Personalizing Higher Education Websites with Sitecore DMS

Personalizing Higher Education Websites with Sitecore DMS

college campus

There’s a big opportunity for higher education websites to harness the power of personalization with Sitecore’s Digital Marketing System (DMS). After all, CMS isn’t just about managing the content -- it’s about delivering it too.

As part of the overall Customer Engagement Platform, Sitecore’s DMS provides advanced capabilities for personalization, testing, analytics and campaign management: all areas critical in delivering relevant and targeted experiences to prospective students, parents, faculty and alumni.

Today, the vast majority of University websites are still providing the same static experience to every visitor. The homepage can be a political battlefield unsuccessfully trying to represent all content to all users, and good content is often buried so deep in the site that it’s impossible to find it in the first place.

There is a better way.

Personalized experiences can drive more contextual and relevant experiences for all users. Experiences that are both good for the user and the bottom line.

While Sitecore has made the technology readily available, we find that organizations struggle to know where to start personalizing.  All too often it’s the phase two project that never comes.

As a Sitecore partner that does a lot of work inside higher education, I’m happy to say we’re seeing a lot of momentum for creating more dynamic and contextual experiences.

In the spirit of getting more people to start unlocking the power of Sitecore DMS, here are five immediate opportunities for personalizing higher education websites.

1. Mapping Prospective Student Engagement

Most University websites prioritize content for the prospective student. After all, this is the primary revenue stream and top goal – not only to fill the admissions pipeline, but also attract the best and brightest in a highly competitive market.

Yet if you look at most admissions websites, they are static experiences that give the same message to everyone regardless of who they are.  They also fail to address one of the biggest challenges that we’re hearing from admissions departments: the Stealth Applicant, a prospective student that isn’t visible in the enrollment pipeline until the application is received. How can you engage with someone when you have no record of his or her existence?

Here’s where Sitecore’s DMS comes in.

Using engagement values in Sitecore, Universities can assign a value to each of the key goals (pictured below) for prospective students and observe exactly how visitors are engaging with admissions content. Even before they submit any personally-identifying information, you can know exactly what that prospective student is engaging with and understand the true value of marketing initiatives.

Higher Ed Engagement with Sitecore DMS

When prospective students do eventually complete actions such as information requests and schedule tours, you can use Sitecore’s rules-based personalization to better target calls to actions and appropriate next steps. This is something advanced companies have been doing for years, but is still rarely done on higher education websites.

The process starts by mapping your prospective student journey, identifying all of the digital touch points, assigning engagement points, and setting rules-based personalization with Sitecore.

2. Targeting International and Out-of-State Students

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled New Twists in Online Recruiting of International Students, author David Wheeler writes  “international students are often in an online wilderness as they search for universities to apply to.” He goes on to observe “they run into confusing websites…and contact us pages that may not effectively connect them with admissions counselors.”

Targeting content based on location can be a quick win with personalization. Imagine how you can communicate with a prospective student if you know they are out of state, or an international student. With Sitecore DMS, you can know a user’s location immediately and start to surface content more relevant to their needs.

There can be risks in being too explicit with the level of personalization based on an IP lookup, but small changes can go a long way in making an international visitor more comfortable with where you are located, specific programs, and the overall on-campus experience.

3. Engaging Audiences Beyond Prospective Students

Prospective students get most of the focus on higher education websites, but there are many other critical audiences such as alumni, parents and prospective faculty – not to mention the current students and faculty on campus.

These audiences can have a pretty poor experience if your website has 80% of its top-level content and pathways focused on prospective students.

The good news is that it’s relatively easy to identify these other audiences either by implicit or explicit behavior. To start, users usually self identify by spending a majority of their time within the section of the site that caters to them. It’s easy to develop an engagement profile of these users so you can better target content on future visits. There’s also a good chance you’re doing targeted e-mail campaigns to many of these groups (i.e. alumni) that can be tracked with a campaign code.

Imagine if the next time an alumni visits the homepage, it shifts to have content relevant to them instead of the application process for a prospective student. Or if site-wide calls to action are audience-appropriate and specific to their current level of engagement.

No need to feature an email newsletter subscription form if you know that they are already subscribed.  What if you presented a specific alumni event (targeted by interest) in the city that the user resides in (targeted by IP or prior submitted information)?

This is where some good user research can go a long way. If you know the top tasks for each of your key audiences, you can leverage Sitecore DMS to deliver more relevant content and avoid this now famous Venn diagram. Starting with simple targeted pathways from the homepage can be a jumping off point for addressing other high priority sections of the site later.

4. Unlocking Academic & Research Content

Some of the most valuable and underutilized content on higher education websites are in Academic Programs and Faculty Research.  Not just prospective students, but colleagues at other institutions and other people interested in the fields and will seek out information about the curriculum, faculty and relevant research.

The challenge is this information is usually buried three levels deep, or scattered throughout department sites or faculty profiles. Using Sitecore DMS, you can tag this content and recognize which programs a visitor is interested in. A visitor who has spent a majority of the time looking at the economics program page can then be targeted with relevant content, faculty profiles, events and research across the entire experience.

Imagine the power of an entire higher education website working to put relevant academic content in front of your visitor instead of keeping it hidden on select pages deep within the site hierarchy.

5. Stepping into Engagement Automation

Once you get comfortable with some of the initial use cases for content targeting and profiling within DMS, a natural next step is to explore engagement automation with email.

Sitecore DMS allows you to design email-based nurturing campaigns that are highly targeted, personalized, and can be triggered based on specific actions, behaviors or interest in content.

Creating smart nurturing campaigns can be a challenge inside higher education where CRM systems are often clunky, antiquated and rarely tied to anything happening on the website. We’ve seen many universities managing email communications using brute force and Microsoft Excel to get even basic segmentation.

With Sitecore DMS, you can customize simple and automated email based communications triggered from onsite activity. When a prospective student completes an information request, a multi-step email campaign can send out the right follow-ups based on what you know about that student’s interests and where they are in the process.

For example, a prospective student repeatedly visiting specific department pages would likely appreciate more targeted e-mail communications regarding that program rather than a generic newsletter. Or an alumni registering for an event can get automated reminders leading up to it.

Increasingly, email programs like Gmail are deciding whether to even deliver an email based on the person’s engagement with that organization’s emails. So the “spray and pray” email programs of the past will be even less effective going forward, and timely, personalized emails will be central to your success.

While this won’t likely replace all your email communications or even your overall email platform, it can be an extremely effective way to deliver highly personalized messages to your target audiences that drive them to the natural next steps.

Start Small and Think Big

While thinking about personalization, testing and targeting can be daunting, you don’t need to boil the ocean. In many cases we’ve seen the seemingly overwhelming task of developing a comprehensive, one-to-one personalized website experience stop organizations from even putting a toe in the water.

Starting with a few initial scenarios like the ones mentioned above will get you more comfortable with DMS and help better understand the impact it can have on your marketing and overall engagement. The best part is that it’s all measurable, so you will know very quickly what’s working and what’s not.

We’d love to hear from others that have had success with personalized content delivery within higher education. I’ll be speaking on the topic at Confab Higher Education in Atlanta this November. We’re also happy to lend a hand if you’re looking for help getting started with Sitecore DMS or getting a new CMS setup for the first time.

About ISITE Design
ISITE Design is a digital agency and longtime Sitecore partner. Founded in 1997, the agency has deep expertise with both CMS and higher education working with clients including Harvard, Tufts, Oregon Health & Science University, Wharton Executive Education and Wheaton College. Learn more about ISITE design at and read more on our CMS thinking at our blog at


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