Northern Illinois University gets Smarter Segmentation

The university uses marketing automation and data analysis to improve the way it engages with prospects and students.
Data Analytics

The university admissions process can be daunting, but lucrative. As competition for tuition-paying students intensifies, colleges and universities are reexamining their recruitment and admissions strategies to make them as efficient as possible and ensure no oversights. In some cases, institutions are turning to marketing automation vendors to gain an edge.

Northern Illinois University's Division of Outreach, Engagement, and Regional Development (NIU OERD) is one such department that overhauled its strategy for engaging prospective students.

Northern Illinois University has seven colleges that offer 56 undergraduate majors and 88 graduate and doctoral programs on its main campus in DeKalb, Illinois. NIU OERD specializes in providing educational resources to working adults. OERD offers 63 undergraduate and graduate academic programs both online and at the university's regional centers and other locations.

OERD staff engage many potential students through the NIU website, emails, and open houses. A four-person marketing team would review prospects' applications and refer them to advisors. However, the influx of online applications in addition to print applications soon made this process unwieldy and inefficient. The marketing team had no way to track potential students from interest to enrollment or measure the success of its marketing efforts.

Furthermore, simply hiring more staff was not an option. "We had to find another way to keep up with the applications that was sustainable," says Anissa Kuhar, marketing manager for OERD at NIU. "And so we began looking at automation [solutions]."

Two years ago, OERD turned to Act-On, a marketing automation provider, to help it streamline and track prospective students from their initial website visit to enrollment. Prospective students who are interested in specific programs submit contact and background information through an online form. On the backend, the Act-On platform sorts the students into segments depending on the information they provide.

The segments are based on profiles that the department has compiled of desirable students for each program. "We work with the department chairs to create a profile of the ideal prospect," Kuhar explains. "They tell us what types of credentials, educational backgrounds, and job experiences are required. Once we've identified what those key variables are and segment against them, we can provide a tailored message for each segment."

Each prospect is prioritized based on how likely they are to enroll. The automation platform routes the prospects through a CRM system (the department uses Salesforce's CRM system) and assigns certain prospects to academic advisors. Advisors can reach out to them for more information, or to encourage them to apply to NIU.

For example, if a prospect's application meets all the initial requirements, he or she will receive a message about the next steps for applying to the program. If the application misses the mark in some areas, such as a low GPA or a lack of work experience, the prospects are assigned to an advisor for a further conversation. Applicants who don't qualify for the program are sent to a transfer specialist to discuss other options.

Implementing an automated system has made it much easier to track prospective students from filling out a form to applying for a program, Kuhar notes. "This system enables us to better manage our lead flow, allocate our resources more effectively, and identify areas that need improvement," she says.

For example, calculus was one of the prerequisites for enrolling in the Bachelor of Science and Technology degree program. But the university discovered that many of the online applicants hadn't taken a calculus class and were being eliminated from the program.

"That led us to have a conversation with the chair about finding a way to bridge the gap such as recommending that they pick up that class from a community college or a certification program," Kuhar says. "But had we not collected this information and seen the problem, we'd never have known that we needed to make adjustments to our messaging."

Now the marketing team and advisors can identify the number of qualified leads that enter the system. They can also see how many of those leads convert or apply for programs and analyze the data for insights. Kuhar declined to specify what the conversion increase is, but noted that it is a "significant" difference. The automated system also allows the department to respond to students within 24 hours about their next step whereas in prior years, "it would have taken much longer," Kuhar adds.

The NIU OERD team's next plan is to pick up more clues about prospective students' interests. The team is working on using behavior-based marketing to track user activities, such as the web pages or articles that a visitor clicks on and apply that information to further personalizing its messaging. There isn't a plan to roll out the platform across the entire university, but the OERD's experience stands as an example of the benefits of automation and data insights, Kuhar says. "If you can't see it, you can't manage it."