This week I attended the Alliance14 Conference. The conference was held in Las Vegas. I’m not a gambler, but I do enjoy watching high stakes gambling.  As I walked through the MGM Grand I stopped by to watch a game of roulette. The man playing placed a $1,000 bet. And he lost.

Amazing isn’t it?  The idea of betting a $1,000 on the spin of a wheel?  It did get me thinking about the number of higher ed institutions who are willing to make a similar gamble with their student, alumni, and donor communications.  Communications have changed dramatically, yet many organizations are hesitant about adjusting their communication strategies.

Here’s how I selected a college in 1998. I looked at a big book of schools. I browsed pamphlets touting their diversity, and I sorted through hundreds of pieces of mail.  I weighed the pros and cons of each school.  I filled out paper applications, printed off my essays, gathered my transcripts and mailed in everything along with a check.

Then I received it! My acceptance letter!  I then received a series of letters about orientation, a note regarding my dorm assignment, and a phone call from my resident advisor.   And that was sufficient, back then.  But let’s take a look at how university engagement has evolved over time.

College discovery included resources like books, letters, and brochures.  Now prospective students consult websites and social media as well.  Campus tours were always in person, as opposed to the virtual tour options that exist today.  Selection was influenced by immediate family and close friends.  Today the sphere of influence now includes a vast extended social network. College applications have shifted from paper to electronic. Student engagement is no longer limited to chalking on the sidewalk and bulletin boards.  Students now rely on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

And universities aren’t just facing a change in communication channels. The pressure to demonstrate results is on the rise.  You need to capture and analyze metrics that matter.  You need to better understand engagement programs, events, and tour data.  And need you need to make smarter business decisions based on this information. With tools like marketing automation you can capture this information.  You can capture the digital body language and the in-person engagement. You can demonstrate results, identify areas of opportunity, and better engage your audience.  An audience that is growing in complexity.

They’re also facing an evolution in audience segmentation.  It’s not just “Students and Prospective Students”.   Segmentation now looks something like this:  Current students (both individually and student groups), alumni, faculty and staff, donors with a connection, donors without a connection, sports fans, people interested in research, prospective undergraduate students, prospective graduate students, prospective faculty members and news media to name a few.  Marketing automation can capture this segmentation and reduce the complexity of communications.

Universities must develop loyalty.  It’s what drives new student interest, current student engagement which drives increased academic performance and graduation rates, and increased contributions from alumni. This loyalty can be driven by a 1:1 relationship to effectively engage with these segments.  And beyond that, communications need to deepen segmentation and focus on the individual.

By using marketing automation you can deliver that personalized content to that individual, understand and manage their preferences, and define metrics that will guide your institution’s discussion around loyalty.

Student recruitment and alumni fundraising campaigns need to reach the individual.  They need to contain sentiment and that’s challenging to do with a batch and blast mentality.  Campaigns, and content creation, need be relevant, promote the university brand, and be automated.


Let’s look at 2 case studies.

Indiana University engages its students in content creation.  Everyday students upload proposed blogs to the University content management system, Compendium.  The content director simply logs into the system, reviews and edits blogs for branding, grammar, etc and then publishes the blogs.  IU generates hundreds of posts, in the voice of the student, every year, and with little work.

When I spoke with a student at St. Joe's she explained that their content is driven both by students and faculty.

“At St Joe's I would say it goes 60% faculty, 40% students, but the student generated content is by far more effective.”

College recruitment is gradually going paperless; In the 4 year leading up to college selection, a student receives hundreds (maybe thousands) of college emails. This presents a challenge to recruiting universities because they only have a subject line to grab a student’s attention. Some schools still rely on obscure subject lines ("ABC college is the best"), and some are downright creepy ("Marilyn, ABC College needs you") but somewhere in between those lies a creative opportunity for an attention-getting subject line.  The goal of these recruitment emails should also shift from the hard sell “Apply Now” to a more nurture-centric message. It should encourage prospective students to visit the website, or engage with a social account.  And the digital body language of an individual should determine which communications they receive.  Marketing automation can capture this digital body language, and automate nurturing, recruiting, and fundraising communications.  

Colleges now encourage prospective and current students to follow their twitter pages.  St Joseph's asked recently accepted students (class of 2018) to tweet a picture of them with their acceptance letters, and they retweeted all of the pictures to associate an extremely positive affect with getting accepted.

Twitter also has easily accessible "insider" resources when looking at schools.

“@SJUProbs, @SJUBetch. These twitter accounts give you the inside scoop on what you can really expect when you go to a particular school, so I knew exactly how bad the cafeteria food would be before I even tried it. Finding resources like these were probably my most valuable digital tool when I was making my ultimate decision. Also, every semester for one day, the SJU twitter account is "taken over" by current students who answer any questions prospective undergrads would have regarding the school.”

At some schools, if you tweet the dining hall about wanting a certain dish or certain ice cream they'll have it the next day!

Social media tools can capture social engagement and enter a student, parent, alumni, or donor into an appropriate communication channel delivering relevant content and information.

Many universities posts pictures of pretty spots on campus, exciting school events, and admissions open houses.

“SJU benefited HUGELY because as a part of their summer freshman orientation program, there is a surprisingly "cool" black light dance with glow paint and an amazing DJ. A lot of the incoming freshmen took these insane photos and videos during the black light dance and so all of their high school friends saw the posts and even went so far as to comment that St. Joes looks like a lot of fun. This is great advertising for SJU because they aren't even the ones posting these videos; the students do it all themselves.”

Video is huge and continues to grow.  Video is a great way to demonstrate student life, and thanks to marketing automation, now more than ever it’s easier to track engagement with video and deliver relevant communications based on this engagement.

A lot of universities use social media as a platform to facilitate community development and engagement.  This is a great medium for people to ask questions about moving in, getting class schedules, etc, and some people even meet their roommates through the group.

“Our University of Maryland Baltimore County freshman class had a Facebook group so during summer we communicated with each other, we talked about books, what classes people were taking, professors, we even had older students give us advice about UMBC.”

But as with all digital channels, they’re only as good as the content delivered. 

When I spoke with a student at McGill University he said “They mostly post about research being conducted at the university and sometimes classroom changes. I don't really engage them with social media.  If they mentioned who was coming to speak every so often I'd be more interested in engaging. For example, the Queen's Canadian emissary came and spoke but no one knew she was coming until after she had spoken, and we all wished we had known”

Institutions like Harvard, DeVry, NIU, Kaplan, Ashworth, and Herzing are using these tactics, combined with marketing automation, to grow enrollment, increase retention and graduation rates, expand fundraising, and promote greater engagement.

It’s important to take a multi-channel marketing approach to your communications strategy.  You need to incorporate all channels (web, social, video, email, and personal communications) into the student journey. Remember to segment and target your communications, crowdsource relevant content, capture digital engagement, and automate the process.

Finally, bring all of those takeaways together to match communications with interests and preferences. This will ultimately enhance the student experience, increase loyalty, drive contributions, and drive enrollment.