Five ways to improve your education CRO programme

Written by Luke Hay - 08 Aug 2022

Conversion services | 7 MIN READ

Whether you're working for a university, school or a training provider, your website will likely play a crucial part in your customer journey. Some education websites will allow users to sign-up or subscribe for single courses. In contrast, other websites aim to provide information to those who may not be considering taking a qualification over many months. The vast majority of education websites will (of course) have some 'conversion points', and this post looks at how to maximise those conversions in terms of quantity and quality.

Headshot of Luke Hay

We've helped many clients in the education sector optimise their websites. While some techniques work on all sites, we've found some key differences with education websites.
When it comes to conversions, quality is often more important than quantity. They must work hard to ensure that potential students are well-informed and prepared for study before registering. There's no point in them rushing people through the process if they drop out after registering.


Luke Hay, User Research Director 

Due to the Covid pandemic, many universities, schools and training organisations have had to rethink their strategies. The way education is delivered changed dramatically for some. For others already providing online training and education, the significant change was in the number of students and subscribers visiting their websites.

We have worked with multiple universities, schools and training organisations over the years and want to share some of our experiences. Every organisation is different, but we think these five tips apply to most education companies and institutions.

Even though I've written this post with the education sector in mind, the tips will work well across other sectors. There is a cross-over with elements of another helpful post we wrote upon optimising charity websites.

Contents

  1. Get the basics right
  2. Understand your potential students
  3. Know your psychology/behavioural economics
  4. Optimise across all channels
  5. Learn from your test results
  6. Conclusion/Summary

1. Get the basics right

To run a successful CRO programme, you must have a solid foundation to build on. It's crucial to remember that there are things that you don't need to test that will make a big difference to the performance and usability of your site.

At a basic level, a website site needs to be fast, accessible and bug-free.

Make sure you use your site regularly; this is a great way to find and eliminate bugs and gives you a better idea of what your users are experiencing. Is there anything in your enrolment process that doesn't make sense or is unnecessary? If you find problems, fix them. If you encounter something that you think adds friction to potential students being able to enrol, add it to your testing roadmap.

You will need to evaluate what CRO expertise you have within your organisation.

Make sure you use your site regularly; this is a great way to find and eliminate bugs and gives you a better idea of what your users are experiencing. Is there anything in your enrolment process that doesn't make sense or is unnecessary? If you find problems, fix them. If you encounter something that you think adds friction to potential students being able to enrol, add it to your testing roadmap.

You must also establish if you have enough traffic to do A/B testing. No set threshold determines what low traffic is.

Should your web property have less than 1,000 unique visitors per week or not more than 5-10 conversions (course registrations, prospectus requests, open day registrations etc.), the likelihood is the sample size won't be significant enough to run tests and reach a significant result within a reasonable time frame.

Low traffic doesn't mean you can't run a CRO programme. A focus on qualitative methods, radical changes and tracking micro conversions are tactics you can employ to improve your site conversion. You may also find that you have enough traffic at peak times of the year, such as in the lead-up to open days or application deadlines.

Next, ensure you are tracking the right goals and events.

You must have a clear view of what success looks like and that you can measure your goals accurately. To do this, we recommend creating a measurement plan if you haven't already done so. Your analytics needs to be set up correctly to achieve this. To know your test/s impact, we recommend you set up eCommerce tracking. You need to be confident that you track all the goals and events you recorded in your measurement plan. If you are not collecting accurate data, testing is useless as you won't be able to learn from your experiments.

Our work with the OU

View All Work

You need to be thinking beyond just conversion metrics.

For education websites, the first conversion is just the beginning of the customer journey. We recommend taking a longer-term view.

The diagram below shows a typical education customer journey. While (on the face of it), CRO efforts can only directly impact the first two or three stages of the journey, you also need to consider its indirect impact on the following stages.

There is little point in converting users who are unprepared for your education or training. You might have done a great job selling the benefits of your qualification, but that's of little use if your users drop out of your courses as they don't have the time or ability to complete them.

We'll cover more about this later, but before you start the CRO campaignget a measurement plan in place and carefully consider how you measure the ongoing impact that your work has in terms of people commencing and, ideally, completing your courses.

2. Understand your potential students

It's crucial to understand why people are considering studying. What has motivated them to get to this point, and what do they want to achieve by learning? To understand this, you need to get to know your potential students by doing user research to answer these questions.

You might start by conducting research with your current students to find out what initially motivated them to study and why they chose your institution or programme. This research might consist of interviews, a larger-scale survey or ideally both.

You'll also want to do some form of user testing with potential students to find out what they think about your current website and if it meets their needs. You'll also want to understand the barriers that they face and anything that might be stopping them from enrolling. Common obstacles for those looking to sign up for education include:

  • Time - Lack of time and ability to fit education into their current lifestyle
  • Cost - The cost of taking a course, or a reluctance to take on a loan
  • Confidence - A lack of confidence can be a significant barrier, particularly for those who have not taken part in education for some time
  • Ability - A lack of previous qualifications or simply a perceived lack of ability can put people off
  • Value - Concerns over whether the outcome of the training/qualification is worth the money and of practical use for their intended goals

Even something that requires less commitment, for example, a free webinar, will require a time investment from your user. Potential students need to know it's worth spending their valuable time, which is where the last of the bullet points above is crucial.

User research is vital as a foundation for understanding the barriers that your potential students face. With knowledge of these barriers, you will be well-positioned to help your users overcome them. Talk to your users to discover their motivations and what may prevent them from 'converting' to becoming a student.

💡 Top Tip!

Remember, what you're selling to people isn't the course itself; it's the successful outcome of taking it and where it can help improve prospects.

Understanding the underlying motivations to study, or gain a qualification, allows marketers to ensure that the experience meets the user's needs.

Even something that requires less commitment, for example, a free webinar, will require a time investment from your user. Potential students need to know it's worth spending their valuable time, which is where the last of the bullet points above is crucial.

User research is vital as a foundation for understanding the barriers that your potential students face. With knowledge of these barriers, you will be well-positioned to help your users overcome them. Talk to your users to discover their motivations and what may prevent them from 'converting' to becoming a student.

3. Know your psychology/behavioural economics

To maximise the impact of your CRO work, you need to understand the psychology that influences your potential students' decision-making process. The list is long, but below are some that we have found to be particularly effective when working with our education clients.

Present Bias / Autonomy Bias

Those working in education might be fighting a battle against Present Bias.

Simply put, the bias that people want now is often the opposite of what they aspire to in the future. People tend to favour short-term decisions that prevent them from becoming who they desire to be. The prospect of taking a qualification that could take several years is often daunting.

To combat this, those working in education may want to use the Autonomy Bias. This taps into the deep-seated need people have to control their future. Ideally, it would help if you offered users an opportunity to feel power over their futures to give them that motivation to commit.

Ideally, it would help if you offered users an opportunity to feel power over their futures to give them that motivation to commit. This taps into the deep-seated need people have to control their future. To combat this, those working in education may want to use the Autonomy Bias.

Commitment and Self-Expression

Encouraging your potential students to make a public commitment and talk of committing is an excellent way to ensure they complete your course or qualification.

Related to this, people often seek ways to communicate their identity to others. Your course may be a way for them to express a positive side to their personality. Encouraging them to share that they are attending a training course or looking forward to getting started with the qualification will help promote your services and make it more likely that they'll go through with it.

Social Proof

While people are often concerned with what people think of them, they're also equally concerned about the actions others take. Social proof is key across all human behaviour, but it is essential with education as the value of education may seem more intangible than other products or investments. The more you can show how interesting your courses and qualifications are and where they have led people, the more persuasive you can be.

Sunk Cost Bias

Finally, you might want to tap into the fact by this time that, many people will have already invested a lot of time and effort in their education. The Sunk Cost Bias means people are unwilling to let go of previous investments. While, on the face of it, this is a negative bias, it can be a positive approach for education websites.

Generally, people may have taken part in relevant education in the past, which may give them a head start (see Foot in the door & the Endowed Progress Effect). More specifically, formal education (e.g. credit transfer) may mean that people can skip whole modules and save time and money. Encourage potential students to 'pick up where they left off' and turn that previously 'sunk' cost into a real and tangible benefit.

Encourage potential students to 'pick up where they left off' and turn that previously 'sunk' cost into a real and tangible benefit. Generally, people may have taken part in relevant education in the past, which may give them a head start (see Foot in the door & the Endowed Progress Effect). More specifically, formal education (e.g. credit transfer) may mean that people can skip whole modules and save time and money.

Do you need help optimising your education website?

4. Optimise across all channels

CRO and experimentation are not just about your website. Every touchpoint with a potential student is an opportunity to test and learn. Let's look at three examples.

Live chat - If you have a live chat option, this is an excellent opportunity to put potential students' minds at ease. A lot of the optimisation here is around how the live chat operatives, or chatbots, deal with enquiries. From an A/B testing perspective, you can experiment with how and where to show chat options.

Email - If you have mailing lists of potential students, treat them as 'warm' leads. Consider using different lists for different messaging. For example, if you captured someone's email address when they requested a prospectus, you might want to tailor your messages differently to people whose emails you have as they signed up for an event. As with all email campaigns, there are plenty of areas for testing, including:

  • Subject line
  • Copy
  • Layout
  • Frequency and time of sending.

And remember to also think about the email landing page. Is it living up to the promise made in the email? Is the transition seamless? The last point is also valid for offline channels like direct mail and TV advertising. Make sure there is consistent messaging between all your marketing channels, online and offline.

Social media - can be a valuable channel for schools, colleges and other education providers. There's an opportunity to test different social media posts (paid and unpaid). If you get a lot of traffic from social media, there's an opportunity to run A/B tests on your landing pages too.

That is also true for PPC and other online campaigns. Consider the type of traffic and the messaging you use, and then evaluate where A/B testing can help ensure that you're getting the best ROI from your online marketing efforts.

5. Learn from your test results

As with all forms of CRO, you'll have 'winning tests' and tests that provide learnings.

We don't believe there shouldn't be the concept of a 'losing' test. Even the most successful conversion test programme will provide losing variants, and if this happens, it is not a disaster.

Even if your primary metric conversion rate drops significantly, you'll have learned that the approach you tried isn't the way to go, and you'll have saved a lot of money compared to just making the change live on the website without testing.

Focusing on course registrations as the be-all and end-all KPI is easy. Quality is often as important as quantity, though. There can be substantial business costs associated with students starting courses and then dropping out as the course wasn't what they expected. There's also the potential impact of negative reviews from those who may register when they were never fully prepared.

Even for shorter-term education, like one-day training courses, the ongoing damage of negative reviews can be enormous. If you're over-promising on your website and failing to deliver the expected standard, expect to have to deal with unhappy customers!

Finally, something we preach to every client we have. If you have a well-designed test, there are no losers. If you have followed everything we have touched on in this article, every test is an opportunity to learn something new. Sometimes, the tests that didn't go the way you expected teach you the most.

Conclusion/Summary

We hope you've got a lot of valuable tips from this introductory guide.

The most important thing to remember for optimising education offerings is to consider the ultimate outcome of completing the course or qualification. Sell people a bright future rather than the details of the course itself.

Consider the longer-term impact of your efforts too. Most forms of education are not something people purchase quickly or sign up for on a whim. It's likely to be a journey of several steps and various touchpoints. Think about where your testing can optimise each stage of the user journey. Optimise from the initial 'unaware' stage to the loyalty and advocacy stages.

Read more about how we helped the Open University optimise their website, or get in touch to find out how we can help you assess your CRO maturity. We have the expertise in the education sector to help ensure that your website maximises the number of potential students you get signing up for your courses.

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