Most marketers in higher education are doing something online. Many have even moved the majority of their efforts to digital channels, allowing them to harness the vastly superior targeting capabilities offered by digital marketing and advertising. In addition to greater control over who sees your ads, marketing with online channels also provides the opportunity to track and verify the value of your investment.

Herein lies the challenge:  How do you really understand the value brought by different marketing channels in your campaign or marketing plan?

Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet answer to this very important question. The exact attribution setup depends on your Goals, your marketing and media strategy and the technology you use.

In this post, I’ll go over the basics for setting up Goals, tagging the traffic coming to your website and reporting on your results using Google Analytics.

Let’s say you have a budget and you’ve made some decisions about how to spend it. For the purposes of this “learn by example” blog, let’s also make the assumption that you’ve planned a simple campaign that includes paid search, social media ads, and a few display placements targeted to your primary audience group.

1. Set a Goal

This may seem like an obvious first step, but setting a goal (both strategically and tactically) is critical to understanding the value of your marketing campaign, so we couldn’t leave it out.

Application to your institution or program is definitely important, but you already have a way of quantifying that. You’ll still want to use your website to track application numbers, but in order to get real insight into the value of a campaign (that you can use to make decisions to improve the end resultS), you’ll want to identify some other key actions that indicate success along the path to application, enrollment, purchase, etc.

If you’re not sure what those actions are for your program or institution, consider these examples:

  • Downloading a viewbook
  • Scheduling a campus visits
  • Registering for an information session
  • Watching a video

These actions are much lower commitment than submitting an application, but are an indication that someone is taking your institution or program seriously and is attempting to learn more.

A lot of these actions can be tracked by Google Analytics with minimal effort on your part. You just have to define the goal. Another term used interchangeably by the industry for these desirable user actions is “conversion.” When your marketing offer is something like a viewbook, campus visit or registration, users probably have to complete a form in order to “convert.”

You can define a conversion however you’d like, but ultimately, these are meaningful actions that indicate someone’s increased interest in your offering.

2. Tag Your Traffic

You’ve probably noticed that Google Analytics provides you some information about the traffic that comes to your site by default. This information appears under the “Acquisition” tab on the left side navigation pane.

The standard Default Channel Groupings include: Organic Search, Direct, Referral, and sometimes Social, Display, Paid Search.

While these are helpful for understanding in broad strokes the nature of the traffic that comes to your site, they don’t give you the complete channel-by-channel breakdown that you need to understand the performance within your marketing campaign. For this kind of analysis, you want to put data into the “Campaigns” tab.

Unlike the Default Channel Groupings, Campaigns require some customization on your part. The added effort, though, gives you a much better picture of marketing and advertising performance.

The solution is to tag your destination URLs (referring to your landing page, destination page, blog page, or any page on the site you’re using a destination for advertising and marketing campaign traffic). Tagging URLs is pretty simple, you just need to determine how you want to use the following required fields:

  • Source - The source of your traffic. This could be a search engine like Google or Bing, a newsletter, a website, etc.
  • Medium - The medium used to reach the user who clicked through the link. This could be email, display, or if you’re using social media advertising, news feed.
  • Campaign - The name of your campaign. Think about how you want to separate data here. It might make sense to title your campaign something like “Admissions-2015” if you’re working to increase admissions for your university. If you’re advertising for multiple programs within an institution, it might make sense to keep those initiatives separate by using campaign names like “MBA”, “Nursing”, and “Undergraduate”.

For more on UTM parameters check out this blog post: http://blog.rafflecopter.com/2014/04/utm-parameters-best-practices/

For Google’s easy to use URL builder, click here: https://ga-dev-tools.appspot.com/campaign-url-builder/

3. Report on Success

This is the cool part, I promise. Once some time has gone by, you can use the two customizations you’ve made (setting Goals and tagging traffic) to parse out some insights on the performance of your campaigns.

When you’re just getting started, you can use this data to diagnose issues with tagging, ad serving, or others. Check the data to make sure that:

  • You’re seeing the volume of traffic (measured by Sessions*) expected for each channel
  • Behavioral metrics like Bounce Rate*, Pages / Session* and Avg. Session Duration* are acceptable.

What do I mean by acceptable? Consider a banner (display) campaign. You’re likely paying for that campaign on a CPM* (Cost Per Mille) basis, meaning that you’re charged a price for every 1,000 impressions* of the ad, not clicks. The value of this campaign isn’t necessarily all in the interactions users took on your site. Banner campaigns may generate a large amount of traffic, but will probably have your highest Bounce Rate. And that’s OK! You were really paying for impressions anyway.

Now consider paid search. If you’re bidding on keywords and driving this highly relevant traffic to your site (sometimes paying $30 or more for just one click), your standard for what’s considered “good” performance needs to be much higher. You need to see a significantly higher conversion rate against your Goals for this more targeted and expensive traffic.

Every campaign is different and every channel can play a different role. For that reason, you want to take a balanced approach when judging the efficacy of your different campaigns. Evaluate each channel’s performance against your Goals, but also consider factors like the cost of the media, how targeted of an audience you reach, and other engagement metrics like Bounce rate, Pages / Session and Avg. Session Duration.

Hopefully this post has shed some light on measuring the success of your marketing initiatives. If you have any lingering questions or just want to know more, feel free to reach out. If any of the lingo in this post was at all confusing, the the glossary included below.

*Terms Defined:

  • Sessions - the period time a user is actively engaged with your website, app, etc.
  • Bounce rate -  the percentage of single-page visits (i.e. visits in which the person left your site from the entrance page without interacting with the page)
  • Pages / Session  - another way of saying “average page Depth,” it’s the average number of pages viewed during a session.
  • Avg. Session Duration The average length of a Session.
  • Impressions - In online advertising, an impression is counted each time your ad is shown
  • CPM - Cost per mille (cost per every 1,000 impressions)