six months after UA is phased out. (Check out this Search Engine Journal post to learn how to create Data Studio reports that visualize historical UA data alongside GA4 data points.)

Secondly, running mirror properties will allow you to compare how user data is collected and presented on either platform. Whereas UA places the focus on session-based user activity (session duration, time on page, etc), GA4 was designed with an emphasis on the actions (goals, conversions) that users take. As a result of this change in perspective, some user behavior metrics are defined and counted differently in GA4. Exploring how these differences show up in your real data is a great way to get a better handle on event-based tracking.

Embracing Change: GA4 Offers Advantages for Higher Ed Marketers

The transition from old to new is never easy. But, in most cases, the end result is worth the effort. And that is certainly the case with GA4. The new analytics platform offers higher ed marketers a number of improvements, including enhanced ability for tracking user engagement, a better understanding of the complete customer journey and more actionable analysis through machine learning-aided insights.

Better Tracking of User Engagement

UA does not have the ability to follow users from one device to another, or track user activity on multiple digital properties (websites and apps). These connected events are separated and logged as different “sessions.” In GA4, however, users are tracked across the full breadth of their digital experience. This big change is what led the shift away from session-based metrics.

GA4 trades in the vague, indirect data points (bounce rate, time on page) of UA for action-oriented analysis. With enhanced event tracking — scroll, file download, video, site search — you can now find out exactly how your users interact with your content.

Seeing the Complete User Journey

Better tracking means better analysis. The ability to piece together previously disconnected user behaviors in the new platform enables higher ed marketing teams to evaluate a more complete and comprehensive picture of the customer journey.

In GA4, the new Life Cycle section nests reports for Acquisition, Engagement, Monetization and Retention. These reporting categories correspond to the well-known stages in the typical buying cycle — Awareness/Research, Consideration/Evaluation, Decision/Purchase, Loyalty/Retention. Seeing the entire prospect consideration journey laid out clearly makes it easier to evaluate the effectiveness of individual digital marketing campaigns and the content you present to your target audiences.

Machine Learning-Enhanced Data Collections and Insights

Not only does GA4 provide better tracking and a clearer picture of user behavior and engagement, the platform also makes it easier to customize data analysis and draw meaningful insights.

For example, you can set up several custom sales funnels/user pathways for distinct groups and identify the ideal user journey for each key audience. You can also lean on machine learning-enabled insights to predict which prospects are likely to become actual students (purchase probability) and which ones are not (churn probability), connecting your analysis of user engagement to bottom line business/marketing goals.

Get Ahead of the Higher Ed Analytics Revolution

Change is coming. Higher ed institutions relying on Universal Analytics to inform their digital marketing and recruiting strategies will have to make the adjustment to Google Analytics 4. Smart higher ed marketing teams are getting ahead of the learning curve and preserving historical data by running UA and GA4 together. There’s no sense in putting off the inevitable, and many advantages to making the switch as soon as possible.