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Big data a big challenge for not-for-profit higher education

November 17, 2013

courtesy of Silicon Angle

As I begin this post, I’m in a plane headed home from the American Marketing Association Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education. Now there’s a keyphrase for you. It was a productive conference for me. The sessions were relevant, and I had the joy of meeting a number of colleagues and reconnecting with others. I highly recommend it.

After being at the conference, it’s clear to me that those of us in the marketing not-for-profit higher education profession are of the same tribe. We have the same DNA. We may be creatively inclined, or numbers may be our thing, but it’s the combination of being both mission and market driven that gives us purpose in our jobs.

Good thing. If market were our only passion, we’d be hard pressed to stay in the not-for-profit higher education marketing sector. Our heritage is one of being the voice crying in the wilderness regarding the market and marketing on our campuses, and this heritage has limited our resources and slowed us in evolving our marketing organizations. It’s one reason why the not-for-profit higher education marketing sector has typically been behind the rest of the industry with adopting trends.

Meanwhile, the for-profit higher education marketing sector has been taking advantage of our lack of aggressiveness with the market. Case in point, big data.

Big data is the term for a collection of data sets so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using on-hand database management tools or traditional data processing applications…The trend to larger data sets is due to the additional information derivable from analysis of a single large set of related data, as compared to separate smaller sets with the same total amount of data, allowing correlations to be found to “spot business trends, determine quality of research…[etc.] “– Wikipedia

Simply put, the big data to which I’m referring is data at the granular level that informs colleges and universities to more accurately identify, locate, and qualify prospective students for marketing and admissions.

Some of the potential of this data has been used for years by not-for-profit colleges and universities in traditional undergraduate search campaigns. However, in the increasingly important graduate and adult markets, most not-for-profit colleges and universities, which are typically organizationally decentralized, are not tapping into the potential of big data.

On the other hand, for-profit universities and for-profit companies that provide Online Program Management (OPM) are using big data to identify and qualify leads and inquirers with the ability to segment prospective students into any one of 200 consumer group profiles, give or take. They know where they live and how they live their lives. Consequently, they not only have proven to work harder for prospective students, they work much smarter.

The challenge for not-for-profit colleges and universities is how to shift marketing and admissions resources and develop the expertise needed to take advantage of big data. In a show of hands in a good pre-conference tutorial session on digital with Bob Johnson, only a handful of people out of about 40 in attendance raised their hands when asked if they had a data analyst on their team.

That’s a big problem for colleges and universities competing against for-profit competitors with teams of data analysts. At some point very soon, not-for-profit higher education marketing organizations are going to need to get more talented and experienced with big data and the more sophisticated marketing tactics it informs.

For those who are able to figure it out and organize for it, big data is a big opportunity.

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