Archive for Saturday, August 17, 2013

Courting prospective graduate students using ‘big data’

August 17, 2013

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If you've ever applied to graduate school, you've probably been told to tailor your application materials for the school you are applying for. Show them why you'd be a good fit. It turns out the same advice works both ways.

Getting personal can help recruiters bring in the student prospects they want. The difference is that a graduate program has potentially thousands of prospective students to communicate with. That's why many schools are looking at technology that can, pardon the oxymoron, automate personalization.

This fall the Kansas University Graduate School will roll out a new digital recruiting tool to interested academic departments. Called “Prospect,” it is modeled after business software that helps companies manage communication with customers.

The software will allow graduate recruiters to collect demographic and other data on a prospective student that they can then use to automatically tailor emails and other correspondence to the prospect throughout the recruiting and application process.

The hope is that the system will bring KU's graduate program into the era of "big data" and automation. In recent years, businesses and universities have been experimenting with similar digital strategies to help recruit, fundraise and build customer bases.

Politicians, too, have capitalized on the technology. Even many Republicans were grudgingly awed by the Obama 2012 campaign's digital strategy, which raised hundreds of millions of dollars through highly targeted email marketing. In the campaign, staffers mined information from millions of voter records and then used it to send personalized messages asking for money and support.

Prospect performs a similar feat, on a smaller scale, by combining information databases with automated communications technology.

Thomas Heilke, dean of the graduate school, said that his office decided about a year ago to purchase relationship-management software as a low-cost way to help improve the university's graduate recruitment efforts. (How much the Prospect system costs, exactly, Heilke couldn’t say because of a confidentially agreement.)

The KU graduate school is among the beta testers for the Prospect software, developed by Oregon-based CollegeNet Inc., a technology company that sells web-based digital tools to colleges and universities.

This fall the school will join the undergraduate admissions office in using relationship-management software. Undergraduate admissions adopted a similar system about two years ago and uses it to communicate with prospective students as early as middle school.

In the long run, the graduate school hopes Prospect will save money by streamlining the recruitment process and, perhaps more importantly for the school, help convince high quality prospects to come to KU.

Data trove

Prospect users can enter names of people into the system from the time that they first show interest in KU by requesting information online or by making contact with a recruiter, or if a recruiter obtains their name and email through a third party.

The system stores a trove of data about KU prospects, from their location to their gender to their self-reported GPAs. Based on that information, departments can send messages relevant to each person’s academic interests, his or her geographic, demographic and occupational background, as well as where someone is in the application process.

Emails can be automatically personalized based on information in the system. They also can be written by a recruiter and sent directly, in the old-fashioned, human-to-human method of correspondence.

Amanda Ostreko, director of enrollment for the KU graduate school, said the ability to automate communication will help departments reach out to recruits more quickly and frequently, making communication more “friendly” overall.

The software can also discern if a marketing email has been opened by the recipient, helping recruiters to evaluate if a particular message or communication strategy is effective.

The KU School of Business was among the departments that took part in a pilot test of Prospect in the spring. Jinae Krieshok, director of graduate admissions for the business school, said she was better able to target Missourians, who receive in-state tuition at the Edwards campus, by organizing her communications by geographic region. She could also target messages to prospective students from specific industries, such as engineering.

When data from Prospect is compared to information on who ultimately enrolls and, eventually, who has graduated from the program, it will allow the graduate school and departments to set more specific recruitment goals. It also will provide new measures on how individual departments are meeting those goals.

For some departments, the advent of the Prospect system will be the first time that they’ve ever kept data on the recruitment process. Ostreko said her office will be working with department heads and faculty involved in graduate recruiting this fall to help them use the system.

“We can sit down and review data with them to see if they’re getting the students that they want,” Ostreko said.

Robotic pen pals

Officials also hope Prospect will save time, labor hours and paper costs by streamlining the marketing and communication process. For instance, before joining the Prospect test pilot, Krieshok used an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of her communications, which she said was twice as much work.

The advent of Prospect does create extra work up front. The communications team for KU’s undergraduate admissions office has had its hands full since adopting similar recruiting software. “Our staff has written hundreds of different emails, going out to thousands of different students,” said Lisa Pinamonti Kress, director of undergraduate admissions.

Kress’ office begins corresponding with prospective students starting when they are in sixth grade, and by the time they are juniors and seniors, admissions might send them up to 50 or even 100 emails, depending on their interests and background.

That level of mass communication, when automated, comes with the risk of a mistake being made on a massive scale, Kress concedes. “That would be my worst fear,” Kress said.

To safeguard against sending the wrong email to thousands of email addresses, the admissions office authorizes only two people to send communications through the system. The graduate school is taking similar precautions by granting access to Prospect only to department heads and select faculty members.

Another risk might be turning off recruits by outsourcing communication to automated systems. But Kress said she hasn’t seen much evidence of that.

“We get compliments (from recruits) saying they appreciate how much we communicate with them,” she said.

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