How can schools of medicine use data to drive informed marketing decisions and improve admissions, student retention and degree programs? We’re joined by John Lynn, founder and editor of Healthcarescene.com. John has more than a decade of experience in healthcare and higher education data driven marketing.

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Read the transcript below.

Mariah Obiedzinski: I’m Mariah Obiedzinski, director of content services at Stamats. Joining me today is John Lynn, founder and editor of Healthcarescene.com. John has more than a decade of experience in healthcare and higher education data driven marketing. Welcome, John.

John Lynn: Thanks. It’s good to be here. Excited to have a good conversation.

Mariah: Today we’re discussing how schools of medicine can use data to drive informed marketing decisions and improve admissions, student retention and degree programs.

John, higher education institutions have an ocean of data at their fingertips. But many just don’t know where to start synthesizing that data and analyzing it. So, what are some of the common concerns you’ve heard among colleges and universities about using their volumes of data?

John: Yeah. I think the obvious concern that most educational organizations have is around FERPA. And that they’re violating FERPA somehow. And it’s a legitimate concern. That’s the last thing any university wants to have problems with. So, I think they have to be very thoughtful and make sure that they use the data appropriately.

But I think one thing that’s interesting is that, and maybe this is another concern that many have, is that they’re marketers, not data analysts. And so, they’ve got this massive amount of data, but what do they do with it?

And one thing that I’ve found a lot of marketers doing successfully is not so much using their in-house data, which may have FERPA issues or that they have to navigate that, but many of the platforms that marketing people can use have passive data that is really valuable to them.

So, whether it’s social data on Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn, those types of platforms or even something like Google AdWords, has so much data now available to drive many of your marketing campaigns that it’s extremely valuable for a marketing organization to go and use what I consider passive data. It’s not something that the organization itself collected, but that they can access and use in their marketing efforts.

So, I think that’s one trick that I think is pretty interesting and we see a lot of people doing it successfully. Especially because those platforms have already analyzed and understand the data. And that’s a powerful thing for a marketing organization who’s not a data scientist.

And I guess the other challenge or concern that I think many organizations do is what do they even do with all that data? They have so much, but how do you use it effectively in your marketing efforts?

Mariah: You mentioned FERPA a couple of times. Could you give anybody that might not know what that is just a quick definition?

John: Yeah. FERPA is basically the law that protects student data. So, in healthcare, we have HIPAA, so some people might be familiar with that when they go to their doctor’s office. They have to sign a HIPAA release form.

In the university world, student data, and I think it’s true across all of the education institutions, FERPA essentially requires an organization to safeguard and protect the data that they store. You have to be very thoughtful in how you use the data and that you protect it.

For example, students are opt-in to the use of that data, depending on what you want to do with it.

Mariah: So, these organizations have student data, they have prospective student data, they have admissions data, they have non-matriculant data. All of these things, what is a manageable approach for higher education marketers to start going through this overwhelming amount of data?

John: My suggestion for any marketing is to start simple. Think about “What is the simplest thing I can do with this data that will actually have a large impact?”

Let me suggest one strategy that might be interesting is, “How can I use all of the data that I have in my organization to be able to make my marketing more human?”

Because it turns out that by making your marketing human, you’re doing some remarkable things. And it’s kind of an interesting play because when you think about data, you think about the least human thing in the world. But if you use data the right way, it can actually make your marketing feel very personalized and very human because it makes that interaction feel like something that’s special to that perspective student.

If you can look at your data and say, “How can I use this data to really personalize and humanize the marketing efforts that I have or that I want to do?” then that can create a really powerful marketing campaign for your organization.

And it doesn’t require you to understand how to understand which pieces of data are the most valuable for your organization and what trends across data need to be capitalized. I mean those are all good things to do, but often need a data scientist. So, look at the data and say, ”How can I use that data to make my interaction more human?”

Now, obviously there’s a balance. You don’t want to be the creepy human. No one wants to be the very creepy guy that comes up to you at the bar and already knows all about you, right?

Mariah: Hey, do you want a degree?

John: You don’t want that in your marketing efforts. But you do want to be the caring human, the caring organization that’s personalizing your message to that person and providing something that they actually need.

Mariah: I’m so glad that you brought that up. Because that’s something that we really find to be extremely important, especially when speaking with prospective students and their parents.

Taking all of that data, not being creepy with it like you said, but really delivering those pointed messages in a particular point of a student’s journey, whether they are expressing interest already, whether data from other sources, whatever that might be suggests that they, ”Hey. Maybe this individual is interested in an agricultural degree. Or maybe this individual is interested in a theatre degree.”

Really just handing them information and saying, “Is this helpful for you? If it is, let us continue to give more of that. If it’s not, let us find something else that will be more beneficial to you.”

John: Exactly. We have to remember, marketing kind of gets a black eye because they’re like, “Oh I hate marketing.” Everyone says that.

But it turns out that if you actually are marketing something that someone wants, then it’s not a bad thing. In fact, it can be an enjoyable experience because I discover something that I needed or that I needed more information on, or that I wanted to learn about.

Then it’s actually a pleasurable experience for the person receiving the marketing.

The marketing that people hate is when they try to force it down their throat something that they don’t want and they’re never going to want. Then, of course, it’s bad. And that’s what gets a lot of the black eye for marketing.

But if we give them something that’s useful to them that helps them accomplish their goals, then people actually enjoy marketing.

Mariah: Absolutely. And one of the key things that we often times talk to higher education institutions about is the internal marketing also. So, really thinking about the stakeholder buy-in. It’s incredibly important, especially in schools of medicine and particularly with marketing and admissions changes.

So, what are some of those key metrics that marketers can really think about to gather those data baselines, or prove the need for change or prove the need for additional marketing efforts?

John: I think it’s probably been overplayed in marketing to some extent, but it’s still extremely valuable. And that’s the idea that everyone wants to grow their list. You want to have a bigger list, you want to have a higher quality list, a list with more data, with more understanding of the people on that list. So, I think that’s probably the biggest metric that most people use.

And I think the most progressive organizations are following that all the way through to enrolled students. So, all the way from, ”I’ve clicked a link to visit your website” to ”I’m now on your list” to ”Now I’ve opened a resource or watched a video” or whatever it might be, all the way through the funnel to an enrolled student that really signed up and is now a member of your organization.

So, I think those are the two metrics that most people want when they look at it. And that’s really, ”How am I growing my list of potential candidates that could become students?” all the way through “How many actually enrolled from that list?”

I think those are the key metrics that most organizations want. But I think it’s an interesting challenge for marketers because if you just focus on those two metrics, then your marketing can become quite still. So, I think there’s something really valuable in creating a relationship with your key stakeholders that they buy into justifying some risk in your marketing.

This can be a challenge depending on who your stakeholders are. But giving them an idea and giving them an understanding that you need a little bit of space to be able to try some different things is a really valuable thing for any marketer to do.

And the key for this in my mind is when you go to them with an essentially risky marketing idea that you want to try out that you think will be effective, you want to make sure that you have the tracking in place that shows whether that risk was valuable or not.

Because what happens when you do that is when you go to your stakeholders and say, “Hey. I want to do this somewhat risky marketing campaign. We’ve never done it before, but I think it’s going to perform well,” well then you need the data to know, “Did this perform well or did it not?” And then if you have that data, you actually essentially preserve the relationship with your stakeholder if you come back to them with the data that says, “Hey, you know what? This was a fail. It didn’t work. It wasn’t effective.” Or if it was, “It was effective and here’s what we did.” Because then they trust you that you’re going to come with the honest feedback and the honest results of what happened or what didn’t happen.

And when you do that, it creates a relationship of trust with the stakeholder. The problem with most marketers is that, “I want to try a risky idea.” They try it and then the stakeholder says, ‘Well, what was the result?’ “Oh, I don’t know. I didn’t really measure it.” If you do that, you just basically said, “Hey, I just want to be risky because it’s fun.” That’s the message you’re sending to the people.

So, I think it’s key to incorporate the tracking to know was the risk worth it or not? Because then it will essentially retain that relationship with the other stakeholders.

And then the other secret that I like to do here for marketers is I like to put together packages that do a mix of both. So, you may have created a marketing package or a marketing campaign that delivers on the key metrics that your stakeholders want to buy into, whether it’s growing your list or whether it’s driving more enrolled students, whatever the key metrics are for you.

But then also add in some elements of thought leadership that you know are valuable as a marketer but are harder for your stakeholders to understand.

So, you can add and do these packages that incorporate multiple marketing methods that allow you to then also build the campaign for the other stakeholders to understand that, “Oh, that thought leadership was actually valuable.” And then you can give them the anecdotal findings that the thought leadership led to someone who showed up at your admissions office asking the question because they read the article.

So, it wasn’t as specifically that came through your CRM or whatever system you’re using to track. But at least it gives you the information you need and the opportunity to dabble in the things that you know provided value but are harder to track from a metric perspective.

Mariah: There are so many things that are relatively low cost that individuals can do, whether that’s labeling the URLs or creating vanity URLs or vanity phone numbers that you’re only using on certain collateral. We found that to be quite effective.

And really the way that, like you just mentioned, John, the way that you come back with that data, whether it was a success or a failure, we always recommend presenting that data in two ways:

  1. Visually because so many stakeholders just have so much that they have to wade through anyway. It’s really helpful for them to see, ”Here’s a chart. And here’s the upward progress or the downward progress.”
  2. And secondly, having that next step, whether “Here’s how we can take this information and make it better the next time. And here’s how we’re going to do that.” Or ”here’s how well this went. Here’s how we can take it a step further and continue to do that.”

John: Yeah. Exactly. I think it’s planning those metrics before the campaigns is a great strategy to do it. So, am I going to do it through a burner number that I know how many calls came in to the system? Or am I going to do it through tracking URLs that Google Analytics is going to track. Or whatever it might be. Understanding what the outcomes will be before you even do it, not necessarily what the outcome’s going to be, but how that outcome will be tracked is a powerful idea.

Mariah: I think we can all agree that most marketing decisions, especially in higher education and in healthcare, really need to be data driven, with that human touch like you mentioned, and that gut feel.

What are some of those really major decisions that should be backed with data when you’re talking about recruiting students or keeping students on through graduation?

John: Yeah. I might push back on you a little on this. Is it true that most decisions should be data driven? Obviously, we’d all love for every decision we make to be data driven.

You know my colleague and friend Colin Hung. He recently presented this awesome slide, which if this wasn’t a podcast, if it was a video, we could show the slide.

Essentially it showed, ”Here’s how much data we have.” And there was a small circle showing the amount of institutional data that you have, the amount of data that maybe you have from things that you subscribe to. And then he had a big circle that was 10 times bigger than the small circle. And he said, “This is how much data there is and how much data we wish we had to make decisions.”

Well, the reality is that we’re all making decisions based on a limited amount of data and a limited insight of what’s really happening. So, I actually like the approach that I learned from Dell, which now I guess is Dell EMC. And I can’t remember if it was Michael Dell, the founder or his partner-in-crime Kevin Rollins. One of them was talking about, “How do we make decisions as an organization?”

Many people would look at Dell and say, “Wow. Dell is a really data-driven organization.” And no doubt they have a lot of data and have used a lot of data in their decision making. But I think it was Kevin Rollins who was sharing this. He said, “You know what? We wanted as much data as possible to be able to make decisions.” And that was a good strategy. And I think it’s a good strategy for these educational organizations as well. Get as much data as possible to educate you on the decision you’re going to have to make.

But then Kevin Rollins said something really interesting. And it’s kind of the approach that I take. He’s like, “We take in as much data as we can to inform us, to educate us.” He’s like, “And then we make a decision based on the data, but also based on our understanding of the market. Also based on our relationships with the people that we’ve met. Also based on just a wide variety of things.”

And he said that about half of the time the data drove the decision making. He said, “The other half of the time we understood the data, and we still made other decisions because of other factors that we were looking at and considering.”

So, I actually think that is the right approach to most of the marketing decisions with data. Sure, if you have the data and it’s very clear that you should do something, that makes sense.

Let me give you an example. So, we actually just did an analysis of our Twitter data, our social data. And we found that the number of impressions that an original tweet got was five times more than any sort of reply or response to someone specifically.

The data said very clearly that an original tweet gets a lot more impressions than a reply. So, if you look at it just from a data standpoint, the data would say, “Hey. I should only send original tweets, right? Because I’m going to get five times more impressions than if I do replies.” And you might look at that strategy and say, ”Oh, yeah. That’s easy, right? The data says that.”

And let’s be honest, that probably is a good strategy for a lot of what you’re doing. But then you also look at it and say, “But what goes into a reply?” A reply creates a human connection so the human connection could be 10 times more valuable than impressions in general.

So, some of it goes back to you have to think about what am I trying to accomplish? Because the data can be manipulated and make to use whatever case you want.

I mean just to use this as an example, should you just do original tweets, or should you just do replies? And the answer, of course, is the most common, yeah, it depends. Are you looking for a broad exposure for your brand or for a message you’re sending out? Then you want to do original tweets.

But if you’re looking to engage a very specific group of people and really create a deep relationship with them, then who cares how many impressions it gets. Because you’re actually stroking the ego of the people that you’re replying to. And that could be more valuable than the broad.

So, I guess that’s for me is I always take data with a little bit of a grain of salt and say, “Understand what the data’s really telling you and make sure it matches up with whatever goals you’re trying to accomplish in your organization.”

Mariah: Absolutely. I really like that perspective, John. You can’t just read the numbers off and say, ”OK, this is what they tell us to do.” You really have to have those connections and you really have to trust the individuals who are looking at that data to assume that they have the best interest of your audience and your business goals in mind for that to work out.

Saying that, how can school of medicine marketers and admissions teams really work together to generate action from their data, from those relationships once they have that information?

John: To me, when I hear this idea, it’s just a classic alignment problem between marketing and sales. Which is funny, I don’t know how many admissions teams would want to admit that they’re the sales team through the university. But that’s really what they are in a lot of perspectives. Certainly, they take a very different approach and they have different criteria than most sales people. And they’re certainly not the ones showing up at your door, knocking down your door to sell.

But to me, it’s the classic alignment problem between marketing and sales that every company, every organization that I’ve ever seen has had. And to be honest, there is no simple solution to this problem in creating alignment.

But let me offer three ideas that work best.

  1. The first is just having an amazing leader. Amazing leadership solves most alignment problems. If you have an amazing leader, they can bring both sides together and inspire both sides in a shared vision. They can often bring people together. So, I’d say that’s the first one. Of course, if you don’t have a great leader, most marketers aren’t in a position where they can replace the leader or do something like that. So, that’s the not best advice other than pray for another leader, I guess. And hopes and prayers only work so well.
  2. The second thing that I’ve seen that worked best is having a shared tool and getting the leaders of both your marketing organization and your admissions teams on a shared tool where both of them are involved on that shared tool. So, whether it’s your CRM, whether it’s your marketing automation, making sure that the admissions team understands and has the same language as the marketing team is a powerful thing. And I think by having a shared tool, you create a shared language that allows you to communicate better between the two. So, that’s probably the next one that I’d offer.
  3. The last one is just really great relationships and communication. There’s really no easy solution to this. Some people are great at it. Some people are awful at it. But it turns out if you put in enough time, if you put in enough shared experiences, then you can change relationships that maybe weren’t the best in the past. And often that means showing up with a box of donuts. Or often that means showing up with, you know, inviting them to lunch or breaking bread that way. Those types of things change relationships.

The other advice on the relationship front is try as best you can to think about the other person versus yourself. And it’s not a naïve, unselfish approach to, ”Oh, I need to understand how they’re doing,” but it’s really actually a selfish thing to do where you say, “If I understand what they need, then I’m going to benefit more.”

It turns out everyone benefits. So, it’s a nice virtuous circle. But there’s something really beautiful about going to the other team and just showing a commitment to understanding their challenges, their problems, so that you can at least understand and commiserate with them and create that relationship that way.

But also, it helps you inform your marketing if you understand what the admission teams are really going through. And it can transform what you’re doing.

So, I recently heard someone talk about this problem and in this case, they were in a company, they were talking about, “I knew these sales teams funnel and approach marketing even better than they did.”

That idea of understanding what the admission team’s process is and what they’re going through even better than they do, although you don’t say that in person, right? That’s not good for relationship building. But having that goal is valuable and will allow you to show empathy to them. It will allow you to create a relationship with them and improve the communication in between the two teams.

So, that’s some of the best thing you can do. But relationships are not simple. We know that’s true in personal and in work.

Mariah: Absolutely. And John, you’ve really struck a chord here because this has been just an ongoing theme that I’ve seen in my career prior to this in the healthcare world and in my career now in higher education. It’s just that constant need for connection, whether that’s connecting numbers, whether that’s connecting people, whether that’s connecting audiences with content.

It really is about those connections and who is making them, how you’re making them and prioritizing against your business goals and with your business goals to get those things done.

Really thinking about for individuals that are ready to do this, they’re ready to dive in to their first “data analysis project,” what are some of your favorite tools or platforms that users can use right from the get-go, to review, to analyze or to present their data in a user-friendly and stakeholder-friendly way?

John: I think the two obvious ones is first Google Analytics. We did a survey of our healthcare marketing community and we said, “What analytics programs are you using?” And I forget the exact number, but it was 90-something percent of them were using Google Analytics. I imagine that’s true in the education space as well.

It’s kind of become the de facto standard. It’s something that everyone understands. And to be honest, they’ve done an excellent job of updating it, adding to it. In fact, in many ways, it’s almost become too complex in some ways. They need to simplify it because it has so much data available. So, having a deep understanding of Google Analytics and taking the time to go through and understand what’s happening there as you mentioned, making sure that the right UTM tags or other tagging is working properly and being tracked properly. They have great things to put goals and other things in there as well.

So, I think Google Analytics is the simple one. And not simple as far as usage necessarily, but simple choice that everyone should use and understand. And it’s something that has become the industry standard.

Mariah: Oh, yeah. We really love Data Studio here. I mean it’s not easy to set up, but once you have it, it is so easy to extract exactly what you’re looking for within a certain date range, a certain platform. And you can really just get some nice visuals and nice hard numbers out of there.

John: Exactly. You can see the trends because of the graphing and charts, you can dive deep. You can keep it broad. Yeah. I mean it’s beautiful, right?

There’s others that are better, Omniture and different stuff, most of them can’t afford that type of solution. So, Analytics is free, Google Analytics is free, and it does the job in an excellent way.

The second one I think that’s interesting is whatever email software program you’re using, whether it’s a Hubspot or even something as simple as the Mail Chimp and Constant Contacts, any of those are extremely valuable in understanding – sometimes they’re a little bit of a pain to report. Sometimes it takes some work, depending on how you set it up. So, I think that can be a challenge. Many people use tracking links along with it. I think that’s a good combination for those.

But let me offer two others that maybe some of your users haven’t used as extensively. The first one is YouTube. It is just shocking how good their data has become. And how much people are watching. It’s not as good as Facebook and some of the social networks as far as who is watching. So, I hope that they continue to improve there.

But it’s amazing to feel how engaged people are in a video. When they’re dropping off in the video, how long they’re watching, some of the referral sources, where is it coming from? There’s a lot of data and insights that can be gleamed from the impact of your marketing efforts in the YouTube data.

So, I think that’s a powerful one if you’re doing any sort of video marketing and you’re using videos in your efforts. That’s really powerful.

A second one that I think, I actually just discovered myself, is Twitter analytics. So, it’s just analytics.twitter.com. And you log in with your regular login. But here’s what I missed. So, when you go to analytics.twitter.com, you see a lot of great kind of summary stats and that are valuable and are fun to look at. And it’s fun to see trends and it’s nice to look at it on occasion, but what’s really valuable is you can go into the tweets themselves and then search by the last month, the last three months, whatever it might be, and then export the data for those tweets.

And it exports all of the likes, the favorites, the retweets, the impressions. So, you can get the impression data for all of the tweets for the last month. It basically exports it to a CSV file where you can then summarize, you can sort, you can analyze, you can see which ones got the most impressions. And then here’s a fun fact you can do on those tweets: If you sort the tweet by the tweet itself, if it starts with an “@” sign, which means it’s a reply, then that will appear at the top and that’s how you can easily analyze how are your replies doing versus your original tweets.

So, there’s just a plethora of data from a social perspective on Twitter using the Twitter analytics and exporting the data to see, “OK. What content is really resonating and what content is not?” And you can look at, did it have an image in it? Did it not? You can evaluate those types of things and how much does engagement increase the number of impressions or not?

I think that’s a really powerful one that I like to use that rally I just discovered kind of this export that really gave me a lot of insights into—and I was like, “Wow. There’s lot of ways we could do better at what we are doing on social by having this data.

Mariah: And it’s such an easy way to do A/B testing. If you put the same content in there, but maybe do a video or maybe do a picture, or maybe just do a different hashtag or something and check out how differently those worked out. You can really do that across platforms. And it’s a nice easy way to kind of dip your toes into A/B testing if you’ve never done such a thing before.

John: No. I think it’s great. And then the other one, just to throw out there is if you do any sort of paid social or even Google AdWords and stuff, it turns out when you pay them, they give you a lot more data. And so, those reports are really valuable.

I often would argue that sometimes you want to do the paid social, not even so much for the results of the paid social, but for the data that they offer you. And I think that’s true even on the Google AdWords. Even if you just spend $100 or do one of their freebies—buy $150, they give you $150 free, which they send out about four times a month—if you do that, sometimes it’s as much discovery for your organic as it is the actual clicks you’re paying for.

So, that’s a valuable thing you can use to understand how you can improve your organic social—or organic SEO by doing the paid just to get an understanding of what’s really resonating, what’s garnering the most traffic, what’s getting clicks. Using the paid to improve your organic is a valuable idea as well.

Mariah: Absolutely. John, this has been enlightening as always. Thank you so much for your recommendations. And thank you so much for your time today. We really appreciate it.

John: Thanks for having me. It was a lot of fun.

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