Indiana University: Tops at "Customer" Engagement

Great example of a creative and effective customer engagement approach

For the next month or so, my youngest child is in that wonderful and challenging period of life where he gets to make his first independent life decision: where should I go to college?  Fortunately, most of the early news he's received has been positive - he has some great choices already but the most engaging by far has been Indiana University.  They definitely "win" for the most clever use of technology to attract an engage a potential "customer."

Indiana is a "rolling admissions" school with no required essay so anxious college-bound seniors can submit an application easily and if they're fortunate, get an acceptance very early in their senior year, which is exactly what happened for my son.  It's an interesting situation when you think about it from the school's perspective: they identify a prospective student beginning in early Fall but the student doesn't have to accept the offer until the following May.  That's a long time to remain "top of mind," especially for out-of-state students who are clearly not selecting Indiana because of the benefits of in-state tuition.  Indiana University is a large state school - around 32,000 students - so they are clearly engaging a large population.  From a sales and marketing perspective, they have to have at least one key goal in mind: staying engaged with their prospective customer during that potentially long period between the earliest acceptances and when they finally "close the deal."  This is my third child to go through the college application process so I really thought we had seen pretty much everything. However, the "customer engagement" activities that Indiana has done to attract the attention of both my son and his parents have been so engaging that I finally had to call the school to learn more about their marketing strategy.

Here are a few of the especially creative things they've done:

  • Shortly after he got accepted, my son received a striped scarf in the mail with a note that began, "Now that you've earned your stripes ..."  Of course the scarf had the IU logo and was in the school's colors.  (Who knew how important warm weather apparel was going to be in Snowmageddon D.C. this winter!)
  • At Christmas time, he received a personalized holiday card with a photograph on one side with his name etched in the snow.  Of course we knew this wasn't so hard to do with tools like PhotoShop and we figured probably every kid got one, but it was incredibly well done.
  • On his birthday, he received an e-mail message with a photograph of a birthday cake with his name written in icing (or it sure looked like it was written in icing!).
  • A few weeks ago, he got an e-mail message with a link to a personalized video that was exceptionally clever.  The video showed scenes of the school and was designed to show each recipient what college will be like for them.  The film itself was clearly shot once, but at several points in the film, my son's name and high school were featured on items in the movie.  The e-mail was followed up by a personalized 5 x 8 postcard that looked just like the MPAA ratings announcement that you see at the beginning of a movie - except that on one side it read: The following preview has been approved for [his name] from [his high school].  The video advertised has been rated A for accepted students, Indiana University Bloomington.  The other side had another personal message.

These are definitely above and beyond standard personalized e-mail messages, which are pretty common these days.  My son's reaction was pretty interesting.  After the birthday e-mail, which he showed me on his new iPhone, he said to me, "Mom, they are clearly trying to charm me."  I thought that this was probably exactly what they were trying to do and to hear this come out of my totally jaded 18 year-old's mouth prompted me to call the Marketing Manager for admissions, Sarah Gallagher Dvorak.  I wanted to share the positive feedback but I was mostly curious about what they hoped to accomplish and whether the investment was primarily to attract out-of-state kids like mine (where we'd be paying close to three times the tuition of in-state residents) or whether they had some other goals in mind.  Sarah very graciously spent time with me talking about what they hoped to accomplish.  I think there are some definite lessons here for people in the business world. 

Sarah first explained to me that their initial goal was to respond to a competitive marketplace for college students.  They know that they are a big school and they want prospective students to feel like they will be" more than just a number" when they get to Indiana.  "We want prospective students to understand that we care about you, " she told me. "It's very much about who we are."  They clearly perceive this as a differentiator and while my son has also been accepted to the University of Maryland, an equally large school, we're definitely not getting the same love from our "in state" school (but maybe because we won't have to pay the "extra" tuition should he choose to attend).  Given what has happened  to the college savings of many families in the past couple years, I'm not sure whether state schools like Indiana have to worry about attracting in-state students. I know that several state schools have increased their acceptance rates for out-of-state students in order to bring in more cash so I wondered if Indiana's investment in personalized marketing was specifically targeted to the potential customers with the highest revenue potential.  Turns out, Sarah told me that every admitted student has received these "personal" promotions.  Obviously, once you've made the investment to create the material, the marginal cost of each additional piece isn't significant, but the total dollar investment can't be small, so the goal is clearly about creating a connection in addition to generating revenue.

Sarah was especially proud of the personalized video.  (She should be - it was very cool.)  She believes that they are the first school to use this type of technique to attract prospective students, though others have used it as part of a fundraising strategy.  I don't know if they plan to analyze whether or not the percentage of out-of-state acceptances increases this year - but they should because I believe that these are the tuition dollars that help to pay for this type of marketing investment.  I know that the mission was not only about revenue generation, but at the end of the day, a university is also a business and as a customer of which ever school my son ends up choosing, I want my tuition dollars spent effectively.

There's clearly a risk with all this quasi-personalized promotional material.  Even my son knows exactly how most of it is done and that it isn't really personal.  There is a big risk of going too far with personalization - too much and it achieves the opposite of the intended effect.  (Just because you can create personalized everything doesn't mean you should.) However, so far, it has clearly got his attention and we're definitely wondering, what will they do next?  Even though he probably won't choose Indiana, we have saved every card and shared them with lots of people.  If the strategy doesn't yield immediate results with our family, the fact that we keep talking about our latest cool message from Indiana means their investment is yielding dividends that they may not even have expected.  And, at the end of the day, isn't that what customer engagement is supposed to be all about?  Sarah and her colleagues at Indiana are clearly using technology in a very creative way to create an engaging relationship with their prospective customers - and they are spending money to do so, which is especially impressive these days.  For me, it's not really the personalization that resonates - it's the creativity that they are using in their approach.  They are doing what everyone can do, but they are doing it in an exceptionally creative way that clearly distinguishes their "brand" from others and gives them a #1 ranking in customer engagement.

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