Published on 2012/11/19

Becoming a Data-Driven Organization: Evolving the Continuing Education Unit

The Data Crunchers team has helped the Stanford Center for Professional Development understand the outcomes of their marketing initiatives and their work helps define the goals and viability of future marketing activities.

In an increasingly competitive education and training landscape, lifelong learning providers must seek novel ways to attract and engage potential students. Stanford University’s School of Engineering, through its extended education unit, the Stanford Center for Professional Development (SCPD), has developed a multipronged marketing strategy to expand its future market and attract the right students to its programs. The SCPD has learned a number of key lessons in developing and executing its marketing strategy. In this article, I will outline our new focus on the customer lifecycle and data analytics, which has helped propel enrollments as well as allowed for an analysis of student behavior that guides future marketing investments.

The Stanford Center for Professional Development (SCPD) annually delivers 35 part-time Master of Science degrees, 222 graduate and professional courses, and 23 graduate and professional certificates to technical professionals, managers and executives from more than 800 companies worldwide. Courses are delivered online via streaming video, on-campus at Stanford, and at company worksites. In addition to its fee-based portfolio, which includes 10,000 hours of online video-based education, the SCPD portfolio also includes Stanford seminars, symposia and conference proceedings that are distributed online at no cost. Over 12,000 industry students from 40 countries enroll annually in graduate and professional education courses delivered by the SCPD.

Every year, the SCPD is held accountable to the following criteria in its support of industry and university collaborations:

  • Promote Stanford’s academic departments, centers, institutes, and faculty.
  • Build and strengthen Stanford’s industry, government, higher education, alumni, and prospective student connections and relationships.
  • Apply new pedagogical approaches, distance education applications, and e-learning tools.
  • Generate revenue for participating departments, centers, institutes, and faculty.

The organization has evolved core competencies to support these various dimensions, including content creation and delivery, student registration, and support and marketing, which is arguably the most important. Often marketing is viewed as more art than science, but with new tools to help collect and analyze data, the SCPD has been able to extract valuable insights to evaluate campaigns, make critical ‘on the fly’ adjustments, and make better, more informed marketing investment decisions.

Data and Decisions

To extract relevant data, the SCPD created a team affectionately known as the Data Crunchers in 2009 to manage the overall data capture and extraction. Their charge for marketing is to evaluate each marketing channel’s overall effectiveness, from first contact to registered student. While easy to articulate, achieving this objective took quite a bit of effort. Historically, the SCPD has relied on a variety of marketing tactics to attract its student population. Measuring the return on investment of every marketing channel has now become an important part of SCPD’s investment strategy. We developed a simple internal statement to guide the marketing team: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t do it.”

Figure 1. Response rate percentage for major marketing activities from October 2008 to June 2012.

We began by assessing how enrolled students had heard about SCPD based on various existing marketing activities to establish benchmark data (Figure 1, above. For a more detailed look at the variable success of our marketing initiatives, please click here). We measured channels where the majority of our marketing spending was focused, such as email, employer communication, printed materials, presentations by Stanford representatives, web search,  events (such as company information sessions), social networking, and friend or colleague recommendations. This became an important baseline evaluation tool for existing channels, which we continue to measure today.

Next, SCPD needed to redefine the goals of its marketing activities and the metrics for each activity (email, web search, social networking, print, et cetera) to ensure that our marketing expenditure was yielding the expected results. We also wanted to measure a few experiments, such as a billboard campaign, to see if new or different channels offered any insights. The Data Crunchers team developed a tool (Figure 2) to assess the particular channel, conversion rates, direct revenues (if any), cost-per-acquisition (CPA), and conversion percentage per channel. This resulted in the ability to measure the goal of an activity (awareness, enrollments, informational, mailing list signups) by different metrics such as reach, conversions, and impact on enrollments. Further, we weighted each conversion by likelihood to generate an enrollment. With this tool, we could fairly rapidly determine whether to increase or reduce investment for a certain marketing activity based on the cost per conversion. We also incorporated into our CPA the level of staff effort expended based on the number of hours spent on a particular tactic.

Figure 2. Tool to assess marketing channel, cost, and conversion percentage


One of the most valuable tools SCPD has developed to support our conversions has been our free webinars. The webinars were initially created to offer prospective students a free, one-hour educational experience, with 45 minutes of new content, and a five minutes to inform prospective students how to register for the course or program. SCPD began these efforts in 2006, and before implementing analytics, there was some question from our faculty and staff about the utility of hosting these free, one-hour events. This effort required significant time to engage faculty, develop new content, and create awareness for the webinar itself. While it was easy to measure webinar enrollments—participants had to register for the webinar in our database system to “attend”—it was more difficult to determine whether or not webinars were converting attendees to enrollees.

Before we made the decision to reduce or stop producing webinars, we asked the Data Crunchers team to explore whether or not there was any connection between webinars and enrollments. Webinars had enrollments and most of our email and web-based campaigns featured webinars as a potential way for prospects to engage with us.  But was the level of effort worth these free enrollments?

The team analyzed enrolled students whose first enrollment was a free webinar to determine if they paid for a course following this experience. The team looked at the dataset beginning in September, 2008—when we installed registration software at SCPD. The results were surprising. Not only were webinars helping conversions for emails and banner ads by giving prospects a first taste of Stanford content, but webinars were driving enrollments across a broad range of products. Since we began measuring webinars, we realized they were generated over $3M in revenue to both graduate and professional education offerings. Interestingly, management topics from Stanford’s Department of Management Science and Engineering led to enrollments in other SCPD portfolio areas such as computer science and electrical engineering. What began as an informational activity for our professional certificates had been clearly validated as an extremely valuable recruiting tool across the SCPD portfolio. As a consequence of this data, we increased the number of webinars annually from four per year to 20 per year and have consistent registrations of 1000 per webinar, with a range of 28-42 percent attendance at the actual event.


As SCPD has grown its portfolio, we have become a more data-driven organization, thanks in part to the registration database system, which has archived SCPD’s current and historical data, and to a dedicated group interested in providing answers to challenging business questions. Education providers like SCPD invest significant time and expense to develop and market their portfolio of offerings. It is imperative therefore that we measure where we are making investments. Today we have institutionalized many of those data sets into our own dashboard, which we review in weekly meetings, so we can expand successful efforts, make changes to those channels which are not working, and allow for new experiments as audience preferences change. Furthermore, as an organization, we have begun to change the culture from an advocacy model (s/he who screams the loudest gets the cool marketing campaign) to one where strategic and tactical decisions are informed by evidence we have collected.

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Readers Comments

Francis Young 2012/11/19 at 8:31 am

It is wonderful to see the value of a marketing strategy such as a webinar quantitatively determined; I think such strategies are hugely valuable, but too often webinars, social media campaigns, et cetera, are pursued without a firm grasp of what their impact is going to be, and more of an “everybody’s doing it” attitude.

Of course the more time and financial investment a strategy takes, the closer you are going to pay attention to its effectiveness, but regardless of this factor, even when evaluating something as low-cost as a social media campaign, I think such data-driven analysis is absolutely crucial, and seems to be well-used at SCPD.

James Patrick 2012/11/19 at 11:43 am

Data-driven marketing is largely about developing a very specific customer-centric strategy–more than is possible with “intuitive” or creative marketing.

To really capitalize on that, organizations should be looking not only to any and all internal data that is available (and making meaningful relationships with that data to better understand your customer), but importantly, to external data as well (which wasn’t really discussed in this article); really mining your institution’s internal data and supplementing it with external data will flesh out their customer profiles and your marketing department will really know these people, who they are, what is driving their decisions, and how. This is what will give you the edge over your competitors: going beyond evaluating your own marketing strategies to develop a richer understanding of your customers.

Vera Matthews 2012/11/19 at 8:44 pm

I have heard of what sounds like very effective and interesting use of customer and marketing data to drive and manage communications with customers and potential customers; for example, the development of a communication “tree” based on data to not only inform your communications strategy, but to implement it more or less automatically based on the customer’s response–or lack there of.

For example, if you do not hear from a customer for a certain period of time, automatically following up to re-engage that customer. I wonder if this is a widespread strategy in the industry. Since one central advantage of data-driven marketing is its value to a customer-centric campaign, I wonder if using it to inform and implement a rich and customer-sensitive set of communications is something used by SCPD or other institutions.

    Paul Marca 2012/11/27 at 4:50 pm

    Thanks for the comment and question. SCPD does not use a system as you describe, which automates responses based on a time trigger, or tickler file. We do have staff who follow up and who work with program management staff to enroll prospective students in various programs. We find that the human touch – if possible – is much better at helping to close prospective students.

Dan Jones 2012/11/23 at 2:23 pm

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it looks like the most affordable marketing strategies are among the most effective while those that would cost more to operate and are more time-consuming to do well (ie: running events and maintaining an active social media presence, respectively) are among the least effective. At the same time, these less-successful strategies seem to be among those that are simply expected of a higher education unit. People would be taken aback if we did not have a social media presence, or if we did not run events for students, employers and prospective students.

In the same way that you surely focus more resources on the strategies that prove successful, have you dropped some of the least effective strategies, regardless of the wider expectation that “a higher education unit should be operating these strategies”, as a result of the metrics showing that they are less effective? Or at least put less resources toward them?

    Paul Marca 2012/11/27 at 12:05 pm

    Thanks for your question. Indeed the data we have gathered illustrates that we are investing in channels which are working and we improve as we go. This leads to more efficiency. We do allow for experiments including such items viewed as more traditional media such as billboard type ads, radio etc. I would also say that we are indeed investing time and effort in social media, with active facebook, twitter, linked in, youtube and google+ sites which we review on a weekly basis. We know we have to spend time and effort there and the success criteria are different: impressions versus paid enrollments.

    We have reduced our investments in a few key areas: print advertising has been dramatically reduced, and we are doing less in-company visits, choosing instead to offer virtual information sessions when we can. Often we encounter resistance from customers because they want many universities to attend but this has proven not to be a good use of time. We have also eliminated radio as an option because of its required longer term investment both in terms of time (minimum of a year) and in terms of cost.

Soma Chakrabarti 2012/11/26 at 4:15 pm

Great article, Paul. Thanks so much! Many of us have the data but do not know how to use the data effectively. Your article showed how to make intelligent decisions based on the data that we have collected.

Rosa-Fay Milnar 2012/11/26 at 5:33 pm

I really appreciate this article as data driven decisions in higher education is often not considered. I do have a question, though, 22% came from friends and colleagues. Is that from student data also? Is there a way to quantify the cost vs. the ROI?

I can see how Stanford would be a website often visited. I have visited it often. Were Pandora and Google ads, etc. the reason for the visit or is there a way to quantify why people visited in the first place. Of course, the reputation of Standford vs. a Milnar university would be a bigger draw.

Great job; in my reseach it would be fantastic if we all did this and shared information such as you are doing. Thank you.

    Paul Marca 2012/11/27 at 4:47 pm

    Thanks for comment, glad you found this useful and let me try to answer your question. The survey “How students heard about SCPD “was conducted as an exit survey ‘at checkout’ after people had actually registered for an offering. Therefore the 22% data point, ‘Friend or Colleague’ only came from registered students, who selected this response among many other options. This measure is really what is called the word of mouth reference, which is of course quite valuable.

    In terms of ROI, word of mouth typically comes from a satisfied customer. SCPD achieves this in many forms. As you correctly identify, it could be brand related. It is most certainly part of the investment we have made in SCPD’s Student and Client Services group, who help prospective students move through the pipeline. It is also true that while the first contact may have been at the encouragement of a colleague or friend, almost all enrollments come through our website, which is an ongoing investment and which we are always improving.

Elizabeth Emerson 2012/11/29 at 5:17 pm

Thank you – this was a very interesting read about the effectiveness of marketing campaigns towards tailoring a best practices approach.

Particularly insightful and an interesting note that you offered was that the free webinars helped to drive enrollments and interest in SCPD.

I am currently enrolled in a free Venture Lab MOOC at Stanford, and I wonder how these types of educational practices will affect University practices in future as well.

Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.

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