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Constituent Relationship Management | Feature

Top 7 CRM Trends

Constituent relationship management has undergone a serious makeover: Here are 7 ways that today's CRM systems can manage your school's relationships in a more personal and effective way.

This story appeared in the February 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology.

Do a web search on the phrase "CRM sucks" and you will find scores of articles, webinars, and blog rants dedicated to the theme. Indeed, if you use constituent relationship management software, you're probably familiar with the litany of complaints: CRM systems are too complicated; they waste staff time; they do nothing to improve the bottom line. But now is not the time to contemplate divorce. Think second honeymoon instead.

After all, this is one relationship that really needs to work, because it impacts thousands of other relationships treasured by your institution. Despite some rocky patches, schools have become increasingly reliant on these CRMs for their capabilities around recruitment, communication, and retention. Typically, they provide tools for collecting data, and for generating campaigns, communications, analysis, and reports based on that data.

The good news is that CRM vendors have been willing to do the hard yards to make their offerings more attractive. For one, CRMs are now much easier to use. And whether you are involved with recruitment or admissions, retention or learner management, personalization makes possible more targeted interactions. And that's just for starters.

Here are the seven biggest trends in CRM technology in higher education today:

1) Cloud-Based Solutions
Like most data-based applications, CRM is now in the cloud, and the benefits are many. Users can access CRM functionality through browser-based applications from anywhere, anytime--and the tools are generally streamlined and easy to use. As a result, they're also more economical. But perhaps the biggest benefit is that cloud-based CRM facilitates enterprisewide storage and sharing of data.

Indeed, centralized data storage is a real game changer, says Brian Niles, CEO and cofounder of TargetX, a cloud-based enterprise CRM package. According to Niles, some schools are spending an inordinate amount of time simply moving data around, leaving little time for productive work. One school used 20 different tools, including e-mail, marketing, and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, as part of its recruitment process. To do a marketing campaign, for example, staff would move data from the school's ERP into the e-mail program. When responses arrived, they then had to move the data back into the ERP.

TargetX set out to flip the model. "We said, 'Can we put all these tools together into one platform where the data stays, but the apps that use that data move around?'" explains Niles. To accomplish this, TargetX integrated the e-mail and event-management tools into the extensible, cloud-based Salesforce CRM, and built in a new telemarketing tool as well. Now, multiple departments with multiple requirements can log into the shared database and perform tasks in minutes that used to take days (and sometimes required IT support).

2) Mobility
Cloud-based CRM also enables mobile access, giving staff greater flexibility to interact with students and other constituents. Recruiters armed with mobile devices, for example, can make changes in the field that might have immediate repercussions for potential students.

A student at a recent college fair, for instance, told one recruiter that he had applied to his school but heard nothing back. The recruiter used his iPad to locate the student's application and saw that the school hadn't received his application fee. He waived it on the spot, setting the process back in motion. Before the student had even left the recruiting table, he had received a message that his application had been processed.

Recruiters from Georgia Southern University (GSU) use mobile access to set interested kids up with customized student portals, known as VIP pages, during recruiting fairs. A feature of Hobsons' Education CRM Suite, VIP pages allow schools to collect information about potential students and provide a portal where students can receive personalized messages, program information customized to their stated interests, and links to application materials, deadlines, and checklists.

By doing all this on the spot, the school can begin to woo students while their interest is piqued. According to Jaclyn Esqueda Schmidt, coordinator of marketing and communications in the GSU Office of Admissions, recruiters are now in position to help prospective students through the application process, in large part because the necessary materials are immediately accessible via mobile app.

3) Predictive Analytics
In this era of Big Data, centralized storage of CRM data means one thing: Predictive modeling won't be far behind. Sure enough, schools are beginning to use CRM data to predict everything from the likelihood that a student will apply or enroll to whether he's a dropout risk.

According to Esqueda Schmidt, GSU uses various markers within its CRM to assign accepted students a rank of 1 to 10 (with 10 the highest), based on the likelihood that a student will enroll. If a prospective student with a 1 or 2 rank contacts the school--calls with a question, for example, or likes a GSU Facebook page--that information is captured and the student's rank is bumped up a couple of points, triggering a targeted communication from the school to "keep Georgia Southern in mind."

Schools can also use data gathered during their interactions with students to predict the likelihood that a student will leave before graduation. According to TargetX's Niles, the main indicator is a drop-off in attendance, which can be tracked through the LMS. But, he says, other data points--a reduction in the use of a student's access card or campus parking, tracked via the school's ERP--are also factors.

Obviously, the data points that schools use to alert them to student problems vary from institution to institution. One school might track sign-ups for classes that are required at a certain point in the degree cycle; at another school, a student's failure to pay fees or sign up for the next semester's classes might trigger an automatic notice.

4) Personalized Contact
A university's relationship with its students lasts a lifetime, and CRM systems can help schools nurture these relationships--from the first contact in high school, through students' on-campus years, all the way to alumni outreach. At every stage, personalized touches are key to success, for students and institutions alike.

For Risa Forrester, VP for admissions and marketing at Oklahoma Christian University (OCU), the ability to segment the market using Ellucian Recruiter means the school can build one-on-one relationships with prospective students, and can serve a diverse range of constituents. Using the Recruiter toolset, for instance, Forrester can send targeted communications to traditional students, international students, night and weekend students, and other potential subgroups. Such tailored messages address the needs and experiences of the students in a more meaningful way, forging a stronger connection between school and student.

For students who have already embarked on their degree studies, many CRMs offer retention support (also see "Predictive Analytics," above). The top reason students leave college is money, so many CRM systems are now monitoring student financial data to help schools keep students on track and in school.

Lisa Goldberg, director of Go-to-Market at Ellucian, believes the CRM tools embedded across Ellucian's ERP offerings--Banner, PowerCampus, and Colleague--can actually help at-risk students feel connected to the institution. Schools can communicate with students about financial-aid information, she notes, "providing due dates, information about money that's available, and helping them handle the problems with money they might be facing."

The better the data, the more fine-tuned the messages that students can receive from schools. Better data, for example, means students don't get spammed with reminders to make payments or sign up for classes or meet with advisers if they've already completed these tasks. But it also means that schools can reach out to students in meaningful ways. With Hobsons' AgileGrad, for example, schools can identify students who haven't registered for a while but are within three courses of graduating. "We can go out, invite those students back into the fold, and help motivate them to finish their degrees," says Todd Gibby, president of Hobsons' higher education division.

After students collect their diplomas, their relationship with the university doesn't end. CRM systems are now using their trove of student data--often layered with additional data--to reach out to alumni for more effective fundraising and more. "As campuses increasingly use their CRM to gain insights on relationships from cradle to grave, CRMs will keep pace by providing data points across the student life cycle and intelligence across all interactions," explains Gibby. "The first few years [of CRM use] were about functionally managing your campus. The next five years will be about actually turning that information into business intelligence to make better institutional decisions, especially as campuses face the need to simultaneously increase student enrollment and reduce student-recruitment costs."

5) Integration
Data is the coin of the realm when it comes to effective CRM--the more, the better. To increase the effectiveness of their systems, CRM vendors are enabling easier integration of data streams from multiple sources via open APIs (application programming interfaces used to communicate between software components). One example is the use of maps in websites and apps. "Before, you used to have to hard-code maps," notes Goldberg. "Now you can use an API to bring up Bing maps or other map technology in real time." For Goldberg, this kind of integration opens up dynamic opportunities for institutions.

6) User Friendly
CRM systems are starting to overcome their bad rap by rolling out more accessible, easy-to-use tools. According to Niles, one customer of TargetX noted that he can now generate reports in five minutes that used to take the IT department three days just to conceptualize.

Forrester's department at OCU chose Ellucian largely because it wanted a solution that it could operate on its own. A dedicated staff member manages the system internally, creating new admissions applications and updating fields in forms. Today, members of Forrester's team can easily create and deploy e-mail campaigns, using batch processes to pull information into the system as needed. The end result? The people who know the most about the admissions process--and the message they want to send--are in the driver's seat.

7) Social Media
You can't really talk about constituent relationships without talking about social media. As with the cloud, the connection between social media and CRM is a given at this point. Today, schools are finessing ways to participate in social media that don't feel intrusive, yet enable them to gather information about student interests and needs.

"What we're seeing is that the market--prospective students--is using social media like Facebook or Pinterest to explore the schools," says Goldberg. "So schools are becoming more aware of their image in social media."

To be most effective, Goldberg advises, schools need to tailor their social media messaging. For staff trying to woo prospective students, it's a waste of time, for example, to use the school's Twitter feed to advertise the day's café menu. Instead, schools should tweet about campus events of broader interest, highlight student or faculty accomplishments, or report on sports results or a play on campus, all of which help engage prospective students with life at the school.

So integral are social media to messaging strategies today that Salesforce is now designed to link to Facebook and LinkedIn pages, and even includes Radian6, a tool for monitoring social media. The purpose isn't to watch over students like Big Brother, says Niles, but to understand what's being said about the school and, in some cases, address issues and concerns raised by students, faculty, staff, or the public at large.

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