Canada’s post-secondary schools are experiencing a quiet revolution in how they recruit and retain students. Like marketers across so many categories, they’re thinking about prospects from the perspective of customer experience, and they’re starting to use data and analytics to ensure that experience is more personalized and rewarding.
Leading the charge is Ottawa’s Algonquin College. The school’s journey started roughly five years ago when Doug Wotherspoon, its VP of communications and strategic priorities, began a push to overhaul its recruitment department and adopt customer relationship management technology as the backbone of its sales and marketing process.
The school was facing pressure from shrinking demographics — Ottawa’s 17-25-year-old population is declining, as is most of Ontario’s — and Wotherspoon knew they needed to get more aggressive to keep enrollment up, despite a flat marketing budget. On top of that, he wanted to start reaching out to more international students, to help fill in the gaps in domestic enrollment.
For inspiration, he looked at how B2B companies were leveraging data and automation to do more with less. “Actually the choice of where to go to school is kind of like a B2B considered purchase,” he explained. “There’s usually multiple stakeholders like the parents, guidance counselors and peers to keep track of, and it’s a considered purchase, not an off-the-shelf buy, so it usually takes a couple of weeks if not months to come to a decision.”
Through his research, he discovered $200,000 would be enough to license Salesforce’s CRM platform to get started. He said it took some arm-twisting to get the senior administration on board, but in the end he was able to convince them by cutting ineffective programs and scrounging the funds from his own budget. For example, Algonquin printed 246 different mailers for each of its programs at tremendous design and editing expense. Wotherspoon cut the mailers entirely, replacing them with an automated email campaign.
To get the most out of B2B marketing best practices, Wotherspoon’s sales team adopted a lot of the same terminology that Salesforce marketers use to track and engage customers. Prospective students became leads, each with an active lead score that increases every time they engage with Algonquin through emails, site visits, social or video views. When a prospect’s lead score reaches a certain threshold, it automatically triggers progressively more aggressive outreach — starting with follow-up emails and leading to faculty calls or scheduled meetings with the dean.
Algonquin also got a lot smarter about how its field reps work. It built a tablet app for reps to use at high school presentations to collect contacts, so rather than having to enter all the students’ emails manually days later, they’d be fed directly into the Salesforce cloud. Algonquin can now send them a follow-up email the very next day, and make sure their leads stay warm.
Wotherspoon said between automating its lead gen strategy, and restructuring the department so the outside sales team could focus 100% on presentations, they’ve managed to triple the number of leads they generate through that channel. “I mean to be honest, I don’t even worry about them any more,” he said. “We’ve shifted from ‘we need to generate enough leads’ to ‘we need to convert, and convert faster than everybody else.'”
Algonquin’s lead-nurturing campaigns involve a series of personalized messages via Salesforce and Marketo, the marketing automation platform Algonquin uses. The school collects and stores information about each lead’s interests in a single location, and uses predictive analytics to get even smarter about what kind of content to send them. Emails are all dynamically populated with program information and relevant content the student has shown an interest in.
Putting all this together, Algonquin has seen some pretty significant gains. Enrollment this year was up 2.4%, even as college enrollment fell 0.4% across Ontario. International student recruitment, where Algonquin has focused a lot of its efforts, grew 8.5% this year and 20.5% the year previous.
Wotherspoon said it doesn’t take a whole lot to get started with data and automation, even in a generally sluggish industry like post-secondary education. It doesn’t have to cost a lot, either.
“There’s institutions that have bought-in at a senior, presidential level, and institutions that are working organically from the bottom up. At various moments we’ve been in both of those camps,” he said. But the key to succeeding throughout has been to keep complete ownership of CRM technology within the communications department, rather than going through IT. Having their own developers to oversee customization of the platform has helped them to stay agile, and to keep adapting their capabilities to better meet the needs of reps.