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Embracing Variability: No perfect college. Only perfect colleges

Embracing Variability: No perfect college. Only perfect colleges

Malcolm Gladwell’s now famous Ted Talk about Howard Moskowitz’s research on happiness and spaghetti sauce has been viewed more than 6 million times. With it, he brought to the lexicon the notion that many industries have unsuccessfully toiled under the weight of the search for universal preferences among target audiences.

Similarly, higher education has spent the better part of the last 30 years asking, “What do students want?” This way they can develop marketing messages that appeal to the widest array of student populations.

When universal messages failed to move a needle, higher education began segmenting messages, although even these segments were massive in scope (students of color, non-residents, STEM-interested students, etc.) and the search for second-level universals continued (“what do African-American students want?”).

Instead of universals, Moskowitz would argue that if you want to really understand what students want from your university, you must embrace variability. The nature and diversity of preferences of each individual student are truly unique across humanity. Interestingly though, most enrollment managers simultaneously argue the snowflake virtues of their institution while batch processing the interests of prospective students. It is indeed true then that the future of student recruitment lies in our ability to communicate with prospective students in a one-on-one fashion, but to do so at scale.

This requires a new framework and new tools.

For me, the most profound concept in the Gladwell/Moskowitz perspective is this notion that trial and error trumps interpretability. In his talk, Gladwell notes that what drove spaghetti sauce offerings initially was an interpretation that consumer tastes aligned with “traditional” notions of Italian cooking. “People want authentic sauces,” so the thinking went.

When you ask people what they want, of course, they will say they want authentic Italian spaghetti sauce, but if you give them dozens of sauce types to taste, chances are that a bulk of them will like something else. Why? We don’t know and that’s the point.

Google became the undisputed king of online advertising not by first studying marketing norms and online culture; they did so through trial and error. Google cannot tell you why a certain ad works. They just know it does. They run tests. They follow the data.

How do they do that? They use machine learning and wide data to provide a one-on-one experience, and so can you.

Machines are very effective in sorting and finding patterns in ways that humans simply can’t. Your prospective students are used to a highly customized consumer experience and they will not long tolerate a generic experience in the college search.

It is time to embrace variability.  It is this variability of your audience, the “always on” nature of behavioral data, and the limitations of us as human beings all direct us to embrace new tools and methods to offer students what they really want: a personal connection with your school.

By Thom Golden, Vice President of Data Science, Capture Higher Ed