4 insights on higher ed websites

Analytics project offers guidance on maximizing digital communications
By: | Issue: May, 2016
April 29, 2016

There’s a special relationship between decision-makers and benchmarking in higher education.

Whether in information technology, marketing or even academics, rarely does anything get done before knowing what other institutions did. In higher education, benchmarking data is often one of the first steps on the path to action. Digital marketing isn’t an exception to this rule.

When I discovered in 2010 that 72 percent of surveyed digital teams in higher ed spent less than two hours per week working on digital analytics, I was stunned. This was bad. While the large majority of institutions were tracking and collecting web traffic data, most stopped there. Without investing any time on analysis, the collected data was meaningless.

This was the impetus for the first Higher Ed Benchmarking Monthly Surveys I launched in 2010.

But this initial project had a big problem—web teams had to submit their data manually. Not surprisingly, institution participation in the monthly benchmarking project dwindled from 150 to 100 after only a year.

Fortunately, a solution arrived with the introduction of the Google Analytics benchmarking reports in September 2014. These reports provide the data about device usage, marketing channels and user locations for traffic on higher ed websites—the data that was so difficult to collect six years ago.

Analyzing the data

As detailed in an earlier University Business column (http://UBmag.me/wad) I launched a new web analytics project that compiled reports for 13 consecutive months to share benchmarking data for higher ed websites.

A thorough analysis of the year-to-year trends indicated by this benchmarking data reveals some interesting insights about higher ed websites, which I will highlight here.

Mobile devices are ubiquitous. The mobile share of traffic on U.S. higher ed websites increased from about 20 percent in September 2014 to 24 percent in September 2015, even peaking at 26 percent in August 2015.

The mobile traffic share is even greater when you look at new users—traffic that doesn’t include faculty, staff and current students.

In this case, mobile devices (excluding tablets) jumped from 23 percent in September 2014 to 27 percent a year later, peaking at 30 percent in June and August 2015. Most of the traffic on higher ed websites in the U.S. is still generated by desktops, but smartphones and tablets accounted for 32 percent of new users at the end of this 13-month period.

The big winner: organic search. It gets the biggest and an increasing share of higher ed traffic, ranging from a low of 32 percent in October 2014 to a high of 41 percent of all traffic in August 2015. With more than a third of all the benchmarked traffic to higher ed websites coming from organic search, your school can’t afford to ignore best practices in search engine optimization for higher ed.

More and more higher ed institutions have noticed this trend by looking at their own data and deciding to invest more in SEO professional development and training.

Social media doesn’t always have the desired result. While most schools do spend a good amount of time and money marketing via social media, digital advertising and email, each of these channels drives less than 5 percent of traffic to higher ed websites. There are two probable explanations for this: the lack of calls to action on the website and the absence of adequate cross-channel tracking.

Time matters. Another trend my study has confirmed is that time is a critical currency on the web. Average session times on university websites decreased from September 2014 to September 2015—by 30 seconds for phones and 100 seconds for desktops.

As a result, it’s even more important for your school to use shorter content to get your main message across.

Remember that benchmarking only paints a fuzzy picture, based on averages. So make sure to use these trends to spark interest from your decision-makers and then dive into your own data.

​Karine Joly is the web editor behind www.collegewebeditor.com, a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations and technologies. She is also the founder of www.higheredexperts.com.