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The Art of Personalization: Communicating Effectively in Higher Education

Communicating an institution’s offerings and personalizing engagement to attract students and retain them throughout their learning journey.  

Why should higher ed leaders care about personalized communication?

After all, prospective students are going to apply anyway, right? Don’t our brand, rankings, location and more ensure a new pipeline of students each year?

Stop me if you’ve heard that line of reasoning before as a shield for anything.

We live in a post-COVID world alongside looming demographic shifts, generational changes in students’ expectations for engagement and growing questions about the value of higher education. With more online programs and non-degree options each year, students have more choice than ever on where and how they learn.

They also have higher expectations from the institutions they choose to engage with. They expect to find meaningful information about our institution quickly and easily (what programs are available, the costs, the outcomes, etc.). They want to feel heard and understood, and when they reach out for questions, they expect an immediate response that speaks to their specific needs. And if we can’t meet those basic needs, then they’re off to somewhere else that can.

So, no. As leaders, we can’t take anything and anyone for granted.

That’s why it’s so important to meet students where they are, to connect with them as individuals along their journey.

As marketers, we need to recognize that students, not our institutions, are the heroes of their stories. We’re just hoping to play a small role by being available at the right time and place, helping students find the educational experience that best fits their goals and reducing friction along the way.

Three Perspectives on Personalized Communication

One of the ways to do achieve this goal is personalized communication, and we approach it from three perspectives at Rutgers Business School (RBS).

Full disclosure: It’s important to acknowledge that we have the benefit of hindsight in how we describe our approach and experiences in 2023, compared to what we planned and learned over time in the last five to ten years when we first started down this road. So, my advice is to focus on progress, not perfectly knowing every step of the way.

1. Strategy

First, we started with a strategy and an assessment of our capabilities, and we revisited those capabilities each year. As is the case for many institutions, our resources are finite, so we need to be clear about our goals and outcomes and how we’re strategically utilizing the resources available to us. That includes understanding what our marketing technology stack is and isn’t capable of (e.g., CRM, marketing automation, website, etc.) through a combination of in-house knowledge and external experts who can help answer those questions. Having that strategic and technical roadmap is key.

2. Tactics

Second, we dove into specific tactics we could achieve as a team, again rooted in strategy and realism. At a high level, that means communicating more general information about RBS at the beginning of a relationship and personalizing that communication as we engage with and learn about the student.

For example, one of our most important data points is the program in which a student is most interested, and we incorporate that into our web forms. In most cases, we don’t need to explicitly ask for that answer either. If a student is viewing our full-time MBA webpages and proceeds to fill out an inquiry form, we infer from the program they were looking at their primary program of interest. The form simply asks for additional information such as their name and email address.

Once we know their primary program of interest, our communication becomes more personalized to their specific needs.

I’d like to give a special shoutout to my friend and former colleague Hannah Murphy, who was instrumental in leading our digital advertising and communication efforts for many years and helped to build our process to where it is today.

As part of those efforts, she helped build out hundreds of personalized email communications informed by the student’s program of interest as well as other key factors. For example, we utilized the time of year when the student first engaged with us to influence communication around upcoming admissions events and application deadlines.

We also asked for location information on our web forms and used that information to communicate specific events and benefits tailored to New Jersey students, international students and locations our admissions officers were planning to visit.

Based on the student’s application status, we utilized that information to offer advice and better support them in the application process or to share what comes next as an admitted student.

In summary, creating pathways for students to engage and share information while demonstrating how that information helps us better serve their needs is a crucial and ongoing priority for us, and we have multiple ways of doing that.

3. Break down the silos

The third point I’ll highlight is that our communications and marketing team’s efforts do not exist in a vacuum. We work very collaboratively with academic program directors and current students, admissions officers and our IT partners. Together, we’ve implemented workflows for students to engage with program directors as another layer of our broader communications and engagement strategy. And we’re taking that to the next level this fall by integrating more one-on-one conversation opportunities into our personalized communication.

All these actions come back to how we engage students on our website, underscoring how important websites are in the student journey.

While we’ve had a lot of success, we recognize that certain areas need improvement and personalized communication is not without its challenges.

Having a strategy and knowledge of what marketing technology platforms can and can’t do requires expertise, which has to come from somewhere. And even with a degree of knowledge, we may not have the technology.

For example, we’re not utilizing personalization on our website to influence content based on repeat visits or other anonymous cookie data. We simply don’t have the technology or resources to push in that direction yet, so we rely on a flexible content strategy informed by the persona data we collect and manually make content updates throughout the year. Having the right technology is a significant factor in the success or failure of personalized communication.

Additionally, having in-house or external staff implement the strategy and utilize available technology can make or break personalization efforts. This aspect can be particularly challenging for small teams and with dozens of other priorities.

For higher ed leaders who can overcome these challenges, however, and truly connect with students on a personal level, the benefits are enormous for both the student and the institution.

In closing, let’s remember that we are here to help students on their journey. To help solve a need. They’re not just another number; they have their own goals, interests and stories to tell.

So yes, if we truly care about helping students, we should care about personalized communication.

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