Why Uni of NSW chose student services as its martech pilot

Uni's marketing leader talks through the journey to date to transform marketing and how it's harnessing technology to drive better student and academic engagement

It was improving access to student services and not acquisition activity that the team at University of NSW chose as the pilot project to try out its newly acquired marketing technology stack.

“The work wasn’t about revenue generation, it was saying how can we help students access everything they need to stand them up for success, particularly in their first year,” the university’s VP of external relations, Fiona Docherty, told CMO.

“We have amazing onsite services for students but we’re not marketing those services to them. There are lots of concerns across universities about students’ mental health, about appropriate behaviour on campus, and in international students’ building a good network of friends outside of those from their home country.

“So the first project was how we create an online platform where we can simply have a search tools on the key information they need, then use that platform to connect them in with services and opportunities alongside their study. I was proud we went there.”  

UNSW joined a growing list of Australian tertiary institutions last December in signing up to Adobe’s Experience Cloud suite. The investment is part of a five-year overhaul of digital ecosystem and ties into a long-term vision of achieving top 50 global university status by 2025.

In advance of the tech purchase, UNSW centralised its marketing and communications structure, bringing nine previously disparate teams into a unified group covering marketing, media, communications, content, digital experience and a future students group.

Speaking to CMO on the status of the rollout during this week’s Adobe Summit, Docherty said the university had “given birth after what felt like a long pregnancy”.

Part of the reason for this was a deliberate focus on making sure the right people were in place before technology rolled out. It’s work that has seen 100 new marketing employees come into the organisation.

“We recognised if we just took it out of the box and plugged it in, we’d probably fail pretty quickly. So we spent the first year thinking about our structure and skills, but more importantly, bringing in some amazing talent from different sectors,” Docherty said. “We also looked at the talent within the organisation.

“There are some who have grown up in the university who are true advocates for our community, and who understand the students and academics. That’s an important part of our DNA. We also had young, digitally savvy people who were frustrated as we were living in an old-fashioned world and who were desperate to get their hands on the software. Then we brought in people who’d got the T-shirt and either implemented Adobe or been really involved in driving digital marketing change in their organisation.”

Emphasis has now shifted onto how to harness the Adobe technology capabilities being rolled out over the course of 2019. Docherty is quick to point out some gaps.

“When I think about what we don’t have, it gives me a few sleepless nights. We don’t yet have a unified brand architecture for the university for example; we had nine different views of what UNSW is and what it stands for,” she said. “So we are doing quite a lot of work around what stakeholders think and how we can differentiate ourselves by building on what they love about us.”

Having deployed a CRM platform less than 18 months ago, capturing and sharing student data is also in its infancy. In addition, UNSW is still getting core building blocks in order, including its content management system and digital asset management system.

But the ambition and roadmap is definitely there. For Docherty, it’s not just about what she described as the “marketing wheelhouse” and making traditional initiatives more efficient, scalable and impactful. It’s how to identify more progressive ways of tapping technology to unlock student and academic potential.

And that’s where the choice of student services promotion as a pilot program comes in. “I’m excited by how we can support student while they’re on campus and how we can, through understanding their behaviour, promote services that will help them have a better experience with us,” Docherty said.

“This is more about how we get the taxpayer a better return and open up more education opportunities for students. We need to make sure they’re supported on the journey for a better outcome.”  

The student portal program started with onsite workshops. “It would have been great to look at the patterns of behaviour and get that view of the past, but there was no joined up repository of data around that,” Docherty continued. “But we did have frontline staff who knew so much. Data is important, but you need to balance it with the human insights – talking to staff, students – then build a holistic picture.”

The test-and-learn approach has been the most challenging concept to introduce to the wider UNSW business so far, Docherty admitted. While universities and academic are known for experimentation, failing was not recognised as an option in the corporate context.

“We had to build a bit of trust around the fact that we may not get this right the first time, but we’re going to test, learn and improve,” Docherty said. “To do this, we started to talk to academic colleagues around the peer review concept, which is embraced by academia.

“We told them, we’re going to do the same thing as you, and like peer reviews, you will probably pull it apart, or students might pull it apart. But we’ll learn and improve. Framing things in that academic way built up confidence.”

What also helped was quick growth in data. Within days, the student services portal had more than 20,000 visits, and growth in students accessing and taking advantage of services was clear.

“We had a data desert before; now the student portal is dashboard galore,” Docherty said. “We started to build data around usage and the sorts of information students wanted.”

Six weeks into the pilot, key insights for Docherty include which services are being searched, where people are directed to, what they are doing there, how long they spend reading about the support services, if they are interacting, and whether those actions lead to different behaviour.

“We’re getting a really clear steer on what students are interested in. You could extrapolate this into a world where you have much more flexible services and your investment in those services is tailored to what students what,” she said. “At present, universities, like many organisations, will set up an additional learning group for students, or mental health or counselling services. These physical services very quickly become swamp because of demand. But if we’re able to see through trending that more students need more counselling support and less need support with maths, we can make more informed decisions on what extra headcount we need and where.

“Also, if you’re not delivering all physically on campus, you can have a back office where you flex, potentially outsource some of it and generally be more responsive.”

Unlocking research potential

In looking at other ways to apply the Adobe technology, Docherty is keen to unlock the potential of the university’s academic population too.

“A lot of our knowledge, like services, is locked in on campus. It’s in people’s heads. I’m now looking at how we can, through this technology give access to more of our ideas,” she said.

“To do this, we need to think about the research funders and industry partners, who may not know about our research. Unless you’re researching in a specific area, how do you know you need this stuff? I’m interested in how to use the technology, particularly on social, to understand where the conversations are being had.

“We want to take some of the ways we’ve been marketing to students and think about it in the academic sphere.”

A starting step has been encouraging academics to use social media using the Hootsuite app to curate content academics can publish through their networks. Tied into the CMS, this will give UNSW a library of content that’s easy to publish across platforms.

“We can get information up quickly and it’s easy to publish across our platforms. Then we can track and see impact at scale. It’s simple stuff but the impact in terms of reach is going to be exciting and importantly, leads to great conversations with partners who want to collaborate with us,” Docherty said.

The marketing wheelhouse

There is of course a wealth of traditional students recruitment activity that will be transformed by the technology investment.

One of UNSW’s major pushes is student acquisition in India. The immediate priority is geotargeting students and using audience profiling capability to move away from a ‘boots on the ground’ approach, with lots of small events, to showcase events in more targeted locations. In addition, the education institution is looking to better target students with digital media.  

“That’s a really different model for us. We have 800 Indian students versus 11,000 Chinese students. This tech will help us grow India to our target of 5000 Indian students,” Docherty said.  

“Previously, staff would have tried to find events, work with Asian partners, to find out how to reach an 18-year old in Chennai who wants to study quantum computing. It was a needle in a haystack to find them. This is where the tech from a student perspective is really exciting.”  

  • Nadia Cameron travelled to Adobe Summit as a guest of Adobe.

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CMOAustralia, or check us out on Google+:google.com/+CmoAu   

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