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Pragmatic Personalization: A Gen Z Retention Strategy

by Keith P. O'Brien | May 1, 2019
Pragmatic Personalization: A Gen Z Retention Strategy

Part two of a three-part series on how higher education uses personalization to retain Gen Z students

“Personalization is an approach to customer engagement—almost a philosophy—that focuses on delivering tailored, meaningful and relevant customer communication.” -McKinsey & Company

Bear with me for a moment. This isn’t a blog trying to mimic the Harvard Business Review. Above, McKinsey defines personalization because it’s a strategy that has quickly become a requirement for organizations that sell to consumers. The meaning is in fact quite simple. Personalization means making it easier for your customers to communicate with you, buy from you, and interact with you across all touchpoints. (That’s the last business term, I promise!)

The link to higher education

Now, let’s shift the focus to the realm of higher ed. What happens if we look at this definition through the lens of student success?

“Personalization is an approach to student engagement—almost a philosophy—that focuses on delivering tailored, meaningful and relevant student communication.”

When you think about it, this take makes perfect sense as a student success approach. Isn’t it a key part of student success efforts to communicate well with students and make it easier for them to adapt to campus life?

In fact, personalization should be part of any approach designed to boost student retention and graduation rates. That being said, it requires many higher ed institutions to rethink and revise how they interact with students at present. Why? Because today’s students (both members of Gen Z and non-traditional students) are not just students. They’re also consumers. As such, they’ve grown used to companies like Amazon and Zappos making their lives easier through a personalized approach. Netflix even has a formula for personalization that nicely captures its spirit and how it’s made real for consumers:

Personalization = Maximize enjoyment + Minimize search time.

Hopefully we all agree that students don’t leave their expectations about personalization at the campus gates. That would mean they would need to give up their digital devices, and that’s just not going to happen.

Don’t make the mistake of taking this point the wrong way. The point here isn’t that every college and university needs to mirror the experiences provided by Netflix and Amazon. Rather, the point is to be pragmaticdealing with things sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations. (Thank you, OED.)

Pragmatic personalization

Pragmatic personalization aims to get the right message to the right student at the right time. There are four tenets to this effort:

  1. Using the digital device of choice for Gen z members—the mobile phone—as the core communication channel.
  2. Helping students make decisions that create better outcomes for themselves.
  3. Harnessing the student info contained in campus systems to target and tailor communications.
  4. Producing measurable retention benefits while keeping to a minimum additional staff and IT work.

The graphic below shows pragmatic personalization in action. It offers how an advisor at ABC University uses Blended Messaging® to connect with one student to address a common challenge: making sure students register for class.

pragmatic personalization

A nice exchange, right? This is pragmatic personalization at work. Firstly, through text (#1), the platform sends a nudge to help a student act to register for classes (#2). Secondly, Signal Vine’s integration with the campus’ system prompts a message to be sent to this student who hasn’t registered (#3). Thirdly, the counselor and Virtual Advisor work in tandem to provide the student with the right info to help (#4). With these efforts, all four tenets are put into play. Further, the right message targets the right student at just the right time to produce a good result.

Personalization: The heart of student engagement

Personalization is a cost of doing business. True, higher ed institutions are not quite businesses per se. However, today’s Gen Z students are consumers with ingrained digital habits and preferences. To think that their preferences change just because their settings do is simply wrong. Embracing this truth is the first step in the creation of a communication strategy that works.

Students of all stripes struggle to succeed in college. Likewise, many campuses struggle to help students thrive and graduate. Pragmatic personalization boosts student success because campus units adapt communications with students to better align with how they really act and make decisions. It shows that campuses are willing to meet students where they are outside of the classroom to help guide them inside the classroom. Personalization is a necessary and worthwhile investment in student success.

Learn more

*Special thanks to our guest author, Keith P. O'Brien, an expert edtech marketing consultant.

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