The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic saw Monash University move swiftly toward delivering its courses and brand communications via online platforms and channels. CMO Fabian Marrone speaks to WARC about how data is at the core of the university’s larger mission to build out a highly personalised, yet integrated digital brand experience that is driven by compelling content.

Key insights

  • Look for the stress fractures in the brand experience and change the little things first.
  • There is no technology platform silver bullet, no CMS or CRM that is going to do everything.
  • Anything you put internally is eventually going to get out, so it must match with what you say externally.

This article is part of a Spotlight series on how brands in Australia can craft better digital experiences for consumers. Read more

As an education brand, how did Monash navigate the shift to online channels and platforms thanks to COVID-19?

We were pretty lucky. We had established in-country agencies that work across a lot of those core markets internationally – China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, and the UK. We have vehicles in these countries that can translate not just in language terms but the message to make it meaningful to the market of our brand, platform and campaign. We could communicate easily with those markets.

What that meant is when people couldn’t come to Australia to study internationally, we could find out exactly what courses we could deliver them online and send them a personalised programme, so they could continue their studies. We did that with the Chinese market before COVID-19 penetrated into the other markets, and then we did it with all international students.

Monash flipped every single course that we offered from in-person to online, which was a credit to the academics. We were using technology and infrastructure that we had previously tested in that environment. What we had to do was upskill a whole bunch of different people, and the academics were brilliant in doing so and using different channels that we weren’t previously utilising. We were in a good place from that perspective.

Our issue was that we weren’t quite at the point where everything was connected and integrated. Underneath it was all swimming, but on top, we were still adding pieces in.

How about the marketing and communications side of things?

All our marketing and communications is digital-first. We have done big bold moves like shift our spend away from spend on media buying to developing really good assets and content that people want to engage with. We don’t pay for eyeballs as much as others would. Our blend is very different.

We figure if you make great content, it’s going to get shared. That’s kind of our ethos. But, there were still many, many challenges, mostly in the communications side.

If we bucket what I do in four parts – there’s the reputation piece. It’s the communications and telling of the story and reputation of Monash University. A lot of that is developed through our podcast or documentary series or through our own. We have our own editorial team.

Then, there’s the conversion side, which is to bring more people in the Monash community or to convert people whilst they are in the Monash community. It might not be a financial conversion, it might be a conversion to sign up and mentor a current student if you are an alumnus. Or it might be, as an industry body or a corporate organisation, to host Monash students or to join a Monash or industry board. We’ve spent a lot of time mapping out all those conversions and that’s what we measure.

Then, there is the experience bucket, which is making sure that Monash gets those ‘handshake moments’ for legislation – there are things that we need to sign off and get approvals on. But there are also things that people want from their digital experience. So, making sure they align and it’s a seamless experience.

And the final piece is about the creativity and other parts. We have an ongoing project that is intended to bring all those pieces together and then support the delivery or the performance against those KPIs.

Fabian Marrone, CMO, Monash University

You’ve mentioned the work the team has done on building out its infrastructure and data models, could you share more about that?

I started a project when I arrived at Monash three and a half years ago, that was all about getting the data models right in terms of how we did segmentation. Then  we used that segmentation and foundation model to then decide what communications were needed to happen at what point in time.

We’ve got this theory that there is no technology platform silver bullet. There is no CMS or CRM that is going to do everything. So, let’s just stop looking for that fix and say, “we need all these pieces and tools to do this. Let’s get all that infrastructure built and then think of the journey as just content boxes.”

The system underneath either captures or serves the content that you need based on a conversation or based on what we call a nudge based on an interest or circumstance. The platform underneath doesn’t matter if we can get it out on top.

Three years on, the project is now a programme that has evolved and has turned into an ethos for all projects across the university. It's about how do we make sure that we're providing an individual community member with what they want from that experience and provides Monash what it needs from the experience.

People have taken that ethos into other projects. That is important because if we know universities, our structures can sometimes get in the way. We have people looking after various segments and must now attach it all together and deliver the same experience. If an individual is one of the 86 audience segments that we have, to ensure that they're receiving all the right content and information with no duplication.

What would you say were the key lessons learnt?

The one thing we got right was making sure that the focus was on the data model. The focus was on first exposing all the data points that you could report on or you could capture, and do so in a legal, ethical and secure way. And we have the tightest requirements on ethical and legal use of data. That's important to us because, from a marketing perspective, the worst thing you can do is send someone something they don't want and, they feel, is intrusive. Even if it's not legally incorrect, ethically, it's not the right use of data. They give you data for a specific use and that is what we use it for, even if that means we lose parts of contact lists.

Doing in-depth audience work, understanding your audience and catering to that, is important. Along with making sure there is consistency between those audiences and not isolating projects without consideration of other projects that exist.

The best example is a communication phrase I use often – we are in a world where you cannot assume that internal communications remain internal. Anything you put internally is eventually going to get out there, so it must match with what you say externally. Gone are the days when a brand could pretend to be something out there and be something else underneath.

Consistency is very important, and we saw that through the pandemic with many brands suggesting one thing externally and operating in a different way.

From a brand level, how would you describe Monash when it comes to your digital experience?

Our brand in our marketplace is really positioned around redefining what a university’s role is in the society. That has been a flavour that has stemmed through all our different content and creative as we've gone through from our acquisition right through to how we engage with people through the process.

Monash is the place that people come to create that real sense of change, be it supporting climate initiatives or changing your personal circumstances. It stems back to our roots as a 60-year-old institution that started as a farm, with a bit of a “roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-dirty” nature. We take that history seriously and it flows through everything we do creatively from a brand platform.

We talk constantly about being a modern university. We are not a 300-year-old brick-and-mortar institution. We are modern and that aligns back to our creative piece. So, if you’re going to say that you’re a modern university, you must provide a modern experience and engage with people wherever they are on the platforms that they're using, and in the ways in which they wish to use them.

We've probably set all that up in our marketing and communications infrastructure. Previously, we may have had disconnected elements of that in terms of a student piece because you've got 10 faculties; we also offer the most courses in Australia. Through COVID-19, we streamlined all of that to be online, all the forms and the student administration, all those pieces are now one connected piece, which stems into our full digital experience.

What do you hope to achieve this year in relation to your broader mission of delivering that consistent, personalised brand experience journey?

We are really focussed for Q1 on delivering this personalisation goal. Now, we've been talking about personalisation for four years. We've tested and tried it, demonstrated and shown it. We intend by Q2 for it to be fully visible in the most apparent way through the experience.

We've been able to show personalisation in so many different areas, but on that entire scale and consistency, probably not; not to the level that I would say is best in class. And I’ve seen where we are going to be in by the middle of the year and it is mind-blowing.

If you go to the Monash website, there are millions of pages of research from faculties in different areas. We intend for that part of the ecosystem, as well as the social pieces and everything else to be fully personalised to you in the most apparent way. That’s one piece I am quite excited about as it goes back to that ethos – I look at a website as a bunch of content boxes that can be served from anywhere – and the work we’re doing will bring it to life.

We also continue to make steps towards that global brand piece, which means breaking out of the sector in terms of how we bring content to market.

We are less about creating the TV advert. We are about creating that content platform, that call to action and that piece of change, which we have worked very closely with VMLY&R to curate and deliver in a meaningful way. We’re going to take that about 30 steps forward by the end of this year.

What would be your message to fellow marketers looking to level up their digital and brand experiences in these times?

I'd look for the stress fractures in the experience, and I would change the little things first, instead of trying to go for the big bang. You might be surprised how much a little change can be a big change on a dial.

Spend the time to understand the entire journey. Mapping out the data and understanding those little improvements you can make to delight someone in their experience, whether through personalisation or the right communication at the right time, I think is really important.

Now, more than ever, being able to show a level of support for the community which you engage with is incredibly important – be it a message of hope, or a more streamlined experience to save people time or to take away stress.