Category Strategy
Publication date
23 July 2021

Filling the gaps created by Covid: Why higher education needs personalisation now more than ever

Time to read 7 minutes read

The most important trend, and the one that is delivering phenomenal return on investment for third-level education, is personalisation.

The world of higher education was already going through a period of great digital acceleration before the Covid-19 pandemic acted as a catalyst, putting the sector under pressure to adapt even more.

In the months before Covid-19, the sector was embracing an increase in online learning and mobile use, faster web speeds, improved online resources, new platforms such as TikTok and an increase of interest in virtual reality.

Now, the most important trend, and the one that is delivering exceptional return on investment, is personalisation — the notion of giving people the information that they need, as they need it. And thanks to advances in technology and artificial intelligence, personalisation is becoming as easy as using the right software.

Sifting through the clutter

The online environments of learning institutions are becoming more and more important. Distance or remote learning is on the increase, and so is distance support — students needing to find information online rather than going into an office or on to a campus.

They are virtual extensions of offices or campuses, and need to supply information and services to a number of different types of audiences. A typical university audience doesn’t just consist of prospective or current students, but also their parents, past students, academic and staff members

It is a conundrum facing marketing departments worldwide — how do you overcome the temptation to deliver the one-size-fits-all approach to an online audience.

The answer lies in personalisation; by making sure that the right message connects with the right people.

There are numerous benefits to using personalisation. Not only does it make for better student and staff experiences, but it also improves retention rates by tracking and learning about students' involvement patterns and behaviours.

Outdated, generic experiences hurt enrolments and student retention, which ultimately hurt the institution’s bottom line.


Many of today’s students have grown up with technology and they expect their third-level institutions to be on the same page. They’re used to finding the right information that they need quickly.

Personalising the information they come across drives enrolments. The goal is to give students what they are looking for, rather than letting them leave the university website for a search engine that could lead them to another institution.

Personalisation can also deliver ongoing enrolments — for example, a student who has just finished one course could be shown other courses to complement the one they’ve just completed.


But a better experience doesn’t stop once a student has been enrolled. It’s about ensuring they get the support they need. In many cases, this can be pre-empted with the use of data analysis.

Users count on their institution’s website to get information, conduct business and communicate directly with university departments. They could be trying to access the academic calendar, get career advice or explore their finance options.

Digital personalisation can improve academic results by monitoring students’ performance and suggesting intervention, such as additional classes, webinars or access to tutors. This data can also be used to analyse tutors' effectiveness and collect feedback about courses.

Data can also deliver insights into the factors driving student engagement—including motivation, success expectancy and anxiety ahead of an exam.

User-friendly software

These personalised experiences can be created, deployed and managed quickly, across all digital platforms, without needing developers. And because universities get to see their digital properties through their students’ eyes, they get to customise, optimise, and identify the best content for every student, in real time.

Tools, such as Acquia Personalization, offer an easy-to-use interface that allows anyone to orchestrate compelling, individually optimised experiences.


And universities could be doing so much more. In 2020, 44,707 students in 26 higher education institutions took part in the Irish Survey of Student Engagement. The results were quite telling.

Although 71% of all respondents believed that teaching staff clearly explained course goals and requirements, only 58% of all respondents believed that their institution emphasised providing support to help students succeed academically.

Only 51% of all respondents believed that their institution emphasised providing support for their overall well-being (such as recreation, healthcare and counselling), and only 41% of all respondents indicated as excellent the quality of interactions with academic staff.

Those are three key areas that could be improved quite easily by personalising their digital experience.

Success rate

So how successful are data-driven personalisation strategies at achieving their primary objectives? Recently, Acquia conducted a data-driven personalisation survey among enterprise marketers.

Their top three primary objectives of a data-driven personalisation strategy were:

  1. Improving customer experience
  2. Increasing conversion rates
  3. Increasing visitor engagement

Nearly all (98%) of the marketers reported that their strategy successfully achieved their primary objectives to some extent.

And those higher learning institutions that have implemented a personalisation strategy are reaping rewards.

For example, Bryant University in the US used personalisation to provide targeted content and calls-to-action to different student groups, such as international and female students.

The university ran campaigns based on these segments and, in less than a year, had expanded its reach and boosted its overall enrolment conversions.

Accelerating the inevitable

For academic institutions to stay relevant they will, sooner or later, have to embrace personalisation.

The time has long passed that the venerable architecture, sports fields and libraries are the first things prospective students will come into contact with before applying at a third-level institution.

The pandemic has accelerated the inevitable — the need for universities and academic institutions to embrace an enriched digital presence that caters more personally for students and extolls the same virtues that it expects of them, namely excellence and attention to detail: A new digital architecture for a post-Covid world.

By leveraging machine learning and AI to generate greater insights, universities can deliver optimal, personalised experiences for each individual. This will enable them to meet expectations and differentiate themselves from their competition.

Do you want to find out more about personalisation for Higher Education?

Why not talk to us about how personalisation can add real value to your organisation.

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Stella Power Managing Director

As well as being the founder and managing director of Annertech, Stella is one of the best known Drupal contributors in the world.