On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, host Amrit Ahluwalia was joined by Melony Martinez to discuss the true value a website can deliver and how to get that message across the institution.
Voiceover: Welcome to Illumination by Modern Campus, the leading podcast focused on transformation and change in the higher education space. On today’s episode, we speak with Melony Martinez, who is Director of Marketing and Public Relations at National Park College. Melody and podcast host Amrit Ahluwalia discuss the true value a website can deliver and how to get that message across the institution.
Amrit Ahluwalia (00:03): Melanie Martinez, welcome to the Evolution, or the, Ooh, I'm gonna start again. <Laugh>, that's not what it's called. <Laugh>. Melanie Martinez, welcome to the Illumination Podcast. And thank you so much for joining me.
Melony Martinez (00:13): Awesome. Thank you. I really appreciate you inviting me. I'm happy to participate.
Amrit Ahluwalia (00:19): Absolutely. Well, you know, super, super excited to have this discussion because our focus is on the 2023 E Expectations report the findings that, that they've unearthed. This is, you know, for anyone who's not familiar with the e Expectations report, it's a, an annual survey or I guess biannual now survey conducted by Ruffo Noel Levitz designed to give folks an indication or an insight into the way that higher ed or that students tend to think when it comes to choosing post-secondary institutions. So, what, you know, it's obviously this is a report that modern campuses has supported for years. This year is no different. This year's report surveys, nearly 2000 students ranging from grade 10 to 12 all the way across the us. And Melanie, again, just so sincerely appreciate you taking the time out just to chat a little bit about the results, to share some of your insights on, on some of the things that you saw. You know, one of the things that jumped out to me, obviously students continue to identify the website as the most important source of information to learn about colleges and universities. So when you've, when, when that, you know, hearing that, that data point, seeing that data point in the report, how should that finding influence the strategy and the direction of institutional websites?
Melony Martinez (01:33):Well, I think that higher ed sites are notorious for becoming sort of a catchall for everything, for every audience. And we have a lot of those. I think our websites have to be clean and functional and easy for prospective students to navigate. We are in the midst of a redesign on our campus at National Park College, and we're trying to do this very thing in that we wanna remove the content that is solely for internal audiences, for current students and employees. And we wanna focus that content for the public facing site, solely on prospective students. So their journey is a lot cleaner and easier.
Amrit Ahluwalia (02:14):You know, it's, that's such an interesting point, just how quickly a website can get away from you. Now, this is, I believe this is a topic you and I have, have previously chatted about on the evolution. And by the way, if you haven't engaged with Mel, Mel Melanie's materials on the evolution already, please do look up her profile if you want some really interesting insights into marketing best practice especially digital marketing, best practice. How, I don't know how to phrase this question politely. I'm gonna do my best. How do you work with colleagues across the institution to create a broader understanding of the true value that a website can deliver when so many folks think tend to think of the website as being, you know, a poster board or an information board for everything happening at an institution?
Melony Martinez (03:08):Well I, I think that's a great question, Ameren. I think that you have to show them data and show them how students are, are using the tools that we're offering them. And then, you know, when you're not able to maybe do things the way that they necessarily think they need to be done, or the way we've always done them offer an alternative solution. And so what we are doing on our campus is we've never had a true campus portal or intranet per se. And so alongside our redesign project, we are implementing a, a campus portal for employees and students so that they'll get the content that they need in a different way. I mean, it, it, it's still gonna be available to them. It's just not going to be on the public facing side anymore. And so, you know, I think there's always a solution and a middle ground, and it, and not everyone is always gonna be happy with a decision, but ultimately we have to make choices based on the best business practice and, and for student success. And, and we really feel like this is a student success move in the end.
Amrit Ahluwalia (04:14):Absolutely. I mean, it is, it is super important because at the end of the day, you know, the website is any modern consumer's first pathway to finding information about a a you know, any service provider they might be considering or engaged with. And what's interesting, so there's another finding in this year's report that, you know, students regardless of age, whether they're grade 12, whether they're grade 10, they tend to search for program areas and career outcomes more than things that I think we've traditionally thought of as being the primary factors in a student's decision making. Like, you know, how many students are enrolled at the college? Where is the college? You know, they're really more interested in those, maybe more r o I kind of focused questions. And this ties directly into sort of the, the, the statement you just made that at the end of the day, you know, the, the website, the information on the website really is aligned with student success and student engagement. So, you know, when you think about what students actually want, what does this data tell you about sort of the preferences of today's learners, especially from the lens of a college marketer?
Melony Martinez (05:22):Well, I think it means that we have to get more sophisticated you know, our program pages on higher ed websites are consistently inconsistent. <Laugh>,
(05:33):I think this is an area where we can drastically improve it's low hanging fruit. Over the past years we've been watching the expectations report. I wait for it to come out every year. I guess it's biannual now, but we, we've used those reports to hone in on those items that students say they really wanna see. And we've created academic program for those pages that all of our programs are required to use. Interesting. and it creates consistency for students as they're browsing through the degree programs because they're guaranteed that each of those program pages are gonna have the content that they're looking for and they've been asking for. And so I think that's really important to, to find some consistency across that. And I also think we have to work smarter and utilize the technology that's available to us to create a more personalized experience for prospective students.
(06:29):We've all been sort of dipping our toes in the personalization realm for the past few years, but not many of us have fully invested in that. And we're implementing modern campuses' personalization module on, as part of our redesign along with the Pathways module. Okay. And I'm, I'm excited about those. The personalization module will allow us to tailor a site visitor's session to their specific needs and choices. And that Pathways module dynamically pulls in Bureau of Labor statistics, job market data, and it's based on zip codes for degree programs. And so really looking forward to seeing how those two features change the way our site is used. Ultimately, the goal, like we just said, is that these would have a long-term effect on student success as students are better routed into the correct degree paths.
Amrit Ahluwalia (07:23):Absolutely. What's interesting too is, you know, how those kinds of features, it's not just about, you know, it does, it creates a more streamlined student experience. It makes it easier for folks to find the information they need at the time they need it. But I can't help but think about how much time would otherwise go into, you know, building a fully visitor responsive website from scratch or building out sort of career pathways data and information and embedding that within the website. Like, it's just, it's not something that's feasible to spend time doing.
Melony Martinez (07:59):Not as a small team for sure. I mean, we, we would never be able to do that on our own. But you know partnering with you guys and, and, and pulling in a module that does a lot of that stuff for us is is one way that we can make that accessible to our students, even on a small campus.
Amrit Ahluwalia (08:19):Hey, lemme, lemme take you back one step cuz you mentioned that you know, you, you designed and built out templates to create consistency and the kind of information that students are getting in every program page. And, and I wanna spend a moment there because this is, you know those of you who listen to this podcast a lot, or at least have ever met me, will know that I will, oh, on occasion just go to a random institutional website, start poking around cuz I'm interested. And it is staggering how we'll call it diverse program pages within a single institutional can be just depending on the faculty, depending on the kind of credential they're pointed towards, depending on all these different factors. I mean things as simple as having a common color scheme let alone having consistent information. So I'm curious, you know, what went into the process of defining what information you want on each program page and how did you roll out this process to make it something that, you know, folks across campus were willing to adapt to?
Melony Martinez (09:22):Well, like I said, we took the Eex expectations report and we, you know, we saw what students were asking for. We took our search data and you know, we evaluated that and we looked at just, you know, the program pages that we had that were successful and, and then some that weren't getting as much traffic. And we just tried to pull all of those best practices and all the best ideas together. And then you know, a lot of times, you know, we, we wanna give faculty as much freedom as possible, but you know, we are the experts in this area and so we had to take the data that we knew to be true and and stick with it. And I think faculty are receptive to that when you're able to to, you know, put information and data behind it to say, Hey, this is a best practice and here's why.
(10:08):And not just, you know, here's what we're gonna do and shove it down their throats. But it, you know, it was a challenge in some cases and in some cases it still is. And you know, you do have to allow some flexibility. For instance, we have programs that have very strict standards from their accreditation partners. Right. And, you know, there's certain things that have to be on their program pages that we, you know, they need to get approved for accreditation. And, and so we do have to allow a little flexibility in those areas. But for the most part, you know, all the other sections of those templates are identical. As you flip through the programs, you'll be able to, you know, see the same layout and the same content for every degree program. And I think if you're a student exploring that, you know, that's important for you to, you know, know what you're gonna see and know what you're gonna find, you know, and, and not just have random collections of information that you're not really sure how it relates.
Amrit Ahluwalia (11:07):Well, that's just it. I mean, like, it it's so important when we think about the student is that they are a consumer and they're not necessarily comparing the digital experience of National Park College to, you know, any other colleges in and around sort of the, in in Arkansas, what they're comparing the, the website experience to Amazon. Walmart. Netflix. Exactly. You know, that that's their line.
Melony Martinez (11:31):Exactly. And when you go to one of those places, let, let's take Amazon for instance, and, and you're looking at products and comparing, you know, where the section, where the reviews are, you know, the section where the cost is, you know, the description and you know, like items and all the, the different places that you look on, on a product page for Amazon mm-hmm. <Affirmative>. And it should, it, it should be the same way with higher education. Our degree programs are, are products that we're selling to our consumer. And I know we don't like to think of higher ed as a business like that, but it is, it is. Absolutely. And our students are our customers.
Amrit Ahluwalia (12:07):You know, there's, I think this is an important caveat. It's something that's worth spending a moment on. Cuz you know, we've with the evolution, obviously our, our focus has always been on how, how does the higher ed in, how does the higher ed industry look when students are treated as customers? And that, that's always been our guiding philosophy. And and an important caveat to this is, is what will tend to happen and talk about students as customers is the first comment is what, so the customer's always right. Are we a degree mill? And you're saying like, no, no, no, no, no. Cause what the student is buying is the opportunity to learn. Yeah. Right. And what comes out of that experience is a credential. If they meet those, those particular requirements that meet the, the assessment needs of, of earning the credential, they're not buying a credential, they're buying access to the program. Now, this is where I think the rubber hits the road on the student experience, because then from the institutional perspective, if what the individual is buying is the opportunity to learn, then our responsibility is making every barrier that stands in between them and learning as small as possible because they, they're not buying the opportunity to navigate an unnecessarily complex bureaucratic infrastructure.
Melony Martinez (13:19):No. And honestly they won't. And the generation coming up are over it, to be honest. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, and we've seen them, we've seen even previous generations migrating to the for-profit worlds because, you know, they've offered a better experience frankly than we have. And so I think that you know, there's a balance there. I mean, obviously you wanna maintain quality and, and a level of standard but also we could do better at serving our students
Amrit Ahluwalia (13:49):So too. Absolutely. And it's, it is interesting cuz it's not just, it's not just a student affairs challenge, it's not just a, you know, an academic challenge. It's, it's, it's fascinating kind of see how a marketing team can also, you know, take up the baton and recognize, hey, we have a role to play here too.
(14:09):As you were sort of perusing this year's 2023 e expectations report, was there, what, what findings really jumped out at you? Like what surprised you or, or really stuck in your mind as, as things that were particularly interesting?
Melony Martinez (14:23):You know, I'll have to say, there's always so much to chew on and I know that there's a lot more to digest from this report. I haven't spent as much time on it as I want to yet, but,
Amrit Ahluwalia (14:32):And, and I will, I will say you've only had about a day to digest the information. So for the benefit of the listeners, Melanie only received this report, the draft of the report yesterday, and we're talking about it today. So in fairness, you haven't had a lot of time to digest.
Melony Martinez (14:47):That's true. But I, I love this report so much. And I would have to say the one thing that stood out to me immediately was the difference between the expectations of first generation students versus the continuing generation students. I don't know if I just overlooked those in previous reports or if this was a newer thing that has been added in recent years, but it caught my eye this time and we've been spending a lot of time on campus talking about poverty in our region and I, you know, noticing that first gen students want more texts and they want more direct mail and they want more phone calls.
Amrit Ahluwalia (15:28):Yes.
Melony Martinez (15:29):That was something that really stood out to me. I'm not sure I realized the variance there between the two groups. But it made me think about other ways we could be failing to meet the needs and expectations of first gen students
Amrit Ahluwalia (15:45):That I, that some of the findings around the differences between the way the continuing students and first gen students engage absolutely blew my mind. Let me throw one, the one stat at you on, on this particular topic that really stood out to me. So, 40% of first gen students will complete a form on the school's website to get information about the school, whereas fewer than 30% of continuing gen students will do the same. Conversely, you know, as the, the continuing gen students will typically just email the school directly cuz they'll know who the contact is at that institution that they need to get in touch with. Whereas for first gen students, that understanding of the complexity of, of institutional bureaucracy, not really at the same level. And what it, what it kind of spelled out to me is it goes back to a finding from years ago that I think was in the expectations finding, but it might have been in another report. And frankly, it's a basic consumer stat that when an individual completes a form, they expect a response inside of 24 hours. And the sooner the institution responds to that form filler, that direct inquiry, the, the sooner it happens, the more likely that individual is to ultimately enroll. And, and it really, it really struck home for me in seeing that stat that, you know, nearly half of first gen students, two out of every five will fill out a form to get information on the school's website, how important that follow-up mechanism is going to be.
Melony Martinez (17:18):Yeah. I'm taking notes here cuz I think I need to like talk to our recruitment team.
Amrit Ahluwalia (17:22): It's ok, this will all be recorded. You can, you can reference that later
Melony Martinez (17:29):Reply within 24 hours. Yes. I think that that's, that's so insight insightful and it, it's really just, I don't know that I've just considered before how our marketing may impact that those two groups differently. I mean, maybe that's naive of me, but definitely a lot to think about.
Amrit Ahluwalia (17:53):It's, it's a really, it's, it's kind of fascinating, right? We talk about education as being accessible and, and we're talking about the idea of education as accessible through through simplifying the program page model through creating information that's easily consumable. But then there's all these other pieces that start to stack on top of that when we think about the idea of accessibility or diversification
Melony Martinez (18:16):It's it's the nurturing Yeah, the nurturing
Amrit Ahluwalia (18:18):Absolutely.
Melony Martinez (18:19):And, and, and how we follow up after that. You know, that's, you
Amrit Ahluwalia (18:23):Know, even something as simple as if, you know, a website visitor is a first generation student, maybe the call to action, cause you were talking about website personalization, maybe the call to action that gets fed to that individual is contact us for more information, right? Yeah. And if they're a continuing student, it's email this person for more information. I it those kinds of little insights. I'm so grateful to ruffle and Noel Levitt for the work they do on this report every year. Oh yeah. And I will specially shout out a former colleague of mine, Stephanie Geier <laugh> as she, she sort of was the, the first to, to start developing this report and to build the infrastructure around it. Cause it's things like that can, that can be transformational. I mean yes, for an institution, but can be really transformational for a student. It's, it's the difference between whether they feel welcome or not.
Melony Martinez (19:11):Yes. I follow Stephanie on Twitter and I I love her insight and her wittiness and we've definitely benefited from her expertise for many years.
Amrit Ahluwalia (19:22):I, I gotta tell you, you should, you should try working with her. <Laugh> <laugh>.
Melony Martinez (19:27):I bet that's the experience.
Amrit Ahluwalia (19:29):So you know, obviously one of the things that we're talking about, the concept of personalization and one of the things the report found is that students were really willing to share personal information with the college because they value that tailored digital experience. So when you are, as you are entering this process of, of finding ways to personalize the website, how did, how does insights like that start to shape the approach that colleges can or should take to personalization during the admissions and enrollment period?
Melony Martinez (20:00):Well, I think students are, are clearly telling us that they want and need us to do better. I think that they have these really seamless online experiences with e-commerce companies like Amazon, like we mentioned, and then they click over to academia and we are still a decade behind in a lot of cases. Yeah.
Melony Martinez (20:20):I think they're saying, Hey ask for what you need and make this a better experience for me. I also think that they see the value of providing personal information and how it improves their experience. They're used to it now. What we have to do is ask the right questions. We have to identify those key data points that will help us to guide prospective students best in their journey. And we have to do that in a concise, attention spans have not expanded and they continue to shorten. And so prospective students, they're not patient and we have to be intentional about the information that we ask them to provide. That's crucial.
Amrit Ahluwalia (21:01):Absolutely. You know, on, on that topic, is there, do you feel there's still sort of a creepiness factor to website personalization? Or do you think we're kind of past that this is just, you know, broadly speaking as consumers and, and personalization in general? Because I'll, I'll be on this. Me personally, I'm, I'm not sure I get creeped out by personalization or tailored ads or anything anymore. I don't even think it registers for me.
Melony Martinez (21:27):Yeah. I honestly, I prefer it, you know, I don't wanna see ads that aren't relevant to me. And so I I think because we understand it, it's not creepy. I'm not gonna say that there, there aren't individuals out there who still feel that way and rightly so. I, you know, when it first started, I think it was a little creepy for all of us. And, and you know, the listening part, <laugh> is still a little creepy when you can just say words out loud and then get ads for those things. That's, that's a little creepy. But I, I'm, I'm past the point of it being creepy. I think that our, the generation of students that we are serving are past that. Yeah. And I think maybe in our non-traditional student audience, we may see a little bit more of that hesitation, but not in the generations coming up.
Amrit Ahluwalia (22:17):That's fair. That's fair. Well, Melanie, I mean that pretty much does it on my end. Now, you know, this isn't just a higher ed podcast. This is an unofficial food podcast as well. So I have to ask you in in, in Hot Springs, Arkansas, where does someone need to go to dinner?
Melony Martinez (22:33):Well I love the little hole in the walls that aren't necessarily the most popular places in town, but my favorite is a little Mexican restaurant called Tzo, and I'm Mexican American, and so I love Mexican authentic Mexican food that reminds me of my family in Mexico. And they just have the most beautiful, authentic dishes there. And so anyone who's visiting Hot Springs, that would be my first recommendation would be Katz. All.
Amrit Ahluwalia (23:04):Perfect. Well, Melanie, I gotta tell you, I so appreciate you taking the time out and, you know, thank, thank you as well for just, you know, sitting down and sharing your insights here. I'm, I'm excited to see how some of these these findings influence the work that you and your team are already have underway.
Melony Martinez (23:19):Absolutely. We are too. And we're thankful for our partnership with Modern Campus and everything you guys do to help us in this journey. So.
Voiceover: This podcast is made possible by a partnership between Modern Campus and The EvoLLLution. The Modern Campus engagement platform, powered solutions for non-traditional student management, web content management, catalog and curriculum management, student engagement and development, conversational text messaging, career pathways, and campus maps and virtual tours. The result innovative institutions can create learner to earner life cycle that engages modern learners for life, while providing modern administrators with the tools needed to streamline workflows and drive high efficiency. To learn more and to find out how to modernize your campus, visit moderncampus.com. That's moderncampus.com.