What Higher Education Marketing Can Learn From For-Profit: Integrating A Customer-Centric Approach


Want to increase donor engagement and drive real, attributable ROI? Then it’s time to innovate. See how my team at Boston University uses personalization and video to drive charitable giving.

More and more tech marketers are realizing the advantages of working in the higher education sector—decent hours, rewarding work, and the opportunity to be a part of a mission you believe in. With this migration comes an opportunity for colleges and universities to capitalize on the tactics of for-profit marketing. So, when I came to Boston University a little over three years ago, I brought my learnings from my time at EMC (now Dell) with me. 

One of the incredible things about alumni fundraising, as compared to for-profit marketing, is that, typically, we’re not competing against other schools. This creates an environment where ideas, tactics, and best practices can be shared freely among peer institutions. The flipside is that traditional approaches tend to persist, so it’s important for us to look outside the higher ed bubble to see what we can learn from other great marketing teams.

Want to get outside of the #HigherEd #marketing bubble and innovate? Look to #personalization tactics. @Vidyard

That’s why when I became the Director of Annual Giving at BU, I wanted to adapt a few of the most impactful approaches I picked up during my time in for-profit marketing, namely, a customer-first mentality. People have a choice of where they direct their discretionary money for donations, and sometimes in higher ed, we can over-simplify our view of the person on the receiving end of our campaigns. When we bring this customer-centric approach to fundraising marketing at BU, we use it in three specific areas:

• Messaging 

• Data-driven personalization 

• Video (keep reading for a recent example and ROI metrics!)


At BU, we really encourage donors to give to the exact cause they’re passionate about. We don’t focus on one unrestricted annual fund, which is pretty unique for universities. Instead, we're happy for people to give to the band, or a specific department in a school or college, or their favorite athletic team. We want alumni donors to connect with the cause that matters most to them. So instead of sending out generic solicitations, we tailor our messaging as much as possible to the person, to hit on the BU causes that resonate with them.   

In addition to segmented content of a marketing piece, we use personalized messaging in our emails, print pieces, and telefund scripts. Little things, like using an alum's preferred name and acknowledging the school they went to or the team they played on, can go a long way in developing a feeling of connection. This simple effort to show our 320,000+ alumni that BU knows who they are and what they care about—treating them as an individual rather than a number on a prospect list—can create powerful results in marketing.

Now, this approach is nothing new; after all, annual giving programs have been using it in direct mail appeals for decades. But in non-profit, we can often lean on these tried and true methods and neglect more sophisticated uses that harness technology and data to make personalization even more impactful.

Data-Driven Personalization 

You may be thinking, All this targeted messaging sounds great, but how do I know what my alumni care about? I don’t have a crystal ball! But the truth is, you do. It’s social media data mining, and for-profit companies have been using it for years to create targeted, personalized ads and messaging. If you browse for almost any product online, you'll see first-hand how companies are leveraging the information people are making available to personalize their marketing efforts. The trick is to pay attention, and your donors will give you the context you need to produce personalized opportunities that will resonate.

Are you treating your donors like numbers on a list or as individuals? #HigherEd #personalization @Vidyard

For example, at BU we have a fantastic alumni engagement team, and they’re consistently posting content on our social channels. By mining the posts that resonate with alumni—tracking engagement, shares, comments—we can then follow up with a call or email campaign inviting them to support the area they care about.


A little while ago a colleague of mine received a promotional video from Vidyard that included some next-level personalization. Her name, as well as the university’s name, was embedded at specific points in the video, and she was blown away by how this seemingly small touch had such a big impact on her as the viewer. When she shared it with the rest of us in the office, we were impressed and excited about this new personalization capability.

Video was already an area we were investing in heavily, and this unique application of video fit perfectly into our customer-first mentality. We could immediately see the benefit, and knew it would really make BU stand out. We brainstormed how we could put this to work for us, and after batting around a lot of ideas, settled on our big spring participation challenge: BU Giving Day.

One of the main reasons we chose BU Giving Day as our test case for video personalization is that we wanted to be able to tie this effort back to an impact on donors and dollars. So many marketing campaigns are beautifully executed, but after all is said and done, it can be difficult to attribute specific efforts to tangible ROI. Video was the perfect way to make that connection.


While Vidyard’s personalized video technology is sophisticated, it's also intuitive. Harnessing it took less effort than I anticipated—but was definitely a team effort. We brought in the team at Ellipsis to shoot and edit the video. When it came to deployment, iModules, our email provider, helped ensure the integration went smoothly. Our campaign’s ultimate destination was a microsite hosted by Kimbia specifically for our Giving Day. 


When it comes to quantifiable metrics, at BU we use appeal codes to track all fundraising efforts. There is a different tracking code for each effort, so when it came to our initial trial of Vidyard's personalized video technology, we could get a real sense of our marketing ROI. 

The impact of our personalization efforts were huge: The email with the personalized video had a 49 percent open rate—more than double the average for the education sector! We also had 7 percent CTR—triple the typical 2.3 percent average. Our awareness stats show that we had 1,400 unique viewers of the video, and we had 60 percent viewer retention, so we definitely captured people’s attention. Plus, with the Vidyard platform, we can actually see the parts of the video that are watched most frequently. Can you guess which parts people kept rewinding to watch over and over again? Yep, the personalization points.

All in all, of the 36,000-person recipient pool, 18,000 opened the email, and over a 1,000 ultimately made a gift on Giving Day. One hundred and fifty alumni saw the video and immediately decided to make a gift from the landing page. We saw $22,000 in gifts directly attributed to the video in that manner. In total, our personalized video audience segment gave $130,000 on Giving Day. 

If you want real, attributable #marketing #ROI, maybe it’s time to try something new. #HigherEd @Vidyard

What makes the results even more compelling is that we’d focused this effort on alumni who had never made a gift to BU, or whose first gift was just last year. A notoriously tough group to convert and retain, and yet, the engagement and ROI were far above what we typically see.

While the quantitative results speak for themselves, we also received an overwhelming amount of qualitative feedback. These are just a couple of the quotes we heard from donors who received the personalized video:

                                                            “The video won me over!”

                          “There was no way I wasn’t going to donate after seeing the video!”

It’s not always easy to get people excited about giving, but it was apparent that our use of personalization, both in messaging and video, compelled alumni to participate in an important fundraising day at BU.

According to Cisco, “Globally, IP video traffic will be 82 percent of all consumer Internet traffic by 2021.” With our investments in this area, including our partnership with Vidyard, we’re confident that we have the tools to capture that audience and use technology to create a next-level giving experience. After this past BU Giving Day the bar is high, but with our learnings around personalization and the impact a customer-centric approach can have, we know we’ll be able to keep raising the bar year after year.