March 24, 2016
Case Study

B2C Marketing: How Woodbury University used strategic branding to increase website traffic 4,000%

SUMMARY: A more competitive marketplace transformed how Woodbury University, one of Southern California's oldest education institutions, approached marketing. The team developed a cohesive branding strategy, grounded in measurement and analysis, that incorporated social media, mobile and highly targeted outbound marketing.

This strategy increased website traffic 4,000%. Furthermore, the team more than doubled campus tours, which is critical because the university's research shows that 70% of people who tour ultimately end up attending.
by Andrea Johnson, Copywriter


As a fully accredited liberal arts college offering professional degrees including business, architecture and animation, Woodbury offers 18 undergraduate majors and six graduate majors. About three-quarters of approximately 1,300 students are age 25 or younger.


Since the 1950s, the marketplace for higher-education institutions has been booming because the number of high-school graduates has been as well.

However, according to Shari Gibbons, Chief Marketing Officer, Woodbury University, in the past six years, growth has leveled off and even declined in some states.

"In an environment where higher education institutions have never had to really aggressively compete for business before, now you are seeing this very different market dynamic that's requiring us to do so," she said.

She pointed out that most colleges believe, "if you build it they will come."

"There was sort of this academic view that, 'Oh, we really don't need to market ourselves because that's not necessary. We're an academic institution,'" Gibbons said. "That is no longer the case. In fact, certain schools have been absolutely crushed by a lack of good marketing and sales infrastructure."

Consequently, when new leadership arrived at Woodbury, they wanted to implement more cohesive and strategic marketing.

"As a school with a lot of design and architecture majors, we had lots of different voices out in the branding universe not only from a visual perspective but from a message perspective," Gibbons said.


The leadership responded by bringing Gibbons on board, where she moved forward with a five-step process grounded in measurement and analysis, which incorporated social media, mobile and highly targeted outbound marketing to attract more students to the university.

Step #1. Clarify your value proposition

To begin, Gibbons enlisted a branding strategy agency to unify and distill the university's value proposition.

The team interviewed more than 500 campus community members — students, alumni, faculty and staff — to help define and articulate the university's brand personality, how that fit in with what the university is today and where it will be going in the future.

This feedback, essentially from customers, was the foundation upon which they built the new brand platform, messaging and visuals.

Step #2. Embrace analytics

"We measure everything," Gibbons said.

One of the first changes Gibbons made was using Google analytics on the website, something the marketing team had never done before. From 2012 to 2013 they were creating measurement baselines for the first time, and then from 2013 to 2014 they began to build on them. The marketing team used these baselines to compare metrics like key website traffic, new visitors, page views and time spent on the website.

"We were always measuring what was working and what wasn't, and making adjustments to get the kind of results we want," Gibbons said.

Step #3. Redesign your website to engage your market

To start off, the team wanted to make the website easy to view and access on mobile devices. It was critical that the university's website could be easily accessed and viewed on mobile devices because that's what high school students use to do most of their university research.

"It's a huge percentage. Anywhere from 70% to over 90% depending on whose metrics and whose research you use," Gibbons said.

It was also critical that the website make it easy for consumers to find what they were looking for.

Students are looking for specific degree programs, explained Sabrina Taylor, Director of Marketing, Woodbury University. "We designed the website and we really focused on the user interface and the functionality to try to create an ease of navigating through the top areas that students will be researching," she said. "Their first stop is the program. They are always focused on what major they are going to study."

Also, they wanted to make the website the center of a social media hub. There was no integration with social media on the previous website. So they made all of the images easy to upload to Pinterest and included a section for student bloggers.

"[Student blogging] is very raw, it's in their voice," Gibbons said. "We find that the prospective students really listen to elements that are a little bit less polished than most people are used to in traditional marketing."

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Step #4. Coordinate social media messaging

Gibbons explained that social media at most universities is splintered and diffused.

"Everybody thinks, 'Oh, I'll just do my own Facebook pages' for student events, or what have you, for each program," she said.

Such was the case previously at Woodbury. After trying to determine how many Facebook pages the university had, Gibbons said she and her team quit counting after 32.

They consolidated the university's social media strategy by:
  • Using hashtags to create specialized conversations for each department, like architecture

  • "We started really focusing on Facebook, which is a premier social media hub even though some of the young ones are using it less than they used to. They are not going away; they are just using it differently," Gibbons said.

    View the Creative Sample

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  • Doubling alumni contacts on LinkedIn

  • "We have over 10,000 on (LinkedIn) and that doubled what we had as far as our alumni database," Taylor said.

  • Enlisting student social media ambassadors who cross-post content across social media and blogs

  • "We found that the posts that our social media ambassadors were doing get a ton more engagement than anything that's coming across as university posted," Taylor said. "Things that seem like it's coming directly from a student do much better for us on social media."

Step #5. Leverage highly targeted outbound digital marketing

The university advertised on Internet radio station platform Pandora because it fit its budget and marketing goals. It enabled the university to put its brand messaging directly in front of key audiences:
  • Adults ages 21 to 49 who make more than $100,000 year in the San Diego DMA for graduate programs

  • Adults ages 21-49 in Burbank/Los Angeles for MBA programs

  • Hispanic adults ages 13-24 for undergraduate degrees

Moreover, the team could closely track response and measure success because the station had baseline metrics in their industry. This was important for both marketing measurement and political damage control.

"We have design professionals on our faculty who are … very, very opinionated," Gibbons said. An example of this, she said, was how the architecture team really liked muted colors. "But digital natives, the young ones under 21 and the young Millennials were by and large always responding to these very bright, multi-color set ups."

The bright, multi-color ad performed better. But the marketing team needed "very, very hardcore concrete data," Gibbons said, to have the discussion with the architecture team of what worked, what didn't and how the Internet radio station was achieving their objectives.

"It takes concrete data to be able to sell that 'Look, this is working with younger students so let's go with it, rather than let's go with what we are used to,'" Gibbons said.


It took the Woodbury University marketing team about six months to finalize the new brand platform, message, and visuals. That was launched in the summer of 2014. They took the next 12 months to create the visual and digital collateral element. The culmination of that effort was the internet radio campaign.

Today Woodbury University has:
  • More than 76,000 Facebook followers. In comparison, a quick Facebook review of similar colleges showed between 10,000 and 20,000 Facebook followers.

  • Nearly 5,000 followers on Instagram.

  • Increased new website visitors from 15,000 to more than 37,000.

  • Increased visitors to the tour page by 4,000%.

  • Doubled the number of university tours from approximately 15 to 30 per month; at the peak of the Internet radio campaign, they were doing 70 a month.

Creative Samples

  1. Student blog

  2. Facebook page


Woodbury University

Dartlet — Branding strategy agency

Pandora — Internet radio station

Related Resources

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Leads tripled, conversions doubled with revamped Web content (from the MarketingSherpa Member Archives)

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