Three Benefits and Pitfalls of Web Personalization in Higher Education


Three Benefits and Pitfalls of Web Personalization in Higher Education

Jan 30, 2017By mStoner Staff

E-commerce sites such as Amazon and media streaming sites such as Netflix have used and refined personalization techniques for years to help tailor recommendations based on our past shopping and viewing behaviors. But what about personalization on education websites?

Web Personalization in the Context of Higher Education

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.

Personalization differs from customization. With website customization, visitors adjust the layout, content, or functionality of their own experience to meet their specific needs. The homepage that launched in 2014 is an example of customization on an .edu website.

Websites employ two types of personalization: audience-based and individual-based. We recommend our education clients focus on audience-based personalization. This differs from the Amazon and Netflix examples, which are individual-based. 

What’s the difference? Your Amazon and Netflix personalization profile is unique to you. No two users have the same experience. Contrast this approach with one for a specific audience in higher education, such as international students. Each international student sees a homepage content mix that is different from the default homepage, but the content mix is the same for everyone in that group.

Before you jump headfirst into a website personalization project, consider personalization’s potential benefits and risks for higher education:

Potential Benefits of Web Personalization

1. Provides a means to better serve many unique audiences

Personalized content means the right audience is getting the right content in the context of the page they are on. It has the potential to solve the problem of a homepage “for everyone and no one” that we so commonly deal with in higher education. At many institutions, pitched battles are fought over homepage real estate, and information architectures grow unwieldy over time. Attempting to accommodate everyone dilutes the experience for all. Audience-based personalization has the potential to solve these problems by delivering content each audience is most interested in within the same feature space — but, perhaps even more important, not delivering content they aren’t interested in.

2. Allows secondary and tertiary audiences to have a dedicated experience

Often we tailor separate sections of a website to critical secondary and tertiary audiences, such as international, military, or adult students; community and government visitors; or potential faculty employees. But they don’t have much of a presence on the homepage or major landing pages. 

These groups will never be the priority by default, but they can become the priority based on visitor behavior. For example, a visitor who spent time exploring online program offerings might find the homepage changed next time they visit to emphasize online programs in feature content, photography, and calls to action. In this way, any audience segment is made to feel like the primary audience.

3. Increases conversion

Early higher-education client work by TerminalFOUR indicates that personalized content increases key conversion rates for calls to action and landing pages. In a 2015 webinar, “Let’s Get Personal”, TerminalFOUR CEO Piero Tintori said that clients using their platform for personalization efforts saw 19% gains in conversions on average. One institution in Australia realized gains of 32%.

We know from results in other industries that proper web and email personalization leads to increased sales: 

  • The December 2015 Harvard Business Review article How Marketers Can Personalize at Scale says, “We know that personalization can deliver five to eight times the ROI on marketing spend, and can lift sales by 10% or more.” 
  • Hallie Mummert from Monetate says in The Tipping Point for Personalized Web Experiences, “In-house marketers who are personalizing web experiences and who are also able to quantify the improvement (in the context of online sales or their key website performance metric) are seeing, on average, a 19% uplift in sales.” 
  • According to Experian’s 2013 Email Marketing Benchmark Report, personalized emails generate on average six times more revenue than nonpersonalized email.

Whether your goal is more applications, visits, donations, or all of the above, personalization is worth looking into to ensure more visitors are converting through key experience funnels.

Potential Pitfalls of Web Personalization

1. Gets treated as a new practice or discrete project

Personalization is an extension and evolution of content strategy, user experience, and analytics. As such, it needs to be grounded firmly in all three areas. If that foundation doesn’t exist or is a bit shaky, personalization efforts could cause more harm than good. 

If you’re considering personalization, ask yourself if your institution already meets these critical prerequisites: 

  • A solid foundation in content strategy. Do you have a plan for creating content? How do you plan to deliver that content? Who will produce that content? How will you ensure that the content is useful and usable?
  • A solid foundation in measurement and analytics. Are you measuring the right things? How are you analyzing the results? Who is receiving these results, and in what format? Are you making strategic decisions based on this information? 
  • Intermediate understanding of event tracking and tag manager in Google Analytics.
  • Clear integration of content strategy, measurement, and analytics in existing communications work.

To be successful with personalization, you have to tackle all of these items. You don’t have to be perfect. Honestly, who is? It’s OK if you have messy analytics now, but know that you’ll need to improve those first before undertaking any personalization work.

2. Exacerbates existing messaging and content problems

Producing fresh, relevant, timely content for an entire website is an enormous undertaking. Personalization will only add to that workload. Though some existing content may be repurposed, you’ll need new content to fill in all the possible iterations of your homepage and major landing pages. Even if you aren’t using new content, there’s plenty of planning work to do to define the roles you’ll target, what the criteria will be for triggering personalized content, and how to measure it all. The more potential user experiences you plan to provide, the more work it will be to maintain consistent messaging, voice, and tone over time. Personalization work may amplify existing problems, including:

  • Lack of consistent messaging
  • Lack of resourcing for content management
  • Lack of measurement and strategic decision making based on findings

3. Misses the target … or, worse, hits the wrong one

Even if you create thoughtful, targeted content for each of your audiences and identify key content areas that will change depending on those roles, you may misinterpret someone’s behavior and serve up content that isn’t for them. 

This is worse than having no personalization at all. Imagine a high school student browsing your website and looking at what you offer military students. If your personalization triggers are too sensitive, their next visit to the homepage may remove all the non-military content they’re interested in — a worse outcome than having no personalized content in the first place. 

Now imagine you’ve created personalized feature copy, photography and calls to action on your homepage for potential new faculty, but you’ve defined the browsing criteria that trigger the potential-faculty persona too narrowly. Nobody is going to see that content. Without personalization they might find that content via other means, such as search, but now you’ve locked it away. 

Regular, rigorous testing and refinement of your analytics and back-end criteria is required to personalize for the right people at the right time. This effort takes time and resources but will reduce the risk of missing the target.

With Great Potential Comes Great Responsibility

At mStoner, we’ve long been committed to excellence in content strategy, IA, and analytics for higher education. Personalization gives us a great opportunity to combine these disciplines in new ways while grounding everything in solid strategic thinking around its application and effect on content, architecture, and user experience.

Register Now

We teamed up with our friends at TerminalFOUR to talk website personalization, from strategy through implementation. Download the on-demand webinar, Personalization on Higher Education Websites – The New Competitive Advantage, for free.