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How to Deliver Personalized Communications Modern Learner Expect

With students having more options and being smarter consumers than ever, it’s up to individual institutions to deliver personalized communications and get their attention.

Students today are consumers and expect nothing less than the best when it comes to their postsecondary experiences. With all the noise and data in the everyday lives of these learners, it can be a battlefield trying to get through to them. In competing for attention, higher education institutions need to shift their mindset to a more personalized approach. In this interview, Allison Turcio discusses the importance of personalized communications, the challenges that come with implementing them and some examples from higher ed.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important for higher ed to focus on delivering a personalized communications experience during the recruitment cycle?

Allison Turcio (AT): Most people don’t trust advertising in any form—and it’s even truer for Gen Z. People are consuming vast amounts of data every day, from the moment they wake up and grab their phones. There’s so much clutter, and we’re not only competing with other colleges but also things like Netflix, Spotify, Nike, Coca-Cola, etc. Everyone wants the same audience because they’re the consumer audience.

That tells us we need to find another way to stand out. Personalized communications and relationship-building recruitment strategies allow colleges to stand out and make real connections to help students through the admissions process.

Evo: What kind of personalized communications do students expect their institutions to deliver?

AT: Student expectations are built on what they’re getting as consumers in general. Personalized means more than just putting their name in an email. That’s just mail merging, and it’s been around for decades. In fact, it’s less about the actual communication and more about the mentality you adopt around it.

Instead of asking questions about the message we want to send, it’s about what the student wants and needs. What’s the preferred way for them to communicate? Each college will have its own strategy for what communications, but it’s rooted in understanding and knowing the right mentality needed to deliver this level of personalization. If you change your mindset, then you’re putting the student first rather than the college. It’s the best way to approach personalized communications.

Evo: What are some challenges to delivering those personalized communications during the recruitment cycle?

AT: Personalization can be difficult to scale. If you’re getting many responses, then the team responding has to be ready. So, you might have to shift some duties and responsibilities to free up space for relationship building.

There are great examples of this level of communication outside the higher ed space. Back Country has outdoor enthusiasts who act as customer service reps, and they’ll reach out and ask you about how you’re liking the product. They authentically and proactively engage with their customers. There’s also a restaurant called 11 Madison Park in New York City that chats with you to learn more about you so they can design a dining experience specifically catered to you. It’s highly personal and customer-focused, which is a model that can be incorporated into our strategy.

Evo: What are some low-hanging fruit higher ed leaders can use to begin personalizing their communications for their audience?

AT: One way is to write to the students based on what they’ve told you about themselves in the application. Don’t send them something generic like, “I’m so glad you applied,” or drop off communications after they’re admitted. You could write to them about how they stood out on their application. Students tell us a lot on their application, and we can use it to help personalize their experience.

Evo: What impact does personalized communications have on the learner experience, especially during the recruitment cycle?

AT: From our data, student that received personal one-to-one communication from the admissions office were 2.8 times more likely to enroll. We also get plenty of qualitative feedback. Even when students withdraw, they tell us that our communication was very helpful and meaningful to them. They loved the personal interest in them because it made them feel like an individual.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about personalized communication?

AT: We recently built a student-centered marketing plan from soup to nuts for my dissertation. The inspiration came from how we were seeing these personalized communications and its effectiveness. We took that concept and applied it to an entire marketing plan built on student goals. 

Students need to be able to create a vision of their future. They need to find a place where they’ll belong and feel confident that it’s the right choice. They’re afraid to make the wrong choice.

For example, at our institution, we’ve sent flowers if we found out a student had an injury, sent cat memes to those who’ve mentioned cats on their application or helped out students who wanted to bring their horse to school. If a student has a food allergy, we connect them with the right people on campus to ensure their needs are met. Those are just some examples where small personalization can make a big difference to the student.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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