How do you increase the effectiveness of your emails, digital ad campaigns, website, blog posts, social media activity, and other marketing programs? While that’s a loaded question, there is at least one simple answer: marketing testing.
By testing critical variables in your marketing, you can develop a series of best practices that will gradually lead to improved performance from each of your marketing channels. While in some cases your results will apply only to a particular project or narrow campaign, the more common outcome is that you will gain broader insights on the best strategies and tactics to use for each medium.
Opportunities in Testing
Testing is one of the core premises underlying data-driven marketing. Using information naturally extracted from your marketing programs is at the core of a data-driven approach; testing your campaigns allows you to dig deeper into the influence of certain marketing drivers, helping you better understand the effects of data in shaping your marketing strategy.
Among the most fundamental test prospects are formal options such as A/B web page comparisons, email testing, digital ad evaluations, and direct mail fundraising offers. Less rigorous but valuable lessons can be gleaned from assessing what topics get the most engagement on your social media channels or what topics drive the most positive alumni activity. And some testing can be done informally in other realms, e.g., an admissions manager leaving different kinds of candy in the admissions lobby to observe what people take.
Above all, testing is a mindset. It means you’re curious, engaged, and in search of the best approaches for each of your key marketing channels.
Sound promising? If so, read on to better understand the goals of marketing testing for education and how you can translate them to enhance your institution’s success.
What is marketing testing?
Marketing testing compares results of marketing programs developed to test different variables across many channels and media. This can include nearly every part of an independent school's or college’s marketing mix, from emails and web pages to print and digital ads, direct mail, blogs, social media, and other channels.
What is A/B testing?
In marketing, A/B testing is the comparison of two distinct options with just one change made to the alternative piece. A/B tests can be run across a variety of media and channels, from having an email link to two different web pages, a lead funnel with two different approaches, a digital ad with two variable landing pages, or a direct mail piece that’s the same except for a change to a headline, image, copy or similar variable. Some A/B testing can be managed with your current systems, while other programs rely on third-party software that is unlikely to be used in smaller education institutions.
How does testing help your institution?
By seeing evidence that a particular type of advertising strategy, landing page, or social media approach has been more successful or creates more engagement from your constituents, you can begin building a foundation of marketing-savvy programs that can improve your relationships with all your major constituent groups.
What tests can/should you do?
The answer depends on your school-wide and marketing objectives. Recruiting for enrollment is near the top of many institutions’ lists, so you may want to start with your Facebook and Google AdWords or print magazine ads. Simpler are basic email tests to understand what parents want to hear from you and how they react to factors such as the number and size of images or the length of copy or subject lines. One of the ideal scenarios with testing is that you can manage the tests in the order and to the depth that you prefer, contingent on what media and message you want to compare.
What will the tests tell you?
Testing is a microcosm of broader marketing strategy; you want to know what gets your constituents excited, interested, eager to take action. Results of your tests will tell you what length of a web page works best, which creative generates the most activity, what posts drive the most commentary, and what steps are most effective in producing applications to your school, college, or university.
Fundamentals of Testing
Have a distinct purpose in each test. As with research projects, do not test if you don’t plan to act on the results. If you test ads in an A/B format and one wins handily, use the more successful ad, quickly.
Testing should be easily defined and measured.
Test two options, possibly three if manageable.
Treat one as the null hypothesis – as in baseball where the tie goes to the runner, in testing, the prospect has to beat the incumbent or preferred option.
Ideally you can conduct simultaneous tests, but you can still gain from your comparisons if you conduct very similar campaigns at different times, e.g., changing a variable in your admissions lead funnel after a month or comparing the success of different topics in back-to-back newsletters.
For a test to be statistically valid, it needs to meet certain criteria, usually centered on the size of your sample (constituents), expected degree of participation or response, desired degree of confidence in your decision, and the amount of margin or error you can tolerate. However, for small institutions, even if you have fewer than 200 constituents and don’t meet statistical goals for valid responses, you will often find enough evidence to change your marketing programs.
Key Variables in Testing
Copy: message, length, style, tone, topics
Images or videos
Time of day and/or day of week
Frequency of communication
· Location and colors of call-to-action buttons
Length of forms
Performing the Tests
Now let’s explore some of the primary tests you may wish to conduct by marketing channel:
Email: With email remaining a major channel for nearly every school, it’s a significant marketing test medium, whether to parents, alums, prospective parents, or other constituents. Some of the main topics you can consider for testing include:
o What day and time are the most effective for open rate and clicks?
o What topics are of most interest?
o Subject lines: length, strategy (e.g., all vs. one topic), tone (e.g., funny vs. serious)
o Length of broader copy, length of each blurb
o A/B tests: start with a hypothesis
o Short vs. long copy
o Using a “Read More” button or link
o Different flows for your lead funnel
o Simple tests of what current news or events gain more traction from your home page
Direct mail: While mail is losing mind- and wallet-share to digital, and the latter is viewed as a more natural testing medium, direct mail is in fact a powerful channel for marketing tests. For decades, direct marketers have tested personalization, gift amounts, event attendance, offers, and many other variables.
Digital ads: You have many possibilities to test with your digital ads, all of which should be laser-focused on your primary goal, whether it’s driving more applications, visits to your website, attendance at an event, or the like.
o Copy, strategy, headlines, calls-to-action and graphics strategies for the ads
o Media generally, i.e., does Facebook produce more clicks, better leads, stronger performance in a lead funnel, etc. than Google AdWords or comparable investments?
Magazine ads: While not as intuitive as digital, print ads have a few specific ways to test interest and calls-to-action. Specifically, you can try a short, custom web URL, e.g., “yourschool/admissions” or brand new phone number limited to that ad. In the latter case, be sure the phone is answered by people who can track the activity.
Blogs: You may not think of a blog as a test vehicle, but it is. Are your topics of interest, as assessed by the number of clicks they receive from a newsletter announcement or highlight on your website? How about the amount of engagement a post gets in shares, retweets, and likes? Keep a careful eye on your analytics to assess the answers to these questions and many others.
Enrollment communication: Most schools have a regular marketing strategy for communicating with their prospective families after inquiry, whether it’s basic email follow-ups, newsletters, or perhaps even video. While it would be challenging to create two different streams of communication for a simultaneous “test,” there are several manual ways to assess the power of lead generation and nurturing among your constituents. Take a look at this article from 2016 about testing the concept of lead nurturing. You can also change a key page in your lead funnel to assess the differences in response or activity.
Social media: If you have a consistent plan to post and manage your social media programs across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and perhaps other channels, congrats! That’s a very good start. One of the bigger weaknesses many education institutions have is the lack of achieving that next level of social performance, in which your constituents are actively posting their own threads and commenting on and sharing your posts. Encourage that, with contests and games, while monitoring your posts carefully, perhaps with tools like HootSuite or Buffer. By assessing shares, comments, and likes on various topics and timing, you are effectively testing the best practices for your social activity.
Ideally this piece has helped you understand the value of testing various elements of your marketing campaigns, and how to do so. As you finalize your plans for the upcoming school year, think about campaigns you’ve planned and how to begin incorporating basic tests into some of your channels. These tests can help you improve the effectiveness and ROI of your marketing spending – and have some fun to boot.