A rapid transformation is underway in our society, creating stunning breakthroughs and consumer benefits while simultaneously being castigated for privacy concerns and technology overreach. The source of this power and controversy is personalization, buttressed by its frequent companion, data-driven marketing.
This article touches on the broader dimensions of how customization and personalization are re-shaping fields of endeavor from health care to retail before zeroing on our primary mission: how is the personal touch remaking marketing, and what are the effects on education in particular?
Having started in direct marketing, I was taught from day one the importance of personal connections in building and enhancing customer relationships – while increasing donations and purchases. In the 1960s, mushrooming database and printing capabilities evolved to permit basic personalization of a person’s name, last gift amount, and similar fields. Decades of testing has shown that referencing individual data substantially improves marketing performance. The difference is that today’s data and personalization are exponentially more powerful and complex, fueled by remarkable increases in data volume, accessibility, and connectivity.
Decades ago, personal data was based on a few crucial factors; who we are, which includes age, family details, address, and contact information, and what we do, including job and income level. Growing market research studies added a new source of individual information. Knowledge of our interests and activities is expanding the marketing options. And most recently, tracking on our social channels reveals new data on what our connections think about our posts, pictures, articles, and videos. Presto, a 360-degree, data-driven world of personalization.
NOTABLE USES OF PERSONALIZATION TODAY
Shopping: the pioneer in sales-related data management and predictive analytics was Amazon, which has utterly changed the dynamics of retailing through a wide range of “customers who bought this also bought…” services and personal purchase lists. In music, video, and the like, Pandora started “individual radio stations” in 2000, followed by Spotify in 2008, and recently Siri, Google Home, and Echo have broadened the scope of these personal offerings far beyond music. Netflix and Amazon have integrated your specific video tastes and those of “similar” viewers. And the Google ecosystem, SEO, and social algorithms leverage massive knowledge of our searches, travel patterns, YouTube choices, and social media activity to tailor text searches and video results and determine who sees our posts and tweets. As the Facebook Russian hacking scandal proved, these social and search models are in fact affecting the fabric of American society.
Participants in the broader digital revolution know these examples well. However, customization and personal linkages are transforming other powerhouse industries, too. In medicine, it has become common to target therapies for cancer, HIV, and more based on the patient’s genome – and now patients are being treated using their own cells and gene therapy. That’s personal! In restaurants and hospitality, we have Grande iced, sugar-free, vanilla latte with soy milk coffees and loyalty programs building hyper-personalized profiles for hotels based on stays and survey responses. Even a stodgy industry such as manufacturing is getting into the act, as Gillette’s 3D printing allows consumers to create custom designs, handles, and text on their razors and AI-driven “smart manufacturing” facilitates mass personalization, from coffee cups to cars.
PERSONALIZATION IS A NEW PILLAR OF SOCIETY
All of these examples validate the premise that personalization has become an expansive force recasting much of our society and business. We are an aggregation of disparate individual statements: ketogenic, lectin-free, and dozens of other diets; burgeoning gender definitions (did you know Facebook offers 58 choices?); at least 16 major types of yoga; and many more. Millennials, about to be the U.S.’s largest generation, were raised in the digital age and are renowned for their proclivity for web and mobile, alert-based communications and deep personalization.
HOW PERSONALIZATION CAN CHANGE EDUCATION MARKETING
So what role does personalization play in education marketing, and how can marketers, admissions and development directors, and other school leaders capitalize on its promise?
Email: One of the first media to go personal, initially with name fields and then variable content, email continues to defy the dire predictions of its demise at the hands of mobile technology and apps. Data overwhelmingly show that personalization delivers statistically significant improvement in results. You too can leverage variable targeting capabilities to offer your constituents unique copy, images, rewards, or activity-based triggers. And email is the crucial medium in one of personalization’s crown jewels, lead nurturing (see last bullet in this section)
Websites: For many years, businesses have been able offer personalized features based on a person’s location, previous web pages visited, demographic and psychographic profile, replies to your surveys, web pages on your site, and myriad other factors. These dynamics have changed the web user’s experience in both substantial and mundane ways, from vastly increased conversions and sales to modest website messaging. This technology is gradually moving into education marketing, with many higher ed web providers delivering wider personalization and school innovator Finalsite now offering personal elements based on location and language.
Direct mail: You now know that direct mail pieces have been customized for over 50 years, and the level of sophistication has grown in our era of smart networks and powerful database capabilities. With marketing, technology, and list rental companies providing a wide range of demographic and sociographic data, the personalization options are nearly limitless. But - choose an approach that fits your or your agency’s budget and strategic capabilities, as the complexity can grow quickly..
Retargeted ads: The meteoric rise of ad exchanges has made behavioral retargeting ubiquitous in less than a decade, evolving from a niche service that evoked fear (why did I see an ad for the car I want to buy on my next website visit?) to one that provides near-instant conveyance of our interests and shopping targets. Today, your web search for a specific item is quickly communicated to potentially thousands of sites that will show you an ad for that product or service. Retargeting offers advertisers visibility to highly targeted shoppers and by most analyses, substantially better ROI than traditional digital ads. The has become increasingly popular in educational digital marketing despite the reasonably high cost (now if only they could stop showing the ad after you’ve bought the product!).
Social Media: Understanding your audience is the first step to personalization, and it is quite easy to get basic data on the demographics and location of your followers (Facebook), with interests and household income also available on Twitter. In another general example, topics that gain the most engagement on your social channels tell you what content is most compelling. For a truly one-to-one experience, have your social media manager respond to individual engagement on your social feeds, with a thank you, answer, or follow-up question. As your institution evolves toward more powerful databases (see “lead nurturing” below), capture the social media user’s interest along with the offline data, and you have an even further refined profile or persona.
Facebook ads: Another fast-rising, highly personalized advertising program is through Facebook. With well over 1 billion monthly users and a stunning treasure trove of personal data about most of us, Facebook has amassed a powerhouse advertising capability. Their ads have become ubiquitous in education marketing, as they offer substantial list selection criteria (such as “lookalike audiences” to mirror your best constituents) and low budget minimums. While Facebook admits to mistakenly over-sharing some data and being tricked by sly foreign operatives, it has withstood harsh criticism and calls for increased regulation, and seems poised to remain an advertising giant in education and business.
Texting: Text, in contrast to Facebook ads, has had a relatively gradual increase in usage, and is still systematically utilized primarily in higher ed versus independent schools. While there are issues with opt-ins requirements, the ability to tailor messages to a prospective family on topics from education to arts to dorm life can be extraordinarily powerful.
Video: Are your videos stored on YouTube or Vimeo as well as on your website? If you haven’t done so, break those into playlists on YouTube and consider how each playlist can fuel some of your personal communications, in newsletters or post-applicant communication. Use powerful, relevant keywords and tags in your descriptions, to ensure your videos, like your web pages, rank higher and begin to appear in the “up next” right column on YouTube that presents similar videos to the one being watched
Lead nurturing: Applied for Enrollment and eventually Advancement, this is the potential ace in the hole for colleges, universities, and schools. Lead nurturing strives to digitally emulate the close relationship of your enrollment director or teacher to a student or family. These systems can connect with prospective applicants or donors based on their beliefs, actions, and interests. Most
nurturing systems combine a customer relationship management (CRM) system such as Slate (higher ed) or Salesforce.com (business) with a marketing automation (MA) platform. Together, they integrate data from your website visits, email replies, survey responses, and demographics to form a “persona.” Lead nurturing is now common in business and is gaining a foothold in higher ed. Complete, connected systems require significant capital and expertise, but a few independent schools are tiptoeing in using basic systems from HubSpot, with more competitors to follow. For small schools, there is also the option of “manual lead nurturing” – hand-crafting weekly emails to your inquiring families based on information you have learned from their admissions data and survey replies. See more details in this lead nurturing article.
NEXT STEPS FOR EDUCATION MARKETERS
Personalizing your marketing is still challenging – eMarketer said “63% of business marketers find it difficult, mostly due to lack of time, money and people,” but this is where the consumer is heading. From data giant Epsilon, “80% of respondents are more likely to do business with a company if it
offers personalized experiences.” A recent Salesforce study (via Shopify) finds “51% of consumers expect companies to anticipate their needs and make relevant suggestions before they even make contact — by 2020.”
Everyone is feeling this personal movement, especially the millennials who have grown up in the digital world. As they become the leading force behind enrollment and fundraising, they will demand the relevance and personal touches noted above. You will not get there immediately, but you must get there to meet your constituents’ needs.
Here are 7 tips to get you started:
Confirm your target market and messaging strategy. What would you say in conversation to entice a prospective applicant or motivate a possible donor?
Understand your own systems’ performance and results through a communications audit.
Learn what personalization capabilities each of your marketing channels can currently offer. If a feature you want to do is currently unavailable, find out when it will be.
Benchmark education leaders to learn what systems and programs they’re using and the results.
Depending on your role, work with various colleagues, including your Head of School, to brainstorm options for a greater personal connection with parents and students, prospects, alumni/ae, and other key constituencies
Augment your marketing plan with strategies and tactics to increase your personalized communications. Recognize that it will take years to realize the full benefits of personalized marketing, so you may need to start small.
Get started on those media best suited to personalization, e.g., your emails, direct mail, and digital advertising, and do as much testing and tracking as you can manage.