Visit Modern Campus

How To Get Students to Engage With Your College Like They Engage With Amazon

The EvoLLLution | How To Get Students to Engage With Your College Like They Engage With Amazon
There are some changes that institutional leaders can make to meet students’ expectations of an Amazon-like experience, but on a more macro scale there are some industry-wide changes that need to take place to create a more student-friendly ecosystem.
eCommerce giants have mastered and remastered the science of leveraging shopper behavior data to engage website visitors and drive sales. Every search entry, page view, click and scroll provides a valuable opportunity for insight into the motivations and interests of shoppers. Sites like Amazon capture, analyze and leverage every one of them on a micro level. This results in experiences that are carefully designed to anticipate shopper behavior, proactively present products to fulfill their specific needs, and create urgency to make a purchase.

This level of intelligence on websites used by shoppers on an often-daily basis has resulted in a shift in consumer expectations that extends across online shopping and exploration experiences. Compared to online retailers like Amazon, big-ticket sellers like real estate agencies, car dealerships and universities deal with longer sales cycles and a smaller customer base. Each prospective customer presents an opportunity to secure a relatively large percentage of annual revenue.

Delivering an Amazon-Like Experience in a Higher Ed Environment

Let’s focus in on higher ed shoppers. While virtually any prospective student is comparing options at some level, post-traditional learners have become a focal point in higher education as a critical audience for meeting future enrollment growth and fiscal stability. Institution proximity, while still important, is of diminishing importance as the number of remote programs rapidly increases. This population is presented with countless online options from across the country and around the world. Therefore, meeting the evolving expectations of prospective learners to keep them engaged and interested once they’ve reached the .edu site has become vital to survival in an increasingly competitive environment. Here are a few practices from eCommerce that are making their way into the higher education shopping experience:

Give them what they want…quickly.

People expect to be able to quickly navigate to the program information that’s relevant to their interests, yet some higher ed websites still present long lists of program names in alphabetical order, or categorize programs using internal naming conventions. However, in the past year or two we’ve seen many websites add interactive program search functionality. Program name search bars, filtering by category or interest, and searching by related career paths is far more common on academic pages across higher ed than before.

Listen to them carefully.

It has become expected that a shopper’s activity on a website results in more personalized recommendations and the proactive presentation of information related to what a user has previously explored. Many institutions are still presenting general retargeting banner ads to users, even after they’ve navigated to a specific program page. However, the past few years have shown a sharp increase in the number of institutions presenting extensive, program-specific banner ad sets to site visitors after their visit, based on the individual interests expressed by their navigation on the .edu.

If they like this, they might like that.

Amazon proactively gives shoppers multiple options for fulfilling their needs as they explore products. As prospective students explore institutions from across the country (not just those in their area), program options to address specific needs become increasingly important, and institutional brand power diminishes. As users navigate, they expect the .edu to give them information that may be of interest based on where they’ve navigated. As a result, many institutions list related program options on each program page to ensure prospective learners can see all relevant offerings at their institution. Some institutions have created program comparison features so prospects can view details side-by-side to understand differences between various offerings.

Barriers to Delivering the Amazon Experience in Higher Ed

In the last year or so, interesting exploration tools have popped up on far more .edu sites than we’ve seen in the past. Yet generally, higher education seems behind the curve in implementing the most modern technologies to deliver truly intuitive, informative experiences to prospective learners. Cloud-based technology and simpler approaches to integration have made progress accessible for institutions, but major barriers remain an issue.

Legacy Systems

It’s far from being as simple as choosing to implement improvements or not. Legacy communication systems are frequently deeply embedded across various institutional functions. I often say the “roots are wrapped around the pipes”—these systems are an intertwined mess of processes and systems. Many departments just work around it, implementing autonomous systems of their own, which adds to the complications.

With this as a foundation, moving to a streamlined system that pulls in data from multiple sources (marketing, admissions, academic services) in an aligned way, not to mention processing and leveraging the data collected, becomes a massive undertaking.

Competing Priorities

The fundamental issue is prioritization. Higher ed’s ever-present struggle between academic and administrative functions includes competition for budget dollars and staff time. As a result, most institutions outsource marketing functions to vendors, where the necessary systems and functions are already in place and shared across clients. There is great value in doing so, but it results in an inherent divide between the institution’s internal staff and the communication of information to potential students. In my experience, true integration with vendors is incredibly difficult.

The retail giants referenced earlier are digital supermarkets: vehicles designed to quickly move products developed by manufacturers to consumers. In higher ed, the heart of the organization lies in the academic content and instructional experience delivered to students. Marketing is a function, often a small one, serving the academic units.

The path to progression in the digital shopping experience lies in necessity. I believe this is what has driven recent improvements in .edu site features and experiences. As the academic “heart” of the institution is threatened by competition and a diminishing student base, greater investments (of both money and time) in the reconstruction of websites, communication channels and other marketing functions become justified, even necessary, for survival.

Where to compare?

While individual institutions may be making progress with their websites, prospective students remain almost completely underserved in their exploration of program offerings across a comprehensive set of institutions. One edtech company started out building this for online programs a few years back but changed course. Unless I’m missing something, we are yet to see a widely used, consumer-driven central source of information for higher ed programs. By consumer-driven, I’m referring to customer reviews playing a central role in the shopping experience. Once a critical mass is reached, ongoing customer reviews can shape the experience of users, evolving navigation as consumers provide feedback that can ultimately outweigh the impact of ads purchased and presented by the highest bidder.


If Amazon has such an incredible platform for delivering online shopping experiences, and higher ed is an increasingly competitive industry ripe for marketing disruption, can we look to them to take on the challenge of serving the educational consumer? Perhaps leveraging the Amazon brand may provide a path to quickly capturing the critical mass required to build a consumer-driven exploration portal.

Author Perspective: