Marketing Automation: More Strategies for Higher Ed Marketing

“The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”

– Bill Gates

It is reductive to think that automation is ‘becoming’ a force in marketing, and to a finer point, admissions marketing. Indeed, the availability of marketing automation technologies has already rescripted the entire marketing landscape, injecting both wonderful and hazardous new possibilities, as Mr. Gates alludes to above. In higher education, admissions marketing is embracing and innovating automation practices more and more, with professionals within the typically slow-to-adapt field racing forward to modernize or be out-competed.

Marketing automation is a strategy involving software that is used to engage potential customers with highly relevant, personalized information at their preferred time, in their preferred medium, and is usually thought of as a combination of hands-free digital response and software assisted personal follow-up. It has found particular utility in higher ed admissions marketing for a number of reasons, including:

  • Massive lead-volume to admissions personnel discrepancy
  • Easily obtained lead information from purchase lists and formfills
  • Irregular/unpredictable interaction habits from leads across several time zones.

Simply put, automation allows admissions offices with relatively small staffs to manage messaging and informed contact with thousands of students, around-the-clock, responsive to engage students whenever their interest is piqued. The advantage of housing student records digitally, using those records flexibly in on-demand messaging, and accommodating a student’s time-sensitive desire to make a connection are clear. Both in the creation of customers and the further conversion of satisfied customers, marketing in higher ed is in a renaissance thanks to automated tools that allow for a greater human feel in all marketing interactions.

Applying Automation to Admissions Marketing

To understand how automation can be deployed for admissions offices looking to enhance their marketing potency, it’s best to begin with the prevailing rationale for doing so in the first place. To quote SEMGeeks: “Say a student visits your website. You need to hold their interest until it’s time for enrollment, so what do you do? You nurture these leads. Using a marketing automation tool, you can capture their data and continue marketing to them based on their online activity and behavior. Giving the right information at the right time can convert leads into students and boost enrollment.”

The key phrase here is “Right information at the right time”—what do we mean by time? Automation is effective 24 hours a day, and so an automated plan is, by definition, always prepared for response at the user’s preferred time. Beyond that, time as it relates to a customer’s place in the conversion funnel (the distinct stages through which a prospect passes to qualify towards enrollment) is a central concern to delivering the ‘right’ information. And how do we determine what information is ‘right’? To examine this, we will explore a few concrete examples of automation at work.

Example 1: The Newly Acquired Purchased Search List

At this point, we cannot make assumptions about a student’s familiarity with your school or whether or not they can be expected to welcome marketing. What we can infer about the student derives from the quality of the list purchase, and utilizing some baseline variables (state, possible major of interest), and utilizing those in an automated prospect-lead campaign can help your school stand out.


Automated nurture at this stage is centered around the call to action (CTA) of having a student actively inquire, or raise their hand, as having interest in learning more about your school. A stronger CTA like a directive to apply may be seen as too strong or pushy, and is thus not the right information for this time. When a student does, in fact, raise their hand, automation can help by quickly returning the extension through an immediate email, phone message, text or print mailing, as well as an alert for admissions staff to make personal contact.

Example 2: The Curious Inquiry

Once the hand is raised, two new significant elements enter the equation of right information at the right time: the student has invited your marketing, tacitly allowing for strong CTAs, and the student has opened a channel through which more and more information can be collected, stored in a CRM, and utilized in messaging. Automated responses for every voluntary form-fill submit, first-time application log-ins, and time-sensitive actions (application or scholarship deadlines) will enable a student to continue their upwards conversion. To recall Bill Gates’s cautionary note about efficiency, this time period should also be showcasing your school’s ability to be concise— providing the right information isn’t the same as providing all of the information. Using student information and careful calendaring can allow your nurture systems to run, mostly hands-free, without antagonizing the recipient with excessive information to the point of an opt-out.


Example 3: The First-Time Visitor

Visiting campus is an exceptional indicator of enrollment potential. Automation can be used to serve invitations to visit in correspondence with upcoming campus events. The invitation stream can halt once a registration is on record, and subsequently launch a reminder stream. Going further, emails can be sent to attendees to thank them and ask about their experience, as well as to registered non-attendees to encourage them to attend a future event. All automated processes involved here are reliant on accurate student activity tracking (registration and attendance, in this case) and appropriate contingencies for changing messaging in accordance with those activities, as they occur. In an example like this, we can see how automation without preparation is a hazard to the image and accountability your school presents. The obvious ‘inefficiency’ here would be to continue to invite registered students, or thank non-attendees for attending.

Example 4: The Incomplete Applicant

Pairing an automated marketing plan with a responsive CRM can lead to some highly effective outreach touches with a student. For example, if a student is using a savable application that is tracked and saved in your CRM, you have a lot of automated follow-up options. One example is following up with stalled applicants. If the system tracks the activity that a student logged into their application, but does not read that they have completed that application within a week of that log-in, it can automatically send a text or email offering personalized assistance. Not only does this act as a courtesy that reflects well on your school’s dedication to working with students, it also helps remind students to complete a process that they may have incorrectly assumed to have been completed in full. This sort of marketing support would be invisible without activity tracking and system automation, and, contrary to concerns about automation stripping out the human element in admissions relationships, actually shows a greater degree of personal concern.

Example 5: The Post-Accept Appeal

Post-accept pre-enroll is an area of admissions marketing explored in greater detail in the PSN article of this newsletter, but it goes without saying that automation has its uses at this stage as well. The crucial step for a student to take at this stage is to make an enrollment deposit and fully commit to your school, and so automated alerts to reps to follow up with students who have been accepted but not deposited, along with an email track attenuated to the deposit deadline, can be helpful. At this stage, all of the information in the application is available for variability in emails, and should be used extensively.

These are just a few examples of baseline automation strategies—strategies that many schools are already actively engaging. While they highlight the how and what marketing automation achieves, it is important to understand why, from the perspective of an admissions director. As Darian Shirazi shares in “Marketing Automation 2.0: Marketing Intelligence” for Forbes: The marketers that struggle the most typically answer, “I measure my success based on lead volume.” The marketers that surpass their goals typically answer, “I measure my team’s success based on dollar value of pipeline.” Marketers that struggle to reach their goals aren’t cognizant of their sales team’s ability to close deals; marketers that excel at reaching their goals work closely with sales to find great customers the team can close.

Colleges deal in massive ‘lead’ volume. An admissions staff of 20 may be responsible for an initial volume of 300,000 prospects—sifting and refining these records to accept qualified applicants and in turn enroll them. Many marketing systems promise success based on the concept of volume, but buyer beware – qualification for enrollment cannot be faked, and a company that increases your ‘applicant volume’ in name only by waiving application requirements needs to be scrutinized for their enrollment yield rate, or, in Shirazi’s example, the dollar value of the pipeline. In relation to right information at the right time, skipping a student through the pipeline nominally means missing out on the information that ripens their interest and relationship with your school, resulting in an enormous number of cold leads. Instead, we suggest a thorough look at the conversion funnel to develop an automated plan that allows students to move through at a natural pace, on their own terms, with support from your staff along the way.

Fears that a move to automation will remove the human element from your institution’s communication stream are misplaced. In fact, the entire point of marketing automation is to make the human elements of admissions marketing and the student-side admissions process more meaningful, informed and manageable. The clear benefits of automation are that it allows a larger pool of prospective students to be engaged with meaningful information without demanding a correspondingly inflated staff to manage that larger pool, and that, by design, every member of that larger pool receives more individualized attention. Whether that feeling of attention comes from direct human interaction or through automation that was scripted, by design, to accommodate that student’s need at the right time, isn’t the central focus—the human interaction and the automated tools, when working fluently, aren’t meant to be parsed in the first place, but to stand as a single marketing solution. Sometimes it is the rep greeting a student at the admissions office door, well equipped to have a meaningful conversation utilizing information gleaned through interactions a student has had with the automated nurture plan. Other times, it is a sequence of emails, print pieces and text messages driving students to appropriate information sources when they interact with marketing after the admissions office is closed for the night. When done well, marketing automation can help to create some of the most comprehensive, most personalized, human experiences for pre-college students imaginable.