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By: Megan Miller

Why You Need a Marketing Personalization Strategy (And How to Actually Do It)

Higher education isn’t e-commerce. But that doesn’t mean we can’t adapt strategies to engage our prospects.

Admissions /
By: Megan Miller

10 minutes

When’s the last time you took a moment to reflect on the experience that your prospective students have when they receive your marketing materials? Are you blasting out generic ‘welcome,’ apply,’ and ‘visit’ messages that look the same to every recipient? Then I have bad news for you: There’s a good chance that you’re alienating a significant portion of your audience that’s hungry for something more. You’re showing your students what you think they want, rather than addressing what they’re actually asking you for.

There’s a better way to do your work — one that will drive conversions, increase yield, and build a sense of loyalty for your prospects. So as you develop your marketing strategies for the coming recruitment cycle, take the time to explore how to incorporate personalization into your campaigns and efforts to create an experience that will tell students that they matter, regardless of who they are.

Embracing the B2C Mindset

Every morning when I check my Gmail, I’m reminded of how powerful and targeted email marketing can be. I’ll find a message from a retailer offering me a discount code on some yoga pants I looked at on their site yesterday, an alert from Yelp about which new restaurants are trending near my home in Seattle, and a weather and travel guide from Expedia for the upcoming trip I booked to Philadelphia.

We live in an era where consumers don’t just tolerate personalized marketing — they expect it.

These businesses have figured out that the secret to successful customer engagement comes from serving relevant content to their audience in a manner that recipients will value. In the marketing world, we call this personalization, and it’s something that consumers have come to expect when they interact with brands. By leveraging the data that subscribers are providing (both intentionally, like the information on an info request form, and unconsciously through things like browsing history and engagement metrics), marketers can develop segments and identify what messages matter most to those in their database. This information is then turned into actual content, utilizing CRM capabilities and digital assets to deliver campaigns that are tailored to the recipient’s profile, interests, and behaviors.

Higher ed is a different world than e-commerce, of course, but there’s a lot we can learn from the way other industries are connecting with customers. We have a wealth of data points available for our leads, we have valuable and relevant information to share, and we have an audience who is hungry to know more. Our students are telling us what they’re looking for, sometimes without even realizing it. Combine that with the fact that choosing a university is a much bigger decision than buying a mattress, fitness program, sparkling water, or any of the hundreds of other products that are being marketed to them every day, and we have many compelling reasons to explore what personalization looks like for our institutions. The opportunity is ours to embrace, if we’re willing to build out the strategy and goals to make it happen.

Creating Your Roadmap

Launching a personalization strategy isn’t necessarily easy, but it doesn’t have to be hard either. As with any other initiative, it requires goal-setting, prioritization, assessment, and planning. It’s natural for our minds to go immediately to splashy graphics and email copy, but by taking a more intentional, methodical approach to building this initiative out, we’re more likely to create something that’s scalable, measurable, and effective.

Ready to jump in? Follow this sequence to execute a strategy that combines solid fundamentals with your institution’s own unique approach to engagement.

Step 1: State Your Goal

For any marketing project, this is step one. What is it you hope to drive through personalization? How will you know if you’re successful? I recommend you start by identifying a maximum of three CTAs that you’ll be pushing in your marketing. This could be something like reading an article in your e-magazine, registering for a campus visit, or providing more information in a long-form RFI. Whatever these objectives might be, ensure that they have KPIs attached to them so that you’re able to track whether your efforts are working as intended. Build out benchmarks, think through the metrics, and explicitly note how you’ll report results.

Step 2: Prioritize Your Data

If you look at a student record in your CRM, you’ll realize you probably have more data points available than you could ever manage in a campaign. This means you’ll have to prioritize which profile points you want to center your messaging around. First, take a look at your student data from a meta level. Remember that not everyone in your database will have information recorded in every field on their profile. When you’re deciding where you want to personalize, make sure that you’re leveraging something that you’ll be able to apply to a majority of your records. For instance, if you plan messaging around co-curricular interests, but only 15% of your inquiries have given you information on this, you’re not going to have the desired impact.

Next, reflect back on your goal and think about what information best ties into your desired CTA. Which profile points can be integrated into the messaging you’re sending and drive recipients to take the appropriate action? The aim is to incorporate personal data in a way that flows naturally. Your objective isn’t to tell your audience that you know X, Y, and Z about them; instead, you want to show how X, Y, and Z relate to what you have to offer.

Step 3: Evaluate Your Assets

Take a look at the tools that you have available for your work. What is your CRM capable of, and how easily can you build and manage personalized campaigns? Explore the technology and automations that will enable you to find the right balance of efficiency and effectiveness, then make sure you fully understand how to use these resources. For instance, in our CRM, we’re able to use one of our automation tools to customize which email header a prospective graduate student sees on our welcome email based upon the program in which they’re interested. Why use a generic university header when you can get more specific?

But also remember that your already-existing content is also a key piece of this puzzle. Index and tag your blog posts, articles, photos, and videos in a manner that correlates with the data points you identified in the previous step. By doing this, you can identify what’s available for you to serve up to your audience segments — and where you still need to fill in the blanks. By building out a content inventory, you’ll be able to access the assets you need; this will also help to develop an audit process that ensures that these materials stay fresh and relevant.

Example of an email header that is personalized
Example of an email header that is personalized based on the program of interest a graduate inquiry selects

Step 4: Create Your Plan

Having mapped out the foundational elements that you need in order to make the right data-driven decisions, you’re now ready to start planning out your campaign. Identify the right mix of channels and tactics to pursue based on the information you’ve gathered and the assessments you’ve already made. Take a look at your content on hand (which you’ve already efficiently organized in step three) to see what gaps exist, then formulate ideas on how to create assets that fill this void (and which can be repurposed for other efforts). Build your delivery sequence to begin framing your campaign.

As you do this, be sure you operate with a maintenance-centered mindset. Construct your work in such a way that it can be easily managed as things change systematically or institutionally. Make sure you have documentation outlining where various content is living within your communication flow so that it’s simple to update at any given point in the campaign lifecycle. In addition, keep a checklist of what processes or automations need to be revised when new factors and features come into play so that you don’t end up with any gaps that will create a poor user experience.

A sample checklist used for managing personalized assets for marketing and communications
A sample checklist used for managing personalized assets for marketing and communications

Jumpstarting the Process

You know how personalization works, and you know the basics of launching an initiative, but if you haven’t done much in this arena before, it’s probably still a bit daunting. The good news is that there are some easy ways to dip your toes into this approach before jumping into the deep end.

For many institutions, highlighting academic programs is a fantastic way to get started. You likely already have quite a bit of content about various majors, from news releases to faculty biographies to alumni profiles to classroom photos to current student stories. File all of these items in your content inventory, then find places to plug them into your communication flow so that students are learning more about what they’ve told you they’re interested in. This doesn’t have to be super-granular; even if you’re just drilling down to the specific academic division, you’re presenting content that will resonate better with your audience. After all, a student who’s identified their intended major as biology is probably going to be much more intrigued by an interview with one of your school’s chemistry professors than he or she would be by a profile of the history department that you’d stick in a generic newsletter. Don’t make perfect the enemy of the good here — start small and scale over time.

Sidenote: Be sure when developing messaging around academics that you also include a placeholder for those who either haven’t provided you with this information or who have indicated that they’re undecided on their academic interest. For this group, general messaging around academic experience or how students select a major could be a good option. Don’t let an oversight interfere with the opportunity to speak with your audience.

A personalized email that is part of Seattle Pacific University's welcome campaign
A personalized email, built using Slate, that is part of Seattle Pacific University's welcome campaign

Geographic location is also low-hanging fruit from a data perspective, since you’re getting this information from a large majority of your audience thanks to data points like address and high school geomarket. Think about how you market your university to students. If you’re highlighting your campus location, does your description end up speaking primarily to out-of-state students? Remember that, per the American Council on Education, the majority of students enroll in a college or university within 50 miles of their home, so it’s likely that the bulk of your target population already knows the area in which your campus is located. You need to talk to this group differently than you would a student living across the country. Think about the photos you feature, the vernacular you use, and the landmarks you reference; these small tweaks can make a major impact in helping your target audience feel known and understood. A student living five miles from campus isn’t going to resonate as strongly with photos of local tourist destinations that they see daily or a list of companies headquartered nearby — they already know about all this. Instead, highlight the ways that your school enables them to experience their hometown in a new and different way. And for those who don’t know your location well, provide them with the information and visuals they need to be able to envision it for themselves.

This personalized image captures Seattle's skyline
This image captures Seattle's skyline, which will resonate with well with any student who hasn't spent much time in the area
Any Seattle local will recognize the image used in this campaign, the iconic Fremont Bridge
Any Seattle local will recognize the image used in this campaign, the iconic Fremont Bridge

A final place you can easily incorporate personalization is within your visit and event communications. Our institutions all offer a number of opportunities to come to campus, and this is often a major focus of our marketing. We also have a good amount of data on our students’ event attendance history, so we know which students have been here before and which ones haven’t ever stepped foot onto our quad. With that information, think about tailoring your event marketing. Show the students who have visited previously that you know their history — acknowledge that they’ve taken the time to explore your school before, tell them how much you appreciate the interest they’ve demonstrated, and outline the benefits of visiting again. Meanwhile, use your communications with those who have not attended any prior events to articulate what their experience as a first-time visitor will offer. Visiting campus can be a major effort and investment on the part of students; by personalizing your invitations to them, you create a stronger affinity that is more likely to compel them to act.

We live in an era where consumers don’t just tolerate personalized marketing — they expect it. In particular, the digital natives of Gen Z understand that the information they provide can be used to shape the message and tactics that they’ll receive. This is a group that wants to be known and that desires a unique, relevant experience. A one-size-fits-all approach will, in actuality, fit most of our audience poorly. Generic messaging is a quick way to ensure they’re turned off and tuned out.

Yes, personalization is in many ways a paradigm shift for higher education marketing. It requires a new mindset and approach to the messages we hope to communicate, and it demands a good deal of time, resources, and bandwidth to launch properly. But the impact and improved user experience that results from this work create a compelling argument for why our institutions need to invest in this strategy. This is our opportunity to connect with our students like never before and to demonstrate that we value their unique journeys. So go ahead and get personal — it may be the best chance you have to tell your students that you’re exactly what they’re looking for.

Megan Miller

Megan Miller

Director of Enrollment Communications

Megan Miller serves as Director of Enrollment Communications at Seattle Pacific University. At SPU, she oversees recruitment communications and marketing for all undergraduate and graduate programs, and she provides key oversight for the University’s utilization of CRM technology. She also serves on the leadership team for the eduWeb Digital Summit, a higher education digital marketing conference. You can find Megan on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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