Many institutions in higher education face unique challenges with bureaucracy and challenges such as state budget cuts, new student services and perennial criticism of the value of a college education.
These and other issues typically take precedence over the institution’s ability to invest in technology infrastructure. For this reason, higher education must adopt a start-up mentality and become more agile to make the best use of its resources and propel digital transformation.
Each new generation of prospective students will have an evolving expectation for digital experiences largely driven by private industry. They want the university website’s search tools to be as accurate as Google’s, or the academic program page to be as intuitive as Amazon’s interface, all the while forgetting that these corporations have an astronomical budget compared to higher education. Young adults today expect all of their digital interactions to be fast, convenient and seamless no matter the channel or format they’re using.
Acquia partner and open source development and digital marketing agency Mediacurrent works with many enterprise, government, and higher education institutions that are now shifting their strategies to meet these challenges. Recently, we spoke with Muzel Chen, Senior Digital Strategist at Mediacurrent, to learn how a data-driven transformation in higher education can better engage students in this new digital-first landscape.
Ditching the Device-Specific Approach to the Digital Journey
“Gen Z in particular has embraced a mobile-first mindset, so if your message doesn’t translate to mobile, you’ll lose them,” said Muzel. “In the usability studies we conducted with younger students, we found a growing expectation for websites to function like a mobile app. Some of these participants had difficulty navigating a traditional homepage or finding information because they grew up using smartphones for most things in their everyday lives.”
Some institutions address this issue by simply making their websites mobile-responsive, or requiring a mobile-first design approach—sometimes to the detriment of accessibility and usability Students expressed frustration at how content was organized or how forms would ask for the same information several times.“When it comes to things like application deadlines or financial aid, they don’t want to spend more than five seconds hunting for it on the menu; they want content and calls to action that brings them directly to solutions,” explained Muzel. The key to a great modern digital experience in higher education is making that information immediately accessible, clear, and up to date. “Once their team can meet those criteria, their next step is to personalize the student’s digital experience,” said Muzel. “For the most effective impact, deliver content to coincide with their position in the enrollment funnel. First-time students visiting your website are unlikely to click on the ‘Apply’ button from the homepage. It makes them feel they’re being sold something before they even know what it is,” explained Muzel. “But, if we know they are returning visitors to your website, particularly at the consideration stage of your funnel, then the ‘Apply’ button becomes convenient instead of pushy.” Rather than have the students tell you what they’re looking for, institutions need to anticipate their needs and design an intuitive experience that coordinates across multiple touchpoints, whether they’re forms or even campus tours.
Establishing a Unified Culture Through Data Democratization
Universal access to valuable data across the entire business is the foundation for understanding who your audiences are, and what types of experiences are most important to them at each moment in their journey. Particularly in industries like higher education, where there are so many distinct departments and programs with their own unique content needs, digital leaders need to establish a transparent data culture and free all of this information from internal data silos. “We may work with a higher ed client where the marketing and admissions teams are operating independently from each other. So marketing is working on driving traffic to the admissions page through paid social, but when a prospective student applies on the site, that student’s actions are funneled into a different system and team. With no context into the previous engagements, those students had with the brand, that lead is suddenly ‘brand new’ to the admissions staff. So they present the student with a bunch of new forms to enter their email, location, and other information that the institution should already know,” said Muzel.
These disconnected data points frustrate users and waste valuable opportunities to nurture relationships. Instead of personalizing and optimizing experiences based on the insights, teams waste time duplicating their efforts. “When someone returns to a site, the data they’ve provided should autofill. When people are made to re-enter all of their personal information, it can make them feel like, ‘What’s the point?’ and they might abandon that experience in search of an easier answer,” Muzel explained.
“Especially with the impact of COVID-19 and schools shifting to a virtual model, there’s a responsibility on higher education to make sure they are presenting the most accurate and current information. This builds trust and gives students the confidence their personal information is being handled with the utmost care. When systems and teams don’t have transparency into all of the content being created, they risk sending out conflicting or inaccurate messages around safety policies or classroom experience, causing unnecessary anxiety to students and parents,” he said.
Moving Beyond Device-Dependent Experiences with Modular Content and Data
The goal of any organization is to keep people within their digital ecosystem, and that starts with creating a structure where you can share data across different departments and functions One approach Mediacurrent recommends to clients is to embrace an agile, decoupled approach to their CMS. This creates a collaborative workflow with a strong foundation to test hypotheses and iterate the website experience.
A CMS with a flexible and open content architecture like Drupal allows teams to leverage content like a series of building blocks, so they can create once and publish everywhere across various touchpoints and channels. With an API-first approach, users can decouple content on the back end and use another technology for the theming layer and presentation, so they can distribute content to different interfaces from the main website to SMS to digital signage.
“Our data tells us that people prefer to receive information in different ways. For instance, parents and family members may want to use email when getting updates about school closings or events. But the students want to receive text message updates with new information, and they won’t often check the website for this information,” said Muzel. Making it simple to structure and deploy all of this content in different formats and identify what content should go where is critical to keeping everyone up to date and informed. For even more strategies on how colleges and universities can redesign their digital experience, Mediacurrent recently hosted a webinar on How to Digitally Transform Higher Ed with Drupal.
Particularly in a space like higher education where you have to focus on multiple audiences, the content has to be readily accessible and adaptable to quick, unexpected changes. Mediacurrent believes that both developers and non-technical teams should be empowered to build and launch experiences quicker. In 2019, they developed the enterprise-grade Drupal distribution Rain to provide free, out-of-the-box editorial, administrative, and media enhancements to Drupal core. More recently, they launched RainU CMS, an easy-to-use development platform with components and structures designed specifically for higher education. With RainU, institutions are able to design and publish content faster in a friendlier interface. The result is better editorial participation from staff and faculty who are more enthusiastic to create content and a more authentic voice that resonates with students and families
Learn from the Drupal experts at Mediacurrent and Acquia about how to get your Drupal 9 sites up and running in our webinar: Best Practices for Migrating to Drupal 9.