Why you shouldn’t optimize your higher ed marketing spend to maximize inquiries

It’s an age-old story, yet one that keeps repeating. After the marketing budget is spent and someone comes looking for an ROI figure, the marketer responds with the number of inquiries generated. This figure then likely gets further broken down to the cost-per-inquiry. Yet the cost-per-inquiry figure only tells a small part of the story, and that part lives at the top of the marketing funnel. The story not told by the inquiries at top of the funnel alone, however, is how deep into the funnel those inquiries made it. This is why simply measuring success by cost-per-inquiry alone is a bad idea.

Measuring the success of a higher ed marketing campaign on the basis of inquiries does not arm marketers with enough information to make good decisions, yet it happens all the time. Why then do college marketers continue to use this benchmark? Sometimes the reasons are purely fiscal, and sometimes they point to larger systemic holes in the marketing funnel. Let’s look at a few examples:

  • If LinkedIn can yield a new student inquiry for $400 when Google AdWords averages $330, some marketers stop at that. Google is cheaper, so Google wins. Yet what isn’t measured in this figure alone is the conversion rate. If LinkedIn inquiries are 40% more likely to convert to an enrolled student, the Google choice is no longer the clear winner.
  • If utilizing paid search to market an online master’s degree in psychology, one may choose to go with the term “psychology program” rather than “online psychology master’s degree.” Perhaps the former term is cheaper, and can cast a much wider net. However, utilizing this search term will likely optimize for a much less serious student, dramatically weakening the inquiry. Thus, the money saved on the front end will undoubtedly be lost on the backend.

By only determining cost-per-inquiry, marketers are not arming themselves with enough information to make the most effective allocations—cheap inquiries ≠ good inquiries.

The good news is that this practice is easily remedied. Since the cost-per-inquiry miscue is most often based on disjointed or incomplete information, marketers can shift the measurement paradigm simply by obtaining additional information. Enhance the data visibility, and start understanding conversion rates by channel. There are a few ways to do this:

Mark every inquiry that comes in the door. This is the easiest and most basic step toward obtaining a cost-per-enrollee figure. Whether a web referral path or an in-person information session, the inquiry source needs to be a fixed aspect of that prospect’s data. Whenever an inquiry comes in, attach to it the inquiry source, then follow it through the entire student lifecycle.

Consult enrollment data. Higher education sometimes doesn’t make it easy to obtain a figure for cost-per-enrollee, as oftentimes marketing and enrollment management are separated into different departments. Yet without enrollment data, marketers can’t possibly know how the inquiries are converting. If enrollment data is within reach, access it early and often. If that information is kept in another department, befriend the enrollment team. If you can’t do either of these things, your marketing funnel will forever contain holes.

Track early indicators of success. If time is an obstacle to gathering early enrollment data, or if enrollment data isn’t an option at all, start by tracking early indicators of success or conversion. Yes, the ultimate goal is cost-per-enrollee (or even cost-per-graduate), but there’s also merit in keeping an eye on other indicators elsewhere in the funnel like cost-per-contact, cost-per-application, and cost-per-interview. Those early indicators of success can more fully inform marketers than the cost-per-inquiry figure alone.

By following each prospective student from the time they enter the door to the time they either drop out or enroll, marketers can mitigate a great deal of budgetary attrition. Yet when the only goal is the cheapest cost-per-inquiry, your budget will forever be limited in its impact. Optimize to as deep in the funnel as possible and enable your dollar to tell the larger story.

Chalese Eastman

As Executive Director of Integrated Marketing Strategy, Chalese is responsible for the research and analysis of key target audiences as well as overseeing the overall marketing strategy. She works closely with all marketing areas to ensure that the plans and execution for all partnerships are seamless and successful. She has been with Helix Education for more than 10 years and her background is in market research. She majored in Marketing at the University of Utah and is an avid University of Utah fan.