Meeting enrollment goals remains a challenge in today’s higher education market. A smaller high school population that has naturally led to fewer prospective students coupled with increasing price sensitivity has forced many institutions to decide between missing their enrollment numbers or significantly discounting tuition to fill their incoming class.

For higher education marketers, the challenge is driving more prospective student inquiries with the same amount (or even less) budget than last year. While traditional approaches might call for buying more names and increasing direct-mail efforts, the reality is there are likely more than enough prospective students already considering your school and actively spending time on your website. While some of these students may end up applying — often as stealth applicants — many are never compelled to take that initial step of engaging with your institution.

The key is to make the most of your existing web traffic and maximize opportunities for students to raise their hand and identify themselves as prospects. Your website or landing pages need to offer a positive, differentiated and enticing user experience. To measure effectiveness and constantly improve performance, website conversion rate optimization (CRO) testing (also known as split testing or multivariate testing) should be actively employed as a key part of your enrollment growth strategy.

Wait …What is CRO?

Conversion rate optimization (CRO) is a method of analyzing data and user research to improve the performance of your website or landing pages through A/B testing. In basic practice, it means sending 50% of your website traffic to your current webpage and the other 50% to a new test variation to see which performs better. The idea is to systematically conduct experiments on your website and gather statistically significant data to learn how you can convert more of your current site visitors to into active inquiries.

Here are five tips for optimizing your website and creating an engaging online experience that supports enrollment goals.

1. Create a message match to comfort visitors.

Message match is a measurement of how well your copy headlines and calls-to-action within any of your paid digital advertisement assets match the headlines and copy within your website or landing pages. Maintaining that “message scent” is critical — it tells students they are in the right place and creates a sense of comfort that encourages them to take the next step in their journey.

Get started: Complete an audit of your digital media advertising, including digital advertising copy and display ads. Then, compare the copy to the messaging featured on the website or landing pages for those assets. If the “scent” isn’t being carried all the way through, there is an opportunity to optimize the experience for consistency.

2. Stand out with a unique value proposition.

Your unique value proposition (UVP) is a statement that describes the benefits of your degree offerings, how it meets the needs of your target student, and what distinguishes you from other schools. Utilizing a UVP within your homepage and each unique landing page on your site can encourage visitors to take the next step to learn more about your institution. Did you know that studies have shown that you have less than 10 seconds to convince visitors to stay on your webpage? Featuring a UVP in a front and center position is a great way to gain the student’s attention and help them see why they should stop and consider your institution — as opposed to navigating onto the next school in their consideration set.

Get started: Conduct a few rounds of user testing by sending anonymous visitors your homepage, a couple of landing pages, and those of a few similar institutions. Ask users if they understand the UVP of each page, which they prefer, and why. Then, start to refine your UVP by testing new, different messaging across your web properties to see which message performs best.

3. Focus user attention on the most important call to action.

Have you ever heard the expression, “Don’t make me think”? It’s a great concept to remember when creating user experiences on your website. Far too often, we see websites and landing pages featuring multiple, prominent calls to action that confuse and frustrate visitors.

Selecting the single most appropriate action for students to take on that page is crucial – whether it be requesting more information or filling out an application. Make sure the task you want visitors to take is clear in order to keep their attention on that task.

Get started: Review the primary goals of your landing pages to determine the action you want users to take. Most often, that will be the goal that provides you with the highest ROI, such as a request for more information or an application submission. Then, track the performance of each page based on its ability to effectively compel prospects to take the intended action.

4. Ease concerns and stimulate confidence with trust indicators.

Social proof is a powerful influence in our digital world today. From Amazon to Yelp, its ability to impact and influence consumer actions is remarkable. This is why student testimonials and third-party validation elements on your website are so powerful in recruitment marketing.

Student testimonials are valuable supporting content. When prospects are able to relate to the experience of someone similar to themselves, it’s much easier for them to trust you. Placing testimonials on your website can encourage prospects to take the next step in the student journey and engage with your enrollment team.

Using third-party validation by showcasing partnerships, accreditations, affiliations, etc. is also a tremendous way to promote trust and authority in your brand. These indicators promote a sense of security, confidence and legitimacy in what you’re offering. The more recognizable these third-party validations are, the better.

Get started: Start making a list of all of your institution’s school- and programmatic-level third-party validations. Then, start to identify how you can begin to sprinkle them onto key pages of your website to help promote authority and confidence. Also, be on the lookout for opportunities to collect student testimonials, which you can use now or in the future. Creating an archive of testimonials allows you to infuse them into your website content as needed.

5. Test often to find improvements.

From headline copy and button color to forms and site-wide navigation, nearly every element on your website can be tested against a variation to determine which leads to an increase in conversions. By constantly testing, you can quickly determine the best way to make smart, data-driven changes to your website that will help you drive more conversions. Even if a challenger test loses, which happens from time to time, you can still learn from it. It’s a smart way to continue updating and improving your website without a major redesign project.

Get started: Start by identifying the most heavily trafficked page on your website and take a deep look into the performance analytics. Look at bounce rate, time on page and user behavior paths in your analytics platform to gather initial insights. We’d even recommend conducting some user testing surveys and heat-mapping exercises to help you generate ideas worth testing. Just make sure you are always testing. And remember, while some changes may lead to significant increases in performance, others may not. That’s why, whenever possible, you should always test first.

The final word

While CRO testing may be an efficient way to drive lifts in website performance, it certainly isn’t the only way. Website optimization and testing must be included as part of your overall enrollment growth strategy. By developing the capabilities for testing and promoting a culture of entrepreneurship and experimentation, your institution can find new, measurable ways to drive enrollment growth.