Graduate Management News

May 2016

The Newsletter of the Graduate Management Admission Council

Managing the Conversation: Marketing Automation in Three Steps

A new software category – marketing automation – holds promise as a strategy and technology to modernize your campaigns and build relationships.


Marketers have long searched for the holy grail of communication—sending the right message, to the right person at the right time. Until recently, this has been an unfulfilled expedition fraught with pitfalls and false starts. College CRM software investments over the last five years have given rise to the need to engage students over pre- and post-enrollment life cycles. Yet many find their software platforms are not designed to provide the digital engagement their students and constituents expect.

Today’s always-addressable student is interconnected, with as many as three devices. However, many enrollment offices have failed to serve up contextual relevance within their digital conversations. Despite the availability of tools, enrollment professionals struggle to plan what to say and when to say it. Instead they default to a simple volume game where everyone receives everything. A new software category—marketing automation—holds promise as a strategy and technology to modernize your campaigns and build relationships.

Why Your Integrated Marketing Efforts Fail

It’s been said that integrated marketing is “a good thing that rarely happens.” Communication channel digitization, new software tools, and student preference for digital resources offer the environment marketers need for cross-channel campaign management. Yet this opportunity to comprehensively engage students in more nuanced relationships is lost because:

  • Enrollment professionals don’t recognize the art and science of conversation. The promise of ubiquitous interactivity with students and the desire to send the "right message at the right time" runs up against the reality of deciding what to say, who to say it to and when to say it. Defining how the “conversation" should evolve as a student moves through their graduate school decision process to enrollment requires nuanced messaging that many enrollment offices still struggle with.
  • List making approaches do not provide insightful information. Early use of email marketing software was based on extracting lists from student information or CRM systems. Graduate student data was segmented prior to import and often data fields were imported inconsistently. Thus, enrollment marketers were limited in their ability to further segment students and deliver contextual information as they progress toward enrollment.
  • Inertia is a barrier. Outdated or institutionally mandated software tools, internal software preferences, and a lack of executive commitment to planning, undermine efforts to modernize campaigns. The end result is that graduate admission offices struggle with too few resources and a lack of internal expertise and default to getting messages out the door.

How Marketing Automation Makes CRM Better

Marketing automation is the process of planning and executing digital conversations through the use of cloud-based software. Over the past 10 years, marketing automation software has emerged as a new category to manage the core tasks of prospect engagement. Alternately, CRM software—with its roots in sales force automation—offers the capabilities to manage the last mile of the pipeline and close the deal. In the context of graduate admissions, CRM software routes students, allowing recruiters and other staff to contact students, track and schedule activities, and record notes from interviews and conversations.

Traditionally CRM had less developed capabilities than marketing automation for campaign planning, database marketing and execution. These platforms frankly weren’t engineered to support digital engagement. Over the last five years or so, CRM companies have been on a buying spree, acquiring many of the leading marketing automation companies: Microsoft Dynamic CRM acquired Marketing Pilot, Exact Target acquired Pardot and was subsequently purchased by SalesForce; Oracle purchased Eloqua and Responsys; IBM acquired SilverPop; and NetSuite purchased Bronto. Other players such as Marketo and ActOn software remain independent but are easily integrated using powerful application programming interfaces (API).

Marketing automation software helps unify inbound marketing activities such as requests for information or responses to digital ads as well as outbound activities such as nurturing campaigns. More importantly, these tools allow graduate admission professionals to sequence messages by building conversation workflows. Drag-and-drop software functionality allows users to incorporate changes based on student behavior and changes in their information. Integration with SIS or CRM systems supports real-time campaign targeting - updating the conversation as the applicant completes their file and is admitted and confirmed for enrollment. 

Marketing Automation Starts with Strategy

Software alone will not make you a master of communication. With the convergence of software functionality across marketing automation and CRM software platforms, it’s increasingly becoming less about the tool and more about strategy. While marketing automation tools provide the capability to deliver highly contextual messages, guiding student action and sustaining engagement, a lack of planning and message strategy can lead to message fatigue. Ironic, when you consider that although we have more channels through which to communicate, in many ways we are far less effective today.

What makes marketing automation software powerful - and challenging - for graduate admission offices is the inherent planning that is required. For example, conversation workflows are often based upon triggers, filters and actions. Think of these as elements of the conversation formula defining how a campaign will launch, over what time frame and adapt throughout.

A workflow may be triggered based upon a number of events such as:

Trigger Event

Use case example

A contact is added to the file.

A prospective student requests information.

A contact field is updated.

A prospective student changes their program of interest. 

A contact segment membership change. 

A student inquirer applies for admission.

A contact completes a webform. 

A prospective student completes a form from a digital ad.

A contact is sent an email. 

A student contact received a specific email.

The workflow may then be filtered in a number of ways, including but not limited to:

Filtering event

Use case example

Contact field comparison. 

A specific field such as Major is equal to or contains a specific value or is empty.

Segment membership

The contact is a member of a dynamic segment such as newly admitted students. 

Email activity

The contact opens a specific email, clicks a link or converts from the email message. 

Webform activity

The contact submits or views a specific web form.

Finally, a number of action events may take place including:

Action event

Use case example

Send email or SMS.

Send the contact a specific message about their program of interest. 


Delay the workflow by a relative period of time such as 48 hours, or until a specific date such as May 12...

Change contact field. 

Update the contacts specific field such as an inquiry score.

Post to social media.

Post a Twitter message or Facebook message.

The challenge is to put together a messaging strategy that reinforces the brand attributes of the institution, communicates important procedures and deadlines, and that plans for execution by determining the various events that will drive the conversation. 

The Way Forward

Interested in marketing automation to enhance your graduate recruitment efforts? Before you start crafting a RFP and lining up vendor demos take a step back. Whether you are currently using marketing automation software, or considering a new investment, here are three steps to reinvigorate your current approach or to begin anew.

1. Assess your conversation maturity.

How are you communicating with students today across their lifecycle? If you don’t have a documented plan in place, begin by taking an inventory of every message that is sent to your prospective students. Don’t worry about the one-off message responses - focus on group messages. Be careful to gather messages across all institutional offices that may be going to your students and identify the timing of when each message is sent. Make a communications grid, list each message, its sequence to other messages and define the types of students who receive it. This inventory will accomplish a number of objectives:

  • It will give a birds-eye view of your students’ pre-enrollment journey
  • It will help you identify informational gaps in the process and help you understand how, or if your key brand attributes are reinforced in your messages
  • It will give you a baseline planning document to modify or strengthen your future communication efforts

2. Map the data.

For each targeted audience, map the messages to the underlying data source. Next, determine what information fields are commonly used to identify your audiences. Define what data selection criteria are needed to extract the targeted audience from your campus SIS or CRM system. For example, to find graduate student applicants for the fall term, the data selection criteria might be:

Term = 201708
Level = Gr
Application = Y

With an increased understanding of the data that drives your current messages, revisit your message inventory. Identify opportunities to use data to personalize messages based upon information you learn about the student. For example, if the student needs her institutional identification number to complete a task include it in your message. Don’t send the student to a website to look it up.

3. Conversation plan.

Once you have evaluated your current messaging and data, the next step is to develop a conversation plan. We define conversation planning as: A systematic approach to exchanging information and ideas with students across institutional departments and communication touchpoints that helps students make decisions, while driving desired behaviors and maximizing enrollment results. There are three components to a plan.

First, develop a messaging architecture. In our research and experience, institutional branding efforts usually stop with a few print pieces and the college home page. Key brand messages are rarely carried through to direct digital messages. Start by defining your declaratives—an institutional, college or program attribute (what you offer) and a benefit to the student (what they get). For example, “Anywhere Graduate School of Business helps you develop a personal academic plan, helping you focus your interests to prepare for a lifetime of meaningful careers. For each declarative statement, identify three to five proof points to support the declarative. A proof point can be a fact, a statistic, or story that “proves” the statement. Next, develop a messaging schematic that outlines key messages by audience, message type (email, SMS, social), message sequencing and timing, and calls to action. Your schematic should include the type of message template you will use and what header or hero image will be used in the design. A message schematic is a blueprint for marketing automation outlining what is sent, who it is sent to, what you want them to do, and when is it sent.

Finally, document your plan. Use your messaging architecture and schematic to draft copy for each message. Look for ways to incorporate your declaratives and proof points throughout the conversation. This reinforces your brand attributes and builds value for your institution.

About the Author

copelandJohn “Tim” Copeland is the CEO of DemandEngine, a marketing automation, eCRM and consulting firm dedicated to higher education.