How to Incorporate Personalization Into Your Higher Ed Marketing

The days of mass mailings to tens of thousands of high school students are over. In a post-pandemic world, personalization has become more important than ever when recruiting future students who have seen and experienced “Zoom School.” Can your messaging and recruitment strategy hold up?

The answer to that question may just determine success or failure in this coming recruitment cycle, and many more down the line. More of the same – mass mailings and emails to purchased test-taker lists – will not hit home with an audience more wary than ever of what higher education has to offer.

That might sound bleak, but it’s important to not overlook the significant opportunity that comes with it. The ability to personalize your messaging to your students’ needs is what can make your institution stand out in the immensely competitive higher education marketplace.

So let’s get to the details. Join us for a deep dive on why personalization in higher education marketing matters more than ever, along with a wide range of effective ways to accomplish that goal and plenty of examples that show the strategy in action.

Why Personalization in Higher Ed Marketing Matters More than Ever

First things first: across industries, marketing has moved towards more personalized efforts for a while. 99% of marketers believe that personalized marketing improves customer relationships, while 80% of customers become more likely to make a purchase when confronted with these customized messages.

Higher education is a unique industry, but context matters. If prospective students– especially Gen Z– and their families see brands across the spectrum improve their messaging, colleges and universities will need to keep pace.

That’s especially true considering recent developments during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to one study conducted last summer,

  • 28% of students limited their college search to options closer to home.
  • 23% of postsecondary students reported a change in employment status as a result of COVID-19.
  • 23% of postsecondary students reported increased family care responsibilities due to COVID-19.

And of course, high school and current college students alike have become inherently familiar with the concept of online education. An emergency solution that continues to be used especially in areas with rising COVID-19 cases, “Zoom school” has shown to be detrimental to students in ways that range from social isolation to lack of educational personalization.

That development, in turn, has driven a distrust in a college education, and higher education in general, that’s larger than ever. Why would a student enroll in a school, committing to spend tens of thousands in tuition, when their education is not beneficial or tailored to them?

It’s an institutional challenge, but one with real marketing implications. Recruitment messages, after all, are often the first touch point your college or university will have with a prospective student. The difference in first impression between a standard mass mailing and a customized message to that student’s needs and desires can be the difference between a positive or negative perception of your school.

That’s what makes personalization such a crucial part of the higher education strategy in 2021 and beyond. Below, we’ll discuss just what tactics you can use to get your strategy moving in that direction.

List Segmentation: The Foundation of Marketing Personalization

Personalizing your recruitment efforts can only be possible with a strong database in place. Fortunately, CRM systems like HubSpot, Slate, Ellucian Recruit, and Target X all deliver solutions specifically designed to create that foundation.

The key here is turning your CRM database into a single source of truth, a profile of prospective students that captures both their basic demographics and any other information they have provided on your website or do your admissions counselors. That’s when effective list segmentation can begin.

Beyond basic student type (first-time freshman, transfer student, or graduate student), we’ve seen higher education institutions segment their lists in a wide variety of ways:

  • By geographic location, like counselor territory, state, county, or distance from campus
  • By type of high school (public or private)
  • By intended major or academic interest
  • By personal interests and extracurricular activities
  • And more.

Each of these options allows for personalized messaging specifically designed to increase attention and awareness. As the below tactics show, a strong database and list segmentation even allows dynamic insertion of custom values that speak directly to each recipient.

Modernizing Classic Recruitment: Personalized Printing

Print has long been the backbone of higher education marketing and recruitment. We don’t see that changing anytime soon, with the messages communicated (from a full list of majors to the in-depth view at a campus experience) remaining core pillars in the recruitment funnel.

But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t benefit from an update.

The internet is full of stories of students being overloaded with print materials. One high school senior estimated getting 50 pounds of physical mail pieces in just three months. Personalization can help colleges stand out in that noise.

The key is a process called variable data, which allows for a degree of mass customization not traditionally seen in printing. It allows for customized text, layouts, and even visuals in a single print run, essentially creating individual mail pieces without the need to print and mail each piece individually.

Adding the recipient’s first name or major on a postcard is only the beginning. We’ve heard one print vendor present the opportunity to create custom viewbooks, with entire spreads on specific sports or majors inserted depending on the individual student receiving the piece.

The Age of the Digital Viewbook: Website Personalization

Speaking of viewbooks: website personalization is upon us. In higher education, that’s perhaps best exemplified in the rise of the digital viewbook.

How much does website personalization matter? These statistics shed a light on the answer:

Higher education is at a unique advantage here, largely because of the information you have about your prospects. From their location to their high school, interests, and more, you are able to use the segmentation above to turn your website into a personalized tool for each of your visitors.

That sounds beneficial for typical landing pages like your homepage or admissions visit page, but its benefits are especially pronounced when it comes to digital viewbooks.

These viewbooks, of course, are books in name only. No longer do top-performing institutions simply upload their print materials to flip book pages like Issuu for digitization. Instead, they are comprehensive digital experience, all personalized specifically to each visitor.

Carnegie Mellon University, for instance, allows viewers to choose what academic and extracurricular areas they’re interested in. After entering their personal information, prospects can then see exactly what they came to the website for, rather than flipping through 50+ print pages.

Newark Academy chooses a similar but simplified approach, with the digital viewbook organized specifically to make information as easy and straightforward as possible to find.

Paid Campaigns With Personalization in Mind: Segmented Digital Ads

Time for a pop quiz: which Facebook ad campaign do you think would result in more clicks and campus visits?

  1. One ad promoting your beautiful campus, delivered to all high school students within your typical draw area.
  2. Or 3 unique ads, split up between promoting your virtual tour for prospects further away, transfer information days for transfer students, and daily visits for your local prospects.

The answer is obvious. The good news: all digital ad channels typically used in higher education, from Facebook to Instagram and from Snapchat to Google, allow for such nuanced targeting that personalizing your ads through effective segmentation is a breeze.

Look no further than this infographic of all of Facebook’s targeting options for further insight into the possibilities. Once you build segmented ad campaigns, you can tailor your messaging and visuals within these ads specifically to speak to each prospect’s unique needs and preferences.

A number of universities have already put this segmentation practice into action. One regional public university, for example, shows Culinary-focused or humanities-driven Facebook ads based on interests, along with unique ad sets specifically for undecided students.

A New Type of Visit: Micro Recruitment Events

Traditionally, colleges and universities have had immense success with large-scale admissions events. Open Houses and Admitted Student Days with hundreds of attendees were a great way to showcase community while getting the core message across to as many prospects (and their families) as possible.

Those times are likely to be over. While Open Houses may yet make a comeback in the near future, COVID-19 has demanded significant limitations on any kind of large-scale group events. The necessary adjustments have resulted in some of the most creative types of recruitment events yet.

For the sake of this post, let’s call these events micro recruitment events. They’re short, sweet, and tailored specifically to a small segment of prospects. We’ve seen examples range widely:

  • 30 minute financial aid sessions specifically for FAFSA filers.
  • Spanish-language virtual campus tours specifically for Latino students and their families.
  • 15 minute “mini classes” in specific majors to showcase the academic atmosphere.
  • Hour-long student panels with Q&A sessions, again often focused on major or academic interest.
  • Student organization and Greek Like showcases

None of them provide a comprehensive experience or explanation of your university’s value proposition. Instead, they accomplish it together. As a type of on-demand approach to admissions events, they allow students to pick and choose exactly what they want (and need) to learn about your institution before they apply or commit.

Personalizing the Messenger: Post-Admit Communication

Finally, let’s hone in on an area that has become increasingly important in recent years: yield season, the time to convince admitted students to submit their tuition deposit and sign up for orientation.

Some colleges and universities have always prioritized this aspect of the recruitment funnel. For others, the 2019 change in NACAC’s Ethics Guidelines, allowing universities to go after and potentially “poach” students who have already committed to other schools, have been an abrupt awakening. Either way, post-admit communications matter, and personalization is more key than ever.

This is the time when your prospects expect you to know about them. After all, they’ve already provided all of their information in the application. Colleges and universities that don’t leverage this information in the form of relevant, customized, communication risk losing attention and credibility.

One way many universities are responding to that challenge, other than the tactics we’ve already outlined above, is through the sending of the various messages. Again, the opportunities range widely:

  • Personalized admissions video messages
  • Welcome letters by the university president or college dean can make newly admitted students feel special.
  • Personal phone calls from the department chair or a faculty member of the student’s chosen major can go in depth on academics.
  • Information from student government or a student organization president can bring a peer-to-peer aspect into the communication.
  • Student panels or even social media takeovers increase authenticity of the sender.

At this stage of the funnel, it’s no longer just about hearing from university admissions offices. It’s about making sure members of the campus community relevant to each individual student send information and introduce themselves appropriately.

Are You Ready for a More Personal Higher Education Marketing Strategy?

Higher ed marketing has always been complex. In a post-pandemic world, it has only become more complicated, with personalization becoming increasingly important to get and keep your prospects’ attention.

Fortunately, you can accomplish that goal through a variety of channels, from print to digital ads, your website, and even your recruitment events. You do have to get it right, of course.

That means building a strategy specifically tailored to your audience, as well as the moment. That strategic approach, in turn, can play a core role in attracting prospective students to your institution and keeping your recruitment funnel effective.

Ready to learn more about the process? Download our eBook today. And of course, you can always contact us for more information and insights into higher education marketing for 2021 and beyond.