5 Ways Website Personalization Can Fix Your College Enrollment Problem

March 24, 2015

Did you know of prospective students who complete applications, only 15% apply on their first visit? And, more than 54% of eventual applicants visit college and university websites five or more times before applying?

It’s great they’re coming back but, if your school is like many, you don’t need prospects. You need more enrolled students.

Why not take advantage of the prospects are already interested in your school? If your college or university is looking to solve a student enrollment problem, you need to stop increasing your media spend, senior search, and field recruiting, and start optimizing your website to engage and convert the prospects that are already there.

I’m not talking about a whole site redesign. I’m talking about developing a personalized website experience that can be tailored to a prospect’s needs from the first visit.

In this article, you’ll see how website personalization and optimization can:

  • Improve the prospective student journey
  • Make your admissions team more focused and efficient
  • Lead to increased enrollments

Not Sure About Website Optimization and Personalization?


Thanks to Amazon, we’re all familiar with personalized online shopping, but for content marketing, personalization and optimization is a new frontier. It works for shopping, but will it work for content dense sites? Is it worth it to add personalization and optimize the customer journey?

Let’s consider three key data points specifically from higher education that illustrate why website optimization might be worth your consideration:

Your College or University Website Is Your #1 Marketing Tool
We’ve interviewed hundreds and surveyed thousands of students across the country. It’s unanimous: The school website beats any other communication channel. Plus, the website is used at every point in the prospective journey – from first contact to matriculation.

Website Optimization Helps All Leads Equally
Optimization helps increase conversion across any and all lead channels. Colleges and universities get prospective leads from:

  • guidance counselor recommendations
  • college fairs
  • organic search
  • social media
  • e-mail
  • direct traffic
  • old school snail mail campaigns
  • and more

Optimizing the website for the prospective journey with personalization lifts all of your outbound marketing efforts.

For-Profit Colleges and Universities Are Driving Up Your Enrollment Costs
Gone are the days of paying pennies for traffic via Google Adwords. These days colleges and universities pay upwards of $25/per click with an average cost of $150 to $200 per inquiry (that’s not even the cost to get an applicant). In 2011, colleges and universities spent $2.2 billion on Google PPC with leading spenders like for-profit schools such The University of Phoenix and DeVry. As for-profit schools compete for advertising, prices in the ad marketplace continue to rise. And it’s not just on Google. As advertising offers mature on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook, we expect to see price of advertising continue to climb.

How Does Website Content Personalization Work?

Real-time website content personalization refers to the practice of replacing generic content on your website with personalized content based on user segments and real-time analytic data. You deliver a more relevant experience by learning about the user as she navigates the site.

For example, your prospective student enters your site on the homepage and navigates to the Biology major. Then she navigates over to the financial aid section, and finally she checks out intramural sports. Great. With personalization tracking in place, we’ve just learned three things about this user: interested in biology, financial aid, and sports. This data is tracked in a website cookie. These three interests can be used to personalize the website content.

As she continues to explore the site – or returns to the site before applying – parts of the site can display more relevant and personalized content. For example, student profiles could only display science majors (or better yet only biology majors). Or, the main carousel on the homepage could swap from a generic group of images to a science group of images. And, fast facts on the side could focus on financial aid facts.

The prospect is being presented with more and more relevant content that increases engagement and draws the prospect towards calls to action.

How Does Website Personalization Improve Enrollment?

First, website personalization provides a better, more relevant experience the 85% of applicants who are not applying on their first visit to your site. With each visit, the user profile builds and the content can become more targeted. Personalization encourages application and prepares prospects to matriculate.

Second, once the prospect identifies himself by taking an action and sharing personal information – application, inquiry, or campus visit – all of the anonymous website visit data is tied to this user. All past and future website activity can be linked to the CRM and used by the enrollment team to target additional communications or pick up the phone and engage the prospect.

Ready to Add Website Personalization to Your Website?

These five tactics illustrate how website personalization triggers can be used to engage prospective students and move them toward application.

1. Use Inbound Keywords to Trigger Website Personalization
The search keywords used on search engines can be the trigger for a customized website experience. For example, if prospective graduate students input “MBA Providence RI” into Google search, these search keywords can start a real-time personalized event on your website, including:

  • Replace generic image with an image of the Providence skyline
  • Change a generic student profile to an MBA student success story
  • Highlight career outcomes for MBA graduates

2. Use Referral Source – Such As the College Confidential Website – To Add Personalization to Your College Website
If a prospective student has been researching your school on the College Confidential website, our research shows she will click-thru to a college website in order to:

  • Find out more about a specific degree program or major
  • Learn about the on-campus, student experience
  • Check out the housing options

Armed with this research, you can trigger a custom welcome message that points prospects to these content destinations that already exist on your site.

3. Use Website Personalization Triggers to Fix Bad Information Architecture
If a prospective student finds your MBA program, you can use personalization to suggest other related programs on your university website. These suggestions might include:

  • Related masters degrees
  • Certificate programs for point skills
  • Specializations within the MBA program

This tactic is very effective for colleges and universities with a fragmented program presentation. For example, if information about your traditional Master degrees live on a different website than your online degrees, and your online degrees live on a different website than your certificate programs, personalization can guide users between these sections. Personalization ensures that prospects find the best content and it can overcome bad information design.

4. Look for Expressed Intent from Prospective Students
One thing we’ve learned about prospects that complete a conversion goal (e.g., request information or schedule a campus visit) is their visits are 300-400% longer than the average website visit.

Based on this data, personalization triggers can use “time on site” or “pages viewed” to predict that a long visit likely equates to a seriously engaged prospect. We would recommend showing messages and forms that accelerate and increase the conversion:

  • Display a time-related message about registering for a campus visit that creates urgency
  • Provide access to online chat with admissions counselors
  • Show a form that starts the first step to getting more information

5. Use Geographic Location to Drive In-Person Interactions with Real-Time Personalization
You can send a prospect an opportunity to meet your admissions staff in-person by tying your “on the road” calendar for high school visits with the geographic triggers in real-time website personalization software. In this scenario, you can detect the geographic location (city, state, country) of a website visitor and swap out generic content with specific content about upcoming opportunities to meet in person.

This tactic needs to be implemented carefully as you may be revealing that you know the location of the anonymous visitor.

  • Pop-up with a “meet us” message that calls out the user’s hometown. This ensures you’ll get the user’s attention, but may not always be relevant (for instance, if they are checking the website from grandma’s house who lives in another state). It may also be creepy that you know the location.
  • Integrated listing – This tactic employs a sidebar block that seems generic, but can be populated with personalized event based on a user’s geolocation.

By incorporating real-time website personalization, you create a unique user experience that speaks to a site visitor directly and encourages them to take action. Action that could be the difference between hitting your enrollment numbers or holding your breath waiting for those 85% of visitors who don’t apply on their first visit to come back and complete the process on their own.

For more on how higher education marketers can reach prospective students, check out:
How Your Higher Ed Website Is Failing At Recruiting Undergraduate Students
What Higher Ed Marketers Need To Understand About Prospective Students
The One Metric That Proves College Websites Are Worth the Investment

Download a Copy of Our In-Depth Personalization Guide

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