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Tailored Web: Empowering Modern Learners through Personalized Experiences

The experience an institution provides starts with the website. Making it easy to navigate, tailored to users and full of accessible resources is critical to attracting the learners it seeks. 

A personalized web experience is what learners of all ages expect from their institution today. They must be able to find information easily and quickly to make a decision about where they plan to attend. This means higher ed leaders need to home in and invest in their website. In this interview, Stephanie Geyer discusses the importance of personalization in today’s market, what makes a good website and how to overcome some of the common challenges faculty face.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important for higher ed to focus on delivering a personalized web experience?

Stephanie Geyer (SG): A personalized web experience is the name of the game. It’s such a gift to use personalization in higher education because there are so many unique markets out there. A one-size-fits-all approach is archaic to our prospective students and decision influencers.

It’s like buying a new car; it’s a big life purchase and now people can build the car they want online and then find the place that will sell it to them. They’re going to look for the place that will give it to them for an affordable price and within a reasonable amount of time. That’s also true for higher education in many cases. It’s about meeting student expectations and reinforcing the customer service value proposition. Delivering a quality brand experience is essential.

Evo: Why is it so common for institutions to have a poor website experience?

SG: Everything comes down to website management, governance and decision-making at the point where you’re crafting architecture for the website. In a higher ed construct, we have so many markets: prospective students, current students, faculty, staff, alumni, etc. At the University of Montana, we serve students from trades to law and professional studies.

The crux of the problem is establishing the primary user for the website. Hint: It’s prospective students. 

Outdated ideas about how to get users on the site to specific content resources present another problem. When stakeholders insist that their office, program or other resource MUST be available directly from the homepage, it is impossible to create a navigation system that works for the primary market. Further, reverence for the fabled three-click rule also leads to some poor navigation constructs and clunky user experiences. 

We must release some pressure on the homepage and global navigation systems through coaching and governance to educate our internal customers. We must fall in love with our primary market—prospective students. And we must develop strategies for all website stakeholders to create pathways from a variety of digital resources to drive their users to the right resources.

UM had a unique opportunity with the use of our second domain to divert sales (admissions) and marketing to This microsite delivers resources for all our enrollment markets in an engaging and personalized experience that offers a compelling view of the university and anticipates the unique questions each prospective student has at each stage in the process.

Evo: What are the characteristics of a high-quality personal web experience that learners are looking for?

SG: It’s not rocket science in the context of standard operating procedure with marketing. It’s simply about sending the right message in the right moment to the right market. Personalization gives us the opportunity to understand the user and their needs. Montana is a very large and diverse state in terms of quantitative and qualitative demographic aspects. Having the ability to see that someone is from eastern Montana allows us to shape our positioning and messaging around value and outcomes. Prospects from the eastern U.S. or other countries will see a different set of messages and themes to help them orient to the American West in general and Missoula in particular.

Evo: What are some low-hanging fruit for higher ed leaders to begin developing more of that personalized web experience?

SG: It’s important to look at your markets and understand your position in the context of competitors and economic forces in your location. For market expansion strategies, fit, sense of place and outcomes are key themes. If you’re seeking increase market share in-state, then nuanced messages around ROI and affordability pairs well with fit and pride for all aspects of the Treasure State.

Evo: What impact does a personalized experience have, not only on the institution but also on its learners?

SG: Improving enrollment and expanding your market is an important strategy for us. At the end of the day, it comes down to fit. Higher ed marketing is often solely associated with sales or admission functions. But marketing also must hold hands with student success teams and support retention. If we’re personalizing things but aren’t honest and clear about what we offer, then we’re creating chaos. We’re creating discord for students who’ve taken the time and energy and resources to come and enroll and then aren’t satisfied.

That can trickle down through word of mouth and work against branding efforts and ROI messaging. It costs a lot of money to recruit a single student, but if we get fit established early via personalization techniques, then we’ll find the right students who will succeed in their studies and career goals.

Evo: Is there anything else you’d like to add about personalization?

SG: I encourage those in marketing to not be afraid of personalization. Don’t be put off by concerns of the creepy factor or Big Brother watching. Of course, we still must be careful with user data, but the value in the experience we can deliver is important.

Personalization is happening in every other aspect of our lives—like it or not. Standing back in a position of fear isn’t the way to go. We can find an ethical, appropriate way to make use of the data we have rightful access to and use them responsibly. I love that we found a path to do that through Modern Campus with a conscientious approach that delivers the right students to our community.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.