In many respects, the modern world is post-Internet. In the Western world at least, it is universally adopted and impossible to sever. For businesses, the Internet is yet another hallmark of modernity, digitising and automating traditional brick and mortar shopfronts. We shop online and we buy online. In the Internet’s wake, there are virtual scrap-heaps of businesses and industries that failed to innovate in time. Businesses and industries that fundamentally underestimated the magnitude of the digital upheaval about to take place.
Which begs the question: is your online presence up to scratch? Is your online shopfront sufficiently illuminated to stand out from the crowd?
It better be. The VET sector, like many others, is competitive. In Australia alone, there are approximately 5000 RTOs competing over a student pool hovering around the 4.5 million mark. Geography no longer plays the decisive role it used to either. Many RTOs accordingly deliver their training online or have campuses located in multiple population hubs. Students can literally be enrolled from around the globe. For RTOs to compete, students need to find them online and do so without difficulty.
This month, we’re focusing on some of the technological strategies that RTOs and companies must employ to make sure their shopfronts are illuminated on the world wide web. But first, we’re going to have an entertaining look back at some of the companies that didn’t plan for the future.
II. Blockbusted: How Internet Killed the Video Store
Remember the luminescent blue of your neighbourhood Blockbuster Video? That franchise’s practice of charging ‘late fees’ was so entrenched, that in the year 2000 alone, they netted $800 million in late fees from their customers. The following year, they declined an opportunity to buy a new emerging company called ‘Netflix’ for $20 million, opting instead to develop their own streaming company with a bigger, seemingly invincible company called Enron.
It wasn’t until 2005 that Blockbuster hurriedly implemented a ‘no late fee’ policy, but by that time the technological limitations of Blockbuster’s physical service delivery had more than caught up with them. By 2010, the company was worth a paltry $24 million and posted losses of $1.1 billion. Needless to say, you’d be lucky to spot one of the few remaining stores in Australia on your daily commute. (Editor: But if you did, you could rent a copy of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, plotting the parallel demise of that particular company).
Blockbusters’ slow reaction time reflects a common pitfall of businesses adapting to changing technological landscapes; namely, they focus on the wrong metric to evaluate the value of their business. Metrics are quantifiable measures that are used to pinpoint, and measure the status of a specific business feature. On the face of it, late fees seemed a natural, inalienable source of revenue for Blockbusters’ bottom line. But in reality, imposing late fees on customers had a deleterious effect on customer loyalty to the Blockbuster brand and incentivised its customers to find cheaper, less punitive alternatives.
Part of the dilemma for companies in the modern era is understanding what metric to focus their efforts on improving. It’s not uncommon for factionalism to arise; different sectors of the business focus on different metrics that pull away from each other, or deliver different sets of data that don’t correlate in meaningful ways. The sales division will focus on quantifiable metrics that track to financial results. The marketing division looks at metrics that are much harder to track — prospects, incremental sales, inbound phone calls, and social media interactions.
There is of course one metric that no team — marketing or otherwise — can ever risk ignoring. And that is, of course, Internet traffic.
III. Optimising Your Search Efforts
The overwhelming prevalence of Internet competitors — particularly in the VET industry — makes establishing an online profile a difficult task to muster. Just how exactly does one direct prospective students to their website over the competition?
Answering this question has been a central concern of marketers since Google launched twenty years ago. In those early days, companies could fill their websites full of keywords, tag their pages excessively, and include fake links to generate higher rankings in search results pages. This was the first permutation of what would come to be known as ‘Search Engine Optimisation’ (or SEO for short) — the process of affecting the ranking of a website (it’s ‘domain authority’) in search engine unpaid results.
Why is SEO important? The stats speak for themselves. 33 per cent of users will click on the first website listed in a search term. 75 per cent of users will never scroll past the first page of search results, so if a companies’ best SEO result is a second-page listing, they’ve just had their potential market cut down by three quarters.
By 2003, in line with their ‘Don’t Be Evil’ corporate ethos, Google introduced algorithmic programs that penalised and de-ranked websites engaged in unethical SEO practice. In 2010, Google redoubled its efforts, introducing major updates to algorithms that enforce even stricter regulations on keyword, content-stuffing, and over-optimisation.
IV. A Bʀᴀᴠᴇ Nᴇᴡ Uɴɪǫᴜᴇ Cᴏɴᴛᴇɴᴛ Wᴏʀʟᴅ
The result was the Internet we know today. Marketers must produce unique and sharable content focused on users in order in order to beat the competition in search results pages. The good news is that genuine, informative businesses will feature in user search results. The bad news is there are less shortcuts. SEO is still important — but you’ve got to produce more baseline valuable content in the first place.
For paid results, programs like Google’s AdWords will leverage marketing expenditure against search engine results. Essentially, AdWords is an online advertising marketplace for keywords themselves, where advertisers bid on certain keywords in order to optimise their clickable ads to appear in Google search results.
Unfortunately, much of the techniques and terminology of SEO and AdWords (to name but a few) are far from intuitive. Exploiters of these technologies must be across metrics like the Quality Score, or the cost per click metric — in order to derive value from a marketing investment. Many companies may find value investing in expert marketing consultants to optimise their strategy (Editor: see our interview with Adam Cunningham from enrolmentLAB in this edition).
IV. Following the Sun
How do training organisations stay ahead of SEO so as to avoid a fate similar to Blockbuster Video? The first thing they need to do is make sure their website is accessible to users across all digital platforms. Mobile Internet searches actually surpassed desktop searches for the first time in 2016, and websites lacking mobile optimisation have been found to be losing search visibility on Google. It is therefore vital that trainers consider the way in which prospective students access the digital shopfront.
Fairfax Media Limited considered this very issue at the start of the decade. Just like newspapers all around the world, The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, and the Canberra Times were all dwindling in hardcopy sales. Online editions were being widely accessed, but advertising revenue had fallen massively. In February 2012, the newspaper group reported a 41 per cent fall in net profit in the last six months alone.
Looking to meet the challenges of the new digital era, Fairfax implemented a new digital strategy that CEO Jack Matthews called the ‘Follow the Sun Model’, whereby content would be delivered across different technological platforms in accordance with recordable metrics of when readers were most likely to be using that technological platform. So content designed for a particular medium, such as the iPad, would be delivered at a time when the most people were perceived to be using that medium to access the news. This ‘targeted marketing’ — the first element of any marketing strategy — was a good example of a traditional business model overhauling key systems of delivery to respond to preferences of consumers on the Internet.
Similarly, maintaining a strong and consistent brand presence across all digital channels will be vital for continuing business success in 2017 and beyond. The presence, development and accessibility of mobile apps, and their integration with your website, will no doubt also play a role in optimising your search content. At all times, training companies must consider the path of inevitable technological development across different, portable technologies. And don’t stop there. If your business is accessible by desktop and mobile device searches, consider whether it also needs to be searchable via voice-related technologies.
The goal is maintaining a shopfront that is illuminated throughout the day, from a variety of different perspectives. It must be open and accessible for business twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
And late fees are probably a bad idea.
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