Data As a Difference-Maker in Higher Education Marketing

Data As a Difference-Maker in Higher Education Marketing

It’s an understatement to say that these are challenging times for American higher education institutions. Overall, enrollment has declined for eight years running−and even darker days are coming. Recent graduates and major media outlets are questioning the value of a college degree. And, perhaps most alarming of all, institutions across the nation are closing their doors at an unprecedented rate.

Despite the climate being particularly cold toward higher ed, I’ve never been more proud to be associated with several great institutions. I’ve served as an adjunct faculty member for more than 15 years, working with four institutions in northeast Indiana. I currently serve on a board of trustees, an alumni association board and an employer advisory board. And I’ve worked with colleges and universities for the past 15 years at Asher Agency. What that experience has taught me is that a college degree still provides the best path for individuals and society as a whole to lift themselves up intellectually, socially and financially.

This belief reflects Asher’s commitment to helping colleges and universities survive these uncertain times−and emerge even stronger. We’re inspired by our clients and the student success stories we see every day, and we know the communities we serve−and the nation as a whole−are better served when families have options in pursuing education after high school. For some, community college is the best path, because it provides them with an affordable education and the opportunity to complete a credential and enter the workforce in two years or less, train for a new career, or complete two years toward a bachelor’s degree close to home. For others, a four-year experience that includes campus amenities is the right choice. Some benefit most from taking classes online and others thrive in the classroom. At Asher, we’re energized by the diversity of choice available and what that makes possible for college graduates at every level.

While Asher’s efforts on behalf of our clients are multifaceted, there’s one thread that ties together everything we do: we help them leverage the power of data. It’s clear that this is already a key differentiator between institutions that are thriving and those that are unlikely to withstand the inevitable shakeout that will occur in the next decade. And it’s only going to become more important.

The ironic thing is, colleges and universities have long been on the leading age of data analysis from an academic and research standpoint, with some of their finest minds helping others solve complex problems via data-driven decision making. However, this approach has been slow to make its way to higher ed marketing departments. Perhaps this is explained by the fact that marketing itself was somewhat of a dirty word in higher ed until only recently, being presented as “university relations,” positioned as another facet of institutional development or being relegated to the role of order-taker. Regardless, colleges and universities must reject the old way of doing business and begin seeing marketing as a science, with data at the center of every decision. This is no longer optional in today’s hyper environment.

With this in mind, here are a few ways in which Asher is helping its clients leverage their data and turn it into a competitive advantage:

Identifying better prospects

As the impact of broad-based traditional marketing diminishes, so too should a wide-funnel approach. Colleges and universities now have the ability to better understand their students and what motivated their decision to enroll, thereby better understanding what might resonate with a prospect and how to bridge any gaps in reaching desirable audiences. In short, it’s all about creating profiles of your best prospects to inform your future efforts.

Two examples:

Asher recently assisted a university client with a detailed analysis of enrollment of traditional students by high school, which allows us to better use geotargeting to reach prospects and their parents. Somewhat unexpectedly, this work also led us to refine some traditional marketing strategies, like billboard placement and sponsorships.

We’re also using student email lists to discover lookalike audiences on Facebook. The operative logic here is that if a prospect shares several attributes with the students already enrolled at one of our client’s institutions, he or she is more likely to convert than the general population. This is where our experience with our non-higher-ed clients is instructive, because we’ve been using this approach with them for quite some time, although it’s just now becoming more typical among colleges and universities.

Improving audience definition and segmentation

Higher ed marketing is an incredibly complex business−even for institutions that serve just one type of student. Families of traditional students, for example, begin considering their options long before high school, and the search includes everything from cost considerations to varying needs in terms of housing, and from different types of majors to the availability of athletics and other extracurriculars. Factor in other audiences, such as adult learners or grad school candidates, and it can quickly become overwhelming.

Accordingly, Asher has helped its clients by using data to target the right prospect with  the right message at the right time. This begins with our collective efforts to understand the search process from the prospect’s point of view and to adapt the message to better connect with prospects. To cite just one example, we’re using video watch times to determine a prospect’s interest in a particular topic (if a prospect persists through multiple video student testimonials about a given academic program, there’s a good chance he or she is a prospect for that program). Then, via pixel tracking, we either move the conversation along with that prospect−or change the conversation.

Improving conversion rates

One of the most powerful aspects of data analysis is the ability to test. What media and messages are resonating with prospects, and what’s leading them to take the next step? While it’s important not to overdo it in terms of last-click attribution, there’s still a great deal to be learned about what motivates prospects and what doesn’t resonate.

That’s why A/B testing and ongoing data analysis are a given at Asher. Each month, our clients receive detailed reports that reveal how our campaigns and creative perform and what we recommend to improve conversion rates. This level of transparency allows us to demonstrate to our clients that we’re partners in helping them achieve their goals, even if that means we need to change course from where we thought we were headed. (For example, we’ve found that high-production-values creative is sometimes outperformed by audience-generated messages−not surprising, perhaps, in the social media age.)  In the end, the data is the best measure of what’s converting−and what isn’t.

Personalizing the message

One rule of thumb that every modern marketer must remember: a one-size-fits-all approach no longer works. Even broad audience targeting can be ineffective in an era of hyper-targeted messaging.

That’s why Asher is committed to using data to personalize our client’s messages whenever possible. One example: in helping one client reach graduate school candidates, we leveraged the relatively small size of the prospect list as a strength, using social media to learn as much as we could about each prospect before reaching out. While this required considerable investment up front in terms of studying the prospects’ activity and interest, it’s helping make the conversation much more relevant−and effective.

That’s just the beginning of how Asher helps its clients leverage their data. And as the industry continues to evolve, we’re committed to continue partnering with our college and university clients to greatly improve their prospecting efforts and bottom-line results. Because of the transformative power of higher education, we believe this is some of the most important work we do−and our data-driven approach is allowing us to do even more of it.