How to Pick a Marketing Automation Platform for Higher Education
By: Kirsten Sands Rauscher, Program Director, Constituent Relationship Management, University of Maryland – Robert H. Smith School of Business
Our story is about an ordinary place that did something extraordinary. That might sound odd now, but by the end of this post I think you might agree.
What’s so ordinary about us? Like many of you, we are just one unit in a larger ecosystem of stakeholders, communications, legacy systems, data silos, and competing priorities. Who are we? We are a business school. In my opinion, one of the best, but that’s a debate for another time.
At the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland College Park, we found out that we have ordinary problems, just like you. We are the victims of our own desire to better serve our constituents, which include students, alumni, donors, and friends of Smith. Even though we are united under the Smith School brand, we identify internally with our business unit, and much of our action, no matter how well-intentioned, is conducted without regard for the larger ecosystem.
It might not sound so bad, really. Our biggest problem is that we have a fantastic group of staff who strive to give students and alumni valuable content, world-class research, invitations to network and engage with our centers of excellence that promote social value, foster entrepreneurship and expand our global mindset, and so much more.
What are the consequences of having every business unit strive for excellence within their silo? Here at the Smith School, it meant that we were using 23 siloed email platforms to achieve communication and engagement goals.
What that really means isn’t pretty.
From a Salesforce Administrator’s perspective, it meant 23 shadow systems housing contact data. That fact alone is enough to give me a mild heart attack. It also confirmed our fears that we weren’t honoring subscription preferences, personalizing content and invitations based on interest, or maintaining consistency in branding.
We needed to fix this problem ASAP. Primarily, we want our alumni to be engaged around content and activities that are meaningful to them, we want to touch them in a more personal way, and we want to have a 360-degree view of their engagements with us. And so this is where our story turned from a nightmare to a positive and effective change management campaign.
Here is what we did that made us extraordinary: these sentiments were widely shared and acted upon quickly. Our colleagues strive for excellence, and once they realized there was a problem it became an all-hands-on-deck roll-out. Our COO, Dale Vander Wall, immediately put the wheels in motion to address the problem by taking the following steps:
1. Provided executive sponsorship & support for adopting a single solution across the school
2. Created a budget (which included both the purchase of a new marketing automation tool & for an implementation partner)
3. Established a selection committee with support from an outside/third party (aka the best alumnus ever)
We certainly got lucky with the selection team, since an Executive MBA alumnus (and undergraduate alumnus!) Steven Washington stepped up to the plate to facilitate the entire discovery process. I can’t stress enough how helpful it is to have an outsider come in with a fresh perspective, no political agenda or history, and lead the way. Steve brought us a wealth of experience and knowledge from running his own data analytics firm, and most recently launching his second consulting venture, Macurian.
We had the motivation, support, and resources to be successful, and that determination helped us go from ground zero to selecting Marketing Cloud in 3 short months. In higher ed, that’s a pretty extraordinary timeline.
The Discovery Phase of Picking a Marketing Automation Platform
My favorite part of our journey was the discovery process. This process resulted in us looking at 3 of the best marketing automation platforms on the market, and unanimously agreeing that Marketing Cloud met our needs for an enterprise deployment.
It became painfully evident in our first discovery interview (we conducted five 1.5 hour discovery sessions with function-based groups) that participants didn’t know what was possible with marketing automation. Asking the typical questions like “what would you like it to do for you” and “what don’t you have now” were fruitless. No one knew what it could do for them because no one had any prior experience with marketing automation.
We quickly flipped the script. We used discovery as an opportunity to educate and empower participants to understand the possibilities of a single enterprise marketing automation solution. We threw up terms and definitions, and walked through them one-by-one offering use cases and fostering a collaborative discussion around what’s possible. For every single feature, we asked two new questions:
1. How many of you currently use X feature to improve your communications?
2. On a scale of 1 – 5 (with 5 being an absolute must-have deal breaker), do you need this feature to be successful in your communication strategy now or in the future?
You might be thinking, why would we ask if they could be successful in the future? We were always thinking about the future. We were looking for a solution that could bring us into the 21st century (yes, higher ed is sometimes a bit behind) and beyond. For example, we don’t use SMS messaging today, but shouldn’t we consider that feature for next year, or the year after that?
Let’s get back to the discovery questions. We had our first draft of requirements to start searching for the right tool to meet our needs, and we were able to rank them based on current usage, and need vs. desirability. In addition, our future users (who served as our ultimate selection committee) were well educated on what features were important to them and the level of sophistication we should and could have.
The time between the demos and discovery interviews was probably a few weeks, so we created a scorecard for demo participants (which was an open invitation for anyone who wanted to join and provide feedback). I wanted those 5/5 deal breaker features to be at the front of their minds as they watched each product demo, and use it as an opportunity for continued education. We drafted a scorecard that gave definitions and scoring on a scale of 1 – 5 to help participants navigate the process.
If I can gloat one more time about how extraordinary we were, I’ll go ahead and do that now. We were incredibly transparent with all vendors with our expectations, directives and documentation in preparation for our product demonstrations.
Each vendor received the following documentation in advance:
- A complete list of features, ranked using the data collected around current usage and need from the discovery interviews
- Three specific communication scenarios to demonstrate with key features to highlight that spanned all of our constituent populations: prospective students, current students, and alumni
- A copy of the scorecard
- A list of demo participants and description of who they were as it related to marketing automation
- A technical questionnaire (to be completed and submitted the day of the demo)
Following the demo, we had a follow-up call with each vendor, submitted a second technical questionnaire, and spoke with a current client that met our desired parameters (a higher ed client similar in scope and size, and a client for at least one year).
Our entire journey took us across 5 key areas that are transferable to any application you might be looking to purchase:
1. Identify the problem/need
2. Conduct Internal Discovery
3. Vendor Demos
4. Technical Discovery
5. Customer Reference Checks
I delivered a final presentation to the selection committee which included side-by-side comparisons of each feature’s ratings from the scorecard, pricing details, and a technical comparison that included current features and future roadmap plans.
As a take-away, we’d like to share our scorecard with the community in the hopes you can leverage what works for us within your own organization’s search toward a marketing automation solution.
My Best Advice on Choosing a Marketing Automation System for Higher Ed
Find a business analyst that can help support your discovery process. Having a neutral third party can be very helpful when navigating change management projects. If your organization doesn’t have this resource available, try and find an alumnus or alumna who has expertise in the field who might be willing to help!
And lastly, be transparent in your communication strategy with the entire organization about the game plan. We laid out the process from day one so everyone knew the steps we would take to choose the right product and we all committed to a final decision date (November 15th will forever live in my memory).
Our communication strategy included an internal blog where I posted updates, content on the internal staff intranet where anyone could access more information and contact information for the selection committee so they could follow-up with any questions along the way.
I look forward to our next post about the hardest part of all… how are we going to implement Marketing Cloud across the entire business school?! Don’t worry, I’ll share more on the Smith School’s implementation strategy in my next blog.
Want to go beyond the scorecard? Download the Digital Marketing e-book for Higher Education.
About the Author
Kirsten Sands Rauscher is responsible for the University of Maryland Smith School of Business’s enterprise roll-out of Salesforce to 150+ users, user adoption, training and new user on-boarding strategies. She created and lead a Salesforce Advisory Board of key stakeholders at Smith to guide the school’s implementation road map and data governance decisions. She manages vendor relationships and coordinates with internal and external stakeholders related to project goals and timelines. In addition to her role at Smith, she co-leads the Salesforce User Group for Higher Ed in the Washington, D.C. region. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
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