Using Marketing Automation in Higher Education to Increase Yield

The enrollment management game has changed. Read on to learn how using marketing automation in higher education can increase yield.

8 minutes
By: Stephen App

Enrollment management may be a cyclical game, but it’s anything but the same year in and year out. Traditionally, yield season marked the symbolic passing of the baton for student marketing and communications from a school’s central marketing team to the admissions team. But back then, marketing’s main responsibility was brand awareness, pushing broad messages into the market that kept a college or university top of mind, while admissions teams were responsible for direct contact with prospects and accepted students.

But yield season was easier in those days. Direct communication was more attainable. The competition for attention was remarkably lower. And information asymmetry was firmly on the side of colleges and universities, as students, weighing 2-3 schools as options, were minimally educated on the college admissions process.

Today, of course, the game has changed. Today’s prospective college students are more digitally savvy than any who have come before them, proficient at filtering out unwanted messaging but craving communications that are tailored to their interests. Students today are educated and empowered. They hold more influence than ever before in the admissions journey, and they know it.

That’s partially because students are giving themselves more options than previous generations. College applications increased 108% percent from 2001 to 2014, according to a 2016 report by Jon Boeckenstedt, Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management at DePaul University. But the number of high school graduates only increased by 11.6% during that same time frame.

Today’s prospective college students are more digitally savvy than any who have come before them, proficient at filtering out unwanted messaging but craving communications that are tailored to their interests. Students today are educated and empowered.

In fact, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), 36 percent of first-time freshmen applied to seven or more colleges in the fall of 2015. That’s more than double the rate from 2005, when only 17 percent of first-time freshman applied to seven or more institutions.

But it’s not just undergraduate programs facing this challenge. A report from the Council of Graduate Schools, co-published with the Graduate Record Examinations Board, found that there were almost 2.25 million applications to graduate school in 2016, the fifth straight year that enrollment in graduate schools increased.

Naturally, schools have been affected by these increases. In the same 2016 report referenced earlier, Boeckenstedt showed that yield rates were declining across all regions and carnegie types.

With a rapidly changing yield season, schools and departments are seeking new ways to reach accepted students with hyper-targeted, relevant, personalized messaging. And they’re looking to do so without adding to the already heavy workload and small teams abundant in higher education. One option increasingly being examined is marketing automation.

That interest is no doubt being fueled by the reviews coming in from existing users of marketing automation software. Indeed, according to Salesforce, 41% of marketers say that marketing automation is “Very effective/effective” at creating a cohesive customer journey, while in another report, 74% of marketing automation users said the technology’s ability to save them time was its largest benefit.

What is Marketing Automation?

Marketing automation has exploded in popularity in recent years. Consumer interest has steadily increased since 2014, and the market has taken notice of increased demand. Capterra, a business software database, now boasts nearly 470 marketing automation solutions in its directory alone.

Marketing Automation Google Trends
Google Search Volume: “Marketing Automation” 2014-2017

But what do we mean when we say marketing automation? Quite simply, marketing automation is the mechanism through which marketers can send relevant, personalized messages, most commonly through email, that are time or behavior-triggered.

Let’s break this definition down.

Personalized Messaging

First, let’s talk about relevant, personalized messages. Let’s imagine your marketing automation software is a car engine. In this analogy, your behavior- and time-based triggers are akin to pouring gasoline into your vehicle. Doing so may allow your vehicle to run, but it won’t start the car itself. That doesn’t happen until your audience turns the key by supplying you key information and triggers the automation. And because your audience is personally supplying you with information about themselves, we can be confident that the messages we send in return are relevant.

For example, let’s assume that eCity University, located in Philadelphia, is looking to increase yield among out-of-state students this year. To do so, eCity U wants to send out-of-state students information about living and studying in Philadelphia. By using the “state” and “applicant status” fields in eCity U’s CRM, the admissions team can automatically enroll certain students into an automated workflow. For example, if a student from Indiana is accepted, a workflow could automatically trigger that waits five days (to allow for hard copy mail to arrive,) and then sends a series of email messages providing information about living and studying in Philadelphia. (To see sample use cases for marketing automation, check out the charts at the end of this post)


According to Regalix, the most commonly used marketing automation feature is email marketing, which is used by 89% of marketing automation users. Why is email the most common marketing attribution channel? Contrary to what you may have heard, email is still popular with marketers and consumers alike.

With many marketing tactics, such as social media posts and search and display ads, marketers are forced to compete for attention with other visual media, such as status updates from friends and family or interactive web content like articles, images, and videos.

But with email, the barriers to undivided attention are much lower. There is no algorithm between you and your audience, and fewer competing on-screen messages. Email is also the platform of choice when trying to get users to take action. On average, one in five marketing emails gets opened, with a click-through rate of 3.57%. On Facebook, you can expect a click-through rate of a 0.07%. That’s the power of email marketing.

Time- and Behavior-based Triggers

Finally, let’s talk about triggers. A key component of marketing automation concerns an action that sets off a relevant marketing message. A time-based trigger might be an upcoming deadline or special occasion. Have you ever received an email from your favorite retailer on your birthday with a discount offer? Consider yourself the recipient of a time-based marketing automation trigger.

A screenshot of a Starbucks Rewards birthday email offering a free item as a time-based automated trigger offer.

A behavior-based trigger occurs when a user takes a specific action on your website, regardless of timing. This might be signing up for an email newsletter, downloading an educational ebook or white paper, or signing up for an event, like a campus visit. In retail, a popular behavior-based trigger occurs when a customer adds a product to their shopping cart but doesn’t complete the transaction. Have you ever left a product in an online shopping cart, only to receive an email a few hours later asking if you forgot to check out? That’s behavior-based marketing automation.

Benefits of Automation in Yield Marketing

Yield season is a complicated dance that takes place over several months, with a consistent interweaving of digital and traditional marketing tactics. Marketing automation allows marketers and enrollment managers to focus on the traditional events that remain highly influential with students and parents, like on-campus events, knowing that the digital side is humming like a well-oiled machine.

Benefit 1: Send Relevant Messages Automatically

Despite what you may have heard, email remains the most preferred communication channel from parents and students in every phase of the college search process. If your emails aren’t being opened, the problem isn’t the medium; the problem is the message. That’s because students today crave information tailored to their personal interests.

Of course, sending more personalized marketing messages is everyone’s goal, but depending on the scope and scale of your admitted student pool, manually sending targeted, personalized content to large segments of your prospective student database falls somewhere between a hassle and downright impossible.

But by determining your admissions goals and KPIs, and tracking your admitted students’ website activity, you can set up a well-defined marketing automation plan that keeps admitted students engaged without you having to spend your days composing email messages.

For example, rather than grouping all business students into the same communication flow, wouldn’t it be better to send students interested in your accounting program within the business school information about accounting specifically? With marketing automation, that ideal scenario is a real possibility.

Benefit 2: Pre-planned Time-Based Reminders

Time-based triggers are a key component of any successful marketing automation plan. As key admissions deadlines approach, like deposits and campus event registrations, marketing automation can automatically send reminder emails to students who have not already taken action. No mail merge or daily CRM segmentation required.

Benefit 3: Let Students Self-Nurture

With marketing automation workflows, your admitted students are in control of the messages they receive. That’s because marketing automation workflows are always calibrating, searching for new behaviors and triggers before each message send. That means if an accepted student changes their academic interest or meets a new milestone (like submitting a deposit, for example,) their marketing messages automatically change too.

Benefit 4: Know Exactly When to Take the Conversation Offline

Admissions counselors have a limited amount of time to devote to a large database of students each spring. It’s imperative that you maximize their effectiveness. By tracking student engagement through marketing automation workflows and assigning point values to each action, like website activity, form submissions, and email opens, your recruiters can be alerted when a student is ready for the personal touch of a phone call, cutting back on time spent with unengaged students who are less likely to enroll.

Preparing for Marketing Automation

The benefits of marketing automation are only as strong as the preparation put into it. Therefore, it’s important to consider key aspects of marketing automation and how they might influence your implementation.

Explicit vs Implicit Signals

Not all signals are created equal. When planning your marketing automation workflows, consider the difference between implicit and explicit signals.

Explicit Signals

Explicit signals include any information that students proactively provide you, either on a web form or as part of their application. This might include their location or intended major. Explicit signals make excellent triggers for marketing automation workflows, since the information is provided directly from students and is therefore highly credible.

If you are looking to build workflows based on explicit signals, it’s important to consider how you will collect the necessary data. Will it be automatically imported into your CRM via a student’s application? If not, you’ll want to consider ways to obtain the necessary information, such as a web form on your admitted student website.

In 2017, Butler University took advantage of a new “relationships” form field in their CRM to ask admitted students to share the names of any pets living in their home. Butler’s marketing team then used that information to send information to admitted students on behalf of Butler Blue, a real-life Bulldog that serves as the university mascot. This tactic was a huge hit with admitted students, who rushed to social media to post user-generated content of their pets posed with their new Butler swag.

Listen: Butler’s Marketing Goes to the Dogs

Hear Kristi Smith, Associate Director of Enrollment Marketing at Butler University, and Michael Kaltenmark, Director of External Relations at Butler University, discuss Butler’s innovative approach to yield marketing, the genesis and planning of their dog- and cat-vertising campaign, why they felt confident taking a risk on this unique approach, and what the response has been like from current students, admitted students, and their parents.

Implicit Signals

With implicit signals, you’re relying on a student’s activity, rather than an explicit submission, to send relevant marketing messages. Implicit signals might occur based on website browsing activity or email engagement.

Consider law schools, for example. Since law schools don’t feature academic majors in the traditional undergraduate sense, a law school marketer could not rely on an admitted student to explicitly signal an academic interest in their application.

However, that doesn’t mean a law school can’t automate personalized, relevant messages centered around academic interest. They just need to rely on implicit signals to do so. In this example, a law school marketer might create an automated workflow that triggers when an admitted student browses four or more pages within a particular academic area on the website, like criminal law or the social justice center microsite.

Since implicit signals aren’t as reliable as explicit signals, it’s important to factor in the level of engagement in your automation. Sticking with the current example, perhaps the first automated message comes from the faculty chair in the academic area of interest to an admitted student. If a student engages with this message, a school might want to wait a few days and then send another message regarding this topic to the admitted student. But if a student does not engage with the first two messages within a given automation workflow, the school may want to unenroll the student from that workflow rather than continue to send them messages that do not appear to be of interest.

Potential Automation Anchors

As with all effective marketing, planning is of the utmost importance when considering marketing automation. If your automation is to succeed, you must think strategically about your admissions goals, your audience, your KPIs, and what data you need to collect from that audience to implement your automation.

If you’re struggling to identify potential anchors for your automation, consider the options below:


If your university attracts a large number of out-of-state or international applicants but struggles to enroll them, consider using automation to send pertinent information about the community or city that surrounds your campus. This is an excellent way to position your school’s greater location as a destination that offers social and professional benefits. Additionally, include an invitation to campus with a fall-back option of a virtual tour. At most institutions, students who visit campus are much more likely to enroll than students that do not.

Academic Interest

For students, degree programs offer a type of micro-community under an institution’s larger culture and brand. For schools with a high number of degree programs, consider a unique automated workflow for each program. These workflows should feature personal messages from key faculty members and current students as well as share student accomplishments, alumni profiles, and highlights from relevant student organizations.

First-Generation College Students

For students who are the first in their family to attend college, the enrollment process can be particularly challenging. Every phase, experience, and milestone within this journey is new, and with each phase, conflicting feelings of excitement and anxiousness abound. For these students, consider a workflow that is both educational and empowering. A mix of messages regarding key deadlines, available student resources on campus, and motivational messages from similar students and young alumni can make a nervous admitted student feel valued and ready to commit.


While they may not be moving to campus in the fall (at least we hope not), parents play a crucial role in the college decision process. You’re likely already including adapted marketing messages for parents. Enrolling parents in your marketing automation is the next step. For this workflow, tap into your school’s database of legacy families. Parents aren’t entirely different than their sons and daughters; they trust marketing messages that come from individuals who look like them more than messages that come from a brand account. More so, legacy parents are likely to exude a sense of school pride that is infectious.

Do You Really Need That Data Point?

Since data collection is at the core of your marketing automation, it can be tempting to include additional data points in web forms “just in case.” But before you add another field to a web form, consider how the information provided will impact your automation. If the answer is “I’m not sure,” or “I don’t know yet,” save this form field for another day. Too many form fields can deter students from completing a form, and in turn, keep you from collecting valuable student data.

Marketing Automation Use Cases

Still unsure what marketing automation and automated workflows might look like for your institution? Below, I’ve included three sample use cases.

Use Case #1: On-Campus Visits

Marketing Automation Use Case 1 - Higher Education Example

Use Case #2: Academic Interest

Marketing Automation Use Case 2 - Higher Education Example

Use Case #3: Location

Marketing Automation Use Case 3 - Higher Education Example

Now what?

With so many options to choose from, selecting the right marketing automation software for your existing technology stack can be enough to make your head spin. The good news? We can help.

And whether you’re trying to make last-minute updates to this year’s yield marketing strategy or making early plans to increase your yield next year, our talented team of marketers is ready to assist you, from implementation consultation to content strategy, lead nurturing, workflow development, and more. Get in touch and discover the impact marketing automation can have for your institution today.

Our talented group of problem-solvers has the technical chops to make ideas happen and look at things from every perspective. We love coming to work every day to collaborate with our clients and work to achieve their desired results. We’d love to talk about your next project! Get in touch.

Stephen App

Stephen App

Stephen App helped pioneer the content marketing strategy at eCity Interactive, Volt’s parent company. He launched the Hashtag Higher Ed podcast (now called Higher Voltage), and built a unique community of higher ed leaders that has continued to flourish. Today he is working in new pastures at CampusSonar, and you can connect with him on Twitter @StephenApp.

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