A prestigious university and pioneer in online graduate education, USC wanted a new approach to graduate student recruitment. The Price School of Public Policy had long relied on paid advertising to attract prospective students to its online graduate programs. However, low application numbers, underqualified candidates, and rising recruitment costs led the school to replace its outbound recruitment efforts with an effective, cohesive inbound marketing strategy leveraging HubSpot's all-in-one marketing platform.
increase in blog traffic
conversion rates of high-performing assets
enrollment in one year
The University of Southern California is a private, nonprofit university located in Los Angeles. Home to more than 40,000 students, the university is among the most selective in the United States and offers 85 online graduate degree and certificate programs across 20 internationally renowned, professional schools.
From its iconic fight song and mascot, to its expansive and highly regarded academic programs, the USC brand is alive, well, and growing. Beyond USC's reputation for an outstanding learning experience on its gorgeous and historic campus, the school was an early adopter and leader in extending educational opportunities to distance learners online — especially in graduate-level degree programs.
As a pioneer of online graduate programs, the university aims to attract the most highly qualified, accomplished students possible. In the past, this meant their marketing team invested heavily in pay-per-click and other online advertising to capture the attention of students considering various continuing education options. However, as the volume of inquiries generated through their outbound digital advertising increased, the number of prospective students who met the university’s selective admissions standards dwindled. The school has very high admission criteria for the executive program and as such, they were turning away 70% of their sales qualified leads.
“Our admissions process relied heavily on conventional outbound marketing and direct outreach from a small team of recruiters,” says Susan Gautsch, Director of Online Learning at USC’s Price School of Public Policy. “Many people clicking our ads ultimately chose not to apply and those who did were often not a good fit for our program, which drove up our advertising expenses and cost us a lot of wasted time. We needed a better way to target our messaging to attract our ideal students and get the enrollment process started as quickly as possible.”
Director of Online Learning
USC Price School of Public Policy
Years of emphasis on paid advertising and outbound marketing left their marketing team little in the way of systems or infrastructure to support an inbound approach. Website updates and publications were time-consuming activities that proved difficult to edit in real-time. In addition, their website analytics and lead tracking capabilities were very limited. Despite their best efforts to connect all of their marketing tools and functionalities, full-funnel visibility was virtually impossible.
With input from the Vice Provost, Susan looked to Marketo as a potential marketing automation solution, but felt the platform had a heavy reliance on technology integrations and was difficult to pick up and use. Instead, she sought an intuitive, all-in-one solution that would make it easy to manage a high volume of online marketing activities on her own, or with little assistance.
With HubSpot she noted, the tools were not only user-friendly, but that the company also offered unlimited phone support, which other companies did not, in case she did have a specific area to trouble-shoot.
“I’ve followed HubSpot’s marketing, sales, and design blogs for years and really came to understand marketing even without having a background in it,” Susan says. “I loved everything about their approach to marketing and the technology they built behind it. After that side-by-side comparsion of tools, the decision was pretty easy.”
- Susan Gautsch
USC adopted HubSpot’s Content Optimization System (COS) and marketing automation software in September of 2014. Their focus is to leverage HubSpot's inbound marketing tools to power admissions and enrollment for the Price School of Public Policy’s online graduate Master in Public Administration and Executive Master of Health Administration programs.
Compared with Marketo and similar legacy software options, HubSpot offers all the integrated features, functionality, and tools which higher education marketers, like Susan, need. HubSpot allows USC to deliver highly targeted content to its prospective students, track engagement and performance in real-time, and optimize the school's website in order to attract the most qualified candidates to their programs.
Susan started building out their inbound marketing strategy slowly, first starting by designing workflows using HubSpot Marketing Automation tools and hiring a student worker to help create content by using HubSpot's pick-up and go Blogging app. Over several months Susan tested and optimized her inbound efforts, and by March of 2015 was ready to launch a full-scale inbound marketing campaign to fuel the critical fall semester application period.
She spent much of the spring and summer cultivating content for white papers and ebooks about online learning and, more specifically, thought-leadership pieces relating to public and health administration careers. She used HubSpot's Landing Pages and Calls-to-Action apps to create dozens of unique paths across the website to entice student opt-in opportunities. Once a student was opted-in for more information, Susan then promoted highly relevant content to them via timely emails sent through action-based Workflows.
For example, once a visitor downloads their "Executive Careers in Modern Healthcare" eBook, they're entered into an automated workflow. The workflow activates a program-specific nurturing campaign that sends specific emails based on both time and on actions the student may take within the workflow sequence. “HubSpot has been a revelation and complete paradigm shift for us because we’re able to deliver more personalized content to wider audiences faster, and with fewer resources,” Susan says. “Now that we know who’s downloading which content and when, we have a clearer picture of what our funnel should look like and can rapidly adapt our workflows for maximum impact.”
Building an inbound marketing strategy is a novel step into new territory for university marketing. Susan says that the innovative, inbound approach HubSpot taught her has made it possible for her to create a unique web presence and control digital communications that has resulted in expanded program awareness, new inquiries, and more qualified applicants.
Susan says that, initially, there was some skepticism and curiosity about how effective a digital marketing program could be. Those doubts were quickly assuaged after measuring some initial results. In the first six months using HubSpot, traffic to the program’s blog increased 75%, landing pages received opt-in submission rates as high as 40%, and more than 3% of those initial inquiries have enrolled in one of the two programs.
“The results have been pretty amazing in the short time we’ve been using HubSpot,” she says. “Not only have traffic and conversions improved, but we’ve also brought in as many new students as in the previous enrollment period at an 85% lower cost.”
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