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[From the Archives] Leading Strong Marketing Initiatives with Personalization

Institutions need new and innovative marketing tactics to attract and retain the modern learner, and it starts with delivering a personalized experience. 

Strong marketing initiatives are the way to catch the attention of modern learners in this new digital era. They expect to have the same experience Uber and Amazon provide them in all aspects of their lives, and higher education needs to adapt to this personalized experience. In this interview, Eric Hazen discusses the importance of personalization in marketing higher ed, how to direct the right marketing to the right audience and the impact of personalization on student enrollment and retention. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is personalization so important for higher education marketing?

Eric Hazen (EH): So many reasons—where do you even start on that one? In Michigan, at least, we have a big demographic challenge; we just don’t have enough high school graduates. At the same time, we have a huge density of higher ed options. Not enough students to go around and a ton of schools competing for them—it’s intense. Traditionally, when we’ve talked about competition, we’ve looked down the road. Just south of us is a big competitor, up north is another. Then, we’ve got the big behemoths in Michigan, U of M and Michigan State. 

New competition we’re finally starting to acknowledge are non-academic entities like YouTube, Codecademy, LinkedIn learning—all these non-traditional educational opportunities that require so much less financial and time investment financially. I’m taking a JavaScript course through Udemy that cost me a hundred bucks. I’m getting a fantastic experience, not unlike what I experienced as an undergrad. It’s great. Totally get why people would take it. But what that course doesn’t have is, when I’m confused after the lecture, office hours or the ability to chat with my professor in the hallway. For me, and I think for most students, those opportunities to make surprising and exciting connections are usually the, “Oh, now I get it” moments. That’s the ticket right there—I get the subject because this professor gets me and they’re personalizing their content to me. Our brand perception research has told us that a huge portion of what students like about Ferris is that personalized vibe. 

The tools that Modern Campus is bringing out now are allowing us to show instead of tell in a way we haven’t been able to before. We’re able to create an experience similar to the one our students get here. And knowing that all our prospective student journeys start on the website, the ability to personalize the website is critical.

Evo: How important is it for you to keep track of trends in the consumer space when it comes to building the experience you’re trying to offer, given that the folks you’re engaging with are seasoned online consumers?

EH: When somebody comes to our website and fills out an RFI form, they’re expecting the Amazon experience, not the higher ed experience. And we’re aware of that. I took over this role last August, coming from an eCommerce background, so that’s the perspective I’m trying to inject into what we’re doing. We need to be nimble, customer-responsive. Even talking about a prospective student as a customer is something that makes people uncomfortable around here. But if you start thinking about them as somebody you’re here to serve, things change a little bit.

We just onboarded a new employee, who asked me, “Who should I be looking at that is doing really cool stuff?” And I said, “Not other dot EDUs. Go look at dot coms. Go look at like the pet supply site my wife orders from all the time. Go look at what Amazon is doing. Go look at what boutique eCommerce shops are doing.” That’s where innovation is happening, and innovation is what we need to compete in this uber competitive market.

Evo: What are some key strategic priorities that higher education marketing leaders should focus on today?

EH: Higher ed has not prioritized the user experience, especially with its digital presence. When I stepped in at Ferris, the first thing we did was implement a new template for the entire site. We decided to do it manually because it would force us to look at all 15,000 pages and decide what content we needed to keep and question whether that content served the customer. In so many cases, it didn’t. And a lot of that content is still there.

It’s still a higher ed website. It’s going to be bloated. It’s going to have stuff that doesn’t align with our business goals—that’s just a reality. But we’re moving that needle ever so slowly toward serving the prospective student. And strategically that needs to be the focus, figuring out how we focus on a prospective student user experience on the website. That started for us with the template change, and now we’re about 80% through, so we’ll be really pleased if we finish this conversion before the end of the year. Once that’s done, we can really start to focus on removing friction from conversion points on the site. 

Content is king. Content still rules. Once we complete this template conversion, we’re going to really be able to dive into the site’s content to make sure it’s adapted to prospective students and not our advisory board, for example.

We need to improve the site from an SEO standpoint, from a user experience standpoint, but also from an accessibility standpoint. Can a screen reader access this so that we don’t end up with an OCR complaint? Or is this accessible from a socioeconomic standpoint? Can somebody who doesn’t have a degree understand this content and take the next step? Strategically, that’s where we’re at—getting our editors and our content contributors to a point where they’re thinking about all of this, not just throwing content up on the site and hoping it works.

Evo: How do you resolve that tension when it comes to directing the website toward the audience most influenced by it?

EH: I have observed many of my colleagues throw their hands up and say, “Just create an enrollment-focused subdomain. Let everybody else deal with the main domain, and we’ll figure it out on the subdomain.” I can end up there at some point, maybe even in the next 6 to 12 months, but I also don’t want to have a subdomain just to fix our user experience.

When I look at our homepage, I often think, this is the content for the prospective student, this is for the parent and this for the influencer. And I’ve been really lucky that my leadership has never pushed me to go beyond those key audiences. I’ve never been told by my leadership, “Hey, we need this up here because it’s going to make the board happy,” or “We need this up here because the president really wants it up there.” Those folks provide input, and it’s helpful because they have a larger viewpoint than we do, but we’ve been really lucky to have never been pushed in that way. 

But everybody’s going to think their content is always the most important. The College of Business is not going to be pleased if we focus on the College of Arts and Sciences. Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to explain to people for the last year that 97% of our entrances are on a page other than the homepage. So, it’s an education thing, a viewpoint thing, but I don’t have a great solution yet.

We’re excited about how the shortcuts that the personalization tools Modern Campus is bringing out are going to give us the flexibility to serve our many, many audiences.

Evo: As you guys roll out more and more personalization across the website, what impact do you expect it to have on enrollment and retention?

EH: What we’re really charged up about is known user personalization. That’s going to be really game-changing. We have a very robust CRM that we’re excited to use. We’re also collecting data from students all the time through things like RFI forms or applications. And I think they’re good with that as long as we’re using it to provide value. Right now, we’re not really using data to provide them with value.

Once we can deploy known user personalization and use that data to surface the links, resources, whatever, that are important to you, we’ll be providing value. Right now, it’s so one-sided. You’re giving us all of this information, and we’re what? Sending you emails that have your name at the top? Great. It’s not a conversation, and we’re hoping to do that with known user personalization.

One of the experiments we did was with orientation. We needed to push more students through orientation because our numbers were lower than we wanted. So, we created four different variants of orientation-based CTAs for the homepage that built on their urgency. The first time you get there, it’s like, “Hey, have you completed orientation yet? You might want to think about it.” Next time, little more aggressive: “You need to be done with orientation by this date or else.” By the time you get to the fourth variant, it’s urgent: “You don’t want to be the one who misses out.”

I loved the way I was able to use the Omni CMS personalization tools to build on visits while letting me personalize according to whether the visitor made it to the orientation page was killer. We were able to see that fewer users were getting to the third, fourth variant of content. The CTRs for those calls to action went through the roof. 

Evo: What advice do you have for other higher ed marketing leaders looking to launch and scale personalization initiatives?

EH: First thing I would say is Ferris faces a unique challenge that largely has to do with the market conditions in Michigan—and everything has a little COVID twist right now. We are having no trouble attracting interest, but we’re struggling with ‑turning those applications into butts in seats. And we really believe that personalization will help us meet that challenge for all the reasons I just expressed, but we’re not going to meet it without collaborating closely with our admissions team. So, that would be my number one piece of advice: Collaborating with your partners on campus is the only way to make personalization work.

For us, it was with admissions that we need to partner. We needed to identify the conversion points, what we want them to do, what we call a conversion. Then, once we get into known user personalization, admissions runs our CRM. If we’re going to make that work, we need to be best friends with our admissions team. There’s always going to be tension there because their goals are slightly different from ours, but in the end, all of us want butts in seats. That connects us. 

Another issue is current students knowing things about us that prospective students don’t because we’re not telling our story well enough. We often consider ourselves kind of a hidden gem because once a student gets here, they love it here. And the only way we know that is because we know our audience. We’ve done research, conducted focus groups, gotten to know them well enough to personalize content that makes sense to them. If you don’t know your audience, personalization is going to do you zero good. So, invest in that research. 


Learn more about how Ferris State University increased their website clickthrough rate by 2800%. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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