A key factor in marketing for any industry is to understand what the consumer wants. This is just as important in the academic industry. Students today understand now more than ever that it would be wise to do their proverbial homework before signing up with a university.
Knowing what questions are on a student’s mind can help a higher learning institution attract enrollments. This impacts how a university should think about marketing in several ways:
- Knowing what students will search for online.
- Tailoring university policies to better fit student needs.
- Anticipating what questions students will ask the guides during campus tours.
- Creating marketing print literature.
Importance of Question and Answer Format to Digital Marketing
Google strives to deliver the best experience to its users. Searchers don’t want to weed through dozens of web pages; they want an answer immediately. That prompted Google to create a feature called “snippets,” which takes data directly from a web page and displays it at the top of the search engine results page (SERP).
Note that these results are displayed before any simple website links. When it comes to search engine optimization for snippets, “close enough” isn’t good enough for some searches. Google likes it better when you hit the query right on the money. That means you need to create content that clearly answers people’s questions. More than 54% of user clicks come from Google’s snippets. Here’s Google guru Matt Cutts explaining some detail on Google snippets.
As he explains, snippets encompass all sorts of data that Google is able to parse from a website. Since that 2007 video, Google has expanded its use of snippets tremendously into the forms we’re seeing today, called “rich snippets,” which use website structural cues to format search results. Here is a more recent tutorial for making a formal FAQ section using structured data.
The data structuring is taken from Schema.org markup. Here’s the Schema page for FAQ format, one for the Q&A format, and another for the HOWTO format. These three snippet templates are likely to cover all of the questions that a potential user would type into Google. Here’s one example of the HOWTO snippet in action:
HOWTOs usually apply to simple tasks with clear step-by-step instructions. Most of what we will discuss in this article relates to FAQ and Q&A queries. Even if a website doesn’t use strict Schema markup, Google’s algorithms are still able to parse out a question-and-answer format from regular writing.
One more important note about rich snippets is that virtual voice assistants use structured rich snippets even more in their responses. This technology, including Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Apple Siri, and others, seeks out optimized rich snippets wherever possible in formulating its responses. As these devices become more common, being able to supply the “script” for talking AI assistants is going to be more important for securing snippets.
Bottom line: Your digital marketing strategy benefits from anticipating users’ questions and providing the answer. Having the answer to a frequently-searched query gets you a higher ranking in Google results and makes you friendlier to virtual assistants. This results in more students discovering your website and building up trust in your authority, which can convert to new enrollment candidates.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s find out what’s on students’ minds and how you can supply the right answer.
#1: Where is the University Located?
This is as basic as a question gets! Going by SEMRush stats, shown below, students most commonly ask about a university’s location over everything else.
As they say in business, location matters. Students likely consider proximity to home as an important factor when choosing their education path. Or perhaps they’re interested in moving to a specific region and want to identify nearby options.
Obviously, the action point we need here is to ensure that students can easily find your location. Chances are that your website addresses this point, but it can also be something a website owner overlooks. Along with providing your plain campus address, you can detail local landmarks, and perhaps identify directions from a local freeway or point of interest, such as an airport or bus terminal. Make sure Google Maps understands your location and displays it properly.
#2: How Many Students Attend?
Another common question students have is the number of students currently enrolled at the university. Here are SEMRush stats related to this query:
We even see that one frequent query is “what university has the most students?” When it comes to querying your student body, there are a couple of reasons why sheer numbers might be important. For one thing, studies show that young people trust the advice of their peers more than adults. It makes sense, then, all other factors being equal, that they would seek out a campus that’s already popular. If a lot of students attend your university, there must be a good reason, right?
A second factor is at play, in that young people are interested in social opportunities during their extracurricular time. Again, a large student pool is an advantage in seeking out friends and social relationships.
On the flip side, some students might be looking for a university with a smaller student body. They might prefer the intimacy of small class sizes and want to join a tightly-knit community.
The action point here is to make the size of your student body known. It might also help, beyond the raw numbers, to list a full class profile. Here’s a random example from Drake University:
You’ll note that they mention gender ratios, minority percentages, distribution by school, and academic profiles. Students are sometimes asking “will I fit in?” Proportions of student gender, ethnicity, and background might help them assess that aspect.
#3: How Much Does It Cost?
You knew this one was coming! Every student, no matter what else they’re concerned with, will want to know the cost upfront:
Obviously, you don’t even have to be in the academic loop to know that the price tag is the biggest story about higher education. We hear about the rising cost of college, the statistics of student loans, and politicians addressing it on the campaign trail.
Our action point this time is, first, that you can list your tuition schedule on your website. But the student isn’t just thinking about the price, they’re thinking about “how can I pay for this?” So along with the information on cost, you can also include information about available grants, scholarships, loans, and any perks your institution offers that may help demonstrate your cost-effectiveness.
Most universities know to address financial planning and aid somewhere in their literature. The key is to make that information easily searchable and make sure a link exists between your tuition and fee schedule and your financial planning section.
#4: What Programs are Offered?
By the time students are thinking about a university hard enough to query one, they typically have a major and career in mind.
As you can see, queries about university programs center on an intended career field. In this example, the majority of the queries are about nursing and related topics, along with some general questions about program policy.
The action point this time is already something that goes without saying: list your course catalog, undergraduate areas of study, academic majors and minors, and so on. Every higher education institution in the world does this already, so perhaps you can add opportunities and offerings for popular career fields. Maybe an internship, placement program, testimonials from students, a listing of professors within a field of study, recent awards, and so on. Beyond asking if you have a nursing program, the student wants to know if you have the best nursing program.
#5: What is Your Reputation?
When students start short-listing schools, rank becomes the most important factor.
This time, the action point is to manage your reputation as well as you can. There’s not much point in listing your university’s rankings on your own website because students are seeking a third party’s impartial opinion. Students who care about rank overall will simply turn to a big list and go from there.
This is not to say that you have no power over your student’s perception of your reputation. You can always tout your highest-ranking categories on your site. It doesn’t hurt to show your strengths. Moreover, you can manage your institution’s reputation with student ambassadors, blogging, video tours, and social media engagement. Even if your rank in a certain aspect isn’t outstanding, showing that you put in the effort to be aware of it and have an improvement plan for meeting the challenge goes a considerable way.
#6: Questions About Academic Preparedness…
Turning from SEMRush for the second half of this article, we decided to review university websites. Large, established institutions typically create FAQ pages, which we’ve reviewed to determine common questions that they receive.
Students often ask about academic requirements for enrolling. Of course, universities are familiar with the concept that students seek guidance with enrollment, which is why every campus at least has a student enrollment information center. On your website, you can share clearly outlined information to address acceptance, registration, and enrollment questions. This is one case where Schema.org formatting can be very helpful.
In addition to your website, student outreach through blogging and social media can also help. Your admissions staff could consider putting together a series of videos for your campus YouTube channel. Or you could host a blog in FAQ format, where you respond to queries that were left in the comments of your videos or social media posts.
Virtual assistants, also called “chatbots,” are a technology that is tailor-made for situations where visitors are likely to have 101 different complex queries about one topic. Chatbots give you 24/7 support, resolve issues quickly, and are approachable for a generation that has grown up with virtual digital companions.
#7: Questions About Campus Life…
What’s it like to live on your campus? It’s only natural that students would want to get a feel for the kind of “neighborhood”—so to speak—they’re proposing to move into.
Among students’ chief concerns are campus security, quarters and accommodations, and extracurricular activities.
This is the very reason that so many universities offer campus tours. It’s also a great idea to have a student ambassador on hand. Who better to answer questions about campus life than somebody living it already? Another method some universities deploy is online-accessible video tours of the campus, with a tour guide narrating the details. You can also use social media to give prospective students a better understanding of what it’s like to live on campus. Encourage current students to share their activities using a common hashtag. Because the information and photographs are coming directly from students it feels authentic, and prospective students will be more likely to trust it.
Between these strategies, you have the best way to answer questions about the on-campus lifestyle. The more you can show, the better!
#8: Questions About Applications…
A common axiom in eCommerce goes “never make it hard for the customer to give you money.” By the time students are asking about your admissions process, you have made the “sale.” The easier this process is, the better.
On your admission webpage, application forms should be easily accessible, critical deadlines need to be highlighted, and contact information and application submission information should be readily available. Applications, interviews, and admissions are best handled with text-mode FAQ, laid out clearly so that Google searches can find them on the fly. Be sure to include clear step-by-step instructions so that prospective students know exactly what they need to do.
This is also an area where the chatbots we mentioned above come in handy. If a prospective student has a question while they’re beginning the admission application, a chatbot can readily answer their query.
On a side note: Can you guess the very first attempt at chatbot technology?
That’s Clippy, the virtual assistant which Microsoft included in their Office software suite. Poor Clippy was very unpopular because, at the time, virtual assistants were a primitive technology. Chatbots are now long out of Beta and helping users online to do everything from follow recipes to apply for jobs. Office-oriented tasks like university applications are just the kind of task chatbots are built to handle.
#9: How Does Your University Handle a Crisis?
We saw in the above section on applications where concerns about unavoidable calamities are a common question. The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example that has left academic institutions scrambling for solutions. A few media voices have pointed out that COVID-19 served as an acid test for the world’s governments, businesses, and institutions, showing how well—or how poorly—they could adapt to a sudden disaster.
Even looking past the biggest story of 2020, your higher learning institution should have action plans for when any likely disaster happens. The California wildfires of 2019 and the Hurricane Maria event in Puerto Rico in 2017 are just two examples of recent large scale disasters that affected individuals and businesses in those regions, including the schools. Then there’s the question of campus security, should the unthinkable happen involving an attack.
The bottom line here is to consider that proactive emergency responses are the kind of leadership students look for in a school, and put the information out there showing that your institution has plans to handle a crisis. Students who’ve been through an incident will look for the safety and security standards of your campus. This is the kind of issue best addressed in a blog, on social media, or on a policy section within your website. It’s the kind of information you hope you never need, but showing that you do have a plan “just in case” will be a blessed relief when you do need it.
#10: Do You Support Remote Learning?
Going along with the above disaster issue, the COVID-19 pandemic drove many schools and students to turn to remote digital classrooms, whether either of them wanted it or not. As of this writing, online courses are the fastest-growing trend in higher education. This was a trend even before the Coronavirus pandemic; back in 2018, one-third of all students were already taking an online course.
Long after all traces of a virus pandemic have faded from the news headlines, students will still have an interest in remote learning. Technology is now at the level where video streaming is trivial, and textbooks are just as easily read on a Kindle as on paper. Google Classroom is one example of a free web service making this possible.
One may ask: “What about exams?” There are ways to handle exams remotely too. Like many other electronic conveniences that we take for granted now, online learning might become the luxury that became a necessity.
The obvious action point here is to make plans to accommodate at least a partial remote learning system, if not complete remote courses. For those schools that are offering remote education alternatives, be sure the information is accessible where students can discover it.
We hope this has been a well-rounded and revealing peek into the mind of the student body and what they want from your higher education institution. We’ve covered everything from the mundane necessity of basic questions to the futuristic realm of remote education, along with a glimpse under Google’s hood. Hopefully, we’ve given you some insight into what answers to prepare for the questioning minds that are bound to come your way!