Full-funnel marketing strategy in higher education, with Joel Gustafson

February 23, 2022


The higher education industry has evolved dramatically over the pandemic. As a result, marketing leaders have been forced to adapt. This episode features Joel Gustafson, Digital Marketing and UX Manager at Oregon State University and Jacob Shibley, Associate Director, Client Services at Silverback Strategies. They both recount challenges and lessons learned to build a full-funnel marketing strategy in higher education. This episode covers their thoughts on:

  • changes to the industry
  • impact from platform changes
  • the customer journey in higher ed
  • successful lead generation channels
  • challenges working across siloed departments

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John Tyreman:  Hi gang. Welcome to the Digital Marketing Troop where we go in the trenches with marketing leaders and practitioners to help you learn more about digital marketing. I’m your host John tyerman. And I am joined today by Joel Gustafson, Digital Marketing and UX Manager at Oregon State University and Jacob Shibley, Associate Director of Client Services at Silverback Strategies. Joel and Jacob work together to drive admissions and enrollments for Oregon State University. Gentlemen, how are we feeling today?

Joel Gustafson:  Doing good John, thank you so much for having us to be a part of this conversation. Looking forward to it. 

Jacob Shibley:  Yeah, feeling great, John. Thanks for having us.

John Tyreman:  Absolutely. And we are here to talk about an approach to full funnel marketing in the higher education industry. Joel, I guess let’s start here. From your perspective, let’s kind of set the table a little bit. How has the higher education industry really evolved over the last couple of years?

Joel Gustafson:  Out of the gate, what I would just say is that the pandemic, although not over, it’s continuing, has really served as an accelerant for all industries. It’s moved things forward, both good and bad. It’s brought things to light that people maybe hadn’t seen before. And that’s no different to the higher education space. It’s really highlighted the people who are underrepresented, people who lack access, people who need assistance and really that has highlighted to me that everyone has a truly unique story. And I specifically work for the campus division of Oregon State University, who is the online arm so we represent the 90 Plus online program. So that takes that concept of diversity and the wide range of ways that people have been impacted during the pandemic, but also before and we’ll be continuing on. And it spreads it even further because our audience is global. And so it ranges from parents who work full time jobs with kids, retirees who are looking to continue to move their career forward, and also are that traditional student age who is looking to learn online and everything in between. So how it’s been impacted by the pandemic is those things have just come more to light. And in that realization, there’s also been impacts that have elevated the truth, which is online learning as a viable solution. But it also raised concerns because everyone had to pivot to online learning. It’s created some false perceptions that online is the same as like some of the band aid solutions. So I guess what it’s done to quickly wrap up, is it’s really elevated awareness around online education:  its benefits, some of the challenges that face it, and it’s also triggered a lot of our peers in the higher education space to pursue online degrees. So as a tactical kind of navigating into that for more of our conversation, there’s just so many more people in the digital marketing space as it relates to higher education, which of course impacts our efforts, both at a strategic, also, as well as a tactical level. 

John Tyreman:  One more thing I just want to ask about kind of what’s going on and some shifts in the higher education space this move to more online programs, at least from my perspective, it may have had an impact on the value of the traditional university model, and then take that in combination with rising tuition costs.  Has that shown up in your line of work as something that you’ve had to… a challenge that you’ve had to overcome?

Joel Gustafson:  So cost and competition is always a fundamental component of higher ed and any other industry. And again, it comes back to that perceptual level and it’s in a shorter customer journey. There’s fewer touch points you have to worry about, like explaining that narrative, or the price point is significantly low, such as in ecommerce, so it’s less of an impact, but when we’re talking higher education, and we’ll get into this I’m sure more down the road, but the the journey from awareness and thinking I want to go back to school to making a decision is long, complicated and unique. And so to your point of, you know, rising costs and competition as it relates to our peers and perception around costs, I think the greatest challenge as it relates to the work that I do, is that everyone has a slightly different perspective. Some people are coming in and that cost means a lot to them. And others it’s about access and the cost is worth it if they don’t have to, you know, move to a new state and others they want an on campus experience. So there’s that place for it depending on what you’re looking for. So I think it’s more navigating the incredible diversity and making sure that we respect and reflect the person where they’re at and what they’re looking for.

John Tyreman:  I’d like to kind of shift gears a little bit and Jacob, this is something, an area where you might be able to help with:  the same question, but on the platform side of things. What are some trends over the past few months or years, I know things are changing all the time, that you’ve noticed specifically in the higher education space?

Jacob Shibley:  Yeah. You know, to keep it specific to eCampus first, I mean, we’ve certainly seen a major shift in the way people are looking for online higher ed institutions. You know, with the pandemic, I think, you know, immediately we saw an increase in search terms like, you know, online degrees as opposed to just searching for forestry bachelor degree or whatever that may be. So I think that shift alone has really impacted us in the eCampus space. I also think that not only are many traditional institutions pivoting, you know, online from a service delivery perspective, but also from an advertising perspective. So we have seen a major increase, especially at the bottom of the funnel, maybe in the search side, in competition. So I think we’ve really tried to understand that and combat that and I think Joel uses the term future proofing often which, you know, we could talk about with either the iOS changes or even you know, preparing for demographic cliffs. So, I think when we noticed this competition shift, our first thought is, okay, we need to be full funnel. You know, if we’re driving awareness at the top and, you know, making sure that everybody understands who we are as Oregon State eCampus and what we offer, then those conversions will be a little bit easier to come by when it comes to decision time. So I think that’s kind of helped us accelerate what was already in motion with a full funnel activity. But definitely, you know, just the way people are searching, the way our competition is moved in and the way we need to approach marketing has all really changed in the past two years. 

Joel Gustafson:  I think a tangible example to add to that of just seeing the increase in competition was the cost as it relates to our branded keyword. So this is us, you know, Oregon State University Computer Science Degree Online. Like that, from a Google quality standpoint, we are literally bidding on what we offer. But we saw significant increases in the cost per click, and we, looking at auction insights And you know, who’s bidding on this, It’s our peers and it is some institutions with significantly larger budgets than us, but it just illustrates you know, one, it’s a pat on the back because it to me, it kind of speaks to perhaps a reputation in the space as someone who want to bid on one of our keywords. But regardless of that, the other side that’s not as exciting is you know, it just shows like it is fierce and people are aware of how people are searching and there’s tools out there, and it is worth it to other institutions, even though they’re being you know, penalized from an ad quality standpoint, they’re still going to show up and they are going to compete for as much market share as they can.

John Tyreman:  Joel, you touched on this a little bit earlier about how the customer journey in higher education is a little longer than some other customer journeys out there. For listeners who might not know, can you help us understand what that customer journey looks like? Can you take it down just one more level? 

Joel Gustafson:  Yeah, absolutely. So from a practical, let’s say we wanted to visualize it and really embrace a funnel perspective. And from a platform standpoint, we have to. That’s the way that you know, ad algorithms are built. That’s the way that websites are built. You know, you need to apply before you’re admitted. So there is a linear funnel. However, what I would clarify before I get into it a little bit more… In order to effectively understand how that funnel plays from a higher end lens and from how long and complex that journey is, apply the game of Chutes and Ladders over the top of that funnel. And what I mean by that is all of us, anyone who’s considering going back to school or pursuing higher education is still living life and it’s a big decision. But something may happen in your life that could spark a sudden action. So you’re kind of in this periphery, doing some research, you’re browsing sites, a life experience happens. You see that there’s a job opportunity or you’re laid off or something occurs, that sparks like I need to act now. So you might move from that just top level kind of browsing possibilities to applying, admitting, enrolling and pursuing a degree but the reverse can also occur, where you’re kind of doing your exploration, your research, you’ve inquired, so maybe you’re in our CRM, we know who you are. You’re kind of engaging with us. Maybe you’ve called us. Maybe you’ve even submitted an application. A similar life event could occur with the opposite effect. That because you were laid off or because something occurred, you zoom all the way back out to I cannot enroll in a course right now. I cannot pursue a degree right now. I need to handle something else that’s a greater priority. So from a linear perspective, it’s building awareness and letting people know that we are an option, highlighting those options, getting someone to reach out to us either through you know, integrating into our CRM or calling or texting, emailing, whatever it is, then ideally submitting an application going through that process, admitting and enrolling but that can take anywhere from you know, an average latency from that inquiry, reaching out to applying and can be 60 days. We’ve seen instances where it’s 365 days. So yes, the structures are in place in that funnel of building awareness to the point of enrollment, but people can move in and out of those phases and jump not all the way from the start to the finish or the finish to the start, but they can land anywhere. So I think to wrap that up, that’s why full funnel marketing is so critical. Because we don’t know where someone’s gonna land. We just want to be there. And more importantly, we don’t want to just show up with a generic boilerplate message. If we can, we want to show up wherever they’re going to land and recognize where they’ve been and where they’re going. And saying that right now, sounds, “Yeah, that’s great”. It’s really hard, because data systems to the funnel don’t integrate. So yes, you’d love to show up and have a personalized message that respects where they’ve come from and where they’re going, but it depends on data integrations without being creepy. You know it, there’s a lot to it. So, again, that’s a long way of saying the systems are linear. The interaction with the systems is a game of Chutes and Ladders.

John Tyreman:  I love that analogy. Chutes and Ladders overlaid on top of the marketing funnel. That just makes it so clear to me. And Joel, what I like about your approach, and I’m picking up on, you’re taking a very human centric mindset and everyone’s situation is a little bit different. You mentioned your target audience is fairly broad. And you can service people from different backgrounds. They’re searching for different things. They’re at different ages. So I imagine that what appeals to one set of your audience, their decision criteria is one thing and then another audience segment could have completely different decision criteria set. Can you speak a little bit about that?

Joel Gustafson:  Absolutely. So something that we actually learned from Silverback and we’ve integrated into our advertising strategies is this idea of ad intent. So you have a call to action, you have perhaps a product or a program that you’re promoting and rather than just saying, okay, my goal is learn more. What’s the intent? So what’s the reason that you would encourage someone to learn more? Is it because, is it prestige based? Learn more because we are top ranked in the nation? Is it support based? Learn more because we have your back? Is it exploration based? Learn more because there’s so many options you haven’t even scratched the surface. Same call to action, same experience, but wildly different perspective. So to go back to that question of how do we kind of show up and handle those different audiences and how are they engaging? We first have to set that baseline and start doing tests. So we’re trying different intents at different stages of the funnel to see how it performs. One, of course, data caveat and challenge is that different platforms have different capabilities of reporting. So in Google, we can use Responsive Search or Dynamic Search Ads and drop in those different intents and Google lets us know how they showed up. And we can actually understand like, okay, for this audience, let’s say people who are more interested in business, they care much more about prestige. But let’s say for Conservation and Natural Sciences, they care more about support. So right now we’re setting that baseline of just testing those and seeing what matters. To add a whole other layer of complication to that is you have those different intents by different demographics of interest, but it’s also variable at stage. So maybe business wants to hear about our ranking and prestige early on, but they want to hear about support and success later. Maybe in our email communication journey. Maybe it’s inverted for conservation, natural sciences. Maybe it fluctuates, depending on the time of the season, because we have four start terms. So I think one thing that we have to recognize is it’s easy to get into question or data paralysis, like, as I was, you know, kind of peeling that onion for you, I was getting nervous, like how do you… where do you even start? And you start by starting. You have to pick something to measure and for us it was integrating ad intents into our work segmenting our different program based audiences and starting at the high level, just general perspective KPIs. So what’s the latency? The average latency of inquiry to application from this audience of people pursuing business degrees versus this person prefers pursuing, you know, natural resources. Is it different? Is it the same? So start small but again, to Jacob’s point about that idea of future proofing, keep those in the weeds, matrix level conversations top of mind. Be aware that those considerations are there just, you can’t answer them all at once.

John Tyreman:  Let’s flip the script a little bit. Let’s look at it from the marketing point of view. So we talked about the customer journey, we talked about those different stages. Let’s look at it through a marketing lens. I guess maybe this is a question for both of you. What channels have found success in generating leads and when you can measure it, attributable revenue?

Joel Gustafson:  Jacob, you want to go first? 

Jacob Shibley:  Yeah, yeah, I’ll take that one. So I mean, I’d say first of all, success is relative. And I think we take our different platforms and hold them to kind of different standards, depending on what we’re expecting. To answer your question directly. I mean, I think Google and Google Search is probably where we see the most, you know, leads and attributable revenue and requests for information come through. Just because we understand, you know, we’re kind of merging the intent that we understand from the platform data with our messaging and are able to very easily do that. I mean, somebody’s searching for a course. That means they’re probably likely to reach out and at least request for information about it in the near future. So definitely Google there. But I would say, you know, when we think about Google’s display and YouTube efforts, as well, as you know, a lot of what we’ve done on Facebook, they’re still driving leads, but kind of in a different way. You know, especially, you know, in this past summer, when, you know, Apple’s iOS came out, kind of limiting some of our cooking abilities, we did a major pivot with Facebook to kind of shift from a full on RFI strategy where we’re really just going for leads to more of an awareness strategy. You know, I think still, you know,  these sorts of conversions were measurable on Facebook to a degree, a little bit less so. But you know, we did realize that Facebook needs to play a role, maybe before somebody’s searching, and, you know, you can sort of start to get in front of people and, you know, share your messaging at that sort of level of the funnel. So, again, success is relative there when it comes to Facebook because sure, we’re getting people to you know, watch a video or you know, experience our you know, website for the first time and maybe that’s okay to start. But yeah, I’d say they all kind of play into each other in that way where, you know, sure, we understand Google is the top driver of leads but without that top and middle of the funnel there from a consideration standpoint, it likely would be a lot worse.

Joel Gustafson:  Something I’d add there as well. So I’m grateful, Jacob, that you brought up relative success or how we measure success is variable at stage of funnel and by platform. I’d also say that there’s a delicate balance between machine learning and kind of handing the keys over and saying, optimize. So when we’re measuring that success and saying, we want you to funnel all your budget to the thing that’s going to convert the best. That’s typically maybe like a promising practice, but what we had a recent conversation about is zooming out and saying, if we do that we may sacrifice awareness of our really diverse and broad portfolio of programs. And so what we walk that fine line of how much autonomy do we give machine learning and when do we override and say yes, you could get more efficient reach and impressions on Facebook or give it a more efficient click if you exclusively promoted this one thing and really let it turn over. We’re actually going to override and say, get slightly less efficiency, but make sure that everything is showing up. Because that’s the whole point of awareness. We want people to be aware of the different programs. A tangible example is going back to that Conservation and Natural Sciences portfolio. We’ve kind of broken it down into three subcategories. So it represents nine plus programs. We have a plant focused, kind of subtopic, a wildlife focus subtopic and an environment focus subtopic. Each one of those has about three or four programs. And Facebook, our awareness campaign we initially just said okay, you have these three kind of ad sets. Go wild, Facebook. Decide which one you want to, you know, spend the money on. 99% of it went to wildlife because we had some sweet ads with bison and buffalo and like it just… it was a thing that worked really well in paid social. And so one of those subtopics was getting all of the share. And so we had two pretty diverse categories of programs not getting any representation. So even though we want to talk about what works best, from a purely metric driven standpoint, we would have just left it untouched. But when we thought more critically about what success means to us as it relates to that particular stage of the funnel, again, knowing there’s more, for us success and awareness means awareness of our portfolio of programs, not one. So that’s where we made the conscious decision to override the algorithm and say, give love to all three of these and then as we move deeper into the funnel, we do actually relinquish more control because then it’s more around that conversion optimization.

Jacob Shibley:  Yeah, and I’ll say, you know, Joel, you and I have this conversation all the time. But one of the big differences between like higher ed and you know, maybe some ecommerce brands or retailers is that you know, I think the platforms were kind of built with you know, ecommerce or sales in mind, right? So, for, you know, an ecommerce brand selling apparel, they might not care. You know, if you’re making more sales, then that’s good. If you’re getting a better ROI, then that’s good. So put all the money there. And so I think a lot of these algorithms are set up in that way where, as we’ve talked about, this user decision journey for higher ed is much more complex and needs a little bit more critical thinking. So you know, we definitely see that you know, combined manual and automated approach across all of our platforms for that reason is because we definitely need to put a little bit more thought into this than, you know, something that’s fully automated and completely revenue based and maybe a decision of, you know, a day. 

Joel Gustafson:  Yeah, Jacob, you had a great example, where you’re talking about kind of how those algorithms are built in. You’re like, you know, in ecommerce, let’s say you have a line of shoes. If in your ad campaign and in your conversions, there is a line of shoes, it’s not getting any of the share and it’s just really underperforming, you discontinue the line of shoes.  You stop making it because it’s not performing. That’s not how higher education works. If there’s a degree that is slightly underperforming, but there’s enrollment, you know, we’re not selling shoes. We’re selling opportunity and knowledge and so we don’t have the luxury of like, oh, this you know, this one particular program isn’t performing as well on Facebook and Google – we’ll just cancel the program. No, we have to find other solutions or acknowledge it’s going to be a smaller total enrollment for this program, and that’s okay, but it does mean we just discontinue.

John Tyreman:  Joel, in higher education, you mentioned earlier that there are some other business units within your organization that you’d have to work with and across. I’m curious, what’s been your experience working with other departments like let’s say, admissions on lead generation, the handoff between that and nurture. Can you talk a little bit about that dynamic?

Joel Gustafson:  Yeah, absolutely. So when thinking about how we collaborate with other stakeholders, other units as it relates to the work that we do, I again, have to just say I’m very grateful that we do have a lot of transparency and willingness to collaborate. Now, that being said, you can be willing to collaborate and have a wonderful transparent relationship, but it doesn’t suddenly like drop the silos and make things work together easily. So what I would say our greatest challenge is that we are a decentralized University, both from a marketing as well as some of our data standpoints, eCampus and that specifically ties into our CRMs. Currently we’re in one CRM, admissions is in another CRM and then we kind of have like a data warehouse that lives and kind of tries to connect everything. But as you could imagine, it would be much easier if everything kind of lived in the same ecosystem, or if you had all the data integrations that you need. And that currently is not where we’re at and something that we’re working towards. So what I would say I’m grateful for is the fact that we haven’t met that resistance. Everyone’s like yeah, let’s work towards it. Let’s figure this out. But before we can get to integrating some of these exciting customizations, let’s say engagement logic, where it’s tracking someone through the funnel and someone might be on a prospect communication journey, and they’re getting emails but they started an application, and that sends the data automatically, which kind of shifts the track that they’re on. And now we talk to more of them about finishing their application. In order for those types of… in order for our messaging to truly respect and reflect where someone is on the funnel, everything has to be seamlessly integrated. And so even though our collaborations from a human level is strong, data integrations will always be a challenge when you don’t have everything in one ecosystem.

John Tyreman:  Jacob, do you have any perspective on this?

Jacob Shibley:  Yeah, I mean, the only thing to add here is, you know, Joel’s relationship and our relationship with the program managers, right? I think we do a great job of, you know, sharing data and insights with those folks to kind of build the best ad product that we can. So you know, the folks that manage each individual program at Oregon State are definitely gonna be the most knowledgeable in terms of what value props to bring forth, what kind of imagery to use in the ads and what copy to kind of share. But what you know, we can bring in our great relationship in tandem is kind of the data. Here’s what they’re searching for. You know, here’s what that audience looks like on Facebook and what their interests are. And here’s how they behave on the website. And I think we have a great relationship there where, you know, feedback is given both ways and that working relationship is really key. 

Joel Gustafson:  I would add to that too. And thank you, Jacob, for bringing that up and working with our program partners as well. And even inside of eCampus is understanding that different stakeholders or different units have a different perception of the funnel, what’s high funnel, low funnel. A great example would be as a marketer, I think of high funnel as Facebook awareness – like someone even seeing it. But someone in Student Success or Enrollment Services, use high funnel –  like the highest funnel is the point of inquiry. But that’s from a paid digital standpoint, the lowest part of the funnel. And so I think as it relates to collaborating with others, that transparency is crucial, not just in terms of letting them know what we’re working on, but aligning on our definitions. When we’re talking about high funnel what are we talking about? And it’s okay if it’s different just as long as we acknowledge it. And that’s equally important when we work with units outside of eCampus – when we’re talking to admissions and advisors in different programs is understanding when they’re speaking to high funnel, just clarify. Like which stage are we talking about? Let’s stop talking about the funnel and just talk about the action, the experience and the moment. And if we provide that context, we’ll be much more set up for success. 

John Tyreman:  Yeah, having a shared language can be a really powerful communication tool. Being able to kind of level set across silos, across departments, and have that shared common language is something that is really helpful in the higher education industry, and in others. Well, Joel, Jacob, I just want to thank you both for taking the time to come on our podcast. Joel, let’s start with you. If listeners want to connect with you to learn more, where can they find you?

Joel Gustafson:  I would say LinkedIn is the best place to get in touch with me. You just look up Joel Gustafson on LinkedIn or even type in eCampus or something like that. I should show up and luckily, I stand out a little bit so my profile picture should do the same. Yeah, look me up on LinkedIn. And please don’t hesitate to reach out. I’d love to continue the conversation there. 

Jacob Shibley:  And yeah. same here on my side. I’d say LinkedIn is where to find me. I’m always happy to connect and talk digital marketing or higher ed as a whole. So yeah, same method there.

John Tyreman:  Well, gentlemen, thank you so much for taking the time. This has been a great conversation. I know I learned a ton. I’m sure our listeners did as well.