Peregrinations of a university marketer early in the conversion journey

A phrase that always catches my attention is ‘watch this space’.

In a time where we crave constant stimulation, are saturated with the next best thing and scream at the internet when Apple (yet again) doesn’t revolutionise the mobile phone – why would we wait patiently and watch the digital equivalent of a brick wall?

‘Stop press!’, ‘spaces are limited’ or messages that start with ‘Dear applicant’ get a similar reception. They make us mentally facepalm and drain another finger-width of willpower before we’ve even opened the email titled ‘student journey.’

There’s a lot of talk around the ‘student journey’. It takes other forms too – conversion journey, lead nurture strategy, customer nudge funnel (yep) – but don’t be fooled. It’s all the same thing.

Baby steps

If your student journey consists of a series of emails, chained together with triggers that say ‘automatically after 1 week’ – congratulations. You’ve made your first tiny movement to marketing nirvana.

We’re pretty early on in our own journey at Aston. We’re investing in CRM tools and ensuring we can demonstrate ROI, learning which communications resonate with our audience and adapting content accordingly. Still, we have a way to go.

The 2016 / 17 cycle was pretty savage for universities. It forced a lot to take a hard look at their offer and fast track innovation in their CRM and general recruitment marketing.

We’ll be focusing on CRM this year too. Universities need to, because the number of students banging at the door isn’t getting any higher. It’s getting harder, much harder, to recruit (and keep the students that you do) so CRM, seems like a sensible place to put your money and resources.

I have a few takeaways if you’re looking to do the same.

Different journies depending on lead source

Your aim should always be to continue a conversation. Yes, that sounds contrived, but there is some substance to it. Promise.

For example, if you have a conversation at a fair and someone wants to receive specific information about a course – send them that. Don’t just plug them into a generic stream of comms and expect it to work conversion magic. We have to move beyond ‘keeping people warm’ to keeping people active.

Where possible, the way you capture data should anticipate multiple conversion workflows. There will be times when only a manual response is suitable, but these should be followed by a short survey. The aim being to learn more about your prospect’s preferences, so you can remarket to them more effectively later.

If this, then that

Each branch from your lead source isn’t going to be a straight line. A person who downloads and reads 10 pages of your campus magazine needs a very different follow-up communication to the person who didn’t open the attachment.

Branches also give another level of verification to your leads. If you can identify early on which leads are less likely to convert, then you can prioritise communications to key groups and make your conversion rate look a lot hotter in the process.

If your conversion journey achieves one thing, it should be the death of the blanket email. Identifying the hottest leads will also make it far more effective and cheaper to retarget through programmatic and social media advertising.

Pipelines between journies

There is probably a really technical name for this, but it escapes me. It’s when your prospect meets a condition that requires a change in communications. For example, when a lead turns into an applicant.

A personal statement email, for instance, isn’t going to be much use to your hot and eager applicant. In fact, they are likely to be sick to death of anything statement related, so it’s not the best way to start your pre-confirmation love affair.

What’s more appropriate, is starting these students on a new journey full of exam tips, content from your university’s advocates and traditional invites to your applicant visit days.

Trackable through from prospect to applicant

Speaking to colleagues in HE, I’ve noticed a fairly unsettling trend – very few are able to effectively track from advertising, through to lead source and onto confirmation and enrolment.

There are lots of stages (and people) involved in your conversion journey. Sometimes, it’s easier to work with the people who just get it, but that way you’re not going to get very far.

I could spout some general stuff about being open and transparent, inclusive to all, but that’s not going to work either. The best thing you can do is a stakeholder analysis and learn who to:

  • Keep satisfied
  • Manage closely
  • Keep informed
  • Monitor
  • Sack off?

Okay, the last one didn’t make the curriculum, but this sort of stuff is genuinely useful when it comes to identifying your allies, how your CRM will work with legacy systems and, ultimately, who’s doing all the heavy lifting.

Tweak one thing

This isn’t a ‘deliver and move on’ sort of deal. Of course, there will be key milestones, such as mapping out workflows, creating launch comms and applying a consistent design…but this is the journey that just keeps on giving.

Your suite of metrics, for example Open Rate, CTR and ‘lead to applicant; applicant to confirmation rate’ will be used to identify bottlenecks, what’s working across the journey and potential gaps for niche comms.

Put the word ‘niche’ on your CRM to-do list. As the market becomes more fragmented, our only response can be to segment, segment and segment.

Are there hotspots for you geographically which could do with their own set of communications? Are there small pockets of desirable students, which have a set of very specific needs, not answered by other universities? Can you be the go-to people for information on a particular topic?

Consider this as you review and build your journey.

Employ a content dude, like me 😀

The thing is, you can have the perfect conversion workflows, triggers and information systems set up, but it’s all going to fall flat if your comms don’t speak to your audience.

I could write a whole separate piece on this, but essentially you need someone who can tell your story and isn’t afraid to work with multiple teams in order to share it in the best way.

You need a resource capable of giving your audience attractive stuff, which sings about your USPs, but that does so in a way that is useful to your market.

The word ‘useful’ is key here. TSR recently published a piece showcasing the value of content marketing and demonstrated the impact of helpful, non-product focused content for brands to resonate and build meaningful relationships with their audience.

The conversion lead nurture journey thing – everyone is doing it

The phrase ‘student journey’ certainly still spikes my attention, but not in the same way as people intent on making me watch their space.

If you’re one of few willing to map stuff out, leap departmental walls and drown out the folk shouting from the sidelines – fair play to you.

Everyone sends out communications, few do it well. Your conversion workflows are a chance to build something lasting, that works across multiple channels and aspires beyond emails starting with ‘Dear Applicant’ and ending with click here. Aim marketing nirvana, or at least the start of the journey.

This article was originally published on The Student Room. See part 1 and part 2.

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