Think like retailers – Why Universities must embrace Big Data to attract and retain students



With higher education now seen as a right, not a privilege, particularly since the introduction of student fees, attracting and retaining students is the key issue for universities. David Green, says that our universities can learn from the major retailers.

The business environment for UK universities has changed dramatically in recent years and I use that word advisedly, because higher education is now a business, charging for its services and therefore subject to the same customer expectations as any other profit making entity.

With charging has come responsibility, most noticeably the responsibility to treat students like customers, who need to be attracted, nurtured and maintained. This demands a real change in mindset amongst UK universities and, in my view, our higher education establishments can learn a lot from the major retailers who have got customer segmentation, targeting and retention down to a fine art.

Our universities must effectively become retailers of education, operating in a cost-conscious, ultra-competitive environment in which the consumer (ie. the student), can quickly switch allegiance to another brand if he or she does not feel sufficiently ‘loved’. In March 2016 Saxion University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands invested in SAP hybris commerce, an e-commerce platform used by many successful retailers. Using SAP hybris, Saxion creates new income streams reaching existing and new target groups, treating them like customers. This change in mindset must embrace each aspect of the customer, or student journey down the funnel to purchase and beyond into retention.

Let’s take attraction for a moment. Our universities have traditionally used The Times League Tables and UCAS prospectuses to attract students. But, in the modern world, in which overseas students (whose fees are, crucially, not capped) are a key target segment, these traditional marketing methods are redundant. However, this focus on overseas students brings with it problems, namely retention. If an overseas student leaves mid-term, the university cannot recruit another student for a year, which impacts the income stream. Any business wants to protect its income stream and universities should be no different. The retailers responded by giving us card points and universities need to embrace similar CRM technology. I’m not suggesting that the University should issue a store card offering 2 for 1 at the bar on a Friday evening, but there are other things that can be done. For example, the SAP hybris Omni-channel platform enables universities to collect data about millions of students, including email address, Twitter, Facebook and even areas of interest, which can be used for targeted marketing campaigns. With hybris it is possible to target potential engineering students in China or future doctors in India.

With data analysis it is possible to identify ‘hot button’ topics for individual students, target them with a Facebook campaign that drives them to a landing page or webinar and track how they journeyed to you, through an email, Google search or social media campaign. With the Saxion University example, itelligence has been working to utilise the hybris platform to market and sell courses online, in a not dissimilar way to Amazon, for mature students looking to take evening classes. Big Data also has a role in student retention. SAP HANA is capable of handling millions of records in seconds, which means informed decisions can be made very quickly, in a matter of minutes. Those records could include door-entry systems and virtual learning environments, which generate data that can be quickly analysed, highlighting poor attendance or the fact that a student has not logged onto their virtual learning site for three weeks. Again, early intervention driven by the analysis of Big Data is key to protecting the income stream. Crucially, Big Data can also help with compliance. A university’s ability to issue visas to foreign students is subject to audit, which means institutions need to be able to prove that students have attended lectures and have not just disappeared.

SAP HANA also enables you to spot trends, such as the reduced engagement of students who live more than 30 miles away from campus. This means that interventions can be made quickly in order to keep the student on board. In the modern world, higher education has become globalised. Overseas students are now highly prized by British universities, and British students will increasingly go overseas to learn. The key is attraction and retention, and Big Data, which can be activated using technology like SAP HANA, lies at the heart of the solution.

The itelligence Conference 2016, ‘Making Digital Real’, will discuss BIG Data, The Internet of Things and Predictive Analytics that are all driving digital transformation. With 30 presentations and 5 streams, the event is being held at 155 Bishopsgate on 17th May 2016.

For further information and to register for the event please go to


Author: Dave Green

Principal Solution Architect at itelligence




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