Anatomy of a Higher Ed Testimonial

Date posted: April 29, 2015

Testimonials are social proof of the quality, merits and value of your programs and institution. These days they can take many forms and formats; from short quotes, to full student profiles, to social media posts to long form video. If your program testimonials are effective they can have a powerful effect on a prospective student’s decision on whether or not to consider and/or attend your institution. Various landing page testing research confirms the self–evident logic of this statement, with some results showing increased conversion rates of up to 15 % when customer testimonials are included.

So what makes a good testimonial?

A great testimonial is typically short, very specific and is very believable. Here’s an good example.

Social testimonial


You can’t help but relate to the emotional story conveyed in this testimonial and believe that it is authentic and meaningful. Making genuine connections with target personas is an essential element of your institution’s content strategy and development – and an important goal when it comes to selecting, polishing and presenting student testimonials.

If you break it down structurally it contains the three key elements of a great testimonial. It presents, 1) a problem, (or a pain), usually in the past; 2) a solution, that being the educational program; and 3) a better current state resulting from the solution. This really emotional story is also backed up by the author’s full name, program and picture.

Here is another example.

taunton test


This student profile and embedded testimonial quote provides a longer but still very effective form. The challenge, the solution and the bright future structure is used similarly to above. The short testimonial quote “ Once I took that first step …” is also cleverly used on a more general page, leading to this profile, deeper in the site.

Contrast these two, with a not so great testimonial below, that unfortunately is characteristic of a type commonly found on higher ed sites. To be clear, I am not questioning the authenticity of this particular testimonial, rather I am commenting on it’s structure, content and presentation. There is no emotional content in the story and there is just not enough detail about the author to convince a skeptical reader that this is a real student.

typical test


Another aspect that I think really determines the quality of a testimonial is how specific it is. When it comes to student recruitment with social proof, general sweeping accolades about a school or program (the all inclusive approach), simply are not as effective as sharply focused, specific endorsements.

This video testimonial provides some really great content about this vet school, but I find you get lost rather quickly in the multiple stories presented over the 12 minutes that it runs. I bet if you checked their analytics you would find that a lot of people drop off before the video plays out, missing the key closing messages tucked in at the end.

Contrast this video with the highly focused, target-audience persona driven testimonial below, from a young woman from out of state who chose to attend the University of Central Florida. The testimonial addresses a very common fear of out of state prospective students. It was placed strategically on the Campus locations page that most out of state students would likely visit to find out exactly where their campuses are located. This is the kind of smart, tactical marketing that converts students.

out of state test


This second example also provides a very tight message, directed at a very targeted audience. It includes another useful dimension not previously discussed; including a specific date reference to the testimonial to add context and credibility.

vet asst test


How to develop great testimonials

Great testimonials sometimes land on your desk but it’s pretty rare that they happen that way. So how do you go about creating the circumstances where you will get more high quality testimonials for use with your marketing efforts?

Here’s the approach I recommend:

  1. Talk to your students – To get testimonials you must be in regular conversation with your students, with lots of them in fact. You must engage them in social media, email, evaluations, with surveys and in person, and when you find an individual that looks like they might be a good candidate to provide a testimonial, elevate them to the next step.
  2. Interview your testimonial prospects – Email can work but a phone call is much better for this interview. Develop a set of questions that are appropriate to your programs that reveal the motivation and trigger events that propelled your students to select your school. Determine their challenges or “pain” before enrolling, understand how your programs addressed that state, and determine  what the improved “better” state is that has resulted or will result upon their enrollment and/or graduation.
  3. From the responses you receive redraft a testimonial that accurately captures their story. Polish it with their help and obtain their permission to use the final version in your marketing materials and website.

Testing your testimonials

The last step in creating really great testimonials is to post what you have developed to your pages and A/B test them for effectiveness. Testimonials will improve the form and click thru conversion rates of your pages but the hard part is to know which ones will perform the best on which pages. The only way you can answer this question is through A/B testing of multiple versions to determine the optimal configurations.

Really good testimonials can be a serious challenge to develop. What approaches have you used that have produced the best testimonials for your institution? Please send us links to your very best examples, that we can all learn, and draw inspiration from.

testimonials for education marketing and student recruitment