Salesforce Services
mins read

How Higher Education can drive engagement with life-stage marketing

Marketing today doesn’t see an individual as a series of isolated transactions. It looks at a person’s total experience. It stitches together data to better understand each individual across a lifetime of choices and actions. And it evolves with that person as they change and reach milestones. The best marketers recognize those milestones as goals and proactively create content and journeys that provide value along the way. One retailer is lighting the way for others. Williams-Sonoma, Inc. is changing how its many brands cater to their customers.  

Williams-Sonoma, Inc., at Salesforce New York World Tour

You might be thinking: What does a houseware brand have to do with universities and advancement? More than you’d believe.

Check out: The Future of Salesforce Marketing Cloud

Marketing is an enabler of experience

College applications are down. According to data from National Student Clearinghouse, undergraduate college enrollment has dropped 8% from 2019 to 2022. The decline is the steepest on record based on findings from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the surface, those numbers don’t bode well. But, look a little deeper, and they represent a tremendous opportunity. With so much uncertainty, students need to be convinced of the value of their investment. A 300-seat lecture hall where the professor doesn’t know their name isn’t enough. Students are hungry for personalization. They want to be seen and heard. They want to be connected to a world of possibilities and learn how to use their degree in real life.

College lecture hall seats

So, what if universities and colleges borrowed Williams-Sonoma’s marketing strategies?

Universities and lessons from life-stage marketing

Students want community and belonging. Academic institutions can meet those desires by becoming epicenters of unforgettable, high-value experiences. In short, they need to use data to put students at the heart of their institution.

Holistic views of the student journey

In Retail, every detail matters. Every step, from first glance to final purchase, is critical. Higher education institutions need to adopt a similar approach and embrace a holistic view of the student journey from pre-enrollment to alumni relations.

Building a student-centric universe

Academic institutions have a unique opportunity to craft personalized digital experiences with tools like AI and data analytics. Salesforce, a customer relationship management (CRM) platform, empowers universities to build intimate 1:1 connections with their students, alumni, and donors. Unlike other technologies, Salesforce is flexible and can be molded to your institution’s unique needs. We’ve seen the impacts of technologies that don’t cater to an institution’s needs. Often, they are expensive to maintain, require endless concessions, and have the people who use them struggling to bypass their limitations.

Our team of experts, proficient in both higher education and Salesforce, understands these challenges. We work with you to understand the experience you aim to deliver— and configure Salesforce to achieve exactly that. We don’t focus on technology. We shine a light on your goals and students to transform your institution into a hub of innovation, value, and unforgettable experiences.

From cradle to legacy in Higher Education

Our digital footprints speak volumes. They have profound insights into who we are and what matters to us. So, let’s take a closer look at how data and personalization can redefine the academic experience. To do that, we’ll examine how Williams-Sonoma, Inc. leverages Salesforce to architect experiences that aren’t just beneficial, but crucially relevant.

Students working on campus

The Beginning – From birth to prospective student

The student journey to college is more like a family heirloom than a sudden decision at application time. It’s like that old sweater from Gran, but with less mothball smell and more alma mater pride. Some students grow up listening to stories of epic college adventures. And then there are the self-starters, doing their homework on colleges—chatting up mentors and playing educational matchmaker for themselves.

Our Marketing Director is a die-hard Auburn fan. She’s been planning her daughter’s college journey since, well, probably before her daughter could spell ‘university’. And guess what? She’s not the only one with a college legacy wish list.

Picture Thanksgiving dinners across the country:

“When I was at [insert your university here], we didn’t have smartphones, we had to actually talk to people. You should go there.”

It’s critical to keep that natural momentum going. With the right technology and data strategy, you can do more than update past students. You can show them how your intuition is changing and growing while maintaining the values that made it attractive in the first place. Williams-Sonoma, Inc. understands the value of the pre-purchase journey and actively plants seeds to inspire their future and current customers.

Early Years

Mother holding baby

Life-stage marketing and a lesson for Higher Education

Williams-Sonoma, Inc., understands life’s transitions. It is like a massive family tree with branches consisting of brands like Pottery Barn, West Elm, and Pottery Barn Kids, each with its own data fruits. It’s more than a home and kitchenware brand, it’s a marketing powerhouse and life stage curator.

Now, imagine you’re single or newly married. You’re eyeing some chic West Elm furniture for your apartment, or maybe creating a Pottery Barn wedding registry that screams “adulting.” Fast forward a bit, and you’re expecting. Suddenly, Pottery Barn Kids is more than cute, it’s essential for that dreamy nursery. Williams-Sonoma, Inc. sees you shifting gears in life and they’re right there, shifting with you. Because they have the right tools and data strategy in place, it’s as if they have a crystal ball for your lifestyle changes.

Now, let’s flip this script to higher education.

Play the long game with alumni and their offspring. Now, imagine a CRM filled with alumni data, ripe for crafting tailored experiences. For instance, a family day on campus, and there’s an email or a text pinging in the alumni’s inbox, making them feel like part of the university family again.

In short, it’s about planting those seeds of brand loyalty early. By creating experiences, sparking nostalgia, you’re not just an institution, you’re a part of their life story. That’s what Williams-Sonoma gets right. And, it’s a winning approach you can bring to your student engagement strategy.

Transition to Higher Education

From teen dreams to college goals

teen wearing a backpack

As kids morph into teenagers, their tastes evolve. They move on from Pottery Barn Kids to Pottery Barn Teen— like jumping from high school to college. This is where your institution can swoop in and use your CRM (Customer Relationship Management) systems not just as a database, but as a single source of truth to craft targeted, compelling communications that hit the mark. Imagine a high schooler, knee-deep in specialized programs, already eyeing colleges that offer the best fit for their passion. Or a gifted athlete, scanning the horizon for universities where they can shine both academically and on the field. These aren’t just prospective students—they’re young individuals with dreams, goals, and questions.

This is where you can be proactive. You don’t wait for these students to knock on your campus doors. Instead, you bring the campus to them. They may be years away from their first college lecture, but in your CRM, they’re already part of the campus community. By nurturing these relationships early, answering their queries, showcasing what sets your institution apart, you light their imaginations with the possibilities that await.

You’re not just selling an education—you’re igniting a desire, a sense of belonging, making them feel, “This is where I need to be.” It’s a strategy that’s about long-term engagement, not short-term enrollment. You’re building a bridge from their teenage dreams right to the heart of your institution, paving the way for a seamless transition when the time comes.

The College Years – Student to alumnus

Williams-Sonoma is more than high-end cookware and furniture. They’re a data powerhouse. Take their Wine Club, for example, or the mouth-watering recipes and home inspiration splashed across their website and social media.

Artichoke and chicken recipe on a plate with jalapenos

This isn’t random. It’s strategic, cooked up from a 360-degree view of their customers. Williams-Sonoma doesn’t just sell products, it curates experiences that resonate, inspire, and make people want to open their wallets.

Now, let’s translate this to higher education.

Data on students, alumni, and donors is like gold dust. It enables them to deliver the right message to the right person at the right time. Imagine future athletes getting pumped up by dynamic photos of campus sports events, videos of top-notch fitness facilities, and a sneak peek into campus nutrition.

Fitness center and equipment

And alumni engagement? It’s more than asking for donations; it’s about sparking a connection. A biologist alum? Show them how their donation could rejuvenate old labs and kindle the dreams of students walking the path they once did. Higher education needs to see itself as more than just a degree. It’s an experience that starts way before matriculation and extends far beyond graduation. When universities start seeing the big picture—the possibilities aren’t just wide—they’re practically endless.

Student engagement and retention

Enrolling a student is just the opening scene of a much larger story. The real goal: Retention—ensuring that students not only stick around but truly flourish. This is where a deep understanding of each student’s story is key—their academic successes and struggles, their passions, and even their challenges like homesickness or a longing for community.

Think of your campus as a vibrant hub of experiences waiting to be discovered.

  • Are students overwhelmed by too many club choices?
  • Are they dealing with nutritional challenges?
  • Or, the complexities of off-campus living?

These moments of friction are where insightful data analysis becomes invaluable. Salesforce empowers you to map out each student’s journey—to spot challenges and opportunities and use data to craft personalized solutions and proactive campaigns. It’s more than a database or a marketing tool, it enables you to deeply understand the nuanced needs of your students and alumni.

Williams-Sonoma, Inc. doesn’t just sell products—they create immersive, emotionally resonant experiences for their customers, backed by data and a solid Salesforce framework. In higher education, this translates into staging memorable digital experiences that resonate on a deeper, more personal level. In short, nurturing those emotional ties that elevate a campus from an educational institution to a fondly remembered, beloved second home.

The Alumni Phase – Engagement and philanthropy

Alumni engagement is about forging lasting, meaningful connections. This is where strategies like those used by Williams-Sonoma, Inc., come into play. The goal? To keep alumni informed and genuinely connected to their school. Graduation shouldn’t signal the end of a student’s relationship with their university.

Woman wearing graduation cap

Alumni are treasure troves of resources—time, money, wisdom, and networks. Keeping the lines of communication open is vital if you hope to tap into this wealth. And this is where personalized outreach like emails and SMS shines. Universities can invite alumni to be motivational voices for current students, participate in boards, engage in fundraising events, and contribute to causes that resonate with them. Salesforce is the engine of engagement here, enabling targeted, meaningful interactions without overwhelming spam or redundant messages. The strategy respects and values your alumni donor, acknowledging their contributions with personalized thanks while giving them opportunities to stay actively involved, at their own pace.

Williams-Sonoma, Inc. sets a brilliant example in customer engagement.

They keep customers hooked with special offers, in-store and virtual events, product recommendations based on past purchases, and personalized holiday and birthday offers. Their approach is a masterclass in staying connected without overstepping. They’re proactive, yet respectful, aiming to serve the evolving needs and interests of their customers. In essence, the key is to mirror this approach in alumni relations—staying top of mind, being tactful, and continuously demonstrating the value and relevance of the institution in their lives. And when done right, this approach transforms alumni from former learners to lifelong members of a thriving community.

The Legacy – Philanthropic impact and remembrance

Old wealthy woman wearing pearl earrings

Legacy Giving

In the big picture of alumni relations, legacy giving is a symbol of enduring loyalty and commitment. In retail, it’s similar to customer lifetime value (CLV), where long-term engagement and contributions are deeply valued and celebrated. Consider the alumni who have journeyed with the institution through thick and thin. They’ve contributed not just financially but also through active participation, significantly shaping the campus and community culture. As they enter their twilight years, it’s more than just about acknowledging their contributions. You want to celebrate their legacy and bring them into initiatives that enable them to leave a lasting mark.

Customer Lifetime Value (CLV)

In retail, customers with high lifetime value are segmented into an exclusive group that receives special attention, unique offers, and highly personalized content.

Salesforce mascot and a woman shopping on her phone

Similarly, in higher education, alumni who have shown lifelong dedication should be recognized in a special way. They are not just donors—they are vital chapters in your institution’s story. The key is to honor and share their stories, to inspire current and future students. Salesforce enables you to use data to create a space where these alumni feel seen, heard, and appreciated. This not only encourages them to continue their support but also cements their role as lifelong ambassadors. Legacy giving is more than a financial transaction—it’s a celebration of a relationship built over decades—involvement, and advocacy that transcends the individual.

Strategic alumni donor engagement

Salesforce is a powerful tool for donor engagement. It helps institutions gain deep insights into alumni trajectories and identify those who are on the path to becoming legacy givers. Through Salesforce Marketing Cloud, universities can effectively segment these potential legacy donors into specialized groups. This segmentation enables a more tailored approach to communication, so messages resonate more deeply with each individual on their preferred channels, be it through email, social media, or even direct mail. Salesforce empowers institutions to inspire and acknowledge donors.

Women working on a laptop in an office

It can help universities share stories of past successful giving and a glimpse into the tangible impacts of these donations. This story-driven approach not only celebrates the contributions of alumni but also motivates others to follow. Lastly, Salesforce can be used to create and deliver personalized messages, with video content to express genuine gratitude. These personalized acknowledgments go a long way in showing alumni that their contributions are not just valued but are making a difference.

Crafting a lifelong academic journey with Salesforce

The journey of a student from prospective applicant to an engaged alumni is not just a series of steps but a continuous, evolving story. It reflects the changes in an individual’s life. Salesforce enables this journey, transforming how institutions understand and inspire individuals through different life stages. To learn more, speak to our team.

Achieve your business goals with SaltClick

Get in touch to learn more about our Salesforce solutions and how we can help you.

Medium length section heading goes here

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Suspendisse varius enim in eros elementum tristique.