Enrollment Blog

What Trump’s social microtargeting can teach enrollment leaders

by Emily Bauer

Back in the early days of social media, my enrollment colleagues and I used to talk about how it reminded us of the rise of email in the 1990s. More recently, I’m realizing just how inadequate that analogy is to our current moment in history. We’ve not just been gifted a new channel to use; we’re in the midst of a far more radical shift in the way that people communicate— and how that activity can be measured, tracked, analyzed, and influenced.

At the same time, there’s never been more uncertainty about which techniques, channels, and approaches are most effective. Enrollment leaders must also sift through incomplete analyses and outright misinformation about digital marketing.

Nothing emphasized this for me more than the role that cutting-edge marketing analytics and big data played in the last presidential election. A recent piece in Vice did an exceptional job of conveying the power and reach of these related techniques, many of which we use in Royall’s own digital marketing work.

Social segmentation hype from the election

At the heart of the Vice story is the fact that as mobile internet users, we are continuously generating data on an almost incomprehensible scale. As one industry observer quoted by Vice put it, “our smartphone…is a vast psychological questionnaire that we are constantly filling out, both consciously and unconsciously.”

Combined with ongoing innovations in data-driven psychological modeling, this information makes a previously unimagined degree of precision possible in audience segmentation. For example, it’s now possible to tell whether someone is a Democrat or Republican with 85% accuracy, just on the basis of 68 Facebook “likes”.

The science-fiction-like quality of these new capabilities truly emerges when you understand the scale at which they can work. Consider the approach used by Cambridge Analytica, the firm engaged by the Trump campaign to run its digital media efforts. On the day of the third debate between Trump and Clinton, Trump’s team tested no fewer than 175,000 ad variations via Facebook—an effort that helped pinpoint exactly which messages and language worked best with which audience segments.

Supporting this effort was a massive predictive analytics engine—purportedly incorporating around 4,000 data points on each of more than 230,000,000 Americans. In combination, these efforts aimed to create something close to a perfect match between message and audience.

Too good to be true

As someone who would be responsible for executing the hundreds of thousands of ad variations that would be required, the approach Cambridge Analytica describes is daunting in its complexity. That’s why I was relieved to read a recent New York Times exposé; that revealed that in fact, the Trump campaign’s digital marketing campaign did not involve the use of psychographic segmentation at all, and that Cambridge Analytica played a very limited role in Trump’s marketing.

This discrepancy highlights how hard it is to identify what actually works in digital marketing, even given all the excitement about the promise of big data and hyper-personal targeting today. That’s true in political marketing, but equally true in enrollment marketing.

Lessons for enrollment

Despite the discordance, Cambridge Analytica’s analytic efforts have an important and ultimately positive lesson for enrollment leaders.

We are increasingly living in a world where it’s possible to know a huge amount about the interests, values, ambitions, and preferences of students and their families. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll want to pursue the sort of mass customization that Cambridge Analytica and similar firms promote—Royall’s own past research and testing suggests that segmentation does not reliably improve overall student-recruitment response. But the more insight you gain into your audience, the more certain you can be that you’re providing them with the information they most urgently need or are most likely to respond to, through the channels they’re most inclined to favor.

There’s no question that your key audiences are front and center where the digital communications revolution is concerned—Pew Research has shown that almost a quarter of high school students report being online “almost constantly,” while Snapchat is on pace to have 217 million users by the end of 2017. It’s quickly becoming clear just how essential digital marketing has become—in fact, mobile ads are projected to account for more than 70% of all U.S. ad spend by 2019.

In their online interactions, students will increasingly expect the high degree of relevance that the marketing approaches described above strive to create. Successful recruitment marketing efforts for enrollment will increasingly honor that expectation.


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