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How data linking can help higher education institutions jumpstart their marketing efforts

By Bryan Whitaker

A college or university’s alumni data insights provide a treasure trove of connections that can lead to meaningful donations and new revenue as alumni (who are prospective post-graduate students) line up to learn more from their beloved alma mater.

But, increasingly, the contact information in those databases is leading institutions nowhere other than long forgotten landline phone numbers or email addresses with a defunct online service provider.

This degradation of information is called data decay, and it’s a growing problem for cash-strapped higher education institutions facing declining enrollments hoping to capitalize on their alumni base and attracting new post-grad applicants. When that data is left to deteriorate and used to find new prospects through look-alike campaigns, marketing efforts will gradually fall on deaf ears because they never reach their intended targets.

In the past, updating alumni databases required alumni to reconnect on their own during homecoming weekends or staff to manually search and update the information, an often time-consuming process. But, today, technology can speed up that work, ensuring alumni records are not only current but that marketing content for fundraising efforts or new program launches are delivered to the right people.

The trick is avoiding the pitfalls of data decay with a better approach to target audience marketing — data linking. With it, higher ed marketers can harness technology to not only pull together data from a variety of sources to maintain an accurate and constantly updated alumni record but build personalized campaigns that boost engagement.

Data decay accelerates

Data decay or data aging has been an age-old problem and one that begins the minute the data enters a sales and marketing stack.  This is especially true for higher education institutions maintaining alumni databases, engaging with prospective students both for undergrad and postgrad programs. Alumni move and switch jobs. Marriages or divorces prompt name changes. And interests can quickly shift as they grow from new graduates eager to return to campus for the big game to busy young professionals, maybe raising a family of their own.

Technical issues also can result in inaccurate data. Errors in data entry, hardware problems and software glitches all trigger data decay. A decade ago, HubSpot estimated that email marketing databases degraded about 23% each year, leading to lost contacts and ineffective outreach.

But, post-pandemic, that number has likely accelerated. In one survey of customer relationship management professionals, nearly 80% agreed that data decay has increased since the pandemic as people moved and changed jobs at historic levels, according to Validity’s The State of CRM Data Management 2022.

To build effective revenue-generating campaigns, higher ed marketers require data hygiene through higher quality data accuracy best practices. They need accurate alumni and prospective student data at their fingertips to ensure that marketing content reaches the intended recipient with a message that resonates as well. Online-offline data linking allows higher ed marketing teams to do just that.

Comprehensive, precise, targeted

With data linking, higher ed marketers can create comprehensive and precise profiles for alumni and prospective post-graduate students using data insights from different online and offline sources, including existing alumni records, social media platforms, public records and other digital analytics.

With that comprehensive data, institutions can accurately track alumni as they move or change jobs and monitor their engagement with email campaigns, social media posts and the institution’s website.

For example, consider a graduate who updates their LinkedIn page with a promotion and downloads information about the university’s business school. Or take another graduate who keeps diving into social media posts that celebrate the college’s beloved traditions and just scanned the website for basketball season tickets.

Online-offline or omni-channel data linking picks up those crumbs and connects them, allowing marketers to match targets’ interests with appropriate communications. So, a university might update the first alum’s address, based on their new job change, and add them to a campaign about the business school’s certification programs. The alum eager for basketball season might be matched to fundraising efforts to support renovations to the stadium.

Institutions also can develop more targeted and effective marketing campaigns by using data linking to gain a deeper understanding of their prospective students. For example, an institution could target prospective students who have expressed an interest in a specific program or have visited the institution’s website and downloaded a program brochure. 

When those connections are made and marketers can act on them, data linking leads to enhanced engagement, bolstered fundraising efforts, improved enrollment and decreased churn. Simply put, whether alumni or prospective students are eager to connect or are becoming disengaged, data linking helps marketers build personalized campaigns that meet individuals where they’re at — ensuring the right personalized messages actually land in their inboxes or whatever channel suits them best.

Going forward, as pressures only continue to mount for higher education institutions, online-offline data linking will become increasingly critical, providing organizations with an impactful and effective resource that can jumpstart marketing campaigns, reinvigorate alumni bases and set institutions up for continued growth and success.

Bryan Whitaker is CEO of Statara.