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Digitally Serving a Wider Demographic

When looking at developing programming, look to who your learners are. Now more than ever, colleges need to be able to deliver the right education to a much broader demographic than they have before. 

There’s an unmet accessibility need in communities, and colleges with the right programming and messaging in place are the solution. In the digital environment, prospective students want to access information in a single, easy-to-find place. Without that accessibility, they’ll quickly move on to the next school. Colleges have the resources they need right in front of them—data and employers—to be a part of this solution. In this interview, Melanie Hall discusses the importance of expanding learner demographics, why market data is a must and how to actively engage students through the digital environment. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important to start thinking more expansively about the learner demographics that a college could serve?

Melanie Hall (MH): It comes down to where there is an unmet need in our communities and our populations. The thing I really value about technical education is accessibility. There is a low barrier entry to training. By that very nature, we have to be broad. We have to be available to people of every walk of life. Being on the front end of that is always a challenge, especially right now, because people’s needs have changed from a year ago.

It means being dynamic and pivoting when you need to. But it’s also about using good data. We live in an exciting time for gathering information. It’s almost frightening what level of information we can get with data, but I don’t think we have to be afraid of that. We need to utilize it well. Machine learning can really help institutions like ours understand who has unmet needs. Who should we be talking to? Instead of a buckshot approach, where you throw your message out and hope it sticks somewhere, data helps us better understand where there is opportunity. So, it’s broader, yes, but there’s an opportunity for cultivated reach.

Evo: In thinking about the digital environment’s possibilities, how do marketing tactics change to account for the opportunity but also the challenge as opposed to campaign planning in a more traditional environmental?

MH: On the advertising, messaging, and outreach side, it was always a more-is-more approach in the past. Now, it has to be smart, not just reactive. It’s hard not to be reactive in our climate right now. It’s hard not to put out a ton of messaging to address misunderstandings, but it has to be the right messaging for the right audience.  The messaging I would use for high school students, who can enroll as early as their junior and senior years, is different from what an adult learner needs to hear. Fortunately, here in Utah, there have been fewer job losses than on national levels. Our job here is to make sure the messaging we’re putting out and how we’re putting it out there matches the intended audience. In Utah, we have the Governor’s Office of Economic Development that provides grant opportunities for higher education to offer “up-skilling,” which is targeted to people who already have a good skillset but need specific training to lift or expand their career. It encompasses those displaced due to the pandemic, as well as provide an opportunity for people thinking, “Okay, I’ve been doing this job for a while now, and I’m just not getting any traction with my career. I need to up-skill.” 

When we talk about tactics, one of the tools we’ve used in our campaigns is Google Dynamics. Instead of creating static ads for which the message and image stay the same, Google uses machine learning to create messaging that matches a specific individual. You provide Google with eight images and eight possible headlines. Google then dynamically creates an ad that is served to an individual based on their online and social media activity, behaviors, and interests. 

We’ve seen some good engagement coming from that, and it’s important, but we still have to write good, engaging content. We can’t just let the machine do it all and step back, but I think it’s a great way to reach diverse, prospective students. I will also say in terms of tactics: don’t be afraid to step away from one that’s not working—even if you’ve invested money in it. We’ve seen campaigns that are getting good visibility and clicks, but are not getting enrollments. That means there is something on our end that lost them.

Evo: How important is the website as an engagement mechanism for students and how can we move it from a static environment and turn it into something that’s actively engaging students? 

MH: Labor market data is crucial to tech colleges, and our accrediting bodies require it. It helps our students know where and what industries have jobs and aligns it with the training they need to get one. Labor market data should lead us to improve or expand our offerings. We work with our state’s Department of Workforce Services and the Bureau of Labor Statistics to ensure that we’ve got data that supports what we’re telling them. The problem with data is timing. They like to evaluate and certify data for quite a while before publishing it. 

Right now, in those sources, we’re seeing stuff that is over a year old. We have to also rely on industry partnerships and robust employer advisory committees that tell us what’s really happening on the ground. You must somehow harness all of that on a website. We all know that it takes a lot of time, attention, and money to do it well, but it can’t be a one-and-done thing. It must be dynamic. We just re-did our website less than a year ago, and I’m already ready to do a little bit of a gut job. We’ve got to be willing to adjust where we’re not meeting the user’s expectations and needs.

We’re seeing how they’re moving around our website and the pages that they’re just not spending time on, indicating that it doesn’t have the right content. We’ve got to be willing to admit that and continuously improve those places. We’ve got to make sure that pages have the right information that will allow someone to feel confident to take a step forward. 

Once we’ve captured them, we need to have tools built into pages that can keep the conversation going–whether that’s a robust CRM or an adviser following up. We have to make it absolutely barrier-free because it’s human nature is to doubt ourselves and to put up our own barriers. We, as institutions, need to make sure we’re not adding any. If other resources are needed, whether it’s financial aid or flexibility in schedules, we need to bring that into alignment before we’ve even started that conversation with them.


This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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