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Posted by Nat Walker on 11 August 2016

We examine the different ways which a university can personalise digital content

Anyone involved in student recruitment will be all too familiar with the growing challenges that are now being faced, with the cost of a university education continuing to grow, and concerns rising amongst prospective students of whether the benefits of attending university out-weigh these costs or not.  

It's therefore becoming more important than ever for universities to find ways to differentiate themselves and stand out from the crowd.  And a key way to do this is through adopting a strategic digital marketing approach, but this also comes with it's own challenges.  

One such challenge is the growing expectations of your audience - with technology continuing to develop at a rapid pace, online audiences now expect an improved digital experience that is tailored specifically to them, with content that is relevant to them and their own individual needs.

This process of tailoring online content for a specific user or group of users, is commonly referred to as digital personalisation, and in this blog we're going to explore the different ways in which it can be achieved, and the significant benefits it offers to universities.

Why bother with personalisation?

Times have changed and the days of prospective students ordering a pile of bulky paper prospectuses to find out about courses and specific university information have passed.  They now rely massively on online content (and if you're interested on some stats on this topic take a look at one of our recent blogs where it's explored further).

There's no escaping the fact that the courses, facilities and opportunities which a university offers are hugely varied, so even if you conduct a substantial amount of research into what content your audience wishes to see online, there's still going to be a significant amount of content on your website that an individual visitor just isn't interested in.

Choosing a university is a lengthy and often stressful decision making process - so any steps that can be taken that will make this decision easier, by providing relevant information surely makes sense for a university to invest in.  

With digital personalisation you instantly make it easier for your website to deliver the right content to the audience which it is intended for.  Therefore, maximising the value of all content created, and most importantly improving the overall experience delivered.

Different types of personalisation

Ok, so lets now look in more detail at the various ways in which a university can improve the experience which it offers to website visitors by tailoring the content delivered.

To personalise you generally have to find out some information about your visitors in order to deliver appropriate content to them - and there are a number of different ways to do that which include;

1. Behavioural Personalisation

Behavioural personalisation is achieved by assigning points to a site visitor dependent on their behaviour on your website. Then when a certain number of points have been gained by that visitor they are then assigned to one of a list of pre-defined personas, and each persona is served different content when they visit the site.

An example of this on a university website might be showing visitors a list of the other courses you think they might be interested in based on the courses they have searched for previously (similar to good old Amazon or Netflix where you'll be suggested other things to buy or the next box set to view based on what you've already demonstrated an interest in).

This type of personalised content offers great benefits to the visitor by saving them time by helping them find what they're looking for more quickly, and potentially introducing them to courses that they weren't even aware of but could be a great fit for.

This process can be automated by using one of a number of platforms which provide CRM or customer relationship management solutions. Examples of this type of software includes Sitecore, HubSpot and Microsoft Dynamics.

And an example of a University website using HubSpot for it's personalisation needs is that of the National College of Ireland. The marketing team at the college initially tried to adopt a more targeted marketing approach by using data from tools such as Google Analytics and Facebook Analytics but found that these tools didn't provide sufficient data to build a relationship with their visitors. This led to them implementing the HubSpot CRM platform in order to define personas and assign visitors to those personas based on behaviour on the site. To find out more about NCI's success with HubSpot please take a read here.

2. Triggered Personalisation

Triggered personalisation occurs when a visitor takes a certain action on your website, and as a result, their experience on the site is altered. An example would be someone visiting your website and filling out a form, then returning to the site at a later date, and the form no longer being there to complete. Or a visitor signing up for a newsletter on updates from a certain faculty and then no longer seeing that newsletter call to action.

This kind of personalisation doesn't require any identification of the user but could mean that information which is more important to the user is now more prominent on the page because the space isn't being unnecessarily taken up by content which they have already acted on.  

3. User-set Personalisation

Providing a visitor with the opportunity to make their own choices about the content they see can also be effective. By doing this you are letting the user make their own choice rather than using data to form assumptions about what they want to see.

To achieve this on a university website you might let the visitor narrow down the list of content they are shown when they re-visit the site. They may wish to only see information about a certain subset of courses for example, or perhaps see information about help and services provided to international students.

The Bucknell University website is a good example of user-set personalisation. When you first land on the site, you see a generic homepage that is aimed at the site's target audience as a whole, but there is a prominent call to action on the homepage which gives the option to customise the page by hiding or showing sections depending on your preferences. These preferences are also remembered the next time you visit the site.

4. Profiled Personalisation

Profiled personalisation involves using personal data provided by the visitor in order to choose which content to show them. For example, you might choose to show content about international students in a more prominent area on the page if the visitor has previously filled in a form saying that they currently don't live in the UK. Or if the visitor has expressed an interest in playing a musical instrument you may choose to show them content about the societies and facilities available to them at the university. By doing this you are taking a very proactive approach to bringing information to their attention that you think might influence their selection decision, and not making them do the hard work in locating this information on the site.

This type of personalisation obviously requires the most data about the visitor and – rightly so – many people are concerned about data protection online. To alleviate any concerns about what data is being collected and how it is being used, you should consider being up-front about why you are showing them each piece of personalised content. A short bit of text that says "We thought you might like X because you told us you like Y" could be the difference between people being skeptical about your intentions for their data, and being willing to tell you what you need to know in order to tailor their experience.

Further thoughts

Personalising content on your website is a really effective way of ensuring that prospective students quickly and easily find relevant information to them.  By stopping them getting distracted (or worse bouncing straight off your site) when required to wade through a lot of unnecessary content, then you'll make their university selection process considerably simpler.

And by helping your visitors save time and effort finding the content they're interested in, you will accelerate how quickly they can make an informed decision on whether your university is the right fit for them or not, and deliver a far better digital experience.

It's therefore an approach that we would strongly recommend universities to consider - however, we would also suggest that you carefully consider a couple of important areas before jumping straight in, these include:

1. The importance of audience insight

As I mentioned earlier there are a number of software tools available that allow you to automate personalisation to a certain extent, but in order to make the best of this software you need to give considerable thought first into exactly how you are going to personalise the experience, and what typical behaviours certain audience groups will exhibit.

The automating aspect is actually the easy part, it's building up a comprehensive understanding of exactly how your audience behaves and what content they're looking for that takes more work - but with a strategic approach to audience research this insight can be achieved and should be an integral part of any personalisation development work.

2. Avoiding the 'creep-factor'

Another key thing to remember is around what I like to call the 'creep-factor' and how to minimise this as much as possible.  There's a fairly universal feeling of trepidation around giving data online so it's really important to make your visitors feel as comfortable as possible by being transparent about how the data will be or has been used - don't hide anything smoke and mirrors style, be upfront about how providing this information will improve their experience, your audience will thank you for it!

Next steps

Hopefully this post will have provided a good introduction to the world of personalisation - if you would like a chat about anything we've covered here or find out how you can use personalisation for your business, then please do get in touch. 

And if you're interested in keeping updated on our digital marketing blogs for the education sector then simply subscribe on the top of this page and you'll get all future posts delivered straight to your inbox


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