6 Challenges of Inquiry Attribution

In the “old days,” lead reporting looked something like this: A TV spot ran, a prospective student called a tracking phone number, and someone at the campus worked the lead and then added a tally mark on the white board to keep track of total leads. Technology has evolved over the years, changing everything we know about reporting and attributing leads to their original source.

Attribution has become a combination of exact data and opinion or judgment. However, to effectively compete in today’s education marketplace, colleges and universities must improve marketing strategies and measurement to help target specific audiences, and then understand what efforts offer areas of improvement or what sources to continue that are actually providing conversions.  To make matters even tougher, marketing budgets for many institutions continue to decline, or remain constrained, so the importance of understanding what’s working (or not) has become even more important for marketing teams in reaching business goals.  So, why is reporting on marketing benchmarks so challenging?

Prospective students have countless ways to do their research on a school. They no longer have to see a commercial on TV and call the only school they happen to see an advertisement for.  They can search online; a friend or family member may recommend a school; or they may read reviews on social media, hear something on the radio or Pandora, or see a sign along the road.  The clutter is everywhere, but if a prospect has education on their mind, and your brand stands out, they will do their research.  And, that research may or may not come in through the source where they originally encountered the brand. With mobile usage continually on the rise, prospects have information at their fingertips 24/7.  So, they may be watching TV, or see an ad for a school, then check it out on their phone in a search or on social media.  They may hear a commercial on Pandora that asks them to click a banner for more information, but at that time, they can’t click on the banner, so they remember the name and perform a Google search later.  The multitude of touchpoints make it very difficult to gauge the original source for a lead.  Most institutions rely on “last-click attribution.”  This method of lead tracking gives credit for converting the lead to the most recent channel used, but not always the best, because that attribution doesn’t recognize all the points that user had before converting. And what do you do when students inquire more than once?  Capture both sources?  Stay with the original?  Or use the last?  That’s a good question to ask your marketing director – since probably 20% of prospects inquire more than once, AND the students who inquire a second time are much more likely to enroll.

Years ago, a colleague at another institution recommended asking students at orientation or the first day of class how they heard about or became aware of the school. His point was that capturing source at the time of inquiry was detrimental to the sales process and also meaningless.  He believed that asking/surveying later in the process yielded more accurate results as to the foundational source for motivating students to choose an institution.  We are not aware of any schools that utilize this approach, but as marketing professionals, we believe this approach has merit, and to this day, encourage clients to ask this question once students are on campus.

Another challenge marketers often forget when analyzing reporting is all of the external factors that may impact accurately attributing leads, including the human factor. Attribution does not take into account seasonality, the economy, and in our industry, government regulations. Touchpoints such as open houses, career fairs, etc. are also not well accounted for, and often lumped into a referral lead source bucket.

Speaking of personally developed inquiries and referrals, do you have one category for these? Or two?  We continue to encounter schools that lump these together.  For starters, separate these categories.  On the human side of things, many smaller schools don’t have the marketing automation tools in place to accurately and automatically track inquiry sources.  Instead, they rely on busy front-desk staff to capture the source and record it in the database.  The results are often inconsistent and unreliable.  Worse yet, we’ve encountered many schools that create multiple categories that essentially mean the same thing.  Here’s an example:  A few years back we started working with a school and asked for a lead report by source.  The source fields in CampusVue included Internet, website, Google, organic web, and web form.  And guess what?  There was no training or any guide for admissions on how to classify inquiries.

Admission Training for inquiries may be one answer. Here’s another story. A couple years back we were copied on the call-in log every week for a school. Upon receipt we’d look at the source as captured by the front desk.  After introducing outdoor in the market, we were criticized by the corporate office.  Corporate claimed we didn’t generate any inquiries from outdoor.  We knew better, but how could we refute their data.  Frustrated, we listened to some recorded calls.  Bingo.  Our frustrations were confirmed when we heard multiple greetings from a cheery front desk employee who always asked before transferring a call, “How did you hear about us?  TV or Internet?” and then she would transfer the call.

Let’s dig a little more on the absence of automation. Again, in smaller schools, we observe inquiries being emailed to the school and then manually entered into a Student Information System (SIS) or Customer Relationship Management system (CRM).  In addition to increased possibility of error, “someone” at the school is receiving the lead information and deciding what bucket to attribute it to.  And just because you have a pick list on your web form for prospective students to select how they heard about the school, that doesn’t necessarily mean that field is passed through to the person on the other end at the school who is entering the lead into the school’s database.  When is the last time you looked at the email that is passed? Or asked how staff decides what category to use?

So, what should an institution do to analyze all marketing mediums to ensure goals are met? Digital marketing can help create baselines for your school’s marketing efforts, find out where your leads originate, and refine your ads to improve lead conversions. Of course, traditional marketing efforts provide a challenge as the world becomes more digital savvy.  But, you can monitor increased visits to digital properties when new traditional media launches in a market.  Chances are, if there is an uptick in digital traffic when, for example, a new TV spot rolls out, you can probably attribute the positive lift to TV.  The idea is that someone may have seen the new commercial, did research on their own, and then inquired via a digital source.

Here’s another suggestion. Run a list of all possible sources that are set up in your database.  Then compare it to how your leads come in and what advertising channels you are using.  Most schools have created too many sources.  In their effort to track a specific campaign, they created a unique source.  But three years later, that source is still active in the system and can be used to attribute an inquiry.  After you are done scratching your head and asking, “How long has it been since we advertised in the Thrifty Nickel shopper?” you may want to eliminate some sources.  It’s one way to improve attribution.

At the end of the day, there are many attribution approaches around, from basic to sophisticated, but the limitations still remain, and the marketing landscape continues to evolve. Not only do higher education marketers have more tools to balance than ever before, but consumers also have more ways to take in information. Next month, we’ll present guidelines for improving your inquiry attribution.

Written By: Vince Norton and Lindsay Barnett

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