Published on 2015/10/30
The EvoLLLution | Creating a Strong Student-Customer Experience: How Measurement Underpins Success
The higher education environment is a challenging space for marketers, but institutions can make positive changes around their approaches to student engagement that will have a significant impact on marketing effectiveness.

Higher education institutions today face pressure from a number of different directions. One the one hand, the expectation for a personalized, high-quality student experience is very high as today’s learners have become savvy consumers. On the other hand, budgets are tight and institutions must deliver these high-quality student and customer experiences at a low cost. Finally, the need to drive enrollments is high, which puts a great deal of pressure on marketers. In this interview, Chris Hofmann reflects on some of the core challenges facing higher education marketers today and shares his thoughts on how innovative leaders can overcome these obstacles.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are a few of the core challenges higher education marketers face in getting their message out?

Chris Hofmann (CH): Marketers focused on the traditional 18- to 22-year-old student market have a very different initial starting point than those of us in the non-traditional student space. They have the ability to build a targeted prospect pool from testing agencies, like SAT and ACT, and refine it through modeling. They also have the traditional recruiting sources like particular target high schools where they can do on-the-ground work with counselors and students.

In the non-traditional student market, depending on the program there are few good lists you can buy for direct marketing. You really have to build a list of prospects from diverse and cost-effective sources based on the your program array, be it degree programs or a catalog of credit and non-credit certificates.

Another challenge we marketers all face is proving that what we’re doing has value and is driving business results for the institution. “Getting the message out” is kind of an old school way of thinking about marketing. Today it’s really about getting the right message out to the right prospects at the right time, to not only increase awareness but to capture purchase intent.  It’s essential to have a high degree of relevance to stand out from all the noise consumers face in the marketplace.

The big challenge that all marketers are trying to master today is attribution. Being able to say definitively what marketing approaches are driving revenue. When you’re getting the right people to signal interest in a program, say through a web form completion, it’s critical to determine what marketing investment you made that led this prospective student to your institution, and not just the last click they made, but the whole journey to conversion. Then you can do more of what’s working and less of what’s not working.

Attribution is really the Holy Grail in all of marketing right now and it’s no different for higher education.

Evo: How do these challenges line up against the most common challenges faced by marketers elsewhere in the private sector?

CH: One of the things I’ve seen coming into the higher education space is a mindset difference in terms of thinking about people as customers versus students.

Successful private sector companies put the customer first. They’re focused on the customer journey and they’re investing a great deal into making sure the customer experience is outstanding because they realize—unless they have a monopoly—that consumers have many choices and a poor customer experience will cost them.

In higher education, especially on the public side, there’s a nomenclature difference. You rarely hear students referred to as customers even though that’s what they really are. If you’re not viewing or treating a student as a customer across institutional touch points, you open up a lot of opportunities for dissatisfaction.

Much of this has to do with the constraints inherent in the delivery model of higher education, where the entity delivering the product—faculty—can and usually do operate beyond management oversight. With academic freedom, faculty have the right to run their classrooms and courses in the way they see fit, based on their subject matter expertise and individual approaches. This can lead to a lot of variety in the student/customer experience and less predictable outcomes.

In the private sector, there’s more control over that customer experience and it can be managed across the lifecycle of the consumer’s engagement with the product. In higher education, that’s a bigger challenge because of the way the product has traditionally been delivered.

Some of the larger private and for-profit players in the online higher ed market tend to have more of a management mindset and a lot more ways of measuring what’s happening in the classroom.

I’m not saying that the customer experience at public sector institutions is worse. In many cases it can be better because you have higher levels of expertise among the faculty. However, other sectors often have greater ability to manage and measure and therefore improve the customer experience.

Ultimately, if you don’t have satisfied customers willing to stand up and say, “I spent this time and money and received these greater benefits” you have nothing to market. It doesn’t matter what sector you’re in.

Evo: What impact does great marketing have on a higher education institution?

CH: To survive, higher education institutions need students to enroll, to persist through their programs and to complete. Today, increasingly, they also need to measure and show career success after graduation. As such, higher education institutions need to have systems and data that monitor and measure the entire student lifecycle and experience.

If there are failures across the student lifecycle, be it in enrollment management, retention or career services, marketing becomes a challenge. In today’s digital world, the buyer is in charge and has many ways of sorting out fact from fiction.

However, when you have a great product, the job of marketing is to tell this story in a compelling way to those who are most likely to benefit from the product being offered. If marketing does this job well, it can go a long way in helping drive short- and long-term institutional goals

Evo: What are a few best practices from the corporate world that higher education marketers should consider adopting into their strategies?

CH: The foundation for marketing is research and understanding consumer needs and motivations and then creating products and services that meet those needs.

Higher education, for the most part, is getting better at this and seeing that the “build it and they will come” model of the past is dead. Program creation has to be market-driven, which means institutions have to find out what people want, why they want it and what they’re hoping to achieve after making their investment of both time and money. Research, therefore, is foundational.

As mentioned earlier, measurement and analysis against goals across the customer/student lifecycle is also critical. There are high-level data that need to be reported out to the NCES that all institutions report on. But there are a lot of measurable events happening within those data that are critical to student success and customer experience.

A lot of institutions struggle to understand the factors driving student success and great customer experiences. That’s why you’re going to see more and more institutions making investments in CRM and other tools. They won’t be simply investing in these systems as marketing, sales and enrollment management tools, but also to monitor activity and behavior across the student lifecycle. Arizona State University, for example, has made a huge investment into putting as much of the student lifecycle on Salesforce as they can. This allows them to add more measurable touch points as well as increased convenience for students that all act to enhance the customer experience. Students have the ability to access needed services more easily, and everything is consolidated into a single record that can be mined and measured, to ultimately optimize the student experience and reduce costs.

Clearer accountability for customer satisfaction across the organization is also important; really understanding who is responsible for what stage of the marketing and enrollment management funnels, as well as for things as far downstream as career services.

Evo: For extensions specifically, how important are customer engagement tools to continually engage with customers over the course of their career to keep them coming back to the university?

CH: CRM is critical for those in the traditional extension continuing education environment because it holds the entire database of existing customers. That’s the institution’s most fruitful pool of customers, because it’s easier to retain existing and past customers than it is to find brand new ones. Our business is continuing education and we want people to keep coming back.

Engagement tools are critical and a lot of people are looking at CRM on the customer acquisition side and just use it as a database for email marketing. It can be a lot more than that. We’re in the process now of putting in our first CRM here at UW-Extension and customizing it to create a student engagement system, which is going to be a whole different use of the CRM.

This is very important for our competency-based initiative, the UW Flexible Option, where we have a different model of student advising, where Academic Success Coaches work closely with students through the self-paced format.

This interview has been edited for length.

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Key Takeaways

  • Delivering a strong customer experience that meets student needs is central to an institution’s capacity to succeed, and that success underpins effective marketing for the institution.
  • Engagement tools go a long way to supporting the goals of retention, completion and future enrollment, which are especially important for Extension units.
  • Collection, measurement and analysis of data are critical at every single level of the student lifecycle and those results should have a significant impact on the ways that institutions engage their learners.

Readers Comments

Christie Bass 2015/10/30 at 8:21 am

I think marketing has become both easier and more difficult in this day and age. There are so many tools at our disposal and so many different ways to reach out, but the flipside of that is that students have just as many ways to reach out on their own and they no longer rely on us to provide them with information.

Amanda Jones 2015/10/30 at 2:42 pm

Students themselves really are the best advertisements. People are best at engaging their peers, and with the aforementioned numerous communication tools at all of our fingertips, giving students an experience they want to talk about is among our top priorities.

Justin 2015/11/02 at 11:46 am

I agree Amanda. Word-of-mouth marketing is always the best channel in terms of generating customers (or students). I was very satisfied with my Master’s in Information Mgmt from Arizona State and have let colleagues know about the program if they are looking for a relevant master’s degree.

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