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Putting web analytics data to use in higher education

No matter how much data you collect, it’s useful only if you’re asking the right questions
University Business, November 2014
Tech expert Karine Joly: Digital analytics is part of hundreds of conversations, projects, meetings and reports on many campuses.
Tech expert Karine Joly: Digital analytics is part of hundreds of conversations, projects, meetings and reports on many campuses.

I’ve spent much of the past four years helping raise awareness of the importance of web analytics for digital marketing and communications.

I’ve used many tactics to reach this goal: online surveys on the State of Web and Social Media Analytics in Higher Education, columns focusing on early adopters, trends and success stories, countless presentations at industry events, blog posts, and even an annual online conference entirely dedicated to higher education analytics.

In June 2010, after presenting at UBTech in Las Vegas, I launched a year-long benchmarking project: the Higher Ed Web Analytics Revolution. This project was intended to overthrow marketing decisions based on opinions, hunches and guesses.

The goal was to collect and distribute useful benchmarking data on 12 website metrics selected for their relevance for colleges websites.

With more than a hundred different institutions self-reporting data each month, the project helped, but not as much as I had hoped. The sample size was too small to produce truly relevant benchmarking data.

But the project did help establish the habit of using Google Analytics data for many digital teams in higher education. Now, four years later, digital analytics is part of hundreds of conversations, projects, meetings and reports on many campuses.

New tools

Yet, with so much data now available, it is more challenging to choose what to present to decision-makers. In this context, benchmarking data can offer a welcomed reference frame to evaluate the overall performance of your school website.

This is why new benchmarking reports, introduced in Google Analytics in September, are such a step forward for digital analytics. The three available reports let you compare the performance of your website with similar higher ed web properties.

By selecting a geographic location and a range of average daily web sessions, you can access dashboards to compare your data on digital marketing channels driving traffic to your website, the location of your visitors and how they connected to your site. For a tutorial on accessing these benchmarking reports in Google Analytics, see my four-minute screencast.

What can we learn?

Because these benchmarking reports present data directly and are automatically collected by Google Analytics, sample size is not an issue. When these reports were made available in September, I published the Higher Ed Web Analytics Monthly Benchmarking Report to highlight August 2014 trends at the industry level.

The sample size for this report was 2,953 American college websites. This first 11-page visual report was shared with UB Daily readers in early October.

Now that we have access to reliable data, it’s time to put web analytics benchmarking to good use. Let’s start with three important findings:

Adaptability. If your website doesn’t adapt to different connected devices, you are offering a substandard experience for your visitors. The data shows that as much as 30 percent of all visits to a college website came from a smartphone or a tablet.

SEO. Search engines drive more than a third of all new visits made to college websites—38 percent in August 2014. You should invest time in search engine optimization and improve the quality of your website content—which is the core of any good SEO strategy.

Social media and paid search. Interestingly, social media drives as much new traffic to college websites as paid search ads. While their respective share of total website traffic is marginal compared to organic search, they each brought 4 percent of all new visits in August and September. However, social media visitors have an average bounce rate of 72 percent compared to 56 percent for paid search.

Next steps

I will publish the Higher Ed Web Analytics Monthly Report for a year to see how recruiting and academic cycles influence website traffic patterns on universities and colleges websites. By widely sharing these industry-level reports, I hope to plant some analytics seeds on more campuses. If any interesting analytics projects grow on yours, I would love to hear your web analytics stories.

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.

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