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In a recently released report entitled, The State of CRM Use in Higher Education Report, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions reveal that 64% of institutions surveyed, (total respondents were 604), now use Constituent (or Customer) Relationship Management (CRM) systems to manage some aspect of student lifecycle. As seen below, recruiting, admissions and alumni/development were the most common areas in which CRMs have been adopted across these schools.

CRM usage in higher ed


Definition of a CRM: Customer relationship management is a system for managing a company’s interactions with current and future customers. It often involves using technology to organize, automate and synchronize sales, marketing, customer service, and technical support.

64% percent seems to me to be a surprisingly modest adoption rate, but in light of the fact that in 2010/2011 CRM usage was only at approximately 34%, that figure represents some pretty strong growth. The marketing of higher ed specific CRMs, like Hobsons and Ellucian and the very public growth of web-based CRMs like Salesforce, have helped to educate and motivate the expansion of their use in our market (see a link at the bottom of the page for a fuller list).  I think that it is also probably safe to generalize and say that higher ed has matured quite a bit in recent years with respect to using business technology and productivity tools like CRMs to support and deliver its business objectives.

As the business of higher ed continues to mature and the competition for students continues to tighten, institutions will need to stay on this trajectory and continue to seek and adopt new business practices and tools from the larger business world that can improve their business effectiveness and productivity. If this assertion is in fact the case, what’s next on the horizon for higher ed marketing?

Enter Marketing Automation

Marketing automation tools have been around for quite a few years and are used today by a number of marketing-savvy colleges and universities – particularly on the private, for profit side. I haven’ t been able to locate a specific adoption rate for marketing automation in the higher education vertical, but if we assume it mirrors the general business environment for mid to large sized businesses, then it is probably somewhere between 8 and 10 %. That is still a pretty small percentage. The good news is that adopting marketing automation can provide a lot of opportunity for your school’s marketing department to find new competitive advantages in a very tough market. The marketing automation industry in general is exploding in growth right now, as businesses across all sectors get on board with these types of tools. The general market leaders, Hubspot and Marketo are leading this growth, and higher education market-specific tools like Educonverse and Sparkroom have emerged to address more and more of the unique characteristics in the higher ed vertical (see a link at the bottom of the page for an overview of the general MA market and software tools).

But let’s take a step back from tools for now and review exactly what marketing automation is, and talk about how it might be used within your recruitment marketing processes.

Definition of Marketing Automation: Marketing automation refers to software platforms and technologies designed for marketing departments and organizations to more effectively market on multiple channels online (such as email, social media, websites, etc.) and automate repetitive tasks. The use of a marketing automation platform is to streamline sales and marketing organizations by replacing high-touch, repetitive manual processes with automated solutions.

CRM and marketing automation tools are often confused as being roughly equivalent but in fact, are really quite different. Marketing automation is sometimes referred to as a subset of CRM but has evolved to address very different goals. Here is a helpful chart that describes the main differences between a CRM and a marketing automation platform.



Marketing automation tools are highly workflow oriented, and provide a platform with which to communicate with segments of your audience in a very personalized, yet automated fashion. Marketing automation tools are particularly well positioned to support inbound marketing activities. The graphic below highlights how marketing automation fits into the early lead generation and lead nurturing stages of the recruitment funnel, rather than the process of tracking the relationship with a prospective student from lead to registration like a CRM.

MA role in Recruitment Funnel


Marketing Automation tools first emerged in the late 90’s, focused on helping companies manage email marketing to their prospects and customers. Since then they have evolved significantly to incorporate a range of functionality focused on developing efficient ways to develop and nurture prospects online through the use of email, content marketing, social media marketing, landing pages and comprehensive analytics.

MA Functionality


Marketing automation tools perform the following functions:

  • Definition, segmentation, scheduling and tracking of marketing campaigns
  • Build automated workflows to reduce repetitive tasks associated with the marketing process
  • Nurture leads to become customers with personalized, useful content, touch points and tracking
  • Manage email, SMS and other social campaigns through deploying, tracking and ROI assessment
  • Provide development, testing  and integration of website calls to action, forms and landing pages for lead generation
  • Lead scoring to identify lead quality and follow-up priorities
  • Provide campaign analytics and ROI calculations

Marketing automation, in terms of both its emphasis on personalized content-driven lead generation and lead nurturing, fits very nicely into the process of lead generation and student recruitment in higher ed. The search process is heavily weighted online, the priorities of prospective students vary widely, the sales cycle can be quite long and can contain many touch points along the way. Marketing automation can also provide the analytical foundation higher ed needs to track campaigns and better manage the ROI on its scarce budget resources.

In short, a marketing automation tool can be quite a good fit with a college and university marketing department’s goals and general methodologies. When leveraged with a good CRM and student information system, marketing automation tools can help higher ed marketers push their existing systems to a higher level of customer engagement, marketing agility and ROI management. It will likely take a few more years, but marketing automation should follow a similar adoption curve to CRMs in higher ed and become a common feature in the higher ed marketer’s tool set.

Are you in the 10 percent of higher ed marketers already using a marketing automation tool? We would love to hear about your experiences selecting your tool and get your feedback on how it has impacted your department’s efficiency and results. What have you learned about marketing automation that you wish you had know when you first started out with it?

Additional resources:

Marketing Industry Automation Overview 

Higher Education Marketing is a Hubspot Certified Partner.