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The Power of Personalization

Stephen Biernacki

I received several emails from Google this morning on behalf of our clients who advertise using Google AdWords. In celebration of AdWords’ 10-year anniversary, Google is extending thanks to their advertisers by sending an email linking to personalized videos, and offering the opportunity to upload their own story via text, video, or photo. Their customized videos are what really had me in awe, and you can check out one for our client Buena Vista University by clicking here.

No doubt, the way the customization has been produced and portrayed is rather advanced, with impressive integration into what’s going on in the video itself. After all, we shouldn’t expect anything different than big ideas and high production value from Google. From the BEE-2B robotic bees, to breaking the current dominoes record, to the Varian 9000 laser projector – the effects mentioning the client name are neat. We’re not expecting that all institutions are able to deliver this high a level of execution, though we’re sure some are. It’s the concept that strikes us as most important and valuable to higher ed. The concept of personalization, and the fact that you can probably create ways to do more of it.

It’s What Gen-Y Wants
Most institutions are already personalizing for prospective students and have been for years. But what they are personalizing for prospective students has remained somewhat stale. Physical letters/brochures and emails are no longer enough. Our focus group research tells us that students love seeing their name. It doesn’t matter that it comes from a computer database, it still creates the sense that the media is personal. However, it stops being unique when every single institution out there is doing it. Can you do more? Admission counselors or freshmen students writing to specific prospective students they’ve been assigned to is an effective tactic. But again, it’s something many universities have been doing.

According to our focus grous, students enjoy and appreciate the personal touch. However, in a world full of customizable shoes, cars, and web platforms, it’s simply not enough for needy Gen-Y. The more efforts are tailored to them, the more potential they have to resonate. With the proliferation of digital communications and multimedia, the concept of personal has to extend there in creative ways.

Below is an interesting, albeit brief quote taken from a participant of a recent focus group with high school students:

If they knew you, and knew your extracurricular activities, that would make me want to go there.


Prospective students really want you to know them, and offering every opportunity you can for them to provide information about themselves will be to your benefit, and theirs. Traditional mail (if you still do that), college fairs, your website, and your Facebook Page are just a few areas where information can be collected. If you’ve already managed to get their attention (the hard part) and as long as the student is clearly made aware that providing information is for their benefit, it shouldn’t be too difficult to gather personal information and provide this student more pinpointed personalized information. As always, keep the process for collecting student data as simple and streamlined as possible. For example, the student above wanted to learn more about extracurricular activities, so a college would benefit from sending the student highly personalized materials on extracurricular activities that would optimally be based on preferences he or she had already submitted.

When I published the post, “3 Takeaways so Higher Ed Can Smell Like Old Spice” back in July, I didn’t directly include the “personal” aspect of the campaign as one of the takeaways. I should have. I’m not suggesting standing in a towel responding to student inquiries, but I am talking about directly responding to students – video, chat, or otherwise. Obviously, colleges could have a hard time accomplishing this on a large scale or via the “surprise attack” method that Old Spice used, but in this situation is different. Producing individual videos for serious but still on-the-edge applicants, might not be that far fetched. And it wouldn’t need to be used for all prospects, perhaps just those you really believe are a fit for your university and you feel are closest to actually enrolling.

Many institutions currently utilize real-time chat and video, but not as much as they could. This is especially true of video. By simply uploading to your institution’s YouTube channel, you could set up a “respond station” where videos for individual students can be quickly recorded by some of your more outgoing staff members in admissions. Other video tools, such as newcomer VYou, should also be considered. Of course, you’ll have a script and some main points outlined, but be as natural, welcoming, and conversational as you can. Do you have a small team of superstars that could pound out quality responses to students, inspired by Isaiah Mustafa?

Allow Prospects To Be Personal, Too
Not to be forgotten is the appeal of allowing your students to show themselves off. Another quote from a focus group participant:

In George Mason’s application there is a spot where you can send in a video essay. When I began getting e-mails ahead of time, one of the options was to look at other people’s videos. It’s why I wanted to go to Mason. They were cool.


This isn’t the first time we’ve heard of students stating their love for video essays. Many institutions, such as Tufts, allow prospective student YouTube videos to supplement applications. Tools like TinyChat can also be used to talk to a group of potential students, answering their questions and getting them acquainted with some like-minded peers who may also attend.

All in all, the heartfelt thank you at the end of Google’s video stands for something that’s memorable, and not really quantifiable. Unlike Google, institutions have the chance to actually address prospective students by name. Though the idea of implementing some of the tactics mentioned above may seem like a daunting undertaking, the opportunity to address prospective students by name, via video or other avenues, isn’t one that should be taken lightly. If you aren’t expanding how you do business with your students on a personal level, somebody else likely is. And we know from our research that students are loving it.

If your institution is doing anything you believe to be unique in terms of communicating in a personal way with prospective students, we’d love to hear about it in the comments. And just to reiterate, we’re interested in more than video! Any methods which prospects are experiencing personalization on your behalf are welcome.

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