Get Schooled: Use Social Personalization Like Higher Ed


Colleges and universities face some unique marketing challenges in the U.S. With more than 3,000 competitors, attracting the right students takes effort and creativity. Even schools that have no trouble “filling the seats” have important enrollment objectives for academic accomplishment, extracurricular skills, and, in many cases, ability to pay. I’ve written about the need for colleges to differentiate themselves by strong branding (see College Branding, for example). Just about every school is trying to reach students via social media, but a few are taking it to the next level with social personalization and other techniques to create a unique marketing appeal for each potential applicant.

Forget the Viewbook

Does “college marketing” bring visions of interchangeable viewbooks, those glossy pictorials showing green quads populated by attractive, smiling students? Or boring websites designed by committees? Take a look at this offering from St. Bonaventure University. They connect use Facebook to populate this page to personalize the student’s site experience: potential student: Becoming Extraordinary. Here’s what the home page looks like after you connect with Facebook:St Bonaventure Becoming ExtraordinaryThat’s just the start, though. If you click around the site, most of the content isn’t personalized, but every now and then something suprising pops up. For example, if you click on the location icon, the site uses the Facebook info to determine your start point:St Bonavanture Geo PersonalizationAnother unexpected find is on the Academics tab, where the site grabbed my high school info (cleverly ignoring my undergrad and B-school data) to personalize a popup:
St Bonaventure - High School personalization

I almost missed what turned out to be my favorite personalizaton “easter egg” – Student IDon a whole-page corkboard, there’s a St. Bonaventure student ID with my photo and name! This is the kind of visual imagery that can create a brand preference (see Social Personalization and the Doppelganger Effect.)

Some might find the personalization a little too subtle, but I think the fact that it’s not as obvious may actually make the site more engaging. Each time I spotted one of these little elements, I experienced a little “aha!” discovery moment. I was encouraged to poke around for more.

Is Psychology in Your Future?

Adler Video Venn DiagramSometimes, it may not be practical to require users to connect with Facebook, Twitter or other network. Users are understandably concerned about providing third-party access to their information, and may be reluctant to do so unless their is a strong motivator or a high degree of trust. If demanding a Facebook or other connection would depress the number of users who opt for enhanced interaction, simply getting a name can be sufficient.

For example, this personalized video generator for the Adler School of Professional Psychology needs only the student’s name to build the student into the short video in a variety of creative ways.
Adler - personalized name plate

See how you’d look as a future psychologist here.

If you quack like a duck…

Oregon defines duckThe University of Oregon takes a different approach by featuring the prospect as the school’s mascot, a duck. The video demonstrates some other interesting forms of interactive personalization. One of the most clever is what appears to be a page from a dictionary that builds the prospect’s name into the definition of “duck.” At another point, video from a Duck football game is displayed while the prospect’s name appears in a crawl display at the bottom of the screen. Become a Duck here.

Note the difference in approach between the two videos. Adler uses personalization in an aspirational, career-oriented way; the prospect can visualize himself helping others, holding a prestigious position, etc. Oregon, in contrast, places the prospect in the university community, with the Duck mascot, the big-time sports references, and visual gags emphasizing that the school would be a fun place to spend four years. Even though neither exploits the photo-based Doppelganger effect, they do provide frequent “payoffs” to the viewers and should hold their attention far better than a typical promotional video.

According to my friend Chris Zahumensky, sales VP at Hobsons (the firm that created these campaigns), higher ed clients report significantly higher engagement with personalized websites, resulting in more inquiries and applications compared to traditional static web content.

Get Schooled

These examples are all from the higher ed area, but many businesses can learn from the diverse examples offered here. Social personalization offers some very powerful options, and even traditional name personalization can be transformed from boring to cool with today’s technology. If you aren’t putting your customer into your marketing, you’re missing an opportunity to increase conversion.

[Note: Neuromarketing readers may have noticed that I write about higher ed marketing, college branding, and related topics fairly often. I have a special interest in that area, as eleven years ago I co-founded College Confidential, now the busiest college-bound website. CC was acquired by Hobsons, a unit of DMGT, in 2008. Since Hobsons is a major provider of student recruitment help to colleges and universities, I’ve had a chance to see not just the student/parent side of things, but also the school side. All of these examples are from the Hobsons portfolio.]

  1. James says


    That was fantastic! I’m moving to Eugene right now.

  2. Roger Dooley says

    What, and skip the psychology degree? 😉 Quack, quack.

  3. Tim says

    I like this Facebook personalization approach. It’s in a subtle way communicating that they “get it” – they kind of get what I’m about, where I come from, they’re wired in. That’s the impression I get when I visit that site. I also like what they write: “Got a question? Ask a student here.” That’s fits in this whole concept very well.

  4. Susan Bodiker says

    As a former marketing/comms director for a public university, I give your recommendations an “A+.” They underscore, once again, the importance of putting yourself in your target’s shoes (something that marketers, especially universities, need to be reminded of again and again.) A couple of caveats: viewbooks are the zombies of education marketing. You cannot kill them. Everyone from trustees on down wants them. The key, especially if you’re following a smart digital strategy, is to encourage your prospects to create their own viewbook, which ensures they access the information they’re searching for and saves paper and postage in the process. The second caveat is to make sure every level of the enrollment funnel is prepared to effectively serve prospects’ needs (and understands what you’re doing). It does you no good to bring students to the door if you lose them during admissions or after. Recruitment/retention is an on-going marketing process. Finally, the ideas outlined here require resources (staff, time and funding) that are increasingly hard to come by. Many universities may know what they should be doing, but for a variety of reasons cannot follow through.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      “The zombies of education marketing” – love that phrase, Susan. And, like zombies, it’s kind of hard to tell viewbooks apart!

      I’m far from an expert on university governance, but I think one of the challenges is that the institution serves multiple constituencies, and there are multiple influencers in the decision-making process. At Apple, Steve Jobs could say, “Forget that crap, here’s what we’re going to do.” That won’t fly in academia, and the marketing that results (confusing websites, generic taglines) are often the result of too many compromises.

      1. Susan Bodiker says

        Thanks…and you are so right about buy-in!

  5. Dave says

    Great post. I was involved in establishing one of the largest graduate schools online back in the day and lately have been working with some undergraduate-focused clients. Most university marketing people don’t realize how commoditized the messaging from local and regional institutions has become – especially for adult, non-traditional students (which is the bulk of the population at many of these institutions). They need to get serious about marketing techniques like this to stand out from the crowd. Yes, “buy-in” from the academics is a problem – but the for-profits will quickly move beyond that problem and have the budgets and motivation to do work like this and grab the largest share of these prospects.

  6. Darley PCM says

    Fantastic post. It is great to feel involved and interacted with on a website, personalisation really makes you feel looked after!

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