The Wizardry Behind Google Analytics 4 & How It Can Help Higher Ed Marketers

Posted: July 23, 2021

Joshua Dodson Vice President of Innovation

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5 min. read

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

–Arthur C. Clarke

For many higher education marketers, analytics can seem like magic – how it works is a mystery.

Most of our clients tell us there’s either too much data that tells them too little. Others say there is too little data that tells them even less about the questions they really want answered. Worse, the measurement tools often have a steep learning curve. 

Chief among them is Google Analytics – Google’s platform for monitoring audience behavior through website traffic. Its interface can feel unintuitive and overly complicated to users with minimal analytics experience, leaving marketers bewildered as to what the metrics really mean. 

What is Google Analytics 4 Good For?

Say you wanted to know how effective your campaigns are in driving enrollment conversions on your website. Wouldn’t it be cool if you can just turn to Google Analytics and say, “Work your magic”? 

With Google Analytics 4 (GA4), the latest version of Google Analytics, you can. Sort of. 

At first glance, GA4 is arguably the most complex incarnation to date. It looks different. It feels different. There’s new nomenclature. There are new features at every turn. But don’t let that discourage you from using it. While the tool got more complicated, it also got more powerful.

GA4’s new features can help you see what you want to see and reach the holy grail of marketing insights – that is, connecting top-of-funnel activities to lower funnel enrollment outcomes. 

GA4 Makes Analytics More Accessible

Earlier this week, I gave a webinar that broke down the key features of GA4 and the ways that you can get the most out of them.

First, it’s more automated. Measurement parameters that you’d have to spend hours setting up from scratch are now available as pre-built components. 

Once you have your data collection parameters in place, GA4 makes the process of analyzing your data more turnkey. 

Through Google’s machine learning algorithms, GA4 offers a wide inventory of report templates, each built to help you learn specific things about your audiences during their visits to your website. Now, elusive insights on your marketing ROI are just clicks away based on the data you choose to pass into the platform. 

With GA4, you’ll be able to quickly see the steps site users are taking along the enrollment funnel. And the lens is wider compared to previous versions. GA4 has shifted from page views to a more holistic measurement model, where every action on your website is treated as an event. 

These events, which range from page views and downloads to more granular, mobile-first metrics like scroll tracking, will help you understand your audiences from new perspectives. 

You’ll see what content is earning clicks. You’ll know where users are coming from and when. Patterns across different user pathways will become apparent, allowing you to make predictive decisions on where to (and where not to) invest marketing resources in pursuit of your engagement goals. 

GA4 Offers More Opportunities for Customization

One of GA4’s biggest improvements is the level of customization. If templates aren’t your style, you can create custom reports that analyze what you want to track, allowing you to get as granular as you want with your data very quickly. 

The caveat, however, is that you must know what question you’re trying to answer with your research. For example, you may want to learn: 

  • Which marketing channels are producing the best return on your investment, particularly when you factor in not only direct, but assisted, conversions?
  • Which audiences are interacting with your ads now and what do we know about them?
  • What do current RFI submitters look like? What are their interests and what are they in the market for?
  • Is more web traffic coming from high school students or adult learners?
  • Which marketing sources and pages lead to the greatest number of applications?
  • How well is the website (and certain sections/pages) attracting and converting prospective students?

Through the drag and drop interface on GA4’s Analysis Hub, you’ll be able to slice your data into rows and columns based on the criteria you establish. It works almost like a refined search filter. You’ll be able to pinpoint the types of results you need to answer your questions and prove your return on investment.  

Integration with Google BigQuery 

The game-changing upgrade of GA4 is its integration with Google BigQuery – Google’s multicloud data warehouse.

This means your data no longer lives in a vacuum. It can exist alongside other data, leading to deeper, richer analyses of your audiences. 

Being able to export all of your Google Analytics data into BigQuery once came with a high price tag in previous versions of GA. In turn, most schools weren’t able to own their data. It would pass through GA as part of Google’s ongoing data collection activities, but never see the light of day unless you paid for enterprise access.  

A More Accurate Snapshot

Now, you can export your GA4 data directly to BigQuery. You can: 

  • Own the data you collect and pass it into BigQuery at regular intervals. 
  • Apply your statistical software to the data sets within BigQuery to conduct full-scale research studies.
  • Turn prospective student data in your recruitment regions into predictive models that forecast enrollment outcomes for key programs.
  • Connect your web analytics with your CRM to bridge the gap between marketing and admissions for a full-funnel view of the student journey.

Equalizing the Analytics Game

Before GA4, using data to guide decisions was a power reserved for a handful of mega universities like Southern New Hampshire University – where I worked for eight years as the Assistant Vice President of Digital Marketing – and other for-profit juggernauts with nine-figure marketing budgets. 

These schools aren’t guessing when they deploy their campaign resources. They’re winning the enrollment marketing game because they have highly sophisticated, full-funnel measurement systems in place. They can see and track the interrelationship of data points across channels and all along the funnel throughout the student’s journey. They know with great precision, for example, exactly which tactics and channels are most likely to drive not just inquiries, but enrolled students, and at what cost value.

GA4 stands to level the playing field by putting predictive insights within reach for everyone.

Invest the time in learning how to master this tool. Pursue a Google Analytics certification through free online courses. Partner with an agency with deep analytics experience. 

Soon, what once looked like magic will become the ace up your sleeve. 

Josh Dodson is the Vice President of Innovation at VisionPoint. As an industry-recognized authority in analytics, Josh has given numerous presentations on the topic at higher ed conferences across the country, and has taught analytics to over 500 higher ed marketing professionals since 2001. Josh brings his uncanny ability to design strategy, execute tactically, and measure ROI to our clients. He has helped countless universities modernize their enrollment and marketing programs. If you have questions or want to start a conversation with Josh on how we can help you use GA4 to guide smarter marketing decisions, reach out to us to set up a free consultation. We’re on a mission to help higher ed institutions succeed.