The Recruitment Long Tail

Posted by Brad J. Ward | Posted in Concepts, Higher Education, Recruitment, Research, Technology, Web | Posted on 03-05-2008


I’ve been sifting through about 4 months of Google Analytics, and I see some correlations to ‘The Long Tail’. (Note: if you haven’t read The Long Tail by Chris Anderson, go buy it now.)

When I read the book over winter break, it made total sense, and the book showed great examples. Then I got back to work and I’ve been struggling with how to look at the long tail and apply it to my work. At first I felt like I was just trying to make it fit, so I continued to ignore it. But every time I look at data, it pops back up. It’s not a thought. It’s not a pretty graph. It’s not fluff. It’s real, and it’s happening.

Here’s the main thing I see:
the conversation is in the long tail.

On one hand you have the bulk of the site (the head): endless pages of information about BU, why you should apply, majors we offer, etc. Then you have the other side (the long tail): the Butler Bloggers, BUForums, and photos (I’ll refer to this as /cs).

Let’s dig into some numbers. From October 4-March 4, there have been 297,793 pageviews on I have subtracted the Go homepage (~110,000), because many people in the office have this set as their homepage. Of these 297,793 pageviews, 74,378 come from the /cs area (24.97%). 25%. Is that significant for a section that was just released this year? I’m not sure, because there is no analytical data from before I was here.

But that’s where ‘the long tail’ comes in.
That first 75%? 223415 pageviews on 560 pages, with an average of 399.67 page views.
The other 25% 74,378 pageviews on 3,425 pages, with an average of 21.71 page views.

Here’s what you would hear in the old economy and way of doing business: “Why so many pages in that 25%? 86% of the site is only drawing 25% of our traffic? That’s absurd! Cut that area of the site, it’s a waste of time.”

However, in the new world of social media, that’s where the conversation is happening. Blog post = new page. Forum Post = new page. Forum response = new page. Tagging information = new page. User-created, user-driven, user-focused. What if no one was participating in the conversation? There would be fewer pages.

I view it as this: as participation in a community increases, so does content and engagement. Sounds like a no-brainer, but I’ve seen it time and time again, from my days as an RA up through the BUForums. If students are posting in our forums, other students will post and there could be 50+ posts over the weekend. If no one is posting, others will not engage in the conversation.

Get rid of the long tail and take out the conversation, and what do you have? A 1-way conversation, a static website that offers little benefit to the reader. You’re talking to them and there is no connection between your school and the visitor.

A website with static information. A one-stop shop for some quick facts. Zero engagement or community. Which do you want to be a part of?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. I’m obviously still processing the concepts in my mind.

Comments posted (11)

Excellent article. I’ve been making the point for a long time that people put too much emphasis on the home page. For one of my primary sites, 13.8% of visitors started at the home page, and only 19.8% ever saw the home page. So much for the effectiveness of putting news and announcements only on the home page! This trend will only continue as RSS allows visitors to consume content without ever visiting the site.

Bottom line – the whole site matters. And your idea is right on, the conversation is in the Long Tail.

Really nice post Brad. The Long Tail… rings fresh because I recently read a post over on SEOmoz about it in relation to Search Engine Keyword Demand.

Basically it comes to some of the same conclusions just in a different area. There is so much to gain by developing the tail. What makes developing the tail so difficult is because there is so much more to develop and we tend to loose interest because it doesn’t bring in the majority of the traffic, hits, visitors, dollars, or whatever your measuring.

Good post. I would certainly prefer being part of a community. I have been looking for information that answers “why” this is a good thing for education institutions. Have you been able to quantify what building a “long tail” has done at Butler? Has there been an increase in applications, conversion, retention, or fund raising gifts? It seems obvious to me that creating engaged conversations with students (prospective, current or graduates) can have a larger impact than traditional advertising or glossy brochures. The “old economy” mindset is still very prevalent in academia. I support your efforts to change these perceptions.

Steve – I think it’s too early to quantify still, and it certainly won’t be easy. There is definitely an increase in applications and deposits (~30%), but I can’t take credit or say that it’s all because of social media efforts. Everyone in the office is doing their part to raise our numbers.

I do believe, however, that ‘the long tail’ is building community between the university and prospective students, as well as between future and current students, and the effect that has on yielding is extremely beneficial. In fact, we AREN’T doing any yielding activities this year and are shutting down ’08 apps because our class is overflowing. It’s a good situation to be in, and I think we can then use social media to strengthen those relationships with accepted students so that we don’t experience a large amount of melt with the class and can expect another record year for the entering fall class.

Kyle – thanks for sharing the link, that was a good look at it also. I would agree that some tend to lose interest in the tail.

Mark – Interesting thought on the RSS trend, and it makes total sense. I think that is where Facebook is struggling to relinquish control and open RSS to users, since so much (all?) of their revenue comes from advertising.

Social media… engagement… yes, definitely important in recruiting, particularly at the level of yield efforts.

(And though I’ve been in interactive recruiting for years, static/one-way info drives the overwhelming majority of applications. Even student blogs are overwhelmingly static, when you think about it.)

Limited time… limited resources… yes, fairly common in Admissions and Web Offices.

So, where do you focus the efforts? Where the efforts will be most effective.

If your stats reveal people are drilling for majors (from your Admissions pages or elsewhere), do you link to info about majors? If so, is it to departmental/academic speak pages, or something more marketing/recruiting oriented?

If your stats reveal people are drilling for tuition info (particularly true at private colleges), do you simply list tuition, or include well-thought-out, concise info on availability of financial aid and links to scholarship info. And how well-written/organized is that scholarship info?

It would be virtually impossible to rewrite or even review all pages on the long tail. It is even tough to tell what would be more popular/effective if placed more prominently. But with stats it is possible to prioritize efforts where it will have the greatest impact, and test the popularity of featured topics.

By volume, some of the greatest impact can be made closer to the head. Most views = greatest impact.

It’s easy to get buried in Web stats. As you said, it is not a pretty graph. Toss something like CrazyEgg tracking on the popular pages and it is a pretty graph for that specific page, and that is very actionable information. Exclude on-campus IP addresses when tracking, as it quickly skews data.

Where social media and the conversation can be extremely useful (besides yield efforts) is in finding details in the long tail of Web pages or not even showing up in the long tail that are important enough to a large enough group of students to add that info to the recruiting conversation.

For instance (I’ll give this one away no charge ;) ), how many Admissions Web sites and publications talk about nearby brand name restaurants (Noodles & Company, Starbucks, Qdoba, etc.) or the massive Barnes & Noble down the street? And I do mean in specifics, not “a wide range of restaurants…all that a big city has to offer… etc.”

I discovered the restaurant gem on an admitted student forum I ran a few years back (it was a runaway topic), and incorporated it into recruiting. And it has since driven applications and deposits based on unsolicited feedback.

Another example would be the question “what is the guy/girl ratio” – obviously that won’t be an extensive conversation, but it is a simple addition to a profile/stats Web page, publications, etc., if it was previously overlooked.

The Butler Class of 2012 Facebook group (yes, I know there is an “official” Butler forum) doesn’t have much activity (yet), but it is interesting to note that “Where’s everyone from?” is the most popular spontaneous discussion topic. The question then becomes, what do you do with that info? (I could write a post equally long to this one with my thoughts on that.)

Excellent post Brad – not just because it was the one that triggered me to find squaredpeg – an action which in itself is a perfect example of the long tail in practice.

Think about this for a moment, I would never have found this site unless my RSS feed had shown me a headline about “Long Tail marketing” that I’d found interesting enough to click on. However once I’ve made that leap and read the full article curiosity gets the better of me and I start reading more, and more and more so by the end of the evening I’ve spent over two hours on the site as I’ve never found any other site that matches my professional interests so closely. In case you’re interested I recruit distance learning students for a fairly large/old/prestigious university.

Now OK maybe I don’t fall in to the average Butler student demographic (I’m mid thirties, married with two kids and based in England) but think about potential students and how they first interact or find out about your institution in an online environment as their process and mine in finding this site may not be that different (and as Mark says this is only likely to increase with time).

I’ll not go on, other than to say that like Brad I see power distributions everywhere and think Long Tail could be one of the most important concepts for the future of education marketing, e.g. think about recruiting for diversity or simply trying to get in to a potential student’s awareness set.

And finally, in the spirit of keeping the conversation going as I’ve enjoyed reading the comments here as much as the original post. I’d be interested to hear what people, especially Rob S and Brad, think about the idea that it’s the visit to the website that is the conversation and people looking at the static part of the sites are just listening.

Brendan – hello from the other side of the pond! Glad that you found us here at SquaredPeg. :) That is a pretty neat story of how you found the blog, I hope you found what you read useful!

That’s a great thought on how students ‘find’ the University, and that’s what I’m experimenting with right now. For example, if I can create a compelling video on YouTube, could it possibly draw the student to our site? If we have a Facebook presence and they like what they see, will that be enough for them to seek more information? At what point will they decide to make the leap from social network to ‘the head’ of the information?

I also like your idea of the static part being the ‘listening’ stage. We certainly do our fair share of talking on that stage. To take it a step further…. at what point will students STOP listening? I think we’re starting to see a shift in this mindset with millenials in the US, but wouldn’t think students from England would be that far off either.

Just talking about all of this gets me pretty excited about the next few years of recruiting. :)

Thanks for the welcome Brad, and yes there’s some really useful stuff here. I think the site reflects incredibly well on Butler (a university that was previously well outside my awareness set).

Good luck with the YouTube video and Facebook presence. Compelling is always so much more difficult than it sounds ;-)

I don’t know about you – but I for one don’t care if a potential student doesn’t make the leap to the head of the information – as long as they convert or their encounter is more than passing and leaves them with a good positive impression of my institution or one of our courses.

I don’t care if they don’t listen to me because, even though I’m a marketing professional and I know to sell the benefits of our courses, I’m still trying to sell and I know that this will only do so much. I’m not always going to be believed or listened to. This is why I think enabling the social network and feeding it the right stories is so important, and it’s why I think we should expect potential students to utilise non-official sources.

Exciting times indeed….

Hi Brad

This brought to mind one of my recent roles within a Global B2B publishing house with job boards in 20+ industries.

Within each of their publications was a job board and CV upload facility allowing them to aggregate and present massive amounts of content.

What interested me about their business model was how their profit margins come from the subscriptions paid by recruitment consultants, champions of the “Conversation” factor in your model above.

Their key strategy for moving down the tail was syndicating content across industries (i.e sharing electronics jobs across the construction and aerospace job boards). Doing this successfully needed even more human interaction to ensure the content was actually hitting the mark.



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