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Higher-Ed Marketing: Merge Fields For Personalization & Customization Aren’t Enough

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Hi (First Name),

I am (Blog Post Author), a (Author Title) from (Location) and I see that you are interested in (Blog Topic), (First Name). Would you like to continue reading, (First Name), about (Blog Topic)?

Or would you rather read about (Secondary Topic)?

If reading the above made you want to (Insert Hair Pulling Reaction), I get it.

We love to “personalize” in higher education. And by “personalize”, I mean merge field into oblivion.

I’m a director of enrollment communications with a small team trying to increase enrollment at a medium-size private college. Like many of you, we have a lot of challenges to hit our goals; last year we were glad to hit our mark, even as every month seemed like a heavyweight fight against the realities of demographic changes and a saturated market.

So I will be the first to say, “Guilty!” We have what we believe are some fantastic communications streams with conversational tone, personalized greetings, custom content and more. But often, we’re just trying to push through and get content out.

The pendulum has swung, for sure. Where higher ed marketing at one point was more a one-size-fits-all approach — one viewbook, a few general emails inviting you to apply, and so forth — it is now customized to the point that a student might be wondering if we are going to soon ask if they intend to purchase the hot pink leopard-print belt we noticed they placed in their Amazon shopping cart.

Is it a bad thing? (The personalization, not the belt. I can’t help you on that.)

It’s not a simple answer. If you’re a student, we can absolutely now offer a much better college search experience. Interested in engineering? My team is ready to send you custom email content full of quotes from an engineering professor, links to the engineering major page, and a post card with your name on it inviting you to our engineering day. Just the same, we won’t inundate you with content that doesn’t pertain to you.

And while you as a student know that the first name reference and the personal greetings are automated, you still might smile a bit more reading it.

At the least, you’re more likely to want to do something than a generic email! A 2015 Aberdeen report revealed that “personalized email messages improve click-through rates by an average of 14% and conversions by 10%.” Campaign Monitor reports that “emails with personalized subject lines are 26% more likely to be opened.” Numerous other surveys back this up.

And so we personalize. And customize. And, um, segment-ize. Because in marketing, if something works, we will beat that into the ground until students or customers beg for their inbox lives with “Unsubscribe.” And then we’ll do it a little longer while the marketing cycle completes because who wants to come up with a new approach midstream.

Let me challenge you, though.

True personalization isn’t just what you can do in a merge field. I know this because you don’t approach friendships this way. I have never gone on a date and then used merge fields to send a follow up email asking for a second date.

Dear (First Name of Date): I had a (Rating Score) time last night at (Restaurant Name). Would you, (First Name of Date), like to go out again? I know you are interested in (Topic), and I can get us two tickets to learn more about it. Register here.

First off, that is some insane Mad Libs. Second, how awkward does that sound?

We don’t approach personal relationships like this because people are more than a sum of data points to be merged.

What we can all do a better job of is following through on concerns. Or listening on social media and then doing something about it when a prospective student mentions us, from answering a question to sending them a shirt to thank them for giving us a shout out.

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The real goal? Making segments that are more than just sweeping generalizations.

Someone can list engineering as a major, and financial aid as a concern, but they have an entire background that goes so much deeper than that. You can’t merge field a relationship together.

That means counselors who develop relationships, campus visit events with plenty of touch points with people directly connected to what the student wants to know, and, on our end, communication that keeps in mind a student isn’t just a set of data points.

We can accomplish that most easily using social media.

Do you keep lists on Twitter that break down your followers? What if you created a list just for prospective students, and periodically checked it to see what they are talking about? Are they worried about paying for college? Complaining that everyone asks them what they’ll major in and they don’t know? Thinking about the bittersweet end of high school?

That’s an amazing opportunity for you, as a higher ed marketer, to have a conversation. Not for engagement metrics, mind you. You’re not trying to get anything out of it beyond making their day better or easier. That’s it. Because that’s how you build relationships in your own life.

You could make current students available for an “Ask Me Anything” chats or Facebook Live, for the sole purpose of getting high schoolers access to peers who get what they are going through. You can get some valuable feedback that might help customize content, and, without doing a hard pitch, you’re creating a positive impression of your school.

I know you can do this, (First Name). You’re the best (Job Title) I know.

collaboration practices andy shawAndy Shaw is the director of enrollment communications and operations at York College of Pennsylvania, a private four-year residential school. He also is a speaker, columnist, comedian, and father of three toddlers.

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