The Personalization Paradox

Is there a cost to marketing personalization in higher ed? Or have we mislabeled what we are trying to achieve?

3 minutes
By: Christopher Huebner

Much has been made of marketing personalization both inside our industry and outside. Although it might be easy to remain steadfast on either side of the aisle, the use—and nuance—of the word has led it to become more of a principle than an absolute business practice. Similarly, because we believe the consumer wants personalized communications, which we can deliver, we should seek to expand the practice throughout the funnel.

In higher ed, it’s easy to advocate for personalization. We operate in a high-involvement category, enjoy long customer journeys and market one of our customers’ biggest life decisions. For some of us, we have years of data to turn the interests of our smallest segments into comprehensive comms plans. But is this the right approach, and have we truly examined the practice before promoting its necessity?

As with most marketing debates, the outcome lies somewhere in the middle. In this article, I explore the power of personalization, its paradox, and perhaps, create a compelling argument for a different approach to personalization. 

What is the power of personalization?

There are certainly plenty of studies and panels that indicate—when asked—people would prefer marketing that is tailored to their interests and needs. It is not only desired but expected. When it comes to advertising, studies have also constantly shown that people understand the implications and usefulness of personalized advertising. 

Marketers see not only strong responses from consumers but also a potential increase in effectiveness from ad personalization, and they continue to invest in it. Practitioners and academic research show that personalized ads can positively influence attention, attitudes, purchases and click-through rates.

In the context of higher education marketing, all of the above adds value to marketing, but there’s a narrative that personalized marketing efforts create authentic connections.

According to a study by Eullucian, 84% of students who received personalized communications during their application process reported that it was an important factor in their choice of school. In both outcome and behavior, higher education exhibits similar results in other categories.

Is there a cost to championing personalization at every turn?

What’s the cost of taking the perceived success of personalization in one channel and applying it to other comms?

It’s easy to take personalization success in one channel and apply it in other places. It happens when there isn’t a clear understanding of the term and its effectiveness. For example, we need to separate advertising activities from marketing activities because, too often, the success of personalized email campaigns leads to the personalization of digital advertising campaigns.

Don Marti recently wrote, “66% of adult Americans said they do not want marketers to tailor advertisements to their interests. And when the researchers explained how ad tech can target ads to them, the percentage saying they don’t want targeting went up—as high as 80%.”

We know there is little evidence to suggest personalized advertising works. There’s a real debate on whether hyper-targeting—via contextual and behavioral data—is worth the investment. Similarly, we believe the consumer wants personalized ads, yet we ignore the well-documented “creep factor.” When questions are reframed in a way that uses privacy and personalized pricing as the point of reference, the results look much different

Does personalization hinder decision-making?

From email to dynamic web pages, we can easily take our audience from category decisions to major-related decisions. I have seen this attempt as a secret shopper and have read articles making this a marketing goal. For example, when a prospective student shows an interest in business, we can personalize her web banners, student stories, email content and so forth. But what if interests change?

When we send the consumer on a very linear information-seeking journey—one where we have used past behavior to predict future decisions—are we limiting the potential of future comms? In the case of the business student, are we giving her more reasons to say “no” and fewer reasons to say “yes” by limiting the scope of information?

Is personalization lost when the context changes?

Research would indicate that personalization is effective when it is perceived to be personalized and helpful during difficult tasks. Similarly, personalization is seen to be more effective when consumers have an established repertoire with the brand.

In both circumstances, there is an expectation that a brand should have personal data and be used to make brand-related tasks easier or offer personalized promotions. For example, when I log into my banking app, I expect that my experience will be personalized.

The same could be said for an admissions portal. However, do consumers expect personalization to the extent that we seek to deliver it? If the environment lessens the expectation of personalization, is the effect we hope to produce lost?

None of this is to say personalization doesn’t have a place. I think there needs to be a better understanding of what we mean by the term and an effort to scrutinize the assumption that personalization truly drives marketing outcomes.

I would argue that what we truly mean by “personalization” is really “relevant.” It’s something that has been understood by marketers for decades— and doesn’t just end with advertising. Relevancy and recency work, we just need to take the time to uncover a better understanding of our consumers.

I’ve never wanted to feel targeted—just understood.

Christopher Huebner

Christopher Huebner


Christopher Huebner is the director of activation at SimpsonScarborough. He has worked both agency- and client-side, where he has planned and executed marketing and recruitment strategies across multiple program types and institutions. His work has been published in the Journal of Education Advancement & Marketing, the Journal of Digital and Social Media and the Journal of Brand Strategy.

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