The Flutie Effect, March Madness, and Capitalizing on a Surge of Traffic to Your Admissions Website

Late in November 1984, in a football game that featured the 10th ranked Boston College Eagles and the 12th ranked, and defending national champion, Miami Hurricanes, Doug Flutie became a household name. Boston College (BC) trailed 45-41 with six seconds left, when Flutie, measuring only 5’ 9” and facing heavy winds and rain, unleashed a 63-yard Hail Mary pass for the end zone. The ball miraculously sailed past the Hurricane defense and into the lap of Boston College wide receiver Gerard Phelan. The touchdown gave Boston College a 47-45 victory, made national headlines in a time before 24/7 sports networks, and propelled Flutie to the Heisman Trophy.

Depending on who you ask, the game also had tangible benefits to the Boston College admissions department. According to Bill McDonald, director of communications at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education, applications to Boston College surged 16 percent in the time-period immediately following the “Hail Flutie,” and then rose another 12 percent in 1985. The surge in applications was dubbed the “Flutie Effect.”

Boston College, of course, doesn’t necessarily believe that the rise in applications was a direct result of the Flutie Effect. According to McDonald, writing in 2003, “These jumps were not anomalous for BC, which in the previous decade had embarked on a program to build national enrollment using market research, a network of alumni volunteers, strategically allocated financial aid, and improvements to residence halls and academic facilities.”

But whether BC’s application-increase was due to a strategic enrollment campaign or a fluky, Flutie, pass, there is no debating that specific athletic teams, and individual sporting events, have greatly impacted enrollment interest in their respective schools.

Consider:

  • In 2008, George Mason University’s men’s basketball team reached the final four as an unlikely 11-seed. The following year, freshman applications increased 22 percent, the percentage of out-of-state freshmen jumped from 17 percent to 25 percent, and admissions inquiries rose 350 percent.
  • In 2013, unknown 15-seed Florida Gulf Coast University took the nation by storm, earning the nickname “dunk city” for its dizzying display of alley-oops during a cinderella sweet sixteen run. In that same time frame, visits on the admissions page of the FGCU website jumped from 2,280 to 42,793, while visits to the school website jumped from 47,067 to 230,985.
  • More recently, the University of Tennessee experienced a 70-percent spike in web traffic to its admissions website in the moments following its own hail mary victory over the University of Georgia in October 2016.

The local Philadelphia market had its own taste of the Flutie Effect in 2016. Check out the below chart documenting google search interest in “Villanova Admissions” during the first half of 2016. Notice the large spike in search volume in the center of the chart? That would be April 2016, right as Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beater gave Villanova its first NCAA Men’s Basketball title since 1985.

Villanova University Flutie Effect

Learning from The Flutie Effect

Whether you believe in the Flutie Effect or not, there are lessons to be learned from the above instances, and the many others that have taken place, from Appalachian State to Boise State, Butler to Gonzaga, and beyond.

Most importantly, it’s important to be prepared for unexpected spikes in web traffic to your admissions website. That goes beyond ensuring that your web server can handle a sudden increase in traffic without crashing. To truly capitalize on a surge in web traffic, you need to:

  • have a plan in place for welcoming new users to your site;
  • lead those new users to your best content; and
  • be ready to capture content information for lead nurturing.

Below, I’ve come up with three steps to such a plan. Taken together, these steps can help your admissions department take advantage of a surge in web traffic. 

Taking Advantage of Surging Web Traffic

Step 1: Personalized Content Based on First-Time Visitors

Your site should be ready to handle not only an influx of visitors to your site, but an influx of first-time visitors to your site. After all, if you’re seeing a spike in traffic following a major sporting event, it’s highly likely that the vast majority of those individuals have not previously interacted with your college or university.

Accordingly, consider personalizing your website to these users. This might be a pop-up window welcoming first-time users to your website, with a call-to-action that directs them to a specific page or document, or possibly an updated featured image in your content carousel, if your site utilizes such a feature.

Regardless of how you decide to personalize your content, having a plan in place to welcome new users to your site is vital. Interest from these prospective students in this instance is fleeting; make a good first impression, and you can keep them on your website long enough to share their contact information or download a piece of content. Make a poor first impression, and it’s likely your new visitors will browse a page or two, forget what they were doing, and bounce, never to return again.

Step 2: Have a Key Piece of Premium Content Available

I like to think of this sudden spike in traffic like an unexpected rush on your table at a college recruiting fair. You wouldn’t let all those interested prospective students visit your table and leave empty handed, would you? Don’t let these newly-interested students leave your website empty handed either.

Don’t just hope that students flooding your website are going to navigate to and download your digital viewbook or stat sheet proactively. Make sure you have a plan in place for getting these key pieces of premium content in front of your new digital visitors. This may be a well-placed call-to-action or a pop-up window, but however you do this, be aggressive. Again, these students are brand new to your site, and in many cases, may not know what they’re looking for. It’s imperative that you lead these students to the content you want them to download, rather than hope they are interested enough to find it on their own.

Step 3: Have a way to collect information

We all know the cliche: if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, did it actually make a sound? Well, if a horde of students suddenly visit your admissions website, but you don’t collect any contact information from them, did they really visit your site?

I’ve made this point a few times now, but it bears repeating: when students suddenly flood your website following a major sporting event, their attention is temporary. Therefore, it’s crucial that you capitalize on this momentary interest by collecting their contact information so that you can reach out to them at a later date to continue the conversation.

There are a few ways to do this. You could enable a chat window that allows students to chat with an admissions counselor in real-time. This is a great way to immediately begin building a conversation with interested students, but also not a tactic that scales well, depending on the size of the rise in traffic your site experiences.

Another option is to gate the premium content mentioned in step 2 of this article. For example, in exchange for your digital viewbook, you could ask students to provide their name and email address, allowing your team to follow up with them at a later time. This option works because it doesn’t require an additional call-to-action or sign-up form, but it’s also risky because you could lose students who aren’t interested in immediately handing over their contact information upon visiting your site for the first time.

Finally, you could invite users to sign up for your email newsletter. What I like about this option is that it’s clear what your prospective students are signing up for, it capitalizes on a marketing channel that’s currently trending upward, and it’s a fairly customizable call-to-action, depending on your CRM and CMS. For example, through HubSpot’s new Lead Flow feature, you could add an email newsletter call-to-action in the form of a pop-up window, slide-in window, or banner image that appears on specific pages on your site (like a digital viewbook or stat sheet), or after a user scrolls a specific percentage of the way down your web page, or after a user spends a specific amount of time on your site.

The Flutie Effect may still be up for debate, and not every school has a Division I athletic team, primed to earn national exposure and create a sudden windfall in web traffic and applications. Regardless of what school you represent, however, you too could experience a sudden surge in web traffic to your admissions website. Be prepared to capitalize on this traffic by personalizing your content to first-time visitors, creating a clear navigational path to your best marketing and admissions content, and converting those anonymous web visitors into bona fide prospective students.

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