To Set Ourselves Apart, We Built Connections

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Wednesday, April 21, 2021
By Carrie Marcinkevage
Photo by iStock/oonal
A college invests in a more robust constituent relationship management system to foster stronger, lifelong relationships with its constituents.

The vitality of a higher education institution depends on the strength of the relationships it builds with students, alumni, donors, corporate partners, and other stakeholders. Students, especially, increasingly expect their schools to know them as well as Amazon knows its customers and to provide services that rival those the Ritz Carlton delivers to its guests.

In 2015, the Smeal College of Business at Pennsylvania State University in University Park launched a CRM initiative focused on our professional graduate program portfolio, which offers students the ability to stack multiple credentials and programs in ways that best suit their individual educational trajectories. If we wanted to serve our students as they progressed through these more customized pathways, as well as our many other stakeholders, we knew that we would need to strengthen our constituent relationship management (CRM) efforts. 

We launched a CRM initiative in conjunction with our redesigned professional graduate program and expanded it to the entire school soon after. At that time, however, we fell into a typical trap: We viewed CRM as an IT project, not a business imperative. The initiative was led by our IT department, which treated every unit as a separate client project. Data from one department were not integrated with data from others, and the advanced CRM technology helped no more than the old papers and spreadsheets.

Moreover, we did not set clear collegewide strategic priorities. When some units in our college asked to participate, their requests were often suffocated under a growing pile of projects. The units served were the most vocal, not the most strategic.

To better understand where we stood, we conducted an external analysis of our marketing efforts, which revealed two problem areas: First, we were underutilizing the tools we had; and second, we needed clearer strategic direction and leadership. In response, the college’s dean and senior leaders moved CRM out of the IT department and created a new position: CRM strategy director. In July 2018, I became the first person to take that role.

Soon after I started, we formed a steering group comprising executives from units across the college, including professional graduate programs, development and alumni relations, executive education, marketing, research centers, information technology, and the finance office. The steering group set several goals for rebooting our processes. We wanted to increase our revenue, improve student employment rates, and make our processes more efficient. In short, we wanted our school to become a CRM center of excellence.

Next, we formed an operations group to work toward these goals across departments, and we assigned individual projects to smaller cross-functional groups. Through their efforts, we integrated all of our disparate data, automated many tasks, addressed issues of cross-department collaboration, and created a system of information sharing. Our rebooted strategy is now far more efficient and effective, and our relationships with stakeholders are stronger than ever before.

Reaching a Turning Point

Prior to this initiative, staff in every department spent significant amounts of time manually completing many tasks related to constituent outreach. Managers and staff in admissions, marketing, student and career advising, and our various research centers input information into unwieldy spreadsheets to organize contacts, track communications, and prepare departmental reports. Admissions sent individual emails to applicants who had not submitted all their materials; support staff sent relevant information across departments using disparate spreadsheets and systems. Alumni might receive multiple emails from the college in a single day. Employers might be invited to the same event by different people. No one tracked who did what with whom, or when.

Once we designed a more purposeful CRM strategy, we reached a turning point in our ability to fulfill our stakeholder engagement potential. Today, communications that took so much of our staff’s time are largely automated through Salesforce Marketing Cloud and integrated ads and forms. We can even analyze the best days and times to send communications based on a recipient’s past interactions.

We have integrated our disparate data, automated many tasks, and created a system of information sharing. Our rebooted CRM strategy is now far more efficient, and our relationships with stakeholders are stronger than ever before.

Our marketing team creates customized journeys for prospective graduate program applicants based on data related to their interests and fit with the college. Similarly, our program directors can track student academic and professional development, and our corporate relations staff can identify and prioritize high-potential corporate partnerships. Our student advising and career coaching functions are integrated into the system to give our advisers greater flexibility and more user-friendly reporting capabilities.

Some of these changes were small tweaks; others were major process improvements. But together, they allow staff members to dedicate far more time to higher-value work. I estimate that our enhanced processes save at least a one full-time-equivalent employee in our professional graduate programs.

A Data-Driven Strategy

We are now exploring how we can further integrate artificial intelligence and machine learning into our systems to generate more constituent value. With the help of AI, we will refine our engagement strategies to achieve several important objectives:

Improving student recruitment, retention, and job placement. AI will allow us to improve student retention by generating predictive early warning triggers, which are automatically sent to our advisers. AI technology also will help better match students with classes or job openings, direct students to services, and recommend programs in our professional graduate program portfolio to alumni based their history.

Timing communications more effectively. We are now analyzing how many emails a constituent receives from the college in a given month and over the entire year, how many emails (and from which department) each constituent opens, and which newsletters are sent out on the same dates. We want to know if we have long gaps of time between communications or dates where multiple messages go out. Using this information, we plan to spread out messaging, eliminate same-date communications when possible, determine the volume and timing of mailings that lead to the best outcomes, and expand to multiple delivery channels.

Strengthening constituent relationships. We can use data our system collects to deepen our connections with constituents who engage with a high proportion of our events, programs, and communications. In addition, we can check in with constituents who have close relationships with our school (such as board members) but who are not engaging with our content. AI will help analyze past engagement and recommend new ways to connect that best suit stakeholders’ interests.

Avoiding stakeholder “burnout.” Finally, we want to use our system to identify constituents who are either underserved by or oversaturated with our communications.

Before our reboot, alumni who received too many requests for engagement actually lessened their involvement with the college over time. In fact, one prominent alumna became so burned out that she backed away from the college entirely. We did not overcommit her intentionally—we simply had no way to see who had contacted her, who was making requests, or when she already was leading an activity for us.

With our new processes, alumni burnout will no longer happen. The technology allows us to cross-reference our contacts with other units, create a collective plan for engagement, and make the most of a constituent’s relationship with us.

The Constituent Life Cycle

Our integrated system follows our stakeholders seamlessly as they transition from one stakeholder group to another, no matter who in the college might engage with them. We gather information that will help us serve all constituents through their entire journeys with us, from the time they apply to long after they graduate.

Let’s say, for example, that Chris expresses interest in our graduate programs. We email Chris with information about a potential program and continue to engage via email and phone. Those communications are logged into the system, so that anyone talking to Chris can pick up the conversation where the last person left off.

Satisfied with these interactions, Chris applies to a program. The admissions team can use information in the system to evaluate and interact with Chris before eventually extending an offer of admission. After Chris enrolls, the system collects information regarding course engagement, career and student advising, student organization participation, internships, employment offers, and other communications.

We serve our constituents best when their electronic personas in our system represent their extended biographies—a digital version of a dog-eared “through-the-years” photo album.

The data we gather at each stage help us understand our growing and evolving relationship with Chris, the student. Once Chris becomes a graduate, our CRM system continues to help us offer and track alumni engagement. It integrates with an alumni data system, data analytics from Dun & Bradstreet, and LinkedIn Sales Navigator to keep all information current. Our communications can be tailored according to basic information such as Chris’ major or class year or deeper information related to areas such as student organization leadership and team membership.

To support Chris’ lifelong learning journey, we can recommend graduate certificates or executive education options based on degree and career trajectory. Knowing that Chris served as a peer mentor, we can send an invitation to become a student mentor and eventually follow up with an invitation to serve on relevant advisory boards or in other capacities. We have years’ worth of information that help us personalize these interactions. The outcome: Chris feels recognized and encouraged to maintain a long-term relationship with our college.

Three Lessons Learned

When we first rebooted our constituent engagement strategy, our goals were to grow enrollments, revenues, and student employment rates; create operational efficiencies; and build our reputation. Our efforts have contributed to the growth of our professional graduate student population from 300 in 2014 to 2,000 in 2021.

We have accomplished this growth by adding staff who focus on recruitment—not on manual, back-end processes. We now have four staff members on our CRM team supporting the entire college, including professional graduate programs, executive programs, alumni relations, research centers, and our career center.

Throughout this effort, we have learned three lessons about effective CRM deployment:

To have lifelong partners, you need lifelong data. Lifelong learning and relationships require not just big data, but long data. We need to gather longitudinal information at every touchpoint, from a prospect’s first registration form through their last alumni giving check. We serve our constituents best when their electronic personas in our system represent their extended biographies—a digital version of a dog-eared “through-the-years” photo album.

To have a connected constituent, you need a connected culture. Sharing information across departments creates a prismatic view of the constituent. The person’s ongoing story is greater than the sum of its parts. Before we undertook this initiative, our data were scattered and disconnected—no one had access to the whole story. Our cross-functional groups significantly increased collaboration to provide us with a complete picture. Research shows that such cross-functional design is a critical CRM success factor.

To have an effective CRM program, you need a dedicated CRM person. CRM is not merely an IT function—it’s the basis for a broader, unified strategy. It should be led at the business level by someone who transcends unit boundaries to see how individual goals can create collective benefit.

As that point person, I am responsible for creating the systems and culture to support more meaningful engagement with our stakeholders. Our goal is to do all we can to foster deep, lifetime connections with our students and partners. In an increasingly competitive and complex environment, we know those connections will set us apart.

Carrie Marcinkevage
Director of Constituent Relationship Management, Smeal College of Business, Pennsylvania State University
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