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Conversion Hacks: An Interview with Seth Odell

The Greatest Obstacle Preventing Institutions From Reaching Their Conversion Goals

Seth Odell is the Vice Chancellor of Marketing in the National University System. For the past decade, he has helped colleges and universities take customer-centric approaches to launching, growing, and managing online and on-campus programs. During Connect 2019, he led a session that focused on how institutions can rethink their approach to email, Google rankings, and other marketing channels to boost conversion rates. We caught up with him afterward to learn about his perspective on improving the student intake process. The conversation touched on a slate of topics relevant to higher education marketers, including the accurate tracking of the cost per enrollment (CPE), the marketer’s role in the financial aid/FAFSA process, and ways to turn buzz into conversions.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Wiley Education Services: What is the greatest obstacle schools face that prevent them from reaching their conversion potential? How can schools overcome those obstacles?

Seth Odell Seth Odell: The first competition is unequivocally noise. The average consumer sees more than 4,000 ads per day. The average Facebook user scrolls through 300 feet of newsfeed every day. For people who take the time to sit down and watch television, 45 percent of them have a second screen in their hands. Even before we can make an argument for why to choose us over a competitor, people need to be aware that we exist and we’re an option.

What people should realize is that creative teams are more important than ever, but their primary job is to drive somebody to the website. The analogy I use is that car commercials don’t sell cars. The car commercial’s job is to get you to the lot. Once you’re there, the salesperson’s job is to sell you a car. Then another person is supposed to close you with the finances. Ads in higher ed are not supposed to get you to go back to school. They’re just supposed to get you to the website. The website is supposed to close you just like the salesperson out in the lot, and then your enrollment team is similar to the finance person helping you with the paperwork.

Bill Bernbach has this great quote about how you have to say things originally and freshly. [As marketers] we have to be more interesting.

Wiley: Your session explored how to increase conversion rates while staying on a budget. It strikes me that some elements of that process are only effective with ample funding, such as advertising. What parts of the conversion process are worth investing in, and which ones can function well with fewer resources?

Seth Odell: If you are marketing on a limited budget, and you want to increase your conversion, you should always start at the bottom of the funnel and work your way up. People too often worry about media mix and what they’re doing at the top of the funnel—and that’s very important—but if you want to increase conversion this quarter, this month, this week, you should be focusing on lower-funnel initiatives, which are almost always email and phone calls. You should be marketing to your existing inquiries.

We know that in higher ed, almost 50 percent of students won’t finish. What are we doing to market to the students that started and dropped out? For many of these students, all we have to do is call, send an email, or send a letter from the dean that says you’re still welcome in this program and you’re still eligible. If you want to increase conversion, focus on lower-funnel metrics because students are financially worth more to you because they’re already paying tuition.

A mid-funnel example of [marketing to existing inquiries] is what we call application push emails. Application push emails are like email blasts to anyone that inquired but didn’t apply. We drive 500 applications per month by sending a simple email blast every two weeks to every inquiry saying, “There’s still time to apply,” and telling them about the next start. This initiative doesn’t cost anything except for the human capital associated with doing email campaigns.

Wiley: Considering the influence of third-party sources like online reviews and college search ranking sites, how can higher ed marketers take better advantage of those spaces?

Seth Odell: The first thing universities need to do is build awareness of their reputation online. People are savvy shoppers, and many folks are looking online for third-party validation. Understand what the third-party marketplace is saying about you. Then try to address the complaints that they have. If people have valid complaints about their experience with your institution, you need to focus as a marketer on how you can facilitate improvement. One of my beliefs is that marketing’s most powerful position is as a facilitator, which is bringing people together to talk about difficult things. Like, why do people complain about financial aid? While there may be ways for financial aid to run more smoothly, some complaints may stem from confusion. How can marketing facilitate conversations to help students better understand this process?

If a student tells an enrollment adviser that they are having a great experience, is the adviser sending them a link where they can share that message? People sometimes need to be encouraged to share their experiences online. Marketing can play a role in that.

Wiley: The online market is growing increasingly diverse. How do we effectively start marketing to online students?

Seth Odell: The student population today is quite diverse. To me, that means marketing needs to become increasingly sophisticated from an audience segmentation perspective. The concept of marketing segmentation is taking your target audiences and dividing them up by certain attributes, and then creating marketing campaigns designed to reach just those individual people.

The first thing is that institutions have to have a segmentation strategy. My recommendation is a three-tier segmentation strategy. The first segment is no segment—it’s brand marketing. It’s marketing to everybody, and that’s what you say on a billboard, on a radio ad, speaking to everybody you can. Your second segment is called vertical marketing, and that’s looking for niches within your population like military, age, gender, or a discipline. Then you have program-specific marketing.

The only limitations today are tech, and people should be exploring all the ways that they can market to those individuals. If you can go into your CRM data and identify a population, as long as you track something in the CRM, machine learning will do a pretty extraordinary job at finding [your audience].

Wiley: How do you allocate funding between brand advertising and program-specific campaigns?

Seth Odell: The percentage spent on a brand segment and program-specific marketing will differ by institution and media mix. It’s going to vary by market and offering, and that’s OK. That said, it’s important to know that every dollar we spend in brand marketing still has a revenue goal attached to it. Brand marketing can’t live outside the needs of the business unless your institution is wildly successful. If it is, enjoy it—that’s great. But for the rest of us, it’s important to understand that we have to spend across multiple areas.

I always try to spend where it’s most affordable. We generate a cost per start (CPS) for every student. In addition to knowing how much it costs to acquire them, we also know whether they’re a brand student or a segment student or program-specific student. Ultimately, my first goal is to beat my tuition revenue goal for the year and provide growth to the institution.

Wiley: What is the last piece of advice you have for marketers in higher education?

Seth Odell: As a marketer, it’s extraordinarily important that we remain curious. That we question, that we challenge, that we choose to strive for new things constantly. Marketing is not like checkers, and it is not like chess. Marketing is like baseball. The best of us are only successful 30 to 40 percent of the time. We can’t ever get tired of pitching clients and being told no or suggesting new things and getting shot down. We have to pursue improvement as a process rather than a destination.

If you have the same strategy today as last quarter, you have a problem, because you knew less three months ago than you do today. If you know more today, why aren’t you doing things differently? People should be curious—come up with tests, pilot them, scientifically measure them, and see if they can identify causation—and then scale it. To me, it’s about repetition, it’s about discipline, and it’s about remaining curious even when marketing can be an extraordinarily challenging job, especially in this space.


Access Actionable Insights for Universities

To discover how to improve conversion rates and strategies for supporting the entire student journey, visit our Resources page.

About the Connect Higher Education Summit

Presented by Wiley Education Services, Connect is an annual summit that provides research and insights that higher education leaders can act on to help their institutions resonate with learners today. Visit the Connect website for highlights from the summit, including presentation slides and YouTube videos for select sessions. Past speakers include Kevin Carey of New America, Matthew Pittinsky of Parchment, and Betty Vandenbosch of Purdue University Global.

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