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Key Takeaways from HighEdWeb Conference 2019

by Patrick McGovern - November 8, 2019 - 5 minute read

Like any conference, there was a lot to take in at the 2019 HighEdWeb Conference, so we’ve put together this recap post to provide some insights on the sessions and conversations had over the three-day conference.

The Small and the Mighty Survival Guide

Web teams in higher ed have some challenges. Many are understaffed and underfunded, which came across loud and clear throughout the conference. Time and again I heard the phrases:

  • An army of one
  • Unicorns
  • The small but mighty

Sound familiar?

Colleges have so many competing priorities that web teams are often one of the last areas to receive funding and yet, the demands don’t go away. The pressures to do more is increasing.

So, how can you continue to make progress without getting burned out and frustrated?

Know You’re Not Alone
The problems and challenges you encounter are happening at institutions across the country, no matter the size. In fact, at one break I spoke at length with a team member from a Big 10 university who was frustrated because his university was so big and decentralized it made it hard to get anything moving forward. If you are in a web marketing role in higher education, know the grass is not always greener and there are many others that feel your pain.

Make Friends and Create Support

The more support you can get from throughout your institution – the better. And a good group to start with is your analytics team.

Having the right data can be the key to getting support for your initiative, or to raise the profile of the work you are accomplishing. However, getting to the data isn’t always an easy proposition, which is where the analytics team can help.

Not only can they get the info you need, they are also looking to share their data with others throughout the university. Connecting and partnering with them is a win/win situation.

Another way to create support is by reaching out with ideas and suggestions that can benefit other areas throughout your university. Suggestions on best practices or insights as to what has worked in the past can go a long way and help establish you as a clear subject matter expert within your institution.

But keep in mind, start small and don’t over promise.

Embrace Compromise

Web departments are being asked daily for changes and enhancements to the site and many times, they aren’t even being asked. One day a page or two will just show up.

A higher education website has about a 3 to 4-year shelf life before it needs an overhaul. Technology will change, page bloat will occur. So, don’t drive yourself crazy trying to police everything. Pick your battles carefully and try to influence decisions as much as possible.

Here are some helpful links that go deeper into doing more, feeling empowered and maintaining your sanity:


This has been a topic that has been around for a number of years but recently, it has reached a tipping point. What’s driving the interest in this area? One factor is the dramatic increase in ADA lawsuits over the last several year.

In 2017, there were 814 lawsuits in the US on web accessibility. In 2018, that number was 2,285 and by the end of 2019, it is expected to be even higher than 2018.

The industries being impacted run the gamut from travel to real estate to food service. Domino’s Pizza is currently appealing to the Supreme Court to dismiss a case forcing the pizza giant to redo their website making it accessible for blind people.

Until recently, higher ed has been able to avoid any lawsuits, but that is changing. In 2019, nearly 200 colleges face federal investigations as to whether they are accessible and communicate effectively to people with disabilities.

And this may just be the tip of the iceberg.

In a highly decentralized model, many have access to upload information whenever they see fit. Often the information being posted does not follow any guidelines or standards and over time, thousands of pages are created. With no one monitoring, these pages are leaving institutions wide open for a lawsuit.

The good news is with a little focus and attention a lot of issues can be resolved without a major investment. The real key will be to keep this topic front and center, ensuring the message gets out and processes are followed.

Throughout the conference there were several good presentations on this topic. Here are some links that will help you go deeper and provide action steps that will help stay in compliance with the law:

Engaging High School Students

One session that stood out for me at the conference was on high school engagement during the college search process. As the fight for students gets even more competitive, colleges and universities will need to step up their game if they are going to compete. To do this will require a deeper understanding of prospects and how brands can stand out in a sea of sameness.

Ruffalo Noel Levitz and Omni Update co-presented a report titled: E-EXPECTATIONS 2019: CONFIRMING THE FOUNDATIONS, EXPLORING THE HORIZONS.

This was the first year their study included high school sophomores, which colleges should be considering in their communication mix. The research was based on results from 900 participants: 26% seniors, 37% juniors and 37% sophomores. Here are some takeaways:

Texting is growing in popularity
While the college’s website remains the most influential information resource, texting from admissions counselors is becoming more popular. 67% of juniors and 51% of sophomores are open to receiving general information through texts. The fact that this is going up makes sense. Texting is becoming an important channel for connecting and engaging with prospects across numerous industries. For higher education, the question is how many schools are actively capturing numbers and using this channel?

Website Content: What’s Important?

Many of you reading this can probably guess cost/tuition is the top-ranked piece of website content across all three demographics (seniors, juniors and sophomores), but sections like scholarships, academic programs and location appeal are also very important pieces of content for prospects. When it comes to site navigation the simpler, the better.

The top three things students prefer from a website are:

  • Easy to see which programs are being offered
  • A feel for how the school and how the student fit in
  • Details about academic programs

Today’s prospects want and demand clear, concise and specific information regarding majors and the path to employment. For example, when colleges highlight employment opportunities, they should include the list of companies that are employing students, along with a breakdown on the type of major they are hiring. This is the same with grad school and internships.

The winning formula is to be as open and transparent as possible and make it easy to get to and understand the information you are providing. If you can do that, you have a much better chance of engagement.

It’s A Multi-Channel World

Students are using a mix of channels to get the information they need, and higher ed marketers need to be experts across a variety of channels and platforms. Even print is still an important channel for certain segments. The key is to analyze which channels are the best investment for your target so you can expand your reach, while also effectively managing your investment.

Navigating the digital landscape can be tricky, but you don't have to do it alone. Let's connect to discuss how we can help! 

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