Straight from the horse’s mouth

How to discover the future students your University should be targeting

The process of sending two daughters to university in the last 2 years has opened my eyes to the overwhelming amount of information future students receive when trying to decide which university is best for them. As a result, future students are being constantly bombarded from multiple institutions about a vast array of course and campus offerings. What if your university could find a way to cut through this noise, and reach the right future students, with the right message, at the right time and through the right channel? I believe that universities have a significant opportunity to improve how they communicate with future students.

We have moved beyond spamming future students with masses of information. And we have moved into the age of personalised, targeted content, meant to satisfy the needs of the future student. But before you can automate you must identify. This article will help you outline a process to define who you are targeting. In turn, you will capture more information and be enabled to communicate more effectively with future students.

Let’s keep this simple – Who are your future students?

Do you feel comfortable that you understand the needs of those visiting your website today? Are you reliably fulfilling those needs?

Many students have focused years on working hard to get a good score in order to pick the right university for them. Here is a list of some of the considerations of future students. Make a point to consider where your institution sits.

  • University reputation
  • Employability – is the degree closely tied to getting a job?
  • Course reputation
  • Course information – structure and options, lecturers and reputation
  • Entrance ATAR – is the cut-off an easy target, perhaps too easy leaving a perception of wasting a high achieving ATAR
  • Overseas exchange options
  • Scholarships e.g. for sports achievers
  • Housing/colleges
  • University life
  • What are teachers/advisors saying about the university?
  • Support for internship placement
  • Clubs and sporting options
  • Open day and personal tour information
  • What are people saying about the course?
  • Information/suggestions for part time work whilst studying

From a digital perspective, many universities don’t serve content by web, email, social or phone that satisfy the above needs in an intuitive and fulfilling manner. Getting information, even by phone, can be too difficult and future students will move on.

Our end goal as digital marketers is to make the experience of a future student as personal and satisfying, at every touch point. Digital marketing tools will help us to get there but we must not fall into the trap of thinking that these alone will solve our problems. The “magic pill” here is to think like a future student, take yourselves as marketers through that journey and work hard to improve that journey.

Leverage your existing student marketing data

By now we have all come to realise the importance of data, or have we? Marketing Automation begins with data and it is the fuel that keeps it going.

1. Find out where your digital leads are coming from

Are your leads coming from ads, search, social, direct, referring sites, events? Which sources out-perform others, deliver enrollments and we may therefore score higher? Firstly, get on Google Analytics and Google Search Console and research your web traffic.

2. Discover what search terms your future students are using

Secondly, future student search terms are a high value data point that can be found through Google Search Console. Search terms often bring critical insight into future student motivation. If you know what search terms your future students are using to find you, you know what they are looking for.

3. Research who is visiting your website and what they are doing

Current technology allows us to start tracking anonymous web visitors before they have identified themselves. When visitors submit a form to identify themselves, the prior 12 months of web visit history is added to their individual contact record. This is where marketing automation web tracking is different from Google Analytics (GA). We use Oracle Eloqua software to convert unknown web visitors and show how they are using your site. This information is invaluable for creating personas of likely future students. It is here that you can begin to craft personalised content based on real journeys, that gave real results.

4. Begin to integrate data from other systems

Data everywhere but we cannot access it! This is too often the case. Universities have data in recruitment databases, in CRM systems, applications systems, social software and marketing automation platforms. It is easy to become overwhelmed by the problems presented by disconnected data but at the same time we need to develop a practical approach. Not all data needs to be integrated and in fact it may be detrimental to do so. Finally, find data points that are especially relevant to your university, that can be used to enrich your profile and understanding of a future student and can impact how they are treated.

Defining your student segmentation model and its limit

Eloqua Marketing Automation software uses lead score values. These provide an excellent determinant of where to place or move future students at any point in time (according to their lead score). We want their score to increase, so we strive for engagement that brings us more insight. Good Marketing Automation software provides a snapshot of the lead scores across the prospect database. At any point in time you should be able to review how many hot leads you have and how this has changed over time. As a result, these two insights alone say a lot about the performance of your digital marketing efforts.

To segment, first, determine how to cluster future students. In order to try to treat them differently you need to look at their persona, their course of interest, their lead score and even their maturity in the buying journey. The ultimate level of personalisation would be to have a sophisticated matrix. For example different personas, each broken down into course of interest, journey stage and an overlay of lead score applied. This becomes very difficult to manage with so many potential iterations of treatment. So striking a balance for practical implementation is key.

Aligning your content marketing with your student recruitment plan

Universities are dealing with a beast when it comes to content. You need to think in terms of content matrices i.e. content by persona, content by course of interest, content by journey stage, content by lead score and manage content accordingly. Don’t get overwhelmed by creating content! Choose a practical starting point for automating the serving of content e.g. by stated course of interest or by implied persona type.

Content Marketing tools such as the Oracle Content Marketing solution manages content production and use, by persona. It serves the latest content to our Marketing Automation system for use in automated email nurtures, by persona or by journey stage. Turning the content beast into manageable chunks that can be served to the future students who will value it most.

Present your messages consistently well

It is vitally important for universities to understand that they are targeting an unforgiving generation of future students. Students are unimpressed by poorly presented marketing content, whether this be in emails, ads, social or other channels. Therefore, Universities need to deploy templates in their digital platforms. It is essential branded templates are designed well and tested for performance. While taking the stress out of design you can focus on copy and content that’s engaging. Leading universities will want to push boundaries here and trial new techniques such as movement in emails and server based active content. These techniques, when deployed well, cannot help but impress and result in improved response rates.

Adopt a multi-channel acquisition strategy for your student recruitment

It’s important to deliver the right message at the right time and in the right place (channel). To reach this elusive goal we need to have the right data driving triggered campaigns with personalised content. Build out layers of automation by interest or persona (and more) and then steer leads through the available content according to their lead score. In that sense, lead score can underpin a master lead routing program.

What are the best social or digital channels to target future students?

  • Instagram
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • TikTok
  • Email
  • SMS
  • Weibo (China)
  • WeChat (China)

Why are these the best channels?

To target Gen-Z you need to go where they are. These platforms are where this generation are ingesting the vast majority of their information. Despite many new channels arising, all generations still value emails as a primary source of information, and it remains one of the most effective forms of communications.

My final recommendations

  1. Acquire digital marketing tools which have depth. To be effective you need tools which can take you the distance. Eloqua marketing automation has served thousands of customers around the world and continues to evolve. Gartner Lead Management rates this software the best. It also integrates with Oracle Service Cloud, Oracle Social Relationship Management and Oracle Content Marketing. This presents a perfect combination for a university with ample room for improvement in digital marketing over many years.
  2. Acquire the best support that you can find to implement this technology in your specific context. Upskill your staff generously and learn software “how to” but be absolutely sure to acquire best practice as well. To do this you need a partner who has superb digital marketing skills and knows the technology inside out.