There are 2.75 million students enrolled in UK universities, 6 million faculty members and a prospective student audience which spans the globe. Each of these are an individual, with unique needs and a desired experience. So how can university marketing professionals meet these needs and provide the required experience across such a diverse array of students and stakeholders? Whilst the future promises a wholly personalised experience powered by machine learning, there are steps colleagues can take right now to ensure audiences are at the heart of strategic decisions and tailored communications. In this article we will look to understand human behaviour theory, explore how big data can be harnessed, outline data sources to support audience segmentation and offer tips for developing engaging personalised content. If you are ready to get personal, then read on!
At the heart of marketing is human behaviour. By understanding audience interests and motivations you can provide a strategic proposition that resonates with the end user and ultimately builds stronger connections. Consider the success of Netflix. They understood their audience wanted a platform that understood their preferences, made it easy for them to choose relevant programming, summarised the programmes in an attractive way, made them feel social by engaging in popular content and developed the platform in a timely manner as their preferences changed. The personalised experience Netflix have developed over the last 20 years has increased the uptake of recommended programmes from 2% to 80%. Hidden within this approach is the applied use of behavioural science to influence decision making, of which there are a few popular frameworks:
EAST: make it easy, attractive, social and timely
MINDSPACE: consider the messenger, incentives, norms, defaults, salience, priming, affect, commitments and ego
COM-B: explore capability, opportunity and motivation
Each of these frameworks seek to bridge the gap between theory and practical application, making them a useful structure to underpin efforts to influence behaviour. However, one must go a step further to ensure that your efforts resonate with the audience in a personalised way. This next step is audience segmentation. Universities are well known for their breadth of stakeholders, and audiences can encompass an array of individuals from prospective students to current students, from academics to policy makers and beyond. Whilst it is not feasible to target each of the individuals within these groups, breaking them down into smaller subgroups can help you to recognise similarities to personalise communications. This effort will make it easier for the recipient to imagine the benefits of a particular action and ‘what it means for them’. Figures from Salesforce reveal the commercial benefits of the personalised approach, with high performing businesses using segmentation 51% more than underperforming businesses. It may no longer be a choice with individualisation, interactivity and integration all viewed as constitutional elements of consumer dialogue to enhance trust, loyalty and other relationship outcomes (Lindberg-Repo, & Grönroos, 2004).
Whilst many universities have undertaken the challenge of segmentation, for some this process has stalled at demographics (e.g. age, location, ethnicity) and this can be problematic as the correlation between demographics and behaviour are imperfect (MD Slater 1995). In order to get to the heart of what your audience(s) need, you have got to understand their behaviour which can include brand associations, motivations, values, attitudes, lifestyle and cycle stage. By grouping demographic and behavioural characteristics you can ensure that you avoid the pitfall of generic and mediocre communications, and instead deliver tailored messaging that resonates, builds loyalty and increases conversion to the behaviour you want to see. A HMRC case study shows the benefit of this approach by testing generic tax communications to doctors against a simplified version which applied behavioural signals. The second test letter explored the values within their occupation, and included a moral message that patients expect their doctor to tell the truth. The personalised approach of aligning behavioural attributes to one target audience increased response by nearly 10x.
At this point a troublesome question arises, where do you source behavioural and demographic data? The answer is both encouraging and overwhelming in a digital world where roughly 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are shared every day. We are living in a world of ‘big data’ which is characterised by its large volume, variety and velocity (Wang et al., 2020). Technological development has opened up unprecedented opportunities for analytics and modelling to help us understand ‘how the microscopic translates to macroscopic’ and offer an intimate view on what humans do, as opposed to what they say they do. The widely known big data examples include social networking sites, such as Facebook, YouTube, Google and Twitter, however big data can also encompass your own website and benchmarking tools. Some of the ways universities can harness big data include:
- Google Analytics
- CRM tools
- Social listening
- Third party specialist data (including UCAS & TSR who offer bespoke research)
- Global insight tools including Kantar, Telmar and IPA
The latter are particularly useful tools for marketers as they connect media consumption with brand usage, attitude and lifestyle data for intelligent consumer profiling and targeting for media campaigns. They come at a cost, but their free reports can also be useful allies for understanding your audience and developing your media campaigns. Lower cost options also include resources that are at your own fingertips:
- Surveys (via pop ups on your website or sent to known audiences)
- Link tracking in communications to create heatmaps of popular content
- A/B testing on emails and landing pages
- Phone calls and focus groups
Whilst rife with opportunity, the downside of big data is that it can be reductionist and can threaten to reduce a marketer’s role to tactical implementation. The focus therefore shifts to how marketing roles can use this information but remain strategic. This is where the behaviour frameworks we touched on earlier come back in, to bridge the gap between theory and application. Aligning the data from your defined audience segments within these frameworks is the most powerful way to deliver effective communications that drive results.
Once you have a deeper understanding of who your audience are and where they can be found, the next challenge comes in producing engaging content to demonstrate that you understand your target audience and can succinctly tell a story of your institution that resonates on a personal level. As well as being personalised, it also must be persuasive. Cialdini’s 6 Principles of Persuasion give a strong foundation for this pursuit, highlighting the importance of reciprocity, commitment, social proof, authority, liking and scarcity. Whilst some of these are more difficult to apply to the university sector we have drawn a few examples to indicate potential persuasive routes that could be explored within your framework:
- Liking: the more you like someone the more likely you are to be persuaded by them. Using your ‘about us’ page and social media to highlight academics gives a human face to the institution that prospective audiences can resonate with
- Authority: we have a tendency to obey authority figures and for many students this will be their lecturers. By showcasing academics within your communications you can highlight the expertise and authority you have within the university
- Commitment: once audiences have committed to something, they are more likely to follow through. This underlines the continued importance of downloading a prospectus and signing up to attend an open day for student audiences
- Reciprocity: if you give a little something, you might get something in return. By incentivising open day attendance with a train discount or a bus voucher you may help increase attendance and brand loyalty
Equipping yourself with the tools to better understand motivations, as well as tactics to offer more personalised, persuasive content will give your institution a strategic advantage and provide a better overall experience for staff, students and stakeholders alike. The Brand Education can be a powerful ally in this mission. As experts in higher education we work with institutions across the world to offer reputation tracking & strategy, social media training for academics (and broader roles), as well as paid social media campaign design and implementation. Get in touch with us today to find out more about how we can help you too.