Show and Tell: Education Websites Unveiled

As education sector marketing boffins – some would say nerds – we thought it was time for us to do a little show-and-tell, sharing some insights in to college website data, and indeed shortfalls in the approach to collecting data from many colleges. We delved in to the numbers behind four UK college sites to understand the crucial periods over 12 months, and more importantly to share a few tips for college marketers.

First things first – when executing any campaign, we need to know exactly who we are communicating to. This may sound like an easy first question on the exam paper, but as any maths professor will tell you, you can’t write the formula if you don’t have access to all the data…

Sir, Google hid half my data!

Excuses afoot, and class has only just begun. But simply put, there is not enough data available to understand if parents and guardians form a large proportion of site traffic. Colleges do not have access to all the data they need for a succinct approach to marketing. The nature of college demographics does not help.

For colleges, much of the target audience is under 18. We researched whether Google shares data related to under 18s in any of its Analytics data, as this would significantly affect our colleges. We knew for a fact that under 18 data was excluded from the demographics data in Analytics, but we were unsure about all other data, such as page views and sessions. Our initial research was not very fruitful, we found very little information. We then sought advice from experts in the area, and they advised that Google excludes under 18s data from all aspects of Google Analytics.

“With the huge issue with legalities of minors, Google … do not gather it for the purpose of distribution or external uses … they are purposefully not collecting data metrics on the under 18 age group (for our uses).” – Industry Expert

What a disaster! Missing this data is like opening your text book on the eve of an exam and finding the dog has chewed through them. The challenge only gets worse when we consider the data that is available…

Colleges are clever with the age data they do have

Colleges are able to deduce one very important fact from the data that is available – whilst data for under 18s is excluded from Analytics, other data sources within Analytics allow us to understand that the over 18 category is still substantial. Given the skew towards younger demographics – who are less likely to be parents or guardians – we can deduce that there are a lot of adult learners (19+ using all of the websites).

Adult learners form a substantial component of website visitors, as demonstrated by the chart below.

Visitor age brackets

Visitor age bracketsVisitor age brackets

The data for older demographics (45+) is not so clear-cut. Are they parents / guardians, or are they mature, adult learners? Without a benchmark it isn’t possible to look at areas of the site visited to deduce this. Some of the colleges analysed have ‘information for parents’ pages, but we can’t use page view numbers of these pages as we don’t know what percentage of parents visit such pages.

In summary, we have learnt the following from demographics data:

  • Data for under 18s is unavailable.
  • Colleges can safely assume a large proportion of site visitors are adult learners.
  • A question remains over the number of parents / guardians visiting.

Alas! Our colleges are doing a great job of working with limited data to understand their audience. But there is room for improvement.

Colleges can collect data about the over 18 segment of the audience on the websites – asking who the user is, and the reason they are using the website. Data collection will allow the colleges to:

  • Point the users to the right part of the website e.g. if they are an Adult Learner send them to a dedicated microsite, with appropriate imagery.
  • Tailor their sites accordingly – more or less content aimed towards parents or guardians, for instance.


So what about gender?

Gender split is a lot more clear-cut than age. For all college websites analysed there is a consistent 60:40 split in favour of females.

Gender splits

Gender splitsGender splits

Colleges can therefore give more preference to the female audience when designing their site and marketing, including:

  • Types of courses that are promoted on the main pages
  • Language used on-site and in online marketing materials
  • Imagery used.

College marketing managers WILL also be asking why prospective male students (and family) are under-represented, and where to grab their attention instead.

Having looked in to the ‘who’, let us delve in to the ‘when’ of learner site visits…


Users are more likely to research courses in the summer

As college marketing professionals, we know the importance of timing. Not only do we need to deliver messages to the right people, we also need to communicate those messages at the right times.

Whilst school is out for summer, college site visits are most definitely up. There are notable spikes in visitors through most summer months, particularly August and September.

Total visits

Total visitsTotal visits

User intent also mirrors these Summer spikes; the percentage of total site visits that include a view of a ‘course’ page also spikes around this time. There is a second spike at the end of the first term, with lots of interest around courses in December and the New Year.

Course page visits

Course page visitsCourse page visits

Using this information, colleges can change the content of their sites, giving less of a course-focus to the websites between February and May, and instead focusing on things such as good news stories and community events.

An unanswered questions still remains though – and no one gets top marks without answering all the questions!

GCSE results come out in August, so why do course page visits start to rise heavily in July?

One hypothesis is that the summer spike in course research is down to users not carrying out last minute research to enrol for the current year, but planning twelve months in advance. Or is there a mixture of last-minute students, and careful long-term planners? This is an important conundrum for college marketers, and one that needs answering. The standard marketing calendar currently looks something like the below:

Basic calendar

Basic calendarBasic calendar

Understanding the lead times between research and enrolment could affect this calendar. With the right data, there could be a shift in where marketing budgets are spent, and also in how College websites are designed. In order to better understand this we opted to analyse on-site search terms used to look for clues. However, despite the great work of colleges in focusing spend at appropriate times, we identified another big opportunity around data collection.

In order to take their data collection to the next level, colleges can set up advanced features within Google Analytics to mine for more data and answer questions related to things such as lead time in course searches.



Still paying attention at the back? Good, the next bit is just as important…


August is also the month of mobile devices

A further consideration has to be where to reach these users. Earlier thought leadership pieces have analysed the time of day students enrol, and the devices used. We have followed this up to identify which months are important by device.

Mobile visits

Mobile visitsMobile visits

When segmenting by device type, we identified a blatant shift towards mobile visitors in August, a trend which starts around May.

When aggregating data for our four colleges and plotting the % of desktop site sessions by hour of day and month of the year, we get even more context around this.



Desktop usage hits a trough in August throughout the middle of the day. This suggests that during term time, students spend time researching on college or school computers in the day, before following this up with research at home in the evening.

­Based on what we have learnt here, colleges should do the following every April to avoid being the industry dunce:

  • Check mobile page load times, and improve them if necessary.
  • Question whether mobile pages are user friendly and lead to good user experience.
  • Increase investment on mobile marketing channels, for example increasing bids for search and display marketing on mobile, and using social channels such as Snapchat.

College marketers are nearly top of the class, but not quite

Marketers at our three of our four colleges seem to start peak season well, but they start to procrastinate. The below chart shows that spend in invested channels – paid search, display and social – increases for three colleges around the summer.

Whilst the below chart shows how their investment in paid search, display and social media (paid and organic) increases over the summer, it is not sustained. There is a lack of focus around August, and for College 3 there is a huge spike in September, seemingly too late, and an attempt to make up for ‘missing the boat’ – talk about leaving it until the last minute!

Traffic channels

Traffic channelsTraffic channels

Investment in marketing needs to be maintained through the key winter and summer months to both generate interest, and keep driving home key messages.

The colleges examined here all have well-designed websites that do a great job of speaking to their target audiences. Our research found opportunities for them to improve, all based around advanced methods of data collection.

  • If you want us to analyse your website’s performance, we offer a Free Digital Analytics Review.
  • Or you may want to find our more about our digital advertising services.

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