Published on 2018/11/13
The EvoLLLution | How eCommerce Best Practices Impact Student Expectations and Enrollment
Today’s students view education as a commodity, as well as an experience. As models for online recruitment and enrollment evolve, postsecondary institutions must be prepared to offer the same high quality online experience they expect from online retailers.

Online retailing is changing how we shop, work and interact as consumers—and higher education is not immune to its influence. In this interview, Jeff Fanter discusses how eCommerce is changing the way postsecondary institutions market, recruit and enroll students, and argues that colleges and universities must keep pace with students’ changing expectations around immediacy, security and access, both within and outside the classroom.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How are students’ expectations of their college experience shaped by the experience they get from companies like Amazon and Uber?

Jeff Fanter (JF): Major eCommerce companies like Amazon and Uber provide an instant response, instant gratification and instant service mindset.  Even if something doesn’t arrive immediately, the consumer receives a confirmation that the product or service is on its way. This expectation of immediacy carries over into how students expect things to go when enrolling online.

I’ll give you an example. We get people applying to Ivy Tech who will telephone our call center and say, “I applied. Have I been accepted?” The agent on the phone will ask, “When did you apply?” The student will respond, “Twenty minutes ago.” They’re expecting to get an instant response, but there’s still a process that needs to take place before they get an email saying whether or not they’ve been accepted.

That may sound a bit silly, but I was recently speaking at a conference where I asked the audience, “Did you go online to book a hotel room to come to this conference?” Of course, everybody raised their hand. I said, “Did you receive a booking confirmation within fifteen minutes of booking online?” Again, nearly everybody raised their hand. So, why wouldn’t our students think that they should receive an instant response when they apply to college? This is particularly true in the community college setting, because so many of our learners are first-generation and they may not know that an application takes time on our end. Online companies have set this expectation, not only for higher ed but for other industries, of an immediate response, even if that response is just to say that their information was received and they’re going to hear from us soon.

This expectation also feeds into the online classroom experience. Students want instant responses from professors. They want to know that when they ask a question, it’s not going into a black hole; it’s reaching someone who is going to answer. I teach a class online, and often, the positive comments I receive from my students have nothing to do with my teaching—they’re about my communication style. Not that I’m a poor teacher, but students really appreciate that I respond quickly to their questions, particularly when they have a short window of time to complete homework or assignments.

Evo: What are a few other key characteristics of the shopping experience provided by these kinds of eCommerce and industry leaders?

JF: The digital space gives companies the ability to truly tailor their products and services to the consumer, which is why so many of big-box department stores are shutting down. Online retailers take the information that you give them and use it to predict what products you might be looking for, or to recommend products or services you didn’t know you needed through any number of channels, including emails or ads. That kind of targeted marketing is something we all can learn from, because it allows you to serve individuals on their own terms.

The online world is radically changing marketing strategies for different industries. Soon, Amazon will be telling me what my kids want for Christmas. It will package the whole list for me. I’ll press one button and receive a box with all my kids’ Christmas gifts. We’re not too far off from that.

We are trying to use those same tactics in our digital marketing strategy. Online retailers are very good at using a customer’s historic data to predict, and then feed back, what they believe he or she will be looking for next. That’s something we can use in higher education.

Learn how colleges and universities can use eCommerce best practices to better serve students

Evo: What does it take to deliver an integrated, seamless, sensible and convenient experience in the postsecondary environment?

JF: Here at Ivy Tech, we’re in the process of starting to develop our own app. While apps are not new, too many institutions see them as essentially glorified websites that take you to all the resources that already exist on the web.

Our approach is different. We’re using what we know about our students to develop an app that will be of real use to them. Let’s say an entry-level student comes to us to take refresher courses. Based on their prior performance we might know that they are an SAP (Satisfactory Academic Progress) student, which means they’re at risk of losing their financial aid. We already have that information within our Student Information System.

There’s a way to use that information to feed relevant content back to the student via an app or an automated email. We can specifically target students who fall into that SAP risk zone and feed them information about how to find out how to fill out a FAFSA PR, or about a workshop telling them how to keep themselves one step ahead of SAP-ing out. They don’t need to see that information until it’s relevant to them.

That’s going to become increasingly important in the future: feeding people information based on what’s relevant to them. We’re doing this now based on what they look at, but we can start to feed them specific advertisements that relate to the content they’re looking at on our website. For example, if we see from an IP address that a potential student has been to our nursing page multiple times, guess what the next digital ad they’re going to see on ESPN or Disney’s page is going to be? Look how great Ivy Tech’s nursing program is!

We’ve got to capture that type of information and pay attention to it, because then we’re making ourselves more relevant to prospective learners, as opposed to just raising our hand and saying, “Hey, we’re Ivy Tech, we’re here.” People know we’re here already. Why do they want to come through our door? Why do they need to take advantage of our services? There are ways to get the right information into the right hands. Our IT folks meet with Amazon and Google regularly to learn how we can use our data to be more proactive in reaching current and potential students.

Evo: What are the limits of the lessons that colleges can learn from companies like Amazon when it comes to delivering a great postsecondary experience?

JF: There is a fine line in digital marketing where you can go from knowing just enough information about a customer to knowing too much, and it can make people very reserved about the information that they share. When you get over-the-top aggressive and begin over-communicating with potential or current students, it can quickly become bothersome. When you reach that point, the student cuts off the channel that we’ve spent all this time trying to build.

We’ve all experienced it, where people have concerns about the security of their information because the marketing gets too targeted. Quite frankly, it can get almost creepy. People begin to say, “You know too much about me, so now I’m not going to share my information with you.” It’s a balancing act, and we have to learn how to hit that balance.

Evo: How important is data security from a marketing perspective? How important is it to be able to say your institution can protect its learners and their sensitive data?

JF: It’s extremely important. Let me give you an example. We do a lot of dual credit programs with local high schools, which means there are courses taught in high schools that are aligned with our curriculum so that students can get high school and college credit at the same time. Obviously, we have information on these high school students. We have no idea if they intend to go to Ivy Tech.

When we started trying to recruit those students to Ivy Tech, we had a few cases where parents reached out and said, “Look, when my son or daughter signed up for this class, they didn’t sign up to be recruited by your institution. Stop bothering them.” The trouble was, we didn’t pay close enough attention to the birth year on those students’ registration profiles when we were making recruitment calls. We were calling them in the middle of the day, when they were in school. That was a mistake we made, and we learned it: Pay attention to the data. If you’re going to call them, call them in the evening when they’re not at school.

Data is a very high priority for our institution, as it should be for all institutions. Our IT team is phenomenal in prioritizing information security. We have to protect any information that current or prospective students provide to us. Security is a high priority and it needs to be a high priority for everybody.

Evo: Is there an opportunity to provide students with a single account that stores information so that they can use it over the course of their career as they upskill, perhaps to register more quickly when they stop out and come back? 

JF: Yes. In fact, we’re exploring the concept of the single account.

Imagine you’re a student picking five classes for a semester at college. It’s not always easy, because you’ve got to weed through different online pages and pathways to get to the courses you need. What if we flipped the coin and said, “You’ve indicated what your program is; tell us when you’re free to take classes.” You might block out Thursdays because you don’t have childcare, and block out Tuesdays from 12 to 4 because you have to work. Press a button, and then we’ll give you five ideal schedules based on the courses we know you need, and based on when you tell us you’re free. Hit one button, and you’re registered for those five classes.

That’s the model we have to move towards, and we’re exploring how to best do it. We also want to look at how we can take that one step further, by linking it to our bookstore so that, after you’ve registered, you can click one button to buy all your books.

As consumers, we already do this every day. You can make a grocery list online and someone will put your groceries together and deliver them. That’s what students are expecting of higher education. It’s not about when we offer the classes—it’s about when they can take them.

Evo: Why is it so important to pay attention to the enrollment and registration experience that an institution provides to its prospective learners?

JF: I think it’s fair to say that a student looks at higher education not only as an experience, but also as a commodity. They’re purchasing a product, which is knowledge, and they can choose whether or not to purchase it from our institution. They can choose to go elsewhere. So why wouldn’t we make the purchasing process—that is, the enrollment process—as easy as possible?

When I sold my last house, I signed the sale documents on my phone. Why shouldn’t students be able to do the same thing when they enroll in college? When you can do everything else on a phone, from buying a house or a car to getting a hotel room or planning your next vacation, why shouldn’t higher education be moving in the same direction? We shouldn’t be surprised that students don’t want to have to come to campus to drop off registration papers. That’s why it’s important from a marketing perspective. We can get them all excited about coming to school here, but if they’re working adults and they don’t have the time to come do the things we want them to do on campus to get enrolled, then we may lose them to another institution that better accommodates their needs.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Key Takeaways

  • By using information on demographics and shopping patterns, online retailers can best predict what consumers need and want—lessons that can be applied to the course registration process.
  • While tailored digital marketing strategies can be used to great effect, institutions must avoid over-communicating or else students might find their efforts too intrusive.
  • As online retailers shape students’ expectations around immediacy and convenience, postsecondary institutions must develop strategies and services that align with eCommerce best practices.