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Meeting student expectations: tips from the experts

Recently, I’ve been lucky enough to speak with people I consider to be truly pioneering digital transformation in the higher education space.

People, like Kurt Heimbigner and Shaya Phillips, who have undertaken some major initiatives to push their respective institutions towards a student-first, digital approach.

Steve Morgan

Written by

Steve Morgan
Managing Director USA - Squiz
23 August 2021

Times are changing

Things have changed for higher education institutions in terms of student expectations, channels of communication, models of learning, technological advancements and so much more.

And this has only been accelerated by - you guessed it - COVID-19.

Universities are stepping into a much more digital world and need to understand what expectations are being placed on them. The experience students have on a university’s digital platforms is now just as important as their in-person, on-campus experiences. And they expect the two to be intrinsically linked.

  1. Students are looking for a concierge service

    Starting from when they're choosing their institution right through to graduating, they want to know things like, “how am I tracking against my goals?”, “where do I need to improve?”, “what does my day look like”, “where do I need to be next?”. Even, “what time does the campus bus arrive?”

  2. Students expect hybrid learning

    Even if they signed up for the bricks-and-mortar, on-campus experience, students will still have an expectation that they will shift seamlessly between face-to-face and online learning. This doesn’t just mean PDF assessments or Powerpoint presentations on Youtube - it means fully interactive, digitized learning experiences.

  3. Technological advances aren’t being met

    Rarely are universities facing technology gaps that are preventing them from achieving digital transformation; rather, universities are lacking internal skills and budgets to engage with tech that will empower their students.

  4. Social media moves quicklyGreat conversations, and some not-so-great, happen on social channels that aren’t always owned by the institution. Owning the conversation and having these channels interact with your own is a real challenge for today’s leaders in higher ed.

I asked the experts what they thought

In a recent Q&A session, I asked Kurt Heimbigner, Sr. Director of Integrated Marketing & Web Communications at Gonzaga University, and Shaya Phillips, former CIO at Fordham University, to give me their take on how we respond to the changing expectations, and where to begin with digital transformation.

You can find the full Q&A here, but here are some highlights.

Given the changing student expectations, what does being student-first really mean in 2021?


“The pandemic drove us [at Gonzaga] to really focus on building a digital campus environment and to do that we had to start thinking about making our systems talk to one another. We want to have data at our fingertips so that we can respond to things and personalize each student’s experience in real-time. For example, if a student hasn’t been showing up for class recently, perhaps sharing the information with the housing team so that they can check in on them.

As a result, we’re working on a big initiative to implement a customer relationship management (CRM) system that is our single source of truth and brings all of the information together so that we have more of a 360-degree view of students and what their needs are.

The proliferation of systems behind the scenes can really prevent universities from presenting a unified approach and providing that concierge service that they have come to expect.

We want to be able to carry data from the pre-enrollment phase, right through recruitment and beyond. For lack of a better term, it’s the ‘cradle to grave’ approach whereby we’re supporting people in our community at all different stages, using a personalized approach for everyone.”


“You also need to embrace platforms that can give a personalized experience. For example, if a student is looking at your website from home, as opposed to on-campus, they probably have a different set of needs. You should be able to tailor what they see according to things like location, and other pieces of data you have about them.”

What are the most urgent elements of the student experience to address?


“For us, it’s the expectation of getting rapid answers to questions. Before we completed our new website design we got feedback on the old version and what we were hearing constantly was, ‘I can find what I’m looking for eventually but I have to filter through all of this content that’s geared towards faculty or existing students to get there.

We decided to focus our website on prospective students and that really helped a lot. We reduced our website from 12,000 pages to 4,000 to make the content more relevant but even then content was hard to find so we had to focus on site search. This is where I think all universities need to begin.

We found Squiz and started using Funnelback search. That was a real game-changer for us - not only can we see what people are looking for but we can preemptively present some information to them through the features that Funnelback provides. I think that allowed us to help people find the information they were looking for at speed.”


“This is where AI and internal analytics teams really become the most important pieces of the puzzle.

Any content piece that you provide to a student (or anyone else) is only useful if it is presented in a timely manner. Timeliness and immediacy need to be your criteria before you launch a piece of content.”


“Previously institutions have spent a lot of time working out what content to serve, when, by putting a lot of time into decision trees - if someone does X, then serve them Y then Z, etc. - but you can actually just use search algorithms and machine learning to do that for you based on the keywords that someone has typed. There’s a reason why the retail industry focussed on search and that’s because it’s such a great indicator of intent.”

Where do you begin?


“Integrating systems and focusing on putting all of your data into a CRM is a good place to start. You need to start by creating a roadmap and, in my experience, however long you think it might take, I would always double that because you’re always going to hit roadblocks. With that in mind, you can’t be afraid to just take incremental steps, see what’s working, learn and adapt.”


“These roadmaps are our customer journeys, and when you’re beginning your digital transformation you have to start there. Your customer journeys are both internal and external; you students, applicants, parents, and staff. They all have different experiences and expectations and are all key members of your community that you have to support.

So, you have to analyze what problems you are trying to solve - what questions they have to ask and how are you answering them. This is different for every institution.

And your journeys have to start right at the very beginning. For a prospective student, that starts as early as ninth grade! By 11th grade, they’re looking at packages and applying so you have to be in the conversation.

When you’re mapping these journeys, think about all the different places they will go for information, recommendations and applications. Once you know where they are at, assess the tools you have. People often don’t know or appreciate what they already have, so do an assessment of your tech stack and see what you can apply and where the gaps are.”


“You should always remember to look outside of your sector for guidance, too. What’s Google doing? What is Amazon doing in terms of personalization? Are there any lessons you can apply to your digital experience and what do students expect as standard these days?”

How has resource allocation changed?


“In terms of student recruitment, we’re thinking a lot more about how we’re reaching out to students in a digital format. We can’t expect that every student is going to come for a campus tour, so we think about all of the digital touchpoints, whether that be through a video or virtual tour. We’re definitely taking a more tech-first approach.

Over time, our marketing budget has changed. The balance has shifted from being 75% print and 25% digital to the reverse. We’re now investing more in online advertising and video.”


“A lot of schools now want to provide an online experience in addition to the on campus experience so we need to make sure resources are in a proper digital format.

At Fordham, one thing that changed was the allocation of a lot of Project Management staff to work on managing migration projects and taking more content online. This is something that hasn’t really been done before.

With a student-first tech approach, you need content developers to work with data analytics and developers. Schools are always short of budget for this. You have to make the content that people are looking for available (and need content developers to do this) but you also need the analytics teams and tech to tell you what people want.

Since the pandemic, we have seen omnichannel communications grow. Whether it’s email marketing, social media, or another channel.

Unfortunately, a lot of schools are great at pushing out information but when a student starts a conversion you have to be able to continue it regardless of which platform they are using.”

To listen to the full Q&A session, head over to our resources page.

Talk to us about your digital experience plans! We can help you refine your search, connect your data and build end-to-end experiences that students will love. Connect with our team here.

Steve Morgan

Written by

Steve Morgan
Managing Director USA - Squiz
23 August 2021

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