In the past decade, digital tools in higher education have gone beyond classrooms, libraries, and admissions processes. They now help shape enrollment initiatives, engage with prospective students and parents, and even connect with alumni. Utilizing various tools and technology to shape the digital experience (DX) has become crucial for academic institutions to connect with diverse audiences and drive financial growth across the multifaceted nature of objectives. With its recognized importance, many institutions are on the verge of exploring transformative possibilities in their digital experience.
Embracing the Digital Experience
This moment presents a chance to fully adopt the digital revolution shaping higher education. This entails a comprehensive digital strategy that permeates every facet of your college or university, aligning seamlessly with stakeholders and student and alumni-centric objectives. Accomplishing this requires merging data-driven insights with automated systems, gaining internal focus and alignment, and securing essential support from leadership, among other areas.
We're sharing insights from our 2023 proprietary research conducted in partnership with Vanson Bourne. We tap into marketing and technology leaders at the helm of digital experiences, including higher education. The results explore initiatives and reveal perceptions, investments, and focus areas for optimization.
State of Higher Ed: Digital Experience & Strategy
Our research highlights the pivotal role of DCX in institutional success, with 100% of surveyed marketing leaders from higher education acknowledging its importance—38% deeming it crucial and 52% deeming it very important. Achieving an optimal digital experience necessitates a comprehensive digital strategy that's aligned with business objectives and audience expectations. Surprisingly, while 70% have a fully defined strategy, only 32% have implemented and optimized it across their entire institution.
Navigating today's higher education landscape presents unique challenges, including heightened competition for student enrollment, rapid technological advancements, and the need to meet diverse student expectations as well as those of influential voices, like their parents or guardians.
Adapting to these complexities requires a continuous commitment to innovation. That commitment must also be driven by a deep understanding of these audiences' behaviors, preferences, and attitudes.
State of Higher Ed: Challenges & Key Insights
Our findings reveal the anticipated outcomes of an optimized digital experience within a college or university's digital strategy. Among higher education DX decision-makers:
- 52% foresee increased revenue or conversions
- 48% anticipate enhanced student or learner satisfaction
- 40% envisionan increase in acquisition
- 40% foresee financial growth from new channels
- 38% expect a boost in brand value
- 26% aim for streamlined internal processes
- 24% anticipate their KPIs and targets improving
- 14% think it will reduce operational costs
However, despite this recognition, there exists a notable gap in execution and optimization. Only 22% believe their institution is market-leading in execution, 28% believe they're toward the top, and 32% believe they're in the middle.
This gap becomes evident when execution falls short of expectations. Although an institution's stakeholders recognize the significance of a robust digital enrollment experience, the execution may not meet the envisioned standards.
For instance, you personalize digital communications, but your marketing platform lacks integration for seamless tailored messaging and automation across channels. This leads to fragmentation in the experience and a disparity between intention and implementation.
Ask Yourself: Which challenges today reflect a disparity in translating your strategy into action to effectively drive outcomes?
Our research results underscore an overarching need for improvement across multiple fronts within colleges and universities. There's a collective acknowledgment of deficiencies spanning digital marketing strategy, technology utilization, data collection, omnichannel experiences, and personalization capabilities.
Embracing Data-Driven Strategies for Financial Growth
One notable opportunity? The majority of respondents (88%) pinpoint audience data and insights as the prime avenue for digital revenue growth.
In detailing their current utilization of data, respondents ranked the significance of data in various facets of digital experience, demonstrating its pivotal role in decision-making, customizing, and improving overall user satisfaction. The priorities for the next 1-2 years for improving their digital experience by using data include:
- informing technology choices (50%)
- personalizing digital advertising (46%)
- guiding strategic decisions (44%)
- optimizing user experiences (38%)
- segmenting audiences (36%)
- and even personalizing websites or mobile apps (32%), among other applications.
Investments in first-party data collection over the past three years have seen a diverse array of focuses. Institutions allocated 50% of their focus to digital experience platforms and content management systems (DXP/CMS) and dedicated 40% to adopting AI/machine learning. Additionally, higher ed institutions have also ventured into image and voice recognition technologies, personalized mobile experiences, augmented reality, IoT (Internet of Things), and wearable tech. This signals a forward-looking approach to leveraging technology for data collection and enhancement.
Focus Areas for Digital Transformation
Amidst the challenges, higher education institutions pinpoint areas for needed transformation. These include enhancing marketing automation (50%), better managing audience data (46%), internationalizing websites (44%), providing consistent cross-channel experiences (42%), and improving the performance of various "customer" communication channels (42%). The emphasis on leveraging technology and data emerges as a cornerstone for advancement.
For those looking to enhance marketing automation, it's imperative to invest in sophisticated software and streamline data flow. Integrating a customer relationship management system (CRM) with your website and marketing automation platform ensures a seamless flow of data between these essential marketing systems. The integration empowers your admissions team to access comprehensive student or alumni profiles, enabling more personalized and timely interactions.
To further amplify the impact, consider integrating a customer data platform (CDP) into your ecosystem. By incorporating a CDP alongside the CRM and marketing automation platform, you can gain a robust foundation for personalized, timely, and effective interactions with students or alumni. Whether your goals involve boosting applications, campus visits, or alumni donations, comprehensive audience profiles enhance the overall digital experience, increasing the probability of successful conversions.
To further enhance your institution's digital transformation, Verndale is ready to guide you through the integration process, ensuring a seamless and effective implementation of the CDP alongside your existing systems.
Technology & Data Use
Our findings highlight the confidence of higher education marketers and IT leaders in their institutions' capacity to collect, process, and use data obtained directly from their interactions with students, potential students, and alumni to support their marketing efforts.
- Confidence in Obtaining Data: There's a strong sense of being able to gather first-party data with 34% very confident, and 50% fairly confident, that they can acquire this information even if they are unable to access "third-party data" (data obtained from external sources or vendors).
- Skills for Data Acquisition: The majority (68% very confident and 26% fairly confident) believe they possess the necessary skills to collect this first-party data effectively.
- Skills for Utilizing Data: There's a high level of confidence regarding the ability to utilize this acquired data. Specifically, 48% are very confident, and 44% are fairly confident that their team possesses the skills to extract insights from the first-party data and utilize it to its maximum potential, optimizing its use for marketing purposes.
Navigating Data Siloes, Quality, & Compliance
Yet, the sheer volume of information, data hygiene, and accuracy can be daunting.
For one, data fragmentation is a prevalent issue and can hamper the seamless integration and utilization of various data sources. Multiple systems across departments lead to siloed data, complicating efforts to consolidate and derive unified insights crucial for effective decision-making. A disjointed nature of data across departments poses a challenge in achieving a holistic understanding of students. It makes it nearly impossible to craft personalized, automated experiences tailored to their needs and behaviors.
Moreover, navigating data privacy and concerns looms large for universities and colleges. While the intent is to leverage student data for personalized experiences, stringent regulations like GDPR or CCPA necessitate meticulous measures to safeguard privacy. Balancing personalization efforts with ethical data practices can be a delicate tightrope walk.
Despite these hurdles, investing in a robust data management system can assist in mitigating challenges and aid in ethical data practices and compliance.
Our Hot Take For Getting Gen Z's Attention
Beyond data utilization, visualizing an optimized digital experience paints a landscape of evolving trends and approaches. There are low-hanging opportunities you can tap into that prove successful in garnering attention from potential students, including:
- Social media marketing, particularly with short-form and vertical video content has emerged as a vital recruiting tool.
- Investing in formats for platforms like Reddit and YouTube, offers fertile ground for institutions to engage with Gen Z.
- Leveraging Virtual Reality (VR) to immerse students in campus experiences holds promise in providing an engaging touchpoint.
Want more on trends? Access our higher education guide on 7 trends defining digital experience success.
Conclusion: Elevating Digital Experience in Higher Ed
Digital experiences in higher education are evolving, presenting both challenges and opportunities. Bridging the technology gap and elevating the digital student experience requires a cohesive blend of strategic vision, technological prowess, and a relentless pursuit of leveraging data for transformation. Additionally, advocating for continuous improvement in the digital experience enables colleges and universities to unlock future opportunities, enhancing engagement and boosting conversions.
Our tailored solutions are crafted with a keen understanding of audience behaviors, preferences, and attitudes, enabling institutions to innovate effectively. Through collaborative efforts, we empower educational entities to thrive in an ever-evolving landscape, fostering meaningful engagements and sustainable growth for prospects, students, and alumni.
Verndale can help you empower your team to translate strategy into action to effectively drive outcomes in enrollment, donations, brand value, and internal processes. Reach out to start the conversation.
This article draws upon data from Verndale's 2023 proprietary survey conducted in partnership with Vanson Bourne. Curious about more insights? Explore our comprehensive findings in the 2023 Trends Report: Digital Customer Experience.