The SDA Blog brings you our take on all the latest marketing trends, opportunities, strategy and tactics for higher ed recruitment, institutional marketing and technology products. Stay tuned as we bring you our best commentary on the world of digital (and other) marketing, emerging technology and their impact on the world of higher education, learning technology and institutional marketing.

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How to Build a Chatbot for Higher Education Recruitment

Back in November 2019, I did a presentation at the Strategic Enrolment Marketing & Management Forum 2019 Conference (SEMM 2019) in Toronto, entitled “How to Build a Chatbot for Higher Education Recruitment”.

It has been up on Slideshare for a while but I’ve had a couple of requests for it recently. I thought I would put it here as well, to make it a bit easier for people to find.

This presentation is based on my experience building (and maintaining) a chatbot for George Brown College on the PLC Technician Certificate Program website.

The outline of the presentation is:

  1.  Marketing Context
  2.  Chatbot Basics
  3.  How to Build a Chatbot
  4.  Patterns of Use
  5.  Marketing & Recruitment Outcomes

The presentation tells the story of how the chatbot was developed, implemented, maintained, used, and ultimately evaluated against its original objectives. Marketing Context describes the context in which the chatbot was developed, including information about the original site, traffic levels, and what the overall marketing mix was for the program in which it was introduced. Chatbot Basics provides a very simple primer on chatbots. It introduces the basics of how they operate and the range of possible chatbots that were considered. How to Build a Chatbot describes the process that we went through to create the structure and the content for it. We used the Instabot chatbot platform, including DialogFlow, Google’s Chatbot AI system. Patterns of Use breaks down visitor usage of the chatbot over about a 9 month period, including Instabot analytics, DialogFlow analytics, and Google Analytics. Marketing and Recruitment Outcomes provide a summary of the specific goals we had and related outcomes for the project over this period.

Event Tracking

The presentation is now over 8 months old but I think the narrative of the experience, insights, and advice on how to do it yourself, are still quite relevant.

I do hope you find this useful.


Scott Duncan



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Seven Things to Consider When Spending Your Surprise Year-End Budget Surplus on Google Ads

Many college and university higher ed marketers work with a December 31st year-end and are now looking at wrapping up their 2018 budgets. If you are lucky enough to have a bit of unspent money, (or maybe you’ve been given someone else’s leftover money) and you have to spend it in 2018, you are likely scrambling to figure out where to place it to most positively impact your marketing, leads generation and revenues.


One good candidate for last minute budget spend is Google Ads, (formerly know as Adwords), pay-per-click advertising.

It would seem pretty straight forward, at least in principle, to just bump up the budgets on your existing campaigns. But as usual, to do it well, it’s actually a bit more complicated than that.

If considering spending your surplus on PPC, here are seven important things to consider:

  1. This will sound way too simple to even mention but it is important. It is really important. Make sure you understand the performance of your existing campaigns. Don’t assume, don’t rely on others to do the work on this for you. If you don’t know definitively where your best performance is coming from, (ie by keywords, which ads, by cost metrics, by geography, by type ie remarketing, etc) you must spend some quality time reviewing the numbers to get caught up. Then proceed. The ROI of your surprise budget investment depends on it!
  2. Next, determine if the high ROI campaigns have any headroom to take on increased budget. A lot of people believe they can just add money in and your campaigns with scale up accordingly. That may or may not work. Google is very good at nudging you along to spend more money in a campaign if there is sufficient traffic and click thru. You may already be “maxed” out in terms of headroom to expand efficiently. If this is the case you will need to develop alternative tactics on where and how to direct the spend.
  3. To simplify and/or optimize your campaigns, your agency or a staffer may have things set up with your campaigns so that your bidding is run by Google Ads AI and machine learning algorithms.  The growing consensus from the Adwords pros is that the Google Ads AI now performs at least as well or better than the average human PPC specialist. (Check out this video if you are interested in more on Google AI bidding.) If that is the case be aware that the Google Ads algorithm may simply not cooperate with you to spend this extras budget in the short term. The AI operates “in your best interests” and if it decides it can’t optimize your increased budget, according to its rules, it simply won’t spend it until it it figures out how to do it cost effectively.
  4. Or, assuming you are controlling your campaigns manually, you will be trying to optimize the spend to get the max ROI. That probably means you’ll have a target CPC (Cost per Click ), a target CPA, ( Cost per Action ) and a target CTS  (Conversion To Student ) rate in mind for your typical search campaigns that if you can hit, will work for you. If you can put your new budget into new retargeting campaigns that’s probably a great investment, retargeting typically produces strong results, often better than search campaigns. Alternatively, you may be limited to expanding into display, (aka content network), campaigns. Be very careful with display campaigns. They have their place, typically running at lower CPCs, lower CPAs, but CTS rate can be very low. I personally have had very little success turning display generated leads into students. I would stay away from display if at all possible.
  5. Don’t forget about the effect of seasonality in PPC advertising. December typically has lower search volumes so the traffic pool is smaller that the average month. This is another reason why there may not be a lot of headroom to add budget to your campaigns. But the good news is that December is also generally less competitive because many, if not most, higher ed institutions believe that it is a less optimal time to advertise. My experience with using Google Ads PPC in December has been the opposite. Yes, activity levels and lead production overall can drop but the good news is that the lead quality (or likelihood to convert to student) are higher. I am not sure exactly why this is but my read on it is that people who are looking in December are generally more serious about getting started at something, soon.
  6. Check to see if your campaigns include Google Search Partners, (for more info on Search Partners check out this post). They offer a way to increase your search volume, and potential lead volume but recognize that they also typically convert at a lower rate than Google search generated leads.
  7. So, lets assume your additional spend has been a great success and generated a whole bunch of new leads and hopefully even a few registrations. Now you have to followup the leads and convert them. Your lead followup system must be able to scale up accordingly to handle this increased volume of opportunity. Make sure you plan for this “good-to-have” problem, and maintain your highest standard of followup (ie response time) or your normal conversion to student rates may be in jeopardy.

Please don’t get me wrong from all the hedging above. I am actually a really big fan of Google Ads based PPC lead generation. It works well, if based on well thought out campaign strategy, tactics and execution. The risk is that the channels and tactics that often end up being used in this add-on budget kind of scenario typically produce leads of lower quality. Just be careful to proceed with caution, not to over-promise results, and you’ll likely be happy with the outcome.

From your experience, would you add any other considerations to this list? Or would you default to a completely different marketing channel or tactic?

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Six Great Podcasts for Higher Ed Marketers

Podcasts are an excellent tool to help keep you current in today’s rapidly changing world of higher education marketing. This post will share some basic background on podcasts for beginners and provide my top six podcasts for higher ed marketers recommendations for you to check out and get started.

I discovered podcasts a few years ago. Since then, they have become a critical piece of my personal approach on how to manage the internet “information fire hose” and keep up-to-date on how to build the best marketing solutions for the fields of marketing, higher education and technology. Even though podcasts are certainly not new, I am always amazed at how many of my time stressed colleagues have not considered using them as an information and learning resource. Recent stats report, that only about 44% of people currently listen to podcasts. If you are already into podcasts, skip down a couple of paragraphs to get to my specific podcast recommendations. If you need a bit more help getting started, read on.

The value proposition of podcasts is pretty simple. Podcasts allow you to capture, time shift and then consume really thoughtful and detailed content. It ranges from research, discussion and analysis of pretty much any and every topic you are interested in. ….And trust me, there are podcasts about everything!

Pocket Casts Podcast Reader

Once you start listening to podcasts, your personal commute, your workout, walking the dog or even cleaning the house will never be the same again. Personally, they’ve had their biggest impact in my life over my 1 ½ hour commutes in and out of the very busy city of Toronto. Over the course of any given week, I will typically listen to up to 12 hours of precisely curated podcast content. Most of it is for professional development but I do slip in a few shows purely for entertainment as well. On some days that feels like a lot of listening but mostly I am left with the feeling that I have been given keys to kingdom and want more.

But back to the details at hand for those of you who are not using them yet. It is very simple to get started with podcasts. First step is to download a podcast reader to your smart phone. If you are looking for a recommendation on a podcast reader, I personally like Pocket Casts or Podbean. Pick one and go for it. Once it’s installed, start searching for podcasts about your interests and start downloading them.


If you need more help on how to do this, here’s a primer on setting up a reader and listening to podcasts .

The following are my six favourite go-to podcasts.

Three cover the general world of marketing for higher ed (marketing, recruitment, and admissions) and three are from the more specialized and technical side of digital marketing. I recommend you give them all a listen and that at least one will resonate with you. I think they’re all really quite good.

Higher Education Marketing Podcasts

1) Highered Live 
Produced by mstoner in Chicago, Highered Live is a particularly impressive enterprise of podcast content production. It has “sub-channels” for admissions, student affairs and marketing, and is nearing its’ 500th episode. It includes great interviews, panels and discussions of practicing higher ed professionals with lots of useful business and marketing strategy, tactics and insight.

2) Enrolment Growth University
From Helix Education in Denver, this podcast covers a wide range of topics from web, branding, marketing, recruitment to admissions with a focus on enrollment growth. I like the organic feel to this one, with lots of grassroots examples on which to model your strategy and tactics.

3) Hashtag Higher Ed
From ecityinteractive in Philadelphia, this podcast covers a wide berth of higher ed marketing topics similar to the above but with a bit more emphasis on admissions and alumni marketing. Not quite as well established as the others but producing some good stuff.

Digital Marketing Podcasts

4) Digital Marketing Podcast
From Target Internet in the UK, this is one of my favourite digital marketing podcasts. I genuinely look forward to it every week. They produce a wide range of excellent materials, including blog, podcast, and public and corporate training courses in digital marketing.

5) Social Media Marketing with Michael Stelzner
From Social Media Examiner, Poway, California, this powerhouse shop is the go to place for all things social media. Their conference, blog, podcasts and live video shows are all excellent and will keep you coming back. Micheal Stelzner’s podcast is usually a deeper dive into one main topic with a guest. The Social Media Marketing Talk Show provides late breaking news from across all social media. I follow both and recommend you do to.

6) Perpetual Traffic was very early in the digital marketing game, around since 2003. They run an excellent podcast covering the gamit of topics in search engine marketing, social, PR and content marketing. I particularly like their audits of sites and campaigns, where they provide a useful analysis of strategy and tactics used and identify strengths and weaknesses of the creative.

So that’s my top six list.

If you are still skeptical about the value of listening to podcasts, check out a couple of these for a week or two and I guarantee you will be hooked. Of course this list only scratches the surface of the many great resources out there, so start digging and you are sure to find a lot more gold.

Please let me know what your favourite podcasts are, in the comments section below. I will give them a listen and assuming I agree, get them on to my list of best podcast resources. Thanks.

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It’s Time to Get Back in the Saddle Again and Blog

After a sabbatical of about two years, its time for me to get back in the saddle and start to blog again.

It is not important why I stopped, only to say that I had some personal circumstances that I needed to focus on and really needed a break from the Sisyphusian grind of a regular blog deadline. I had been blogging for my friend Phil Taza, at Higher Education Marketing in Montreal. We posted on a weekly basis for about 3 years, all about digital recruitment marketing in higher ed. I had the chance to polish my skills in blogging and we produced some pretty good content. Most of those posts are still up on their blog and remain relevant, though a bit dated. Working with Phil was a great experience for me. He is a true ninja master of google analytics and I learned a lot from him. I recommend him highly to anyone looking for an agency to market their school.

Blogging is hard work. If you stop regularly writing and publishing it can be very challenging to get back into the saddle. But I’ve had my break and it is time to get back to work. My plan is to post twice a month and work myself up a more frequent schedule. We’ll start slow and see where things lead.

What is the goal of this blog?

The goal of this blog is to help marketers make sense of the relentlessly changing world of digital marketing in the higher education marketplace.  We’ll cover lots of topics for recruitment marketing, where I focus much of my current consulting work. We’ll also examine new ed tech products and services and discuss the evolving digital marketing technologies we use to market and sell them. In short, we’ll cover the intersection of digital marketing, higher education, and technology.

My guiding principle for marketing in this complex and rapidly evolving environment is that the fundamental rules of the effective marketing do not change. It’s finding the right formula for the application of these rules, in the context of today’s complex digital marketing ecosystem, that’s the real challenge.

In these times, we have all had to become students in a fickle vocation, always chasing currency and competency, let alone mastery. But I am happy with that; I love learning the new technology and exploring its untested potential. And then there are the moments when I hate it, but those feelings only lasts a little while. Mostly, I am motivated by the challenge of it.

First understanding, then determining its potential through the lens of the higher ed environment and then applying it to produce the best possible business outcomes. I don’t claim to know or understand all its nuances but then who can? These days it takes a channel specialist to keep up with the all the specific changes in things like Adwords and Facebook.  I do know I am reasonably skilled at figuring out what I need to know and then explaining it in a way that can be useful to other marketers.

What specific topics will we blog about?

Primarily, this blog will cover a range of digital marketing and higher ed topics like,

  • Digital marketing strategy, tools and tactics
  • Branding and web development
  • SEO, PPC and content marketing
  • Recruitment marketing
  • Social media marketing

But I also plan to get back to my roots a bit and explore more emerging tech that I’m interested in. Over the years I have worked with a lot of people and companies on the leading edge of higher ed tech. I really love that space.  So, I plan to explore more of these, including,

  • Online and distance learning products and services
  • Augmented and virtual reality for teaching and training
  • Artificial intelligence (AI), voice, and blockchain in higher ed
  • Higher ed start-ups

So that’s the plan. I hope it sounds interesting and that you will return and join me to explore these topics with me. I look forward to hearing your feedback.

Scott Duncan