The death of “Dear Student” – Personalization in Higher Ed Enrollment Marketing

Top colleges are finding that marketing personalization is key to unlocking more tours, more applications, and more deposits. Here are 5 steps to start reaping the benefits for your school.

Personalized marketing is everywhere. You land on a website, view a product or service and later that day you see an ad for the item you were looking at on another marketing channel. Then, the next time you go to their website, there’s tailored messaging and product placement based on your previous interactions. You’ve shopped on Amazon.com – you know the drill.

In a 2016 study about marketing personalization, Accenture found that 65% of people are more likely to make a purchase if a brand shows them relevant information based on past activity. The exciting part is: we’ve now reached a point where the long-awaited dream of personalized marketing at scale is finally both possible and practical, even for small teams.

Before long, personalized marketing won’t be just an added bonus, it’ll be critical to your digital marketing success. Here are the first five steps to set up the foundation for personalized marketing at your university:

1. Set up tracking

You’ll need both a marketing automation tool (MAT) and customer relationship manager (CRM). The MAT system tracks everything that happens on your marketing channels and feeds into the CRM, which is the customer “brain” of your institution. Collecting this data allows you to better understand your users, their behaviors, and their personas. They centralize all activity and give a crystal clear picture of the health of your activities. For MAT, we’re big fans of Act-On, Marketo, and Pardot. For CRMs, Slate and Salesforce.

2. Develop personas

Once you have your tracking in place, you can start to use that data alongside your current student knowledge to form data-supported personas. A persona is an archetype of one of your audience segments. “Martha the eager undergraduate” or “Dave the returning veteran”. These made-up avatars are amalgamations of hundreds of real people and represent the pains, needs, and jobs-to-be-done of the prospective students. As design tools, they help your marketing team understand what messages will resonate and why.

3. Chart user journeys

With personas in place, you’re ready to explore the user journey. This means looking at your users at an even deeper level to understand their full experience. How did they originally hear about your school? How did they land on your site originally to explore it? Did they apply? If not, where did they go after? Surveying recently admitted students is a great tool to understand the journey, as well as prospects who are currently considering attending. With this knowledge, you can start to identify trends in what students are looking for so you can better serve them.

4. Overlay touch points

Once you understand your user journeys, look closely at the communication touch points for different users. At what point in the journey do students receive an admissions letter, an enrollment deadline notice, or maybe just a friendly welcome email from the university? You’ll begin to notice that some pieces of communication are more influential in the user journey than others. When you’re getting started, plan to focus your limited effort on the most important touch points first.

5. Start personalizing

Starting with your most important touch points, tweak each message to leverage data gathered in step #1 and insights gathered in steps #2-4. For example, if “Martha” plans to live at home while she attends, then it’s probably easier to get her to take a tour than a “Dave” who may be out-of-state. Now when a prospective student reveals they are a “Martha”, it’s easier to know what to show them next – and get them to progress towards consideration and application.

A word of warning

Sometimes personalization and optimizations can go overboard. It’s essential from a user’s perspective that content or navigation that they’ve come to expect doesn’t disappear or get moved because we were trying to outsmart them and show them something special or “relevant.” We should make suggestions and encourage behavior, but never prevent an interaction or obscure part of the website they’ve come to rely on.

Keep going

Once these tools are in place, optimize. Personalization is only as effective as your understanding of your users and your interactions with them. So iterate and explore new opportunities. As your team goes through the process of uncovering candidates needs and touchpoints, they become much more able to write effective copy, design compelling campaigns and help candidates become applicants.