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Is Data at the Heart of Your Decision Making?
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Is Data at the Heart of Your Decision Making?

Jul 24, 2017By Greg Zguta

We live in a data-rich world. Digital marketers across all types of institutions are interested in using key data from Google Analytics, social media, content management systems, customer relationship management systems, and more. But these folks have full-time jobs that don’t include tracking down data, addressing gaps, analyzing information, reporting, and gaining insights that lead to action. And without the right reporting process in place and time to do analysis, it’s hard to tell how X connects to Y and influences Z, and then turn those insights into action.

So what happens? We gather up the numbers that are easy to collect, give them a glance, share them with our boss, and put them on a shelf for later. The best of intentions can lead nowhere.

Collecting data is important, but it’s what you do with the data that matters.

After hundreds of projects with colleges and universities of all sizes, we’ve identified the four issues that institutions struggle with the most.

1. Developing a process to routinely collect and centralize reporting on data

Most institutions collect some amount of data, usually in Google Analytics. Far fewer institutions regularly report data and mine for insights. In some cases, data collection is limited because features such as goals and event tracking haven’t been set up to capture more detailed data on key website interactions. Reporting is often done on an ad-hoc basis when requested. One-off requests take more energy to respond to. Regular reporting, when practiced, doesn’t lead to a clear action or isn’t done consistently.

Here are three ways to use data to inform your decisions on a daily basis:

  1. Configure and use event tracking to help answer questions such as: 
    • Do visitors click on links in our carousels?
    • How far down on pages do visitors scroll? And if we include scroll-down arrows, do they click on them?
    • Which filters and degrees are most popular in our program finder?
    • If we put frequently asked questions about financial aid into accordions on a page, do people find them? What are the most viewed questions?
  2. Create simple goals in Google Analytics for the early steps in your admissions funnel: 
    • Accessing a request for information form (or, even better, submitting it).
    • Viewing campus visit information.
    • Viewing information about the application process.
  3. Use built-in Google Analytics reports to get information about: 
    • Event tracking implemented on the site. Then report on this data using the Behavior -> Events reports in Google Analytics.
    • The most popular content on the site using the Behavior -> Site Content -> All pages report. Use the filter box on the report to narrow the scope of the report to focus on content areas of most importance. This is a great report.
    • Goals you create. Goal conversions are visible in a variety of reports in Google Analytics, but two good places to start include: 
      1. The Audience -> Mobile -> Overview report to see how often visitors complete goals on mobile, tablet, and desktop. Use this to inform how pages are structured and what calls to action to suggest for next steps.
      2. The Acquisition -> All Traffic -> Channels report that shows how goals convert by channel. Use this to help understand where visitors who are taking the actions you value most come from.

What if you have multiple analytics accounts or web properties across your institution?

This occurs in Google Analytics when schools and colleges have their own analytics accounts, or various institution web properties aren’t tracked consistently. It takes effort and coordination to get the the right data in one place to make reporting and analysis easier.

How do you tackle data silos?

  • Track the full site in a single Google Analytics account/property, even if schools and colleges maintain their own accounts. It’s OK to track pages in more than one account.
  • Avoid tracking subdomains such as admissions.institution.edu or chemistry.institution.edu as separate properties. These types of sites are part of the whole, and it’s harder to capture the big picture when the data about our visitor’s experience is siloed.
  • Use Google Tag Manager to help manage tracking code. Increasingly, this is helpful for your Facebook pixels, Adroll tracking, and other needs beyond Google Analytics.

2.. Synthesizing and analyzing data from multiple sources

Google Analytics alone doesn’t provide a good way to report on key actions that take place in third-party systems or even offline. Setting up goals and event tracking in Google Analytics can help, but CRM, social media, online giving systems, and online applications also hold vital information about many of the online actions that align most closely with institutional goals. Many institutions struggle to track top-of-the-admissions-funnel activities such as scheduling campus visits, requests for information, or online application submission in Google Analytics when the transaction occurs in a third-party system over which they have little or no control, such as a CRM form or fundraising system.

Taking the step of combining data from multiple sources requires additional tools, time, and collaboration among staff. Exporting data from Google Analytics and other sources into Excel, or using a tool such as Google Data Studio, is a good way to get started.

3. Optimizing marketing and communications efforts based on insights

This is where the rubber meets the road. To truly put data at the heart of your decision making, consider what you can and should do differently because of the numbers you’ve analyzed. It takes a coordinated effort to answer these questions and implement change, and different objectives require different tactics.

Creating goals is fundamental to measuring success of these efforts, and the goals must align with marketing objectives. A number of other activities can help:

  • Tagging URLs with Google’s Campaign URL Builder for marketing campaigns, and applying discipline to the practice of naming campaigns and always using the URLs.
  • Assigning monetary value to goals helps drive home the connection between things such as campus visits and enrolled students.
  • Creating landing pages for campaigns designed for conversions
  • Planning, tracking, and creating event tracking, goals, and campaign tagging strategies before deploying campaigns.
  • Incorporating analysis once a campaign launches (and before it completes) to best leverage the data to make adjustments.

4. Measuring outcomes that link back to strategic initiatives

Institutions often lack someone who can be the glue between marketing, technology, content, and leadership. This might be the CMO or director of marketing and communications — someone who understands the value and enough about the areas involved to collaborate across disciplines and continually champion the value of measurement. Success means collecting comprehensive data, connecting the dots, and focusing on the right data to make that information actionable.

For example, Johnson & Wales University (JWU) hired a manager of digital analytics. He’s the steward of Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager implementations who makes sure the right tracking is in place. He’s also in position to look at data from admission’s CRM and marketing automation tools, and do reporting in and out of Google Analytics for leadership.

The ability to connect analytics with strategic initiatives enables JWU to use data more effectively. During our recent partnership with JWU to relaunch its website, JWU’s manager of digital analytics was able to plan conversion tracking for the new site, report on success measures, and analyze the existing site to help JWU keep things that were working and improve things that were not. JWU is positioned to continue making data-driven decisions with its new website moving forward.

Introducing mStoner Insights

To be successful, today’s higher ed marketer must make data-driven decisions and connect digital performance back to strategic and financial goals.

mStoner Insights gives institutions the information you need easily and consistently. Working with us, you’ll be able to:

  • Measure what’s working on your .edu
  • Track and increase conversion rates for key actions
  • Better understand your audiences and their behaviors
  • Establish repeatable processes for measuring results and proving return on your digital investment
  • Identify and implement high-priority website improvements to meet your goals

We start by understanding your current environment and goals, with a focus on concrete visitor actions. Often these center on the top-of-the-admissions-funnel activities that the website is essential in enabling.

With this common ground established, we address issues and opportunities in data collection and analytics tracking. In parallel, we deploy robust reporting to help you zero in on the data we’ve agreed is most important, in a digital dashboard that is digestible, actionable, and shareable with leadership.

These fundamentals allow us to set in motion a cycle of reporting, analysis, and incremental site improvements. Each month you’ll receive an Insights report that includes analysis and recommendations to help you quickly assess what’s working and what can be improved. Over time, we evolve our reporting and analysis to focus on key data collection, website content, interactive tools such as program finders, and calls to action that matter most to your initiatives. You get the requisite reporting as well as the insight you need to make data-driven improvements to your website.

Learn More

If you’re interested in learning more about mStoner Insights and how we can put your data to work, email our director of marketing or submit the form below.

  • Greg Zguta Director of Web Strategy I've been working on education web projects since the late 90's and enjoy visiting campuses and watching how technology has transformed higher education since I got my first email account at Oberlin College in 1992. Back then, I mostly used the web to check weather radar and sports scores . . . I suppose technology hasn't transformed everything yet.