John Shiffert: Microsites White Paper

For Paskill, Stapleton & Lord, March 2016

Microsites White Paper

Over the past 30 years as a higher education marketing firm, Paskill Stapleton & Lord has worked with 500 colleges and universities around the country on their enrollment management challenges, and every one of those institutions has had a website pretty much since Al Gore invented the Internet.

Of course, to say a college has “a” website is an oversimplification. Colleges typically have multiple websites, and most of these websites will have multiple levels and more pages than “War and Peace.” Websites for athletics, websites for special programs in continuing education or the arts, websites for enrollment management… they all factor in to an Internet that has roughly one billion websites, with new ones being created every second.

Information Overload

How much information is that? Put it this way, if you were able to continuously access one website per second, it would take you something on the order of 32 years to visit every website currently on the Internet, and that’s assuming no new sites were created over those 32 years.

As a result, you need a focus, you need a plan, to effectively reach your targeted audiences via the Internet. College and university .edu websites, also known as enterprise sites, serve such a wide variety of constituents that, needing to be all things to all people, they contain thousands of pages and hundreds of thousands of words. While your enterprise site may have every piece of information you might want your various publics to know, in terms of student recruitment, that’s not focus.

It’s a Matter of “Fit”

When we’re talking about recruitment, there are actually three types of websites involved in prospect enrollment management; the enterprise site, the microsite, and the landing page.

So why do you need landing pages and/or microsites when every piece of information regarding your institution is already available on your .edu website? The answer to that comes not only from the potential of prospective students getting lost in the hundreds of thousands of words on your enterprise site, but also in the matter of “fit.” Each type of website does have value, but they also will each have a different fit – a fit for the prospect type, a fit for your resources, a fit for your budget, a fit for your brand, etc.

Enterprise Sites

Let’s look at all three websites used in student recruitment, starting with your enterprise site.

As previously mentioned, everyone has one. It’s the front door of your institution, welcoming to all constituencies. And, it theoretically does have all the information a prospective student might want or need… if they can find said information. However, the size of the enterprise website is itself a drawback, both in terms of the potential difficulty in finding specific information, and in the enormous resources needed to redesign and redeploy an enterprise site, to say nothing of keeping all that content fresh and vital.

It’s a fact of life – it’s a very rare college enterprise site that doesn’t have at least a handful (or maybe dozens?) of pages that are a couple of years old, and, as everyone knows, there’s nothing older than old news, especially on the Internet. Do you really want a prospective student reading about a program that dates back to 2014?

If we’re talking about redesigning an enterprise site, we’re talking about a year-long undertaking… an extremely resource-intensive year, both in manpower and dollar-power. And during that year, your recruitment goals and strategies may change.

Even if that doesn’t happen, there are other stumbling blocks; navigation on an enterprise site is complex, the number of participants involved in a redesign is huge, and the very number of people and departments involved can generate “political battles” among conflicting stakeholders. Finally, every pocket of information on the site has to be pre-determined and you have to vet all content beforehand… another major task.

Naturally, this is something that has to be done periodically, but not necessarily in conjunction with a specific student recruitment campaign.

Microsites

Microsites are small-scale, single audience sites with a focused message… a great way to gain traction with your younger undergraduate prospects that usually want their information quickly and in short bites. Further, it’s only natural for them to have technology in the palm of their hand, and the nature of mobile platforms demands short and sweet in the dissemination of information. And, whether you call those individuals born after 1995 Millennials, Digital Natives, Hashtagers, Globalists, Selfies, Tweenials or 20firsters, they are a 140-character generation.

Since microsites are designed to meet prospective students’ wants and needs, they are by definition also designed to be where warm leads and directed prospects go to get only the information they want; programs, financial aid information, outcome stories (these are a high-traffic area), etc. They are a direct way to connect to your institution.

Typically, a microsite will take 40 to 60 days to create and will feature:

  • Several (not dozens or hundreds or thousands) pages

  • A uniquely finite structure

  • A fixed amount of content

  • Navigation to the point

  • A branded campaign with tactical messaging

  • A responsive structure for mobile devices

  • A persistent call-to-action

Why are these features important? “Effectiveness” is a good word to consider. For one, younger prospective students tend to look with their hearts, and microsites are designed with that in mind.

Further, microsites are the most cost effective way of engaging prospects; they provide good ROI, they are very effective when used with tracking site metrics, they are a great way to leverage your assets, and you’ll enjoy economies of (small) scale on the production of microsites, something you can’t do with an enterprise site.

Microsites are generally single message websites, presented with strength and clarity. And while they may be superior to enterprise sites for student recruitment purposes, don’t think they replace enterprise sites. A good microsite will lean on your enterprise site for deeper information. In point of fact, microsites are a way of bringing prospects to your enterprise site.

One final note on microsites, PS&L and our clients have found that international prospects are very responsive to microsites, especially foreign language microsites, and that they are the most cost‑effective way to approach international students. However, if you go this route, make sure there are multiple ways to make contact with you through the microsite, since many countries are not as free with Internet access as the U.S., and, in fact, will block many access channels and platforms.

How effective are foreign language microsites? One example comes from a site that PS&L built for Marywood University as part of their comprehensive international marketing campaign. In the space of less than three weeks following an initial email to a list of potential international students, there were 16 hits on the microsite… 11 inquiries, four applications and an acceptance.

Landing Pages

Landing pages are not mini-microsites. They are, however, more concise and take far less resources to construct and maintain than a microsite. For a landing page, you research the audience you wish to influence, find their needs, and target those needs. Landing pages are supposed to provide immediate visitor satisfaction and to leave visitors with a brand feel.

What are landing pages? In short, a single scrolling page with a focused message targeted to a single audience that contains only the information that specific audience needs in easy-to-digest nuggets.

The key to landing pages? It’s an in-your-face call-to-action located at the top of the page – the first view visitors have on any viewing device. Since that’s the case, you want to constantly drive viewers back to the top of the page.

Just as microsites are effective for international prospects, landing pages are especially good for reaching adult learners and degree completers. This is significant, since it speaks to an essential difference between traditional students and non-traditionals.

The best way to explain the difference is that high school students tend to make more emotional decisions, while adults returning to college are a little more pragmatic, they tend to look for college choices more with their heads they look first and foremost for the facts.

Anyone who has marketed to teenagers can attest to the basic truth of this dichotomy, and landing pages are designed with a “just the facts” approach in mind, hence the appeal to adult learners.

Targeted Audience, Targeted Message… Better ROI

Landing pages and microsites give you the ability to target specific audiences with relevant content; all of the content is dedicated to a single purpose. This strategy will improve the performance of your enrollment management efforts.

The purpose of well-conceived microsites and landing pages is clear; in the short term, capture prospective student data. In the longer term, convert prospects to enrolled students. Due to the targeted nature of the audience and content, inquiries from microsites and landing pages convert at a much higher rate than most other sources. In fact, online marketing and web analytics business Omniture reports that, “Online advertising that uses landing pages typically sees a conversion rate improvement of at least 25%.”

A specific example comes from a microsite PS&L constructed for Wayland Baptist University. With the only difference being the microsite, there were 85 additional enrollments at Wayland Baptist in the first four months of the campaign. Without even looking at the lifetime revenue increase from those 85 new students, consider that tuition in WBU’s courses is $348 per semester hour. That’s not just a great ROI, but a program that paid for itself in a very short time.

Measuring Marketing ROI

Campaign-specific reports are easier to produce and more accurate when landing pages or microsites are involved. When someone lands on the .edu homepage, they have so many potential navigation choices it’s easy to lose track of them, which in turn skews analytics data.

In addition, the ability to quickly and affordably make changes on microsites and landing pages allows for performance testing that isn’t practical on your .edu site. For example, you can test the effectiveness of videos versus photos, change the form fields or the color palette, or test two different landing pages within the same campaign and compare performance. Try doing that with your .edu site!

Conclusions

While it is true that enterprise sites need to be “all things to all people,” they are limited in terms of their effectiveness as a first point of contact for prospective students. That’s not to say enterprise sites aren’t a valuable tool in recruitment, but they are more of a secondary step in the recruitment process, a place for prospective students to go after they’ve visited your microsite and/or landing page.

How do you accomplish that? As you probably know from working with enterprise sites, this is not a case of, “if you build it, they will come.” You know that the best enterprise pages, no matter how informative and attractive they may be, will accomplish little towards reaching your enrollment goals, or any other goals, if you don’t get the word out, if you don’t have the means to drive individuals to the website.

It’s the same with microsites or landing pages. Even the best of the genre won’t help your enrollment marketing very much, nor will they help direct prospective students to your enterprise site, unless you have the means to do so – the backing of a comprehensive higher ed marketing campaign. Such a campaign is a requirement to initially drive prospects to your microsite and/or landing page, from where they can be directed to your enterprise site. It’s all part of a process vital to your enrollment management strategy in the higher education market, with each step dependent on the previous step.

You need to have effective microsites and landing pages that help you target and track the effectiveness of your student recruitment and serve to grow inquiries and ultimately enrollments. Plus, you need to effectively market those pages through a strategic campaign to help further ensure your long term enrollment health.