Graduate Degree Program Websites Suck / by Kevin Davis

Dear fellow higher education marketing professionals, the websites we manage, suck.

Having been a salesman much longer than a higher education marketing and branding professional, if I know one thing, it is that there is an art to selling and it must follow a specific and logical order. I have worked in the field for almost since 2012, and as someone also researching graduate programs for my educational goals, I have concluded that the user experience is an afterthought if at all. I say this as someone who has worked in enrollment marketing, directly. It is different when you are busy tasking from the inside compared to viewing externally as a prospective student. 

Millions of dollars are spent each year on training and improving the customer experience for luxury cars, goods, homes, all high dollar purchases. Why don't we treat the collegiate experience as a luxury item, that is what it is at the end of the day. Why don't we work on improving the collegiate shopping experience? The hope and expectations are that you earn your degree, spread the good word on your experience, and you give time and money back to the university. Car dealerships, mortgage banks, and luxury retail products are a one-time (multi-payment in most cases) transactions, and they do not maintain the same expectations as a college or university has of their alumni. We have it all backward.

These are the following items degree seekers would like to find on your website, and quickly. What program, how long will it take me, how much does it cost, and what do I need to apply? That is what everyone wants to know. Why is it so complicated to make these items easy to find in a logical order and flow? As marketing professionals, we must take the wheel as subject matter experts and think like salespeople on how to best present the information students seek. We also must seek feedback from students on how well we are conveying and displaying relevant information.

It can be hard to collaborate with other departments and determine what needs to happen, but it costs you students in the long run.

What folks want.

•      Degree programs- Students do not care about the school of business or wherever the program is housed unless it is Booth, Kellogg, Wharton, Etc. Improve your SEO to get the programs to show up quickly. Students do not know that your integrated marketing communications and marketing communications programs are in two different schools. Show all the graduate programs and link them to the appropriate program pages. Students may be looking for the marketing communications program and never see the integrated marketing communications program, which may be a better fit for them if all degree options are not presented.

•      Overview- What is the program about, what are the expected outcomes, who is this program targeting, what are possible roles one can expect with this degree.

•      Why should you get my money? What makes you different than anyone else, what's so unique about your program? Is it faculty? Placement rate? Diversity? Time to completion? Cost? Delivery format? 

•      Time Commitment- How long will it take for students to complete the program? Give me the fastest option, and make that clear. Be specific with the schedule showing what course load it will take to meet the best-case scenario goal. Fall = XYZ classes, Spring = XYZ, Summer = XYZ classes. Students do not want to see the average-case scenario; they want to see best case scenario and adjust it based on their reality.

•      Cost- How much does the program cost? List the total cost; students do not care about how much it is per credit. If it is $50,000, then say that. If the program is $50,000, and trips/immersions are required (and are to be self-financed) add that, as well as estimated costs for books. If that pushed the total to $60,000 say that. 

•      Contact- whom can I contact for more information? Where are your social media accounts for the program or school so that I can interact with others?

•      Events- Are there any events I can attend such as information sessions or networking events? That should be easy to find.

•      Admissions- Be very clear and concise on what is required for admissions. What does the process look like, what are the deadlines, if I miss this window when is the next start date?

There are far too many links to click to find necessary information, PDFs opened to view program curriculum, and calculators being pulled out to determine costs. If a concise flow is developed, the less your recruiters and admissions staff must field basic questions, and there is more time for them to work on closing applications and to get students into seats. The metrics are there, where are people clicking the most? What are they searching the most on the site? What are your heat maps telling you? All the digital advertising, direct mail, and marketing in the world cannot counter a lackluster web experience. I do realize and understand that the hierarchy and political climate in your university and department play a role in decisions involving the website, but it might be costing your students.

What are your thoughts and experiences with graduate program websites?