The Power of Virtual Marketing

To convert their Web site users from casual visitors to active stakeholders, business schools must take advantage of all that today’s online technology has to offer.
The Power of Virtual Marketing

Even though it may not have a postal code, a Web site may be a business school’s most important piece of real estate when it comes to sheer marketing power. Much more than an online brochure, a Web site is the virtual mirror of a physical academic campus, complete with its mission, personality, and voice. And as a primary point of contact for hundreds of thousands of potential students, alumni, and executives around the world, a b-school’s Web site is quickly becoming the main conveyor of its marketing message.

But while Web sites are among the most powerful marketing tools for higher education institutions, some schools may not use their sites to the fullest to convey their branding messages. This may be, in part, because of their belief that a majority of users are still limited by the slow pace of dial-up connections. While dial-up connections are still common, schools currently planning Web site redesigns should consider how quickly slower connections are being replaced with more efficient broadband lines.

Broadband is now mainstream, with more than 50 percent of the U.S. market using broadband. That trend holds true globally as well, according to “World Broadband Statistics,” a quarterly report from U.K.-based research firm Point Topic. The report found that the number of broadband subscriptions worldwide has increased 25 percent, to 190.3 million in September 2005 from 152.4 million in December 2004, with the Middle East and Africa showing the sharpest rise in broadband services.

With global broadband use on such a precipitous rise—and Internet users growing more savvy by the day—it’s more important than ever for a Web site to capture each visitor’s imagination. Features such as virtual campus tours, student video diaries, podcasts, and other brands of multimedia can provide users with a rich, interactive campus experience, even if they are thousands of miles away. Schools are continually experimenting with different mixes of these online elements to ensure their Web sites suit their marketing message perfectly.

Web Site Essentials

There has been a substantial shift in Web development over the last two years. Not too long ago, schools would launch a new Web site design and consider it finished. They might not consider a redesign until one or two years later. Now, however, schools are establishing long-term plans to create banners, develop rich e-mails, refine search functions, and experiment with new features. Most business schools now view their sites as works in progress and continue to seek out new ways to get the most marketing power, the broadest reach, and the greatest impact from their virtual homes.

Now that technology and Internet usage has caught up to the online aspirations of many organizations, Web designers are able to go all out in building virtual marketing powerhouses. Web sites can incorporate everything from streaming video to audio files to Macromedia Flash presentations and other high-quality graphics. Such features hold the attention of visitors, most of whom now have the capacity to download them easily. The key is to discover which methods will work best to communicate a school’s individual marketing message.

Nothing reaches farther than word-of-mouth recommendations and peer-to-peer descriptions. To achieve that online, schools are just beginning to integrate student and faculty Web logs and podcasts into their online presentations.

To that end, it is important for business school administrators and Webmasters to consider eight central elements to make their virtual homes as vibrant, active, and appealing to prospective students and donors as their physical campuses:

Use multimedia. Today’s users want to see and hear a school’s campus, perhaps even more than they want to read about it. While it’s still important to design content that dial-up users can download easily, high bandwidth features such as video interviews, online campus tours, and high-end photography are now accessible to a significant number of users. Moreover, such interactive features are the best ways to place site visitors at the center of what a school has to offer.

Leverage “social media.” Four-color brochures and direct emails may be effective ways to market a school’s offerings, but nothing reaches farther than word-of-mouth recommendations and peer-to-peer descriptions of what it’s like to experience an educational environment on a day-to-day basis. To achieve that online, schools are just beginning to integrate student and faculty Web logs and podcasts into their online presentations.

Even so, blogs and podcasts have been somewhat slow to catch on in higher education. PR-sensitive administrators are understandably reluctant to allow students and faculty to post spontaneous content for fear of losing control of their branding messages or risking the fallout from negative messages. Still, students and faculty can be a school’s most convincing messengers of its brand. Schools can ease their concerns by choosing the right students to post blog and podcast files and creating clear guidelines for the process. Once that is done, they should let their chosen advocates have their say. Administrators should resist the temptation to go in and delete content that could be seen as negative. Otherwise, these voices won’t seem authentic.

Don’t neglect analytics. Today’s effective Web sites are definitely not “design-it-and-forget-it” propositions. Once its site is up and running, a business school must monitor user habits and feedback constantly to ensure that the Web site has its intended impact, and that what works today still works a month or a year from today.

Even today, some schools design sites they believe their audience wants, even when analysis would show that their efforts are not having the intended effect. For example, a school administration that believes its research and ranking are its most important selling points may focus its Web site content on those elements. In reality, users may be more interested in its new programs or its campus life. In fact, while academics are crucial, most prospective students actually want to hear about the lifestyle the school has to offer, including the diversity of its student body, the amenities of its campus, and its connection to its city and region.

Business schools should build their sites around the interests of their users, not around their internal operations. At first, it may be easier to build a site around a school’s internal structures, but that often will make little or no sense to prospective students.

Follow the matriculation cycle. While it’s important that a b-school Web site encourage prospective students to apply, efforts to engage them shouldn’t stop once they’ve been accepted. Schools can use their Web sites to communicate with students at every phase, from their first visits to the site, through their application process, to their acceptance and enrollment, until long after graduation.

Focus on alumni. A school’s lifeblood is its fund raising. But fund raising doesn’t begin with the “ask”; it begins with the relationship an alumnus has with the school. An online alumni community that facilitates networking, job searches, continuing education, and ongoing relationships with the school can convert many on-the-fence alums into lifetime donors. When a school builds elements into its Web site such as opt-in alumni directories, password-protected chats, bulletin boards, and continuing education, it keeps alumni in the mix and increases the opportunity for fund raising down the road.

Personalize, personalize. Technology that allows Internet users to customize Web sites to suit their needs is now available. When users can tailor a page or portal in a b-school Web to their particular interests, schools can create more targeted marketing messages and stronger bonds with each individual.

Use RSS. Most Web sites are designed to “push” information to the user—that is, users come to a Web site to find posted information. RSS, or “real simple syndication,” allows users to set up parameters to use e-mail to “pull” just the information streams that most interest them. Users interested only in news, blogs, and podcasts about the MBA program, for instance, can arrange for just that news to be e-mailed to them as it is generated. Once a Webmaster has the software for RSS, it requires little or no effort to implement. RSS also allows an admissions office to spend less time sending personalized e-mails to prospective students.

Keep it simple. One of the biggest downfalls to any Web site is “content creep,” which occurs when a school allows its site to grow and grow as it adds new information. A few years ago, many Web sites were ridiculously out of date. Today, the opposite is occurring: Some schools add so much new information, they make the site more difficult to navigate. Therefore, it is important to reserve complex information for an intranet environment. A site’s top-level pages must maintain a sense of structure, simplicity, and streamlined navigation to get a marketing or branding message across cleanly and concisely.

It’s All About the Web

When it comes to marketing a business school, it really is becoming all about the Web. Users already are making Web sites their points of first contact with businesses of all types. And as technology advances, printed materials will become less and less important to conveying a school’s marketing message. Web sites are cheaper, easier, and, most of all, more effective when it comes to reaching a business school’s most important audiences.

As business schools put more time and effort into their sites, many are relying on their virtual campuses to convey their marketing messages and brands to the world at large. Schools are experimenting with the higher-end technologies, such as blogs, podcasting, and video content. In the next few years, those areas will be the next frontier of online marketers, serving as the tools to create targeted, sophisticated marketing messages that, in retail lingo, successfully convert browsers to buyers.

Paul Magnani is president of the Web marketing and development firm Ripple Effects Interactive, which has offices in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.