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Episode #7

A view of higher ed from a digital design and marketing agency

Featuring Kevin Renton Principal at eCity Interactive
A view of higher ed from a digital design and marketing agency
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In This Episode

You’ll hear from Kevin Renton who is Principal at eCity Interactive, a digital design and marketing agency based in Philadelphia.

You'll hear him talk about:

  • the different forms of personalization and how to best attain it
  • an agency view of enrollment marketing
  • how COVID has forever changed this industry (for the better!)
Kevin Renton

Episode Transcript

[00:00:00] Host: You're listening to filling seats, the state of enrollment, marketing, and higher ed. Hosted by StudentBridge. In this podcast. You'll learn, what's working to grow shape and sustain enrollment. At colleges and universities directly for marketers thought leaders and ed tech innovators, because anyone can design a brochure, but not anyone can fill seats.

[00:00:30] Host: Welcome to episode seven of filling seats. In this episode, you'll hear from Kevin Renton, principal at east city interactive. Uh, digital design and marketing agency based in Philadelphia. You'll hear him talk about the different forms of personalization and how to best attain it.

[00:00:49] Host: An agency view of enrollment marketing. And how covid has forever changed this industry for the better let's meet kevin

[00:00:57] Kevin Renton: My name's Kevin Robinson. I am the principal of ECT interactive, which is a digital agency based in Philly, but I'm obviously not from Philadelphia. I grew up in Scotland and Greek Claudia went to university and. I did accountancy I'm information management. I can remember sitting there for my fourth year tax law classroom.

[00:01:19] Kevin Renton: Wow. I'm going to have to do this for three years. so that was tough. but yeah, graduate there and I moved them to London. I actually graduated in the middle of a recession and it was pretty tough in Scotland for opportunities. So we've been to London, worked in recruitment for our violent financial services.

[00:01:33] and then I moved to Canada. And started my own business and started publishing a magazine. I always had a love of content, love of newspapers, magazines, print, the actual creation of content. So yeah, I created a, an arts magazine for four or five years.

[00:01:49] and that was a lot of fun. We actually, when we first started it. we started it as a, as an online magazine. we made so many UX choices and decisions back in the nineties when websites were crazy. But it was a real fun thing in the sense of SEO is not a big thing back then Google and the algorithm and how that worked.

[00:02:08] yeah, it was a real learning curve into that

[00:02:10] Kevin Renton: world, but we couldn't get

[00:02:11] Kevin Renton: advertised and we couldn't monetize it. So when we first started online, we quickly then turned it into a print magazine and we were still advertising budget there. Moved to Montreal, met my wife in Montreal, but then moved back to Scotland.

[00:02:25] but my wife is from cite charities. She's from Philadelphia. so when we came back from Scotland and moved back to Philly, I wanted to get into the sort of agency world. I started off, an agency called Delphic, which got bought and became hero digital. and then I joined ECG interact.

[00:02:42] so ECE partner, larger media group, center city film with video is the largest film production company in Philadelphia. variant VR does all the virtual reality work stage seed production, those original programming, the we're, the digital agency part of the media group. and when I started off six years, seven years ago, we were a technology

[00:03:01] Kevin Renton: production shop. We built websites, but.

[00:03:04] Kevin Renton: Our clients weren't coming to us anymore. And CN, can you build us a website? They were coming to us saying, Hey, we need more donors. We need more students need more leads. We need more customers. And yes, the digital experience was part of that. but they were looking for their final KPI.

[00:03:18] so we became, we started moving towards customer experience for demand gen type patient. We signed up for HubSpot early doors, drank the Kool-Aid, did content marketing. We love HubSpot. We're still a partner agency. and that was our sort of real introduction to, and buying them. We really embraced it as an agency.

[00:03:37] Kevin Renton: There was. And the agency that I have, I think big part impact for us warden was environment. but the other role is from we hired Lynn Martin to be your head of UX or how to design. She'd worked at IBM and been involved there and bringing in design, thinking into IPM. And she really bought the culture of design thinking, the methodology of design thinking, not only in.

[00:04:00] Kevin Renton: Our client work that we did, but also how we make decisions and how we do things within the agency. that's where we are now, the type of clients that we worked with. So back when we were a tape production shop, we built websites for everybody. but when we started then working with clients more about their acquisition of students or customers, we felt that we had to really know.

[00:04:20] Kevin Renton: The industry's better. So we were then first okay, what verticals are we going to focus on? So we'd done a lot of our best work in higher ed. And we had done tests that knowing that case studies would be the most important thing. so it was higher ed B2B. Clients that we work with. But a lot of that time we worked in the donor relations or did a lot of donor relations, alumni relations websites.

[00:04:43] Kevin Renton: So we built website for their campaign. We did a lot of donor websites for U Penn, which was a lot of fun. But as we grew that part of the higher the business, we actually went out and we. We hired Tom Kettleman and Kate, they both came from temple. Tom used to be head of admissions and head of marketing from temple.

[00:05:02] Kevin Renton: So we brought higher ed people into the business and fused that sort of higher ed experience with our technical.

[00:05:10] Host: Are you working with, a lot of different types of schools?

[00:05:13] Kevin Renton: we've worked with community colleges. We've actually just signed, I think it's foresight community college. So yeah, the community college market's changing, they're becoming more active. We've done schools within bigger schools, colleges themselves.

[00:05:28] we've done some big university designs as well, but yeah, I don't think we're pigeonholed to the sort of Ivy leagues we've done. We've done it from the whole full gamut and everyone has different requirements and

[00:05:38] Kevin Renton: effort markets. They're going after different budgets.

[00:05:41] How much work are you doing in the enrollment and student recruitments?

[00:05:45] Kevin Renton: Just under 50% of our work is HireRight. The other 50% is B2B. And even it's funny because we know the space while there a lot. The B2B work is higher. Ed adjacent and working with vendors either work in the higher ed space or are running high rec processes as well.

[00:06:04] Kevin Renton: But over the time when we hired Tom, Kate and also hired well from temple, we moved away from the donor relations and they moved into more of a. Yeah, recruitment marketing enrollment

[00:06:15] Kevin Renton: markets.

[00:06:16] Kevin Renton: Tom describes it as the, the middle of the final. we do some brand marketing, but it's more the technical part of bringing a student from, the application through that funnel, through whichever marketing technology stack we're using and those different touch points to them admitting.

[00:06:31] Kevin Renton: But it's interesting. Our services now even developed even more. it's not published a lot on the website, but we're now actually doing recruitment services

[00:06:40] Kevin Renton: team of full recruiters in the agency. And we're actually working with clients now taking their students right from the attraction awareness to them actually starting at university.

[00:06:51] and we're actually doing that recruitment piece as a separate, so that's something new that we've started. Tell me a little bit about volt. What is it, where did it come from?

[00:06:59] Kevin Renton: So as an agency, we obviously signed up for HubSpot in by market Tang and we really. We really went to time with the blog on the agency's, website. and it was super successful and, but one of the things was that we were doing all the right and we were doing all the creating and there's we were doing it well, we're starting to build a community up with higher ed markers, hide it.

[00:07:22] Or as high tech professionals. We wanted to start our own magazine, really, for the sense of we could invite people onto the platform. and then they could dry and really build that community. We've got a formal mission. It's pretty straight laced. It was like volt was bought, was founded on the notion that we'll be sharing our individual beliefs, successes, and failures.

[00:07:41] Kevin Renton: We collectively raise the level of marketing game across higher education, but really we just wanted to have fun and hang out with our friends and like stuff. but it's and her husband a lot of fun, like obviously I published the magazine in Canada. And I love the whole expedience of publishing or creating a magazine because it is, there's so many communities that you build.

[00:08:01] there's so much that goes on in the process of creating that content and creating those connections that, yeah, we've really enjoyed it. And we've got some great contributors. so it's been a really fun and rewarding experience for us.

[00:08:15] Host: . do you want to talk a little bit about challenges that you see some of your higher ed clients face?

[00:08:21] I think one of the big one that you just can't get away from at the moment is the war for talent.

[00:08:25] Kevin Renton: I think it's, every time it comes up through COVID, and it's been a knock on effect from a number of things. Legacy businesses are digitally transforming everything. So if you think of any industry , it might even be print on demand or printing swag, they're all digitalized and change.

[00:08:45] Kevin Renton: And that then suck of talent to do that. Is impacting other industries and its impact in higher ed. you hire somebody, they might be a Salesforce specialist, a marketing automation specialist. You've trained them up for two years and now they're super valuable and they go and take those transferable skills in the market and higher ed can compete on certain aspects in that employment brand.

[00:09:07] Kevin Renton: And I think that's the real challenge because now it's the case of, okay, we know what we want to do. We know what the enrollment marketing looks like, but how do we get it? Or how do we actually set something up? That's going to be a factor for us. And that'll be an interesting challenge over the next year.

[00:09:25] Kevin Renton: It's actually, it's an opportunity for agencies. Like you say, because I think historically before COVID. The universities were really building up their own internal marketing teams and their enrollment teams. And now as they struggle with not talent, the balance, and there always is a pendulum that swings back and forward.

[00:09:44] Kevin Renton: Do we work with an agency? if we need to create some form of enrollment markets on, Germany, , I actually need six people, but I only have the budget for two. And those two people don't have the skills to do everything. I need to six people to D what I do. I think that's the challenge that I see in a lot of marketing teams in higher ed.

[00:10:05] Kevin Renton: I think one of the things I see coming in as well, personalization's a real big thing . We see all the RFPs for new websites and we're going through a cycle. I think the data's there. And we did a survey at the backend of last year with students. The data's is there that your website is your first research point.

[00:10:27] Kevin Renton: So people are coming on. Is that your first point of digital experience with you as an institution? So the schools have reacted to that because I think it's pretty much set at the date as they are, and people can recognize that. And so they're building their digital experience. And one of the things I think is new to them is personalization.

[00:10:46] Kevin Renton: But the tough thing with personalization that you can see the markers going. Okay, what does this mean for me? If I doing to then generate more content, like if I go international students come into my website, stopping students, coming into my website, undergrads grads, geo targets. how am I personalizing that?

[00:11:05] Kevin Renton: we're seeing that come in, but it's a challenge.

[00:11:07] Host: . So in spite of all of these challenges, what are some positives that you see your higher ed clients have.

[00:11:14] I think COVID really. Accelerate the change. Institutions in the past, they got their Les from SCTs, whatever. They got a list of students that they were after.

[00:11:24] Kevin Renton: And then they were bombarding kids with emails that went away. And I think it was great. I think it actually allowed the market teams to go, okay. How are we going to create an environment journey? How are we going to create a personalized journey? And I think it gave them agency to actually go in and start talking about the journey of home they wanted it to be.

[00:11:47] but I think there's some innovative, there's other,touch points, like tactical things that I think have been really fun. I love the fact that QR codes have come back.

[00:11:55] I remember utilizing them at events

[00:11:58] Host: and having to explain to people. , okay. All you have to do is you go to the app store and you search QR code and you download an app and then you scan it in.

[00:12:06] Host: And now it's just like native in the phone why wasn't it like this the whole time?

[00:12:11] Kevin Renton:

[00:12:11] Kevin Renton: And I think again, accelerated by cooling and just getting into like habit. When you go into a restaurant, you just use them

[00:12:19] Kevin Renton: habitual usage, just accelerate the use of both.

[00:12:22] Host: in your work with some of your clients, do you see a disconnect between those frontline marketers and some of the executives at institutions?

[00:12:33] Kevin Renton: Here's the thing I think it's always been there. I don't think that it's new. And I think that,I can remember. I went into GW and I was talking to their head of market and their engineering school. It was like three or four years ago. And, we were talking about the marketing team and she was like, oh, it's just me.

[00:12:52] I'm the only person in marketing communications. And we were laughing because we were then talking about the university of Michigan. And at the time there was a guy called Dan Kim. He worked there. he had a team of 25 people. And I think it's just the culture of the school that you're at.

[00:13:06] Kevin Renton: I think everything's different. some beans provosts are very receptive and open to, having the communication with the marketing teams and some are more traditional. What we'll see is that going back to. I would experience with design thinking. And I think this is one of the challenge that higher ed markers have.

[00:13:24] Kevin Renton: If you were developing a product or a service. With an a, with a commercial company that was smaller and more connected to its market. You would be able to feed back and the texts or the results from your marketing or your admissions team would be able to feed back the results from their conversations and maybe change the product depending on those tests.

[00:13:48] Kevin Renton: Does that happen in higher education? I don't think it does. Here's one of the challenges, but some of the schools, I think that. The online skills are Arizona state, Southern New Hampshire WGU. They're actually using design thinking principles and the dead back in the day, they start like Google or, the tech firms and went, okay, how can we best give the students what they want and meet them where they really need?

[00:14:19] Kevin Renton: And you can go on and on and retail, Arizona state use design thinking and their different skills Heisley really shaped the product or the. The education experience and that gave the markers a chance to actually feed into that and go, Hey, this is some people are reacting to our markets or the admissions team.

[00:14:37] Kevin Renton: This is what the students are saying to us. Let's do this. That's a match rather than just pushing something on. for any marketer that's has that disconnect try and get design thinking into your institution. I'm sure your teams will appreciate it. Cause it's. It's based in academic rigor.

[00:14:54] Kevin Renton: And if you can get on debate, buy into that culture or philosophy, or definitely empower you,

[00:14:59] have you,

[00:15:00] Host: seen any really creative or unique approaches that some of your schools that you've worked with or clients are taking that, are, moving the needle

[00:15:08] the personalization is the one that people are really struggling with or moving on. And it's a case of, to do that, you need to first step back and look at your student journey. I see the universities now doing for our commercial clients are Dionne.

[00:15:24] Kevin Renton: Do we have personas? Do we have archetype personas that we're marketing to nor yes. Let's get them documented St. Journey and all the points that they're going to top somewhere. Okay. We don't want, let's map that out. And let's actually map the content in these touches. And when you start seeing UNIV actually doing that, you start actually seeing students or actually start to meet the students where they are.

[00:15:49] Kevin Renton: So whether that's on bread or, other platforms where the students want to be met or want to have, conversations, then that's great. And there's products. There's things like now, chatbots or new geckos, one uni bodies', one's a peer to peer,allowing the students to actually have access, to find that as much information as they can online.

[00:16:08] Kevin Renton: I think that's really addressing the schools and brings it back as opposed to things.

[00:16:13] Host: can you define for me personalization and how you see it coming into play? Because just in the first few episodes that we've had, I think.

[00:16:23] Host: enrollment, marketers. Widely different views of personalization from putting a first name on a piece of communication to, custom landing pages and 250 unique communication plans.

[00:16:38] Kevin Renton: Yeah, I think you have to start small and depending on your team or even create. So if you're, if your platform has just put in the first name, that's an individual summit, that's what you can do. Great. The data's out there that if you do personalize things will convert more. So for me, I think.

[00:16:55] Kevin Renton: What do they mean he does that you can quickly have impact for personalization is on your website. And there are a number of things that you can do to actually personalize that it could be geo-targeted. It could be somebody that's had multiple visits. It could be somebody that has downloaded something or interacted with your website.

[00:17:13] Kevin Renton: And you knew specifically that they're interested in one course that they've applied to one course. if they're interested in engineering five, when they come to your website, are you giving them content about. and I think then if you think your

[00:17:25] Kevin Renton: personalization, when you go to Netflix or you go to Amazon, I think we all enjoy a certain level of personalization and our digital experience.

[00:17:35] Kevin Renton: So how can we get in the digital experience when people come to interact with us through university's websites? it's funny, one of the things, one of the things is the demographic. That is there, it's like the elephant in the room,

[00:17:49] okay. The student population is going to go down, which then leads you to do a number of things.

[00:17:55] Kevin Renton: You've then got to look at, okay, how do we engage the students that are here at the moment? And if you think that the completion rate and you never actually is, and for four years in the UX, it's 60%. So it's not great, but it leaves that pool of students of okay, how do we get them back to this?

[00:18:14] Kevin Renton: That's going to require a personalized experience. You can't market to the stock. The students that are left with two years or three years credits to get them back to graduate. They're not going to walk the same. So there's going to need some personalization there, personalization for international students.

[00:18:32] Kevin Renton: If somebody's coming from India, China, the middle east they're going to come to your website is a first. You're going to know that, from an IP address where the Archie target let's give them experience in the content you want. and I think that's the kind of thing that I would be picking up first.

[00:18:49] can you personalize that digital platform, your front door.

[00:18:53] Host: One of the questions that we had was about, the shrinking population of students who are aging into college. How do you think it'll affect different schools?

[00:19:05] Kevin Renton: I think some schools might clause. I think the schools that are in cities we'll just do just fine. I think the demographics. Population. They like coming to cities, the, like the experience of the city experience. So these schools will just roll through it. I think the small liberal arts schools will we'll find it challenging,

[00:19:26] Kevin Renton: but I think that there are ways that, and again, I mentioned there's two pools that you can lose.

[00:19:32] Kevin Renton: Initially your international student recruitment and your dropouts and your stoplights, can you get them back or can you engage them when they're there to give them an experience that actually sees them through to the end? We did a, I did a project with a new startup. It's not launching called college.

[00:19:49] Kevin Renton: Me. That's a, it's a matching platform for an international. But I find that interesting because we did studies, we did some quantitative research and surveys, and we did some interviews that the marketing teams and the institutions are really hands off when it comes to that, the market time, internationally,

[00:20:08] Kevin Renton: all world, there were,

[00:20:10] Host: It's a completely outsourced

[00:20:12] Kevin Renton: They're using recruiters and paying crazy fees and just being like, oh, just give us the numbers and the bodies. And I do think that marketing teams should be having a serious discussion about, okay, we don't need to take it all on, but could we take on one country and learn, could we take on India?

[00:20:32] Kevin Renton: Could we take on them at least, or China and start doing some market in there and seeing the impact there? I think there's an opportunity.

[00:20:39] Host: .how do you see outsourcing and all of that playing a role in all the different areas of higher ed

[00:20:46] it's an it's inevitable, I think just the war for talent and how that's driving, that it gets into the RPA model. And like how much do you want, how much do you want in the LPN to actually create the curriculum for you or is a bundle service unbundled?

[00:21:03] I think the universe actually is we'll outsource things more and more just in the sense of they can't get a time. And in schools that they do that might fare better or have, or get an access to a talent pool that allows thing, but cheaper, the results that they want.

[00:21:17] Host: Do you see anything going back to the way it was pre COVID? Or do you think that it is forever changed?

[00:21:27] Kevin Renton: I think it's forever changed. And I think that, I think there's more change to come. I think the change has been slowed slightly. I think that. There are some things that I think the positives that will come back is just the positive experience of being on campus. I love being on university campus.

[00:21:47] Kevin Renton: My brother lectured it in Aberdeen, in Scotland. I used to love when he lectured there, I'd go and hang out and just be back on campus around the students. I've grown in that environment. It's exciting. It's fun. And that, that will come back. but. how education is delivered, the platforms that's delivered on how students want to consume it.

[00:22:08] what students actually want from the educational experience? yeah, I think it's changed and we'll keep changing.

[00:22:14] Host: So the majority of our listeners are enrollment marketers. what advice do you have for any of them listening or any of your knowledge that you just love to hear?

[00:22:24] Kevin Renton: I think, firstly, get your student journey or get your customer journey and map out. whether they're probably in this consideration decision made can try and keep and get that written down. So there's consensus across and then test things and have data. If you've got assumptions, it's some things fine to have opinions here.

[00:22:43] Kevin Renton: This is my opinion. And if that's all you've got great, that's what you have to go with. But if you can start getting data and start getting knowledge to back up, what's successful, then try and build that bank up and share it as widely as you can within the institution. So the institution has that knowledge and what's effective, and find playing channels that work for you.

[00:23:04] Kevin Renton: Like I don't, it's always a thing where if you want to. Start a specific channel or a specifically behind or specific artists, our brand, our RFI, whatever, then try it and just get the data and see if it works. And if it works, keep using it, it doesn't

[00:23:23] Host: There's so much just keeping up with the Joneses and higher ed that I think a lot of institutions are making decisions, not necessarily based on what works or what doesn't, but we have to do this because our competitor is also doing.

[00:23:37] Kevin Renton: , but that's the thing. If you have the data and if there's so much of the journey is going online now, then you'll have the data to see what works for what, and it can be a simple things as Hey, with Riley's adverts, what was the click through rate ports industry site? What's our buying tree on pages.

[00:23:54] Kevin Renton: Okay. That didn't work is the user experience on the page. Are the students getting to where they want to get or where we want them to get and find. And then you start building that picture up of the journey and, shoot Bridget guys, two tours or online tours. the actual campus tour was always, it was almost a premium experience when it came to that journey.

[00:24:16] Kevin Renton: Like it was almost like if the student gets to the tour, there are real leads

[00:24:20] Kevin Renton: and again, and if that's still is the case online, then you have it and identifying those students some way. So you can then interact with them at that moment when they want to be interacted to get over the line with us.

[00:24:35] Kevin Renton: If it's a student that you want to go to your institution,

[00:24:38] Host: Where can our listeners find you online if they'd like to connect with you?

[00:24:42] if you want to get me, you can find me on LinkedIn. If you really want to get me, probably want to find me in federal donuts and Sunday morning. And having a coffee with my little daughter or the Philadelphia union what's in the soccer. so if you really want to find when you get in most places, but you'll get in like 10.

[00:25:02] Host: thank you So much. This was such a great interview.

[00:25:04] Kevin Renton: So thanks for your time. It's really appreciated.

[00:25:09] Host: thank you for listening to the filling seats podcast, hosted by student bridge. If you'd like to connect with this episode's guest. Check out the show notes. If you enjoyed this episode, please leave a rating and review and don't forget to subscribe. For more information about the podcast or to let us know, you'd like to be a guest.

[00:25:29] Host: Visit student bridge.com/podcast. Thanks for listening