How frustrated do you get when you can't find the information you’re looking for on a website? Contrast that with time spent on a website where content you're most interested in "magically" appears just where and when you want. We’ll bet you find the latter a more pleasing and powerful experience that you'll remember long after you left the site.
Your prospective students and their parents are no different.
What can an education marketer do to create a personal experience that keeps visitors glued to your school's website? A lot. You can personalize a visitor's online experience, from the moment they land on your page, to the one when they open their tenth email from you.
Instead of using the same "Request Information" call-to-action (CTA) on your website form for every visitor, your copy could change based on that visitor's behavior. Someone who came to your site from a search for "paralegal programs" could see CTAs customized for your school's paralegal program. While a return visitor who's already in your database, and expressed an interest in graphic design, could enjoy a completely different user experience.
When you personalize content, a visitor feels satisfied because their needs are being met and thus feels a stronger connection to your institution. The result is a higher degree of engagement with your content, which leads to more school inquiries, applications, and enrollments.
Ways to Personalize Within Your Online Community
You have lots of criteria you can use to deliver the most relevant content to each individual prospective student. Think about all the kinds of people coming to your website. You have prospective students looking to make applications for the following year, for a variety of different programs, and other reasons. How about their parents? If you've created your personas, you've already highlighted what concerns, values, and interests matter most to different people.
In addition to the different personas, consider where a visitor is in their personal enrollment cycle. What about those extra-eager students who've started their research while still a year away from applying? Or prospective students who've already spent a lot of time on your site and downloaded a good deal of content? What about students looking for early decisions? Regardless of persona, they’re probably ready for information about the admission interview process and will likely respond to a CTA to set up their own appointment. On the other hand, pushing out an interview CTA to a first-time visitor who hasn’t had time to get to know your school wouldn't make sense and most likely wouldn't convert.
Even if you don't know anything about that first-time visitor, you can still personalize their experience. Does their IP address show they're outside the country? Share content specific to foreign applicants, or even in their language if you've localized your website. Is the visitor on a mobile device? Have a mobile-optimized version of your content so it's easy to read.
When you think about ways to personalize your content, start by identifying:
The persona your visitors fit
Where they are in the enrollment cycle
Their online behavior
Data gleaned from your database—including demographic data, referral sources, and revealed areas of focus, such as specific fields of study and non-academic activities
How to Personalize the Experience For Prospective Students
The more you know about a visitor, the better you can tailor their online experience. To capture the most information, you want a visitor to fill out a form on your site. Most prospective students won't be ready to download an application or contact admissions early in their enrollment cycle, so you'll need to think of other ways to get them to convert.
Gathering Information With Forms
Your goal at this stage is to create an emotional connection with them. You want each student to feel excited about all you have to offer—and to them in particular. The smart way to glean this information is by offering informative content to download, such as sample syllabi or a guide to campus organizations, on a form-gated landing page. Find the balance of content they want, yet won't require a major commitment, or too private a disclosure, from them.
Once they're a contact in your database, it gets easier to collect or capture additional information about them. It's been proven that too many required fields on a form decreases conversion rates—especially in the early cycle stages. With smart forms, you avoid that. You progressively ask for different information each time a contact downloads more content.
For example, the first smart form may ask only for their name, email, and program of interest. Simple. Non-threatening. On their next visit, because the website recognizes who they are, the smart form asks only one new question, such as expected enrollment date. Now the visitor only has to fill out one field. Voilà! You've got new intelligence that your admissions team will love. They got information they wanted without feeling obligated. Win-win.
Building Lists Based Off of Forms, Website, and Email Actions
Behind the scenes, you'll use all this data to create lists to customize content, including offsite content such as emails and PPC ads. When using a "smart list," any contact meeting the list's criteria will automatically get added to it. So as a contact provides more information via your smart forms, they'll get added to more relevant lists, further improving the relevancy of the content they get.
List criteria are built off any data element captured through smart forms, as well as their online behavior. Let's say you've created a smart list of contacts intending to graduate in 2020, who want to major in international economics, and said they want to study abroad in London.
Did members of that list open your email about an event on studying abroad being held in their area, but didn't register to attend? Send a second round of emails with messages specifically targeted at future economics majors wanting to study abroad in London encouraging them to go. If they registered and went, you can make sure they don't get future offers for the same event.
Here's another example: Say a visitor first downloaded some program information three months ago. Today she's returned to your website. Over the next week, she downloads content about campus activities and financial assistance. She's also started her FAFSA. Having already created a smart list of visitors who meet these criteria, you know that sending a campus tour invitation always gets a high response rate. So this visitor, as soon as she started to fill out that FAFSA, immediately was sent an email inviting her to tour the campus.
Smart lists are the engine of all personalization efforts. More specific than your personas, smart lists can be based on different study programs, expected enrollment semesters, geographic location – any combination of data you capture in your contact database. Armed with these smart lists, you can personalize web and landing pages, forms, content offers, CTAs, images shown, and emails.
Personalizing Your School's Content
We've been focusing on personalizing CTAs, but you can also customize almost any element of your content on a landing page, webpage, or email. Here are some examples:
Headlines have the greatest impact on whether a website visitor will explore a page closely. You never need display a generic headline again. A headline can include the offer you want this prospective student to act on—e.g. a reminder of a relevant application deadline. For a prospective student who's at an earlier stage in their enrollment cycle, a headline may tout an exciting campus life or a suggestion to apply for financial aid ASAP.
If a prospective student has visited pages on your school's athletics program, you can deliver an image of a student athlete or team on your homepage the next time this student goes to that page. Give them the vision of campus life they have in their head.
Say your research shows parents are primarily interested in financial assistance issues. The blog posts they see can skew heavily to those with a financial assistance tag.
Visitors who come to your website from an Instagram link can see pages with a higher image-to-text ratio. Those who spend a lot of time on each page with a slow scroll can get more text. The idea is always to deliver the content in the format most likely to engage that specific visitor.
You do want to watch out for the "creepy factor" so no one feels like they're being stalked or spied on. Still, prospective students and their parents are eager for relevant content. And the easier you make it for them to find it, the better. Personalization, starting with smart forms and lists, is the engine that drives a compelling and memorable user experience your visitors will share with their friends and networks.
Personalization is Powerful Marketing
Personalization is the most effective way to draw prospective students deeper into your website so they consume still more content—sparking a cycle of more granular personalization. As your analytics and smart forms feed into the database what they learn about each visitor, you serve up increasingly more relevant content. And at the same time, you're gently pulling each prospective student closer to applying, and each candidate closer to enrolling.
Originally published Jan 7, 2016 7:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017