Embracing Web Analytics

Embracing Web Analytics

Why and how to get a web analytics revolution started at your institution

Will this new fiscal year come with a bigger budget for your web and marketing initiatives? Given the current state of higher education budgets, chances are it won't (but, if you're one of the happy few, congratulations!). For the past couple of years, institutions across the country had to do more with less. That's why it has become so important today to find out quickly what works and what doesn't, and how you can improve your digital initiatives.

While this current budget situation is challenging for everybody, it's also a great opportunity for higher education web teams. Now, more than ever, web professionals have the chance to help their colleagues from communication, marketing, advancement, and other offices see the light that web analytics can cast on strategic decisions.

Can web analytics really come to the rescue? Yes, definitely.

Defined by the Web Analytics Association as "the measurement, collection, analysis, and reporting of internet data for the purposes of understanding and optimizing web usage," web analytics can fuel change within your institution by providing data-supported insights. Now that most of your constituents and target audiences rely on the web to facilitate their interactions with your university, it is possible to track and measure the outcomes of most of their activities online. As a result, the majority of decisions related to web and marketing initiatives don't have to be based on opinions, hunches, or guesses anymore. With web analytics, you can finally make beautiful and simple data-driven decisions.

Decisions don't have to be based on opinions, hunches, or guesses anymore.

Just by tracking hits, page views, and visitors? No, not really.

I do remember a time - about five years ago - when many executives in higher education were only interested in web statistics to state their claim in a vast popularity contest. The goal was to get the biggest number possible, which is certainly why web hits were such a commonly tracked metric. Because a web hit is logged when a file (e.g., a photo, a style sheet, some JavaScript code, etc.) request is made to the web server, a single visit to a web page could result in dozens of hits - and thus a higher score to report to the president. While page views and visitors more adequately measure web usage, they should not be the only metrics used. We don't need to play a new version of "Who wants to be a millionaire? in web hits."

The power of web analytics resides beyond the tracking and reporting of page views and unique visitors - although both metrics can be defined as key performance indicators (KPIs), depending on your goals. That power only can be unleashed by going beyond the clicks and translating clear goals into measurable conversions.

It doesn't have to be with the help of Google Analytics. But this free and powerful web analytics application, used by a majority of institutions, provides all you need to start measuring web conversions and get real insights on your initiatives.

Through its "Goals" feature, Google Analytics allows you to set up and track completion of desired actions initiated by your web visitors - filling out an inquiry/application form, making an online donation or registering online for an event, for example. Then, it automatically calculates conversion rates for these actions, giving you a precise picture of how well your website and your initiatives meet your strategic goals. By properly tagging the marketing campaigns, it becomes possible and easy to inform your decisions to stop or continue a given effort only based on data-conversion rates in this instance.

At Siena Heights University (Mich.), Doug Goodnough, director of integrated university marketing, has been watching closely the conversion rates of his inquiry and application online forms since a 2007 website redesign. Because the traffic data showed the pages about the academic programs were some of the most visited on the website, the strategy has been to develop the content and to make both calls to action more prominent on these pages. "We now have an 'Apply Online' and a 'Request More Information' button on each academic program page as well as in our admissions areas to help our prospective students take the next step in the enrollment process," explains Goodnough. According to the data, this minor yet important change contributed to a measurable difference in 2009 as the online applications increased nearly 10 percent from the previous year.

At John Carroll University (Ohio), Mike Richwalsky, newly hired as director of marketing services, has decided to track everything he can. He wants to use the data to inform an upcoming JCU website redesign and to learn which outreach efforts are working best. He is especially interested in learning how the university's contextual ads and some local ads perform. By tracking the different campaigns and segmenting new visitors, it was possible to demonstrate the success of Google and Facebook ads when it came to the amount of new people they drive to the JCU site.

"More than 90 percent of people who have clicked on a JCU ad in Facebook had never been to the JCU website," says Richwalsky. Beyond this validation, the use of web analytics proved that a pay-per-click (PPC) ad about affordability and financial aid was more successful in bringing quality traffic - e.g., visitors browsing the website beyond the ad landing page - than a more general branding PPC ad.

At the University of Colorado at Boulder, Sarah Behunek, director of alumni relations/communications for Leeds School of Business, went through her own web analytics conversion. Two years ago, her newly combined office started to track metrics after hiring a community manager. This initiative "was a bit of a risk, so it was incumbent upon us to begin tracking from the beginning," recalls Behunek. Her team has been tracking progress, analyzing and enhancing what works, and eliminating what doesn't ever since. By focusing on its YouTube video metrics, Leeds School of Business was able to identify the type of videos its constituents prefer. The videos where extra time was spent streamlining and simplifying the topics and interviews received the best viewer response.

As a result of this analysis, in its Faculty Focus videos the school started to use punchier titles, even more focused interviews, and more everyday language. "These metrics have directly helped us in our larger goal of helping disseminate faculty research to the larger Colorado and national community," says Behunek.

While these three examples offer only anecdotal proof that web analytics can make a big difference for institutions, most decision-makers in higher education still need to be convinced about the importance of web analytics.

"In higher education, we are still in our infancy as far as web analytics usage goes," says Shelby Thayer, web strategist at Penn State Outreach. Her blog, Trending Upward, was listed as a must-read in the latest book covering web analytics by Avinash Kaushik, the analytics evangelist for Google. Thayer believes that larger, more decentralized universities have a harder time using standard implementation and best practices across the board. In the majority of institutions, web analytics still seems to be "used in a very ad hoc way to answer specific questions or to show and optimize the return on investment of a given area, say, "marketing campaigns," she adds.

Yet, web analytics can do wonders by powering a data-driven organization. So, why not start a web analytics revolution at your institution? It can be done, one day--and one metric--at a time.

Start by defining measurable goals with specific calls to action. Keep going by measuring conversions--and not just tracking clicks. Watch for trends and analyze the data to inform your decisions.

Then, when you get interesting results and insights from these efforts, drop me a line at karine@higheredexperts.com. I'd love to compile and share even more success stories in a future column. I want to do my part to get this web analytics revolution going in higher education.

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 the professional development online community www.higheredexperts.com.


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