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In last month’s article on three benefits and three pitfalls of web personalization in higher ed, we defined web personalization:

Web personalization results in the delivery of relevant and tailored content and navigation to meet the unique needs of specific individuals or audience segments based on their demographics, behaviors, and actions.

Part of the difficulty in getting started with web personalization is the mental model many of us have, based on experiences with Amazon, Netflix, and other e-commerce sites. We tend to jump straight into thinking about granular examples, such as being given suggestions for related products when viewing a pair of boots online.

Mapping this sort of example in higher education results in too much complexity from the start. It can be so overwhelming that it turns marketing pros away from exploring how to implement even the most basic types of personalization.

We’re here to say: It’s OK to start small and scale up.

Is your institution ready to tackle web personalization? Let’s explore three prerequisites, five planning steps, and two things to avoid.

What Are The Prerequisites?

Understand three prerequisites that indicate readiness to tackle personalization.

  1. Content management and governance structure. To be successful with personalization, you must have a content management system in place that allows editors control of content. This needs to be coupled with a governance model that puts the right editors in control of top-level marking pages and messaging.
  2. Transactions. What are the calls to action on your website? Can visitors complete an action such as requesting information, contacting a counselor, or scheduling a campus visit? E-commerce is all about transactions, and personalization helps move visitors down the funnel toward a transaction based on their unique needs and characteristics. If visitors can’t complete key transactions on your website, measuring the positive or negative effects of personalization will be difficult or impossible.
  3. Measurement. You need to determine the goal of web personalization efforts. To do this, you need fundamental measurement in place. Ideally, you are already tracking goals on your website. Most often, goals will be tied to a transaction. The goal will also be tied to the audience you target and the techniques you employ for personalization. If you aren’t already measuring key conversions on your website, it will be difficult to assess and refine your personalization efforts.

Prioritize the fundamentals — content management and measurement — and get them under control before you dive headfirst into web personalization.

What If I Think I’m Ready?

There are five things you need to include in your planning to get on the path to personalization.

1. Segment

First, identify your potential segments of visitors. We recommend you start with prospective students; prioritizing your personalization efforts with your top website audience is the obvious way to get the most bang for your buck. You may choose to segment by international students, graduate students versus undergraduates, or prospective students interested in key academic programs. Consider starting with fewer than ten segments, and then choose one with the highest potential value.

2. Identify Conversions

Think about the conversions you want your selected segments to complete. For prospects: What are the steps leading from an anonymous prospect to an inquiry or request for information to a campus visit and then a completed application? You must be able to measure these conversions in order to gauge success. Tie them to specific actions you can track on your website. If you can’t clearly identify measurable steps, focus on a different segment to start with, or first improve the website transactions and measurement.

3. Choose a Tool

Select the tool you’ll use to implement personalization. This may be within your content management system, a third-party tool, or a custom development on your website. The tool will determine the types of personalization experiences that are easy to implement, so choose a tool that supports your strategy — not the other way around.

4. Create Personas

Craft personas for the segments of interest. It is not necessary to develop comprehensive personas for the entire website right away — remember, it is OK to start small. Focus on personas for your priority audience segments first. What is the story around this visitor that drives his or her motivation to take the desired next step?

5. Design Personalization Experiences

Evaluate the types of personalization experiences available based on your content strategy and capabilities for creating content, as well as the conversions desired for the target audience. Keep things simple to start:

  1. Determine the call to action and conversion.
  2. Create and design the content and presentation.
  3. Test the experience and verify that it works.
  4. Deploy the personalization experience and measure performance.
  5. Revise and refine the experience based on results.

While the steps are straightforward, they should integrate with your content management process and content strategy for producing content.

Things to Avoid

Without a clear strategy, web personalization can become an endless labyrinth of possibilities without clear benefits.

Two key considerations that can help you avoid going down the rabbit hole:

  1. Don’t Overthink Personalization Rules. Remember that your content editors need to be able to manage pieces of content associated with personalization. Multiplying the content you need to manage across personas and segments adds up quickly. Keep the initial rules very simple.
  2. Never Skip Measurement. Be sure you have a goal for your personalization message that you will measure to assess results and improve on the effort. Measurement can help ensure your second personalization effort improves on the first.

Learn More

If you’d like to learn more about personalization for higher education websites, check out our recent webinar Personalization on Higher Education Websites – The New Competitive Advantage, presented with our friends at TERMINALFOUR. We discuss planning, opportunities, challenges, and techniques for getting started with website personalization.

Greg Zguta

AUTHOR - Greg Zguta

I've been working on education web projects since the late 90's and enjoy visiting campuses and watching how technology has transformed higher education since I got my first email account at Oberlin College in 1992. Back then, I mostly used the web to check weather radar and sports scores . . . I suppose technology hasn't transformed everything yet. Find me on

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