CRO is a waste of time for your school

Here are two reasons conversion optimization is probably a waste of money for your school, plus three processes you might try instead.
 
We’ve said before that your .edu site is for prospective students. Moving them from “silent consideration” to “ready-to-apply” is a critical challenge. And when you’re trying to squeeze every last precious application from an audience, optimization sounds tempting.
 
If we’re talking about lead generation or email campaigns, then this doesn’t apply, and we’ll show you why. But when it comes down to the application you need reliable answers before a new prospect sees it.
 

What is conversion optimization (CRO)?

Sites like Google or Amazon rarely have major overhauls in design. Instead, they incrementally change parts of their websites based on slight design variations shown to small test audiences. Then roll out proven designs to the broader user base. Designers and engineers create A/B tests to see which button or headline leads to more revenue. In high traffic sites with lots of conversions, this is the only acceptable way to refine the experience. Product managers take great care to make sure that results are valid – errors can cost tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue or more.
 
CRO was popularized in the last ten years with the development of tools like Optimizely or A/B testing in Google Analytics. With these accessible tools and lower price points, it’s easier for marketing teams to experiment with content and design variations, and visualize how that impacts business goals going forward.
 
It’s essential for big e-commerce companies to embrace optimization. Retail, travel, b2b and more all have a use for CRO. Great marketers have this skill in their repertoire. But for higher ed, it comes with a lot of baggage. There are two main problems:
 

One – you need more applications to get valid results.

Industry experts agree that you need about 1,000 conversions per month on a website for CRO to make sense. That’s because we’re concerned about statistical validity, and if there aren’t enough conversions, it takes too long to be confident about what the data is telling you. Declaring a test complete too early is a good way to end up confident AND wrong about what to do next. The volume of individual results matters.
 
When most universities talk about the conversion of a prospective student, they mean the application. Most schools don’t have that kind of volume of applications in the first place. In the IPEDS survey data from 2015, there were only 262 schools that had more than 10,000 applications submitted for the entire year. More than 1,000 responding schools had between 10,000 and 400 applications, but the mean was 3,285. If those applications were spread over a year (which, of course, they are not), that monthly average is just 273. Nowhere close to the 1,000 needed to see results.
 

Two – you need consistent applications to get rhythm. 

The need for conversions every month isn’t only to determine statistical relevance. There’s an organizational need as well.
 
There are a few major spikes of engagement and extended periods of quiet. Even at schools where there are enough applications to get conclusive test results, there isn’t enough time to put the new versions out to the rest of the students and benefit from the improvement. So you’ve spent money and time to learn something about how to improve the site, but you can’t run another test for another year. There’s no way to gain momentum.
 
Schools that want to increase enrollment but don’t have that kind of application volume should remember that a good optimization campaign could boost conversion by 2-4%. That’s another 20-40 applications in a pool of 1,000 at best. It’s something, but keep in mind that we’re talking about converting prospective students that are already on your site and considering applying. Is there another way that we could tip these students towards us _without_ investing in more software or hiring an optimization team?
 

Instead of CRO, try usability

If you want to convert more leads into applicants, other usability methods tend to have far better return on investment at this scale. Consider at least heuristic analysis, user testing, and unit testing.
 

Heuristic analysis

This kind of testing relies on the expert evaluation of your website and applications to identify usability issues. The review should align with standard Usability Heuristics, informed by mobile optimization best practices, and respect of trends in Gen-Z approaches to online behavior.
 
Heuristics always come first, because you want to get the obvious stuff out of the way and not waste your test group’s attention on it. If links are broken or the font is too small, experts can identify those issues. What they cannot do is tell you what prospective students are thinking.

User testing

If you want to know what’s in someone’s head, then ask. User testing works best with a few one-on-one sessions with a tester and a trained facilitator. The moderator asks questions and watches the user navigate the website. A group of three to six testers uncover 70-80% of all issues, and that’s enough to get your team working on critical fixes.
 
If you do user testing, do not use surrogates for your users. Most importantly, don’t use internal stakeholders – they know too much about how the system should work, and their familiarity will skew the results you get. There are enough recently admitted students around to recruit for these tests.

Unit testing

This last one is typically considered a software development tool, but in our case, it can be beneficial for maintaining consistency in your applications.
 
Unit testing is an automated test that checks the functionality of various parts of a site. If run regularly (daily would be best), the test can report potential issues and technical difficulties that might not be uncovered for days or weeks otherwise. We’ve seen automated email blasts that weren’t working because a setting was incorrectly applied, and no one discovered it for over 12 weeks. Testing could have raised a red flag on this problem and made sure these students had constant contact with the school.
 

CRO still makes sense higher up the funnel

CRO is essential for big e-commerce operations, and some of the learnings in that industry apply to Higher Education. But you need to be careful to import only the things that will bring you a return. So test email subject lines, social media posts, and paid campaigns. Lead generation pages can benefit from optimization if you have a high volume of traffic. Just remember that the deeper you get in the conversion funnel, the less traditional optimization will have an impact.