Online search and student choice: 80% of search queries do not convert

We’ve just come across “Education Trends Through the Eyes of Your Customer: Tracing the Learner’s Digital Journey,” an essential piece of online marketing research for educators conducted by Google with Ipsos OTX. The study illuminates the process potential students take online to choose which school they attend, and it’s full of thought-provoking findings. The entire report is worth considering, but in this article we will focus on the four highlights of the research:

  1. 1 in 4 potential students never even consider sources outside the web
  2. 9 in 10 don’t know which school they want to attend at the onset of the search process
  3. 2 out of every 3 prospective students who view educator videos do so to understand specific features of a school
  4. 80% of education search query paths end without a conversion

The research is based on a two million-person online panel (Compete, Q3, 2011) to analyse website visitation and engagement, Google U.S. search data, and Ipsos OTX’s “Education Brand Perceptions Study, Q3, 2011) conducted mostly online among 2,400 Americans to assess how they formed their perceptions of education brands.

We’ll take each of the four highlights in turn.

1 in 4 never look outside the web

A quarter of potential students never pick up a print brochure, attend an education fair, or pick up the phone to call you or your competitors. They are relying solely on the words formed by a few keystrokes, such as “United States medical school” and the sites that pop up in response to these keystrokes. Additionally, later on in the study’s report, we learn that potential students are investigating schools across devices and that mobile is increasing in popularity (“1 in 8 education searches will be mobile in 2012,” says the study).

The implication? Whatever else you do, make it count on the web. Make sure you have serious keyword expertise and SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) working for you on your site, and make sure you have a mobile strategy.

9 in 10 don’t know which school they want to attend

The study reveals that 83% of searches begin with a non-branded term – for example, “MBA Canada” – rather than a search for a specific institution. This underlines how absolutely critical it is to optimise your programme and service information for search so that you even make it to the potential student’s consideration set. In the happy event the potential student arrives at your site, the good news is he/she is ready to be impressed: 9 in 10 have not yet formed an intention of where they want to go. It is up to your website to convince them your school is a worthy candidate.

2 out of every 3 use video to understand school features

Of course you want to strike the right tone in your promotional video and make your school seem like a friendly, exciting place but take care that you are also providing key information that students really want and need. The Google study underlines a crucial fact: potential students are considering a significant financial and personal investment when it comes to their choice of school and programme. They need evidence that this investment will reap desired rewards upon their graduation. The study notes the top factors students are considering when applying to a higher education institution:

  • Affordability: 60%
  • Location: 58%
  • Flexible learning: 50%
  • Reputation: 49%

Lower on the list were “friend/family attends,” “student culture,” “reputable professors,” and “strong alumni network.”

This list can provide guidance for the themes and structure your promotional videos will touch upon. We would add that proof points related to the success students achieve after graduation should also be included.

80% of education search query paths don’t convert

Let’s read this key finding every which way: 8 in 10 potential students searching online do not apply, register for an open house, request info, make use of “contact us,” or register a profile (behaviours the research considers “conversion” behaviours), leaving just 2 in 10 who do. There is another finding with which this 8 in 10 non-conversion stat should be read in context:

8 in 10 students apply online

Taken together, these two stats mean the vast majority of your potential students are both researching school choices on the web and applying on the web … but not doing both at the same time, since 80% of them abandon their search activities before doing anything like applying. In other words, when they’re at their most open to suggestion and persuasion (during search), they are not taking the extra step toward commitment. The question is, how can educators form a stronger line between potential students’ search behaviours and application to their school?

Part of the answer begins to form when you look at another of the study’s findings: 72% of potential students arrive at your brand’s website two weeks prior to conversion. So theoretically, you have two weeks to cover all your bases and encourage them to take some further action. Here are a few key steps to driving more conversions during this process:

  • Step 1: Appeal – Look good; have great, inspiring copy; make sure all essential info is on your homepage; be optimised for mobile viewing.
  • Step 2: Intrigue – Make the student want to explore your site further; ensure you provide clear and easy navigational cues; do not confuse in any way, shape, or form; include excellent explanatory features (e.g., well-made video, clear explanations of what things mean and how to proceed to find out more).
  • Step 3: Invite – Include prominent invitations to phone or email, or possibly include a live-chat feature with a real school representative for immediate questions.
  • Step 4: Follow-Up – In the event a student does proceed towards conversion (by applying online, registering for an open house, requesting info, making use of “contact us,” or registering a profile), follow up immediately in a friendly, professional, non-pushy but very helpful manner. Make it abundantly clear how important the potential student’s interest is to you, and offer to answer any questions he/she may have in any form they would like (e.g., emailed info, personal phone chat, etc.)

Catherine Sloane of the student-coaching company InsideTrack notes that “The key to turning prospective students into enrolled students is to form early and meaningful connections and to let them know you have their best outcomes in mind.” She advises:

When students engage with you, make sure that next steps are easily available so they can ‘strike while the iron is hot’ …. Everyone knows that an object in motion stays in motion.

And she mentions a critical component of any successful school website – the effort to rectify what Ray Ulmer, who summarises Sloane’s advice on the iThink blog, calls “gaps in understanding – such as the difference between an associate and bachelor’s degree.” Sloane says, “Don’t let anything surprise you, and without any judgment, provide a clear and relevant explanation.”

All in all, the Google/Ipsos research provides fascinating proof that many educators may be leaving too many recruitment opportunities on the table – as well as findings that point to insights to help improve conversion.



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6 thoughts on “Online search and student choice: 80% of search queries do not convert

  1. I would add one word to that headline. “Online search and student choice: 80% of search queries do not convert *immediately*. Many of them will convert — just not as quickly or with as much tracking precision as we’d like.

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