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Why focusing on digital experience can give education providers an edge over the competition

Providing customers with a personalised experience is no longer just an option for the marketing department or a ‘nice to have’ that enhances the core product. Instead, it’s become a source of competitive advantage and a critical success factor.

For Australia’s education industry, at the tertiary level in particular, driving positive engagement has never been more important.

Higher education has become highly commercialised, with a plethora of government and private providers vying for the ‘business’ of students and prospective students, from Australia and abroad.

Education was the country’s third largest export industry in 2017 and contributed $32.2 billion to the economy in that year, according to ICEF Monitor.

Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson says international students choose Australia because they believe studying here will give them access to a world class education, global alumni networks, lifelong friendships within Australia and a great student experience.

Digital interactions which consistently meet and exceed students’ expectations can be an effective means of delivering the latter.

KPMG’s 2016 report 'How Much is Customer Experience Worth?' noted the old adage that ‘the customer is king’ and it had latterly become a reality. With 24/7 access to an abundance of options, buyers are spoiled for choice and sellers must vie for their attention.

Providing a superior customer experience is frequently the only way in which organisations, Australian educational institutions included, can distinguish themselves in a crowded marketplace.

Gauging customer experience in the digital arena

Long gone is the era in which lecturers and administrators communicated with students by posting bulletins on a notice board and elicited feedback via paper-based surveys at the end of the semester.

These days, students’ interactions with education providers are digitally driven. Enrolments, subject changes, tutorial sign-ups and assignment submissions – all are conducted online. Real life opportunities for institutions to garner feedback and gauge whether students’ expectations are being met are limited.

It is possible for education providers to get a handle on how they’re doing on the customer experience front using digital metrics, but where should the focus be? Clicks and social media likes can provide insight but experience has shown they’re shallow measures. They may provide a snapshot of how an institution is perceived by students and prospective students but they don’t necessarily reflect long-term commitment and brand loyalty.

So, what should education providers do to analyse, measure and understand how they’re doing from a customer experience perspective? Below are a few tips to consider:

Understanding visitors’ intent

Determining how to deliver an optimal customer experience to an individual starts with understanding their backstory. In the digital arena, that begins with capturing visitor intent data – information about the problem or need students or alumni are looking to address or the reason they’ve sought out the institution. It’s tough to deliver personalised, relevant information or tailored responses to potential queries and concerns in the absence of this information.

Examining the ways in which students engage with an education provider’s online presence can give some insight into their motivations. Some may have navigated their way via a social media post or news story while others may come from a seasonal spike in activity – exam time, the start or end of the academic year, or some other significant date on the calendar, for example.

The amount of time a student spends engaging with a site is also a good indicator of whether the ‘value proposition’ on offer is going to resonate and whether a positive experience will be the end result.

If students are switching off quickly or navigating a site haphazardly, it may be a sign the online experience is poorly designed and is turning users off, or that the product offering itself – think courses, costs and modes of study – needs to be reviewed.

Gauging customer satisfaction

Attracting students is one thing; retaining them for the duration of their chosen course of study is another. Education providers stand a better chance of doing the latter if they find ways to gauge students’ satisfaction, not just by way of an occasional feedback survey, but regularly, and at every stage of the educational journey.

Engaged students tend to become loyal alumni and ‘brand evangelists’ who spruik the educational experience they enjoyed from an institution voluntarily, within their business and personal circles.

A steady stream of referrals and positive online reviews are reliable signs this is occurring. Keeping tally of both makes sense for education providers that are serious about doing digital experience well.

Why engaging with employees encourages them to deliver better customer experiences

It’s impossible to deliver excellent student experiences without an engaged workforce of academics and administrators. Staff members who feel happy and valued are more productive, more enthusiastic in their interactions with students and more likely to stick around – all positives for any institution that hopes to stand out from the pack.

Keeping the lines of communication open, inviting employees’ feedback and demonstrating that their input is valued by acting on concerns and suggestions are all practices that will stand education providers in good stead.

Time to act

In today’s crowded and competitive higher education landscape potential students, both domestic and international, have no shortage of options to choose from.

Education providers that don’t strive to attract and retain a healthy pipeline of students by delivering satisfying customer experiences may struggle to maintain enrolment numbers and viability.

Finding ways to measure the effectiveness of online efforts will help institutions that are serious about doing so up their game, boost student loyalty, and steer their way towards a successful and sustainable future.

Chris Gibbs is general manager Asia Pacific and Japan at Acquia.

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