Imagine if there was a penny for every time we heard this:

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half.”

It’s one of the biggest CMO challenges today: generating results and demonstrating the value of marketing by being a revenue driver versus a cost center.  While John Wannamaker’s proclamation may have made sense over 100 years ago, today there is simply no reason that this should ring true – at all.

But in 2017, this was ringing true for Northcentral University (NCU), a premier online graduate university and a global leader in providing unprecedented access to U.S. regionally accredited higher education.  Despite a broad offering, their primary focus is on masters and doctorate degrees, taught exclusively by doctorate faculty with the flexibility to take classes anywhere in the world and 100% online.  

As a 100% online university, student acquisition efforts were also entirely online. But knowing where prospective students were coming from (acquisition) and what they were doing after they visited an NCU digital property (conversion) was proving to be a struggle not just for the marketing department but for the numerous agency partners that executed marketing activities.  While there were many opinions on what was working and what wasn’t, there were no set of facts. And without this insight into what channels were playing a role in acquisition and conversion, the prospective student journey was far from seamless.

The Challenge

How do you build a single source of truth to deliver a seamless prospective student journey…while making the data and insights both accessible and actionable by marketing leadership and numerous agency partners?


  • Digital strategy
  • Data and analytics
  • Attribution models
  • Reputation management strategy
  • Content marketing calendar
  • Conversion rate optimization
  • Digital advertising audit
  • Email marketing audit

A Serious Case of Incompatibility

Imagine being on a tour bus in your favorite country and you believe you are going to Destination A. But your fellow tourists believe they are going to Destinations B to Z and the tour bus driver believes he is taking you back to the airport. Why? Failure to communicate because everyone is speaking a different language.

When we first engaged with NCU, there were a lot of things that weren’t communicating:

  • Disconnected marketing platforms not working together:  Legacy decisions resulted in too many internal platforms (Pardot for marketing automation, Velocify for lead conversion, SparkRoom for performance marketing, and a host of others) that did not communicate, did not house the same data or were unable to pass data between each other.

  • Antiquated attribution model: The current lead tracking system was based on an old-school linear funnel model where attributed leads were based on first-in/last click and channels in between were getting no credit.  There was no cross-channel attribution to identify how each marketing source/medium impacted one another.

And this failure to communicate between systems and data was creating some clunky marketing communications.  For example, if a prospective student first explored information on Criminal Justice on NCU’s website and requested more information, then left the website and came back later to explore a degree in Psychology, engaged with hundreds of pieces of digital content in between, and later became a lead… the belief would be “Wow that Criminal Justice campaign is working great! Dial up the marketing activities here!”

Clearly, not working.

Four Phases to Attribution Nirvana

We believed the answer to “What’s working and what isn’t?” was buried under lots of incompatible systems and lots of data.  And getting to that answer was not going to be a one and done, but a multi-phased approach.

Northcentral University case study chart

Phase 1: DMP Selection for a single source of data and analytics

Our first order of business was to select a single DMP (Data Management Platform) that could play well with all the other internal platforms and get them speaking the same language.  We chose Google Analytics because it was a tool our client was already familiar with and allowed us to combine disparate data sources in a cost-effective solution.

Phase 2: Data benchmarking with a multidimensional data audit

With an official DMP selected, we quickly moved into Phase 2 of our project: A Google Analytics Data Audit on two dimensions: 1) Data accuracy 2) Data integrity.  Looking at over 20 different data attributes within Google Analytics, our goal was to establish a baseline score that would tell us how reliable and actionable the Google Analytics data truly was.

Some of the data attributes included:

  • Outbound link tracking: Where are prospective students going after they first visit us?
  • Event and goal tracking: What content are prospective students interacting with?
  • Channel groupings: What is the performance of each acquisition channel?

The result of Phase 2:  A baseline number of 37.76/100 score.
Translation: Our data was only 37.76% reliable and actionable.

Phase 3: Laying the foundation for a new Attribution Model

Clearly, the goal of Phase 3 was to get that 37.76 number up – way up. And the only way to do that was to identify what would need to be implemented in Google Analytics to get to an attribution nirvana that looked like a digital maze.

What followed was a gap analysis and the creation of a technical document which outlined recommendations for what to implement in Google Analytics and what to implement on all the NCU digital properties that prospective students encountered on their path to inquire about more information and becoming a lead.

There were over 100 recommendations spanning five categories including:

  1. The website analysis
  2. The goals and funnels
  3. A list of specific requests for the client and the website
  4. The tag management developer guidelines
  5. The Google Analytics developer guidelines

Through the process of implementing everything identified within this Phase 3 technical document, we were now fully set-up for cross channel attribution analysis.

Image of LaneTerralever employees

Phase 4: Transforming organizational culture to make data and analytics the center of all decision making

This final phase was perhaps the most challenging phase: cultural change.  We needed to shift analytics from a one-off, afterthought project to an established measurement process. And we needed to get numerous agency partners to adopt and promote a mindset of ongoing optimization.  So we became the center of accountability and the single source of truth.  By having governance over all marketing activities, we started sharing out monthly analytics and performance reports, demonstrating the impact of adding/removing channels from the marketing mix, the impact of increasing/decreasing spend on given channels, as well as shedding light on opportunities to convert more of the existing audience.  And over time we shifted to an on-demand capability where agencies had all this optimization data at their fingertips.

This type of transparency could only result in one outcome. Nobody wants to be the kid that isn’t playing nice in the sandbox so what resulted was that all agencies stepped up their game to play nice, collaborate and implement strategies based on what the data was telling us.


Single source of data truth


Transparency and actionable insight


Unifying all marketing parties

Delivering Results at Every Phase

This was a very different type of engagement for our agency as there weren’t clear deliverables that we could point to (i.e. a sexy TV ad, a difficult website build) that is the hallmark of most agencies.  In fact, most of this work was “invisible” to prospective students. But we believe this was some of the hottest work coming from our agency for the following reasons:


But the net/net of all of this was smarter acquisition, smarter conversion, greater lead volume at a more efficient cost/lead and ultimately revenue.   And there’s no question that today, NCUs marketing department is a revenue driver and the one that knows how to deliver a seamless prospect to student journey.

What our clients say

"I wanted to reach out and personally thank you for the great relationship between LT and Northcentral University over the last several years. I appreciate all the great work that has been done. NCU is in a better place because of LT!"

-Michael Tolmie, Managing Director, Marketing