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The Value of Nurturing Future and Current Higher Ed Constituents
William Bullard

If you work in Development or Advancement at your college or university, you understand the power of a personal connection with your constituents. When an active alum graduates, you know his or her history with your institution, donation patterns, and much more. You know if the person comes back to reunions, attends holiday parties or support fun, local events sponsored by your department. If he or she is someone you work closely with, e.g. on reunions or class giving, you probably know even more – if the alum was an actor, field hockey or football player, member of student government, or leader in the fraternity/sorority world.

Students at graduation

Admissions professionals have a similar proclivity for creating a bond with their prospective students and families. While these admissions connections are similar to those of their Development colleagues, the immediacy and intensity of the constituent relationship differs significantly.

Admissions professionals know the application cycle is short, so they must learn many critical factors fast. What are the student's academic pursuits, long-term goals, arts or athletic interests, social passions? What motivates his or her parents? You must establish a rapid rapport and be prepared to impart relevant­ information, insights, and news to students you see as a fit for your institution.

These advancement and admissions cases are more similar than different. The biggest commonality: both groups know their best chance of success at attracting a gift or application is to stay in close contact with their students, families, or prospective donors and maximize those touchpoints. You wish you could be there to answer everyone's questions, overcome objections, reaffirm the fit, and provide updates on activities of importance to them. But – in most colleges and universities, you simply don't have the resources.

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Why Marketing Automation

Marketing automation in Higher Ed has a relatively simple goal: replicate the informed, personal, and timely connection you have with your prospective donor or applicant through electronic means. While no digital medium can replace personal, human interaction, strategic targeted marketing can be the component that nurtures the relationship when you can't, resulting in higher matriculations, retention, and gifts.

Nurturing Opportunities for Development/Advancement Marketers

While your teams focusing on current parents, alumni, recent past parents, faculty and staff, and friends face many challenges, generating leads is much less important than in admissions. The donors and prospective donors with whom development offices communicate are generally well-defined market segments and have a very high carry-over from year-to-year, in contrast to admissions teams that essentially start over annually.

With minimal energy expended on attracting new donors, more development efforts can be used to enhance existing relationships. What is your current strategy for segmenting your donor file and using that information to drive your communications plan? How do you decide who qualifies for your expensive flagship magazine? Do you tailor the content of your emails to sub-groups of annual fund donors, or use data about an alum's history or interests in your touches? This personalized data can be effective in non-fundraising alumni marketing, such as reunion planning and event management. Depending on your answers, you may wish to consider marketing automation.

Donor Nurturing How To's

Because lead nurturing in development/advancement is much less advanced than in admissions, and results less attainable, the steps below are quite general.

Step 1: Define your segments and communications strategy.

As in all targeted, personalized marketing, start by defining the segments of your target audience and developing a strategic communications method with each group, including the marketing channels (email, direct mail, print publications, etc.), frequency of messaging, and the message itself. Perform extensive post-campaign analytics to assess your success, then adapt your program accordingly.

Step 2: Create "personas" of donors and potential donors.

Walk before you run: simple examples could include people with commitment to athletics, the arts, academics, social causes, finance, and the institution's reputation. Several of these are ripe for sub-segmentation, especially athletics and academics; eventually you will want to communicate not just sports updates but the story on the soccer team's playoff game, and not only academic news but the hiring of a top-notch Economics professor.

Step 3: Develop a set of very concise emails for these categories.

These emails consist of two or three sentences and a link to a web page, news item, video, document, or survey. You will end up sending a personal note to each constituent with news or highlights in each area, ideally with a reasonably consistent cadence:

"Hi Phillip, I hope your fall is going well. Take a look at our (great win over our lacrosse rival/video of our latest play/news about our community outreach)."

You will need to plan a series of these emails for the future, ideally considering milestone events or activities in each category as a linchpin. The good news for advancement marketers is that the time between touches is much longer than in admissions cycles, e.g monthly versus weekly. Do not make each touch a solicitation!

You will eventually reach that critical step - "going for the ask." The objective is to increase the likelihood and amount of gifts based on the stronger connection you have created. In addition, each person's lead score can flag a high-potential donor or prospect who should get a call from a development officer versus an email touch.

Misericordia University Alumni Email

Step 4: Review your analytics.

Analytics are closely tied to your email and web data to see how your targeted groups are performing. How do the opens and click-throughs compare with general campaigns? Which segments perform best, and what web pages do people visit? In sum, is this more personalized marketing working for you?

Step 5: Adapt your strategy accordingly.

If some personas perform poorly, re-assess your content approach and cadence, or perhaps drop that persona and create a new one. Test techniques like adding a "donate" button for a few groups. Listen to feedback from your team that develops the content for ways to be more efficient and impactful.

Marketing automation and lead nurturing for higher education will become increasingly important. Imminent demographic, financial, and sociological trends will force institutions to market more, and more intelligently, and rapid changes in technology have created a world where personalization and relevance are required.

The days of tracking only recency, frequency, and monetary value are over. Lead nurturing programs are complex and require significant strategic, organizational, and financial commitment. We hope this overview of marketing automation, while quite basic, has given you new ideas to consider as you strive to improve your fundraising and constituent relations.

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William Bullard

William Bullard is the founder of EdChanges, a marketing services firm that offers schools, colleges, and universities a wide range of strategic marketing services. He moved into education in 2012 and enjoys applying lessons from his innovative past work in direct marketing, the Internet, and digital marketing to schools and higher ed. He has been the director of communications at two Boston-area schools and a consultant for several education-related organizations. William earned his MBA at The Anderson Graduate School of Management at UCLA and is the VP of Internet Marketing for the American Marketing Association – Boston. Learn more about EdChanges by visiting them at

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