Data – Where to Begin

Chances are, if you’ve been in the higher education marketing and communications world for some time, you’ve heard how important data is. And how we should be using it to make decisions and to inform the work we do.

As someone who came into this field in an unconventional manner, I heard the same. But I did not know how to begin or how to do that. If that’s you, you’re not alone. Many are still figuring that out.

What the Research Showed

In my dissertation, I looked at how regional public universities in the Southeast United States were using marketing efforts to overcome the predicted enrollment cliff.

One of the best practices that came from that research was the importance of using data.

Several participants explained ways they used data to advance the work of their marketing and communication teams.

My hope is their insights, coupled with a few of my own experiences, can provide a starting point if you’re trying to use data intentionally.

5 Tips for Using Data

1. Begin with your Enrollment Funnel Data

Looking at your enrollment funnel might tell you where to focus your marketing and communication efforts for the best results. For example, if you have high applications but that does not carry all the way through the students being enrolled, you might use one set of strategies and tactics. However, you might approach your efforts very differently if you have very few applications but you have a high conversion of those you have. Understanding your enrollment funnel is a great piece of data that can help you craft marketing and communication strategies that are customized to your situation and institution.

2. Look at your Website Data

If you have program pages for each academic program on your website, which pages are driving the largest amount of organic website traffic? Does that line up with what you’re seeing in applications? I had an instance where the top academic program page for the entire university was a program that had low enrollment. That told me there was interest but what the university was offering wasn’t quite the right fit. That was a great opportunity to use the data I had to make a case to adjust the program itself. In looking at program pages, you may also find that certain programs are under-performing. Is there work you can do with the content of these pages to help them perform better?

3. Look at Student Interest Data

As you’re talking with your students, what are they telling you? Are they interested in a certain major, are they curious about internships, are they wanting to understand campus clubs? Use the data they’ve provided to you about their interests to craft customized and personalized segments in your messages that address their interests. That could be a customized print piece, a special section in a pre-existing email campaign, or a fun giveaway based on their interest area. Bottom line, using student interest information is an easy way to show students we care. And we listen.

4. Use Your Data for Smarter Advertising

If you’re doing advertising buys, work with your admissions team to make sure you’re using separate lists. You can easily ensure that your admits, prospects, and advised/enrolled students see different messages. This approach is one that a participant in my study indicated was a game-changer for his institution. He shared it helped strengthen the relationship between marketing and admissions, and it allowed both groups to be using data to work toward the same goal. By the same token, he shared that it was critical to update the lists regularly to ensure that students who had completed a specific action (say being advised) didn’t continue to see messages encouraging that action.

5. Use Your Internal Data to Find New Markets

This is another way to use data that a participant shared, and I think it is really smart. This participant suggested looking at website data to see if there are pockets of interest from places you have not heavily pursued. If so, those might be good places to do some test marketing. I think that can be narrowed even more by looking at applications of students who applied to attend but did not enroll. Using that data, you may be able to identify certain areas of a particular city or region that could benefit from an awareness marketing campaign and could help you grow new audiences who consider you.

Why is Data Difficult

  1. We are all busy — this takes strategic, intentional time and effort and is a bit of a shift in thinking, though it’s an important one!
  2. Relationships — getting access to the data we need takes building relationships across our campuses with those who have access to the data.
  3. Intimidation factor — for whatever reason, looking at data can be intimidating. Am I ready it correctly? Am I drawing the right conclusions?

How to Get Started

Start small. Don’t try to do everything at once. Pick one or two data-focused project that you’re going to implement this academic year. Focus your efforts on those. If you finish those, you can always pick another couple of projects to work on. Don’t overwhelm yourself or your team trying to do too much too fast. Embracing data intentionally is culture shift work. Take. Your. Time.

Once you start thinking with a data-focused mindset, you’ll find even more opportunities to utilize data in the work you’re doing. Think snowball effect.

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