Data-driven innovation at the University of Notre Dame: an interview with Zach Richard

“That sounds like a great idea, but I’m not sure we have the time or resources to pull this off.”

That line is often said in reference to a new digital strategy or tactic in various marketing and communications departments. However, a small number of institutions are able to innovate and take a step forward through new tactics and strategies. One such institution is the University of Notre Dame.

I was fortunate to attend the Higher Education Web conference in Milwaukee this past month and saw Zach Richard, of Notre Dame, present on digital strategy. His talk — “Data-Driven Design and Digital Marketing Strategy” was extremely well attended and left most audience members in awe of the progress their team has been able to achieve. A few days after the conference, I visited Notre Dame and interviewed Zach about how he was able to invest this time and his resources, as well as more detail on the results that were achieved.

Like many digital marketers, Zach’s educational path wasn’t necessarily direct; earning his dual degree with the uncommon pairing of Biology (molecular genetics) and Computer Science. His history as a developer and his focus on analytics was a natural fit for his current role of Marketing Analyst.

At Notre Dame, an institution with an extremely strong brand and web traffic that leaves most marketers envious, there was initially a push to perform A/B testing in order to maximize the web experience for the tremendous amount of users. This is counter-current to most institutions where A/B testing is commonly used on landing pages as part of a larger pay-per-click campaign to drive traffic.

More specifically, they tested the placement of calls to action, web page layouts and styling, to see which scenarios performed best. As explained in his talk, the results showed increased conversions, click-through rates and user engagement.

More importantly, these results provided tangible business results, in the form of a stronger pool of applicants for their already fiercely competitive programs. Additionally, once they matched their A/B testing efforts with targeted digital advertising campaigns (AdWords, social media advertising) they achieved another organizational objective — diversity. A major priority for the institution, diversity in the student body has been positively increased as they have increased access and awareness for their programs in non-traditional recruitment markets.

For more on how they achieved these results, read Zach’s post on LinkedIn.

Being a centralized department, Zach and his team have worked with many different departments at Notre Dame as word of their successes has spread. With the demand for their services at Notre Dame increasing, business results are being produced throughout the institution.

This type of innovation has been fuelled not only by observing their competitors, but also by holding themselves to a higher standard and comparing themselves against major brands outside of Education, such as CNN.com, Weather.com and ESPN.com.

According to Zach “We’re a private university, so we can move a little more quickly than others in higher ed but we’re still behind the private sector.”

This attitude towards the competitive landscape is one that I hope more institutions adopt as it fosters a culture that is more inclined to innovate than to imitate best practices in the sector. This is an excellent example of how a few days of testing and innovation have created extraordinary gains across the many departments of their institution.

As for what he sees on the horizon Zach added that he will be focused on dynamic content and content personalization, using predictive analytics and data modelling.

“Online communications are changing, we have 400 websites on campus that are all specialized. We’ve got all this info about where (users) are going and cross-domain tracking. I think when you’re talking about serving up content or informing students, being able to serve up relevant information that you know they can use to make the most informed decision possible — that’s the future of education.”

After speaking with Zach and listening to his presentation, it is clear that the University of Notre Dame is a leader in digital marketing that I’ll be paying close attention to in the future.

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