Colleges get to know their audience

Personalized marketing strategies grab the attention of donors and alumni

No doubt you have received a wall or desk calendar from your alma mater. Such calendars often feature campus scenes that trigger memories of student days.

Recently, my wife, a second-grade teacher, received a desk calendar unlike any I had seen before, from a nonprofit education group she supports. What caught my attention was that the calendar’s front cover featured my wife’s first name; so did each month. Every page featured a photograph with an object designed around her name.

One month had wooden building blocks stacked and arranged to spell her name. Another showed a bundle of yellow No. 2 pencils, each embossed with her name.

I was struck by the way this organization used the simplicity of a calendar to market its branding messages while incorporating the member’s name in big, bold letters throughout.

Welcome to the new world of personalization—one of the fastest-growing trends in corporate and nonprofit marketing.

For higher ed philanthropy or advancement communications, personalization is one of the best opportunities we have to engage our donors. Just as Amazon and Netflix have personalized the user experience, we too must develop personalized communication and marketing experiences.

Web and digital

According to Adobe’s 2017 Digital Marketing Study, 62 percent of organizations are using automated personalization for the web. This is up a whopping 51 percent since 2016. And for mobile, the growth is even more profound. Fifty-six percent of organizations are using automated personalization for mobile—up 115 percent since 2016.

Increasingly, these constituents will look for personalized experiences when visiting our philanthropy and alumni websites. The more personal the messaging and images, the greater the opportunity we have to drive alumni engagement and philanthropic support.

Obviously, to improve website personalization strategies we must better mine the analytical data of our website users. This allows the philanthropy, alumni and advancement offices to better tailor messages to users.

Website personalization can lead to greater online giving. Also, various CRM programs—when connected with a website—can aid with personalization as the once anonymous visitor becomes an identified, named person.


Institutions can offer personal attention to constituents by integrating video on multiple channels including social media and stand-alone productions. Both quantitative and qualitative research have shown that personalized video is an effective means of reaching specific audiences.

In personalized video, viewer details such as names and class year are incorporated in scenes automatically and at scale. In a recent personalized campaign, one university’s advancement department experienced more than a 70 percent click-through-to-open rate. The previous video campaign without personalization had only reached 20 percent.


Email as a marketing tool is making a strong comeback with personalization.

Besides simply adding an individual’s name to the communication, successful email marketing campaigns take personalization to a higher level by sending birthday and anniversary shout-outs, announcements about specially discounted ticket offers, or special messaging for class or constituent groups.  


Advances in digital technology and easily accessible data now permit a world of opportunity to personalize letters, postcards, direct mail, booklets and brochures. Colleges and universities have been moving in this direction with their print marketing publications—especially for student recruitment.

For those of us who serve in a philanthropy or alumni communications capacity, we must be ready for this exciting outreach opportunity. 

Marc C. Whitt is director of philanthropy communications at University of Kentucky Philanthropy. Follow him on LinkedIn ( or Twitter (@marcwhitt). 


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