Discover the Secret to Scalable Marketing Success



How do you drive a 500% growth in student numbers at a non-profit, tuition-free university?

In this episode, Asaf Wolff, the SVP of Growth and Experience at the University of People, spills the beans on leveraging marketing automation and technology to revolutionize student recruitment and global outreach.

In this episode, you’ll discover…

  • The secret sauce behind reducing acquisition costs per student.
  • How personalized marketing funnels lead to skyrocketing enrollment rates.
  • Challenges faced during the integration of marketing automation tools.
  • The pivotal role of student satisfaction in driving word-of-mouth growth.
  • The strategies for maintaining a consistent brand message across diverse demographics.


Mentioned in this episode:


Voiceover: This is Performance Delivered, Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success with Steffen Horst and Dave Antil.


Steffen Horst: Welcome to the Performance Delivered Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success podcast, where we talk with marketing and agency executives and learn how they build successful businesses and their personal brand. I’m your host, Steffen Horst. In today’s episode, we’re going to talk about marketing automation and technology. 


Here to speak with me is Asaf Wolff, the SVP of growth and experience at the University of People, the world’s first nonprofit tuition-free American accredited online university. Asaf is tasked with achieving student recruitment goals, and gaining widespread and international support for the university. 


He has administered a 500% growth in student numbers at the university in the last two years and ensures that the numbers continue to grow at the same rate. Asaf manages the marketing, the public relations department, and the admissions and financial aid office. In addition, he is in charge of partnerships with organizations such as Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Google, Intel, and Western Union. Asaf, welcome to the show.


Asaf Wolff: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. Excited to be here.


Steffen: Now before we talk about marketing, automation, and technology, tell our listeners a little bit more about yourself. How did you get started in your career and what led you to leading growth and experience at the University of People?


Asaf: Sure. So I went to law school. And after I graduated, I started to work in a Tesla company. And I started to grow there from one position to another becoming the Deputy CEO. And then at some point, our president reached out to me and asked me to meet him. And after I met him, he basically offered me the position of COO. 


And a few months into the position one day he came to me and asked, why don’t we have enough students starting? I don’t know, is that also now my job? He said of course it is. I was in charge of marketing and employment. That was, we were still a start-up, very young. Five employees working from a basement, then 100 students. And that’s basically how I started my journey in marketing and experience.


Steffen: Interesting. Now, getting into this topic, can you elaborate on how marketing automation implementation helped the University of People drastically reduce acquisition costs per student, making it significantly lower than the industry average?


Asaf: Yeah, of course. So back in 2013, we implemented a Marketo. Today, I think it’s Adobe Engage. And we started using it for two main reasons. One, we knew that we wanted to build a new model of higher education. And in order to build that we needed to have a scalable marketing and admissions abilities. 


In order to do that we needed automation. And the way to create that automation was to implement basically a journey that will enable us to create multiple touchpoints for our applicants that will be based on their demographics and their behavior. But there was another reason why we implemented marketing automation. We wanted to know what’s working for us. 


Marketing automation also enabled us not only to move fast, and to build a scaleable operation in marketing, but also to create an attribution model. That’s again, 11 years ago, we wanted to know where our students are coming from, what’s working for us in marketing, and what’s not in order to understand where we should allocate our very limited resources as a nonprofit tuition-free university, and that basically helped us. 


After we implemented the marketing automation system, we started to build on that. We started with building basically we have three layers of automation processes. One is triggered by the action or inaction of the users. So if someone paid an application fee, they will get an email. If they didn’t pay the application fee for a week they will get an email for one. 


Another is kind of like a natural processing which we are trying to explain who we are and what we do to our applicants. So what does tuition-free university mean? Who are our instructors and so on. 


And the third are actually on-demand ad hoc campaigns that basically have the applicants to know what’s coming up, what’s and when the next deadline is, and so on. So we built all those three layers of automation into the journey of the applicants. On top of that, we also try to create different types of channels. 


So it’s not only emails. We have text messages that are implemented in the process. We have real-time personalization that are tailored to their websites and portals. And we have a content AI which is generated on the website. So all those different channels, a chatbot, and so on combined together to create one seal, kind of an approach. 


So no matter which channel you’re coming from, you will have the same experience and the same messaging relevant to who you are, where you are from, what is the step in your journey. That enabled us to get to around 10% conversion rates that lead to a student. 


Across the world and in the US, it’s even close to 20% right now. So I’m very proud of what the team was able to do in the last decade or so, especially in the last two years. I think we need to get to the next level.


Steffen: So you just said you achieved a 10%. Where did you start from a conversion rate perspective? And then can you explain which tools and strategies contributed to the substantial growth?


Asaf: Yeah, when I looked at the funding for the first time, I saw 0.12% conversion rates. And I still remember my discussions with the President. I was saying, here’s what we’re going to do. And he said, how do you know that it will help and improve and work? And I said, well, I just do. You see the best practices out there. We’re all users, right? We see what we like and what we don’t. 


So those were very basic things that we knew, we just knew that we needed to change. I’ll give you just one example. The previous forces asked the applicants, at some point to leave the process and come back after taking another direction, and so on. So we knew that the first thing we wanted to do was to create a different flow, a different funnel for our customers, for our students. And once we had done that, we immediately started to see improvements. 


And this is where marketing automations stepped into place. So from 0.12% conversion rates today, as I said, we are over 10% from lead to a student. I think it’s mainly the tools that I mentioned before. So of the different elements of marketing automation, the different touch points in the journey. 


We also have obviously, all kinds of retargeting and remarketing activities with the students. And I think when it comes to technological tools, I would say that the real-time personalization, which enable us to show a different message on the page, and I’m not talking about buttons. 


I’m talking about the actual page that people see on the website, or the title or the subtitle, or the image is basically tailored based on the customer’s demographic information or stage in the journey with us, or what we think is the emotional situation they are at, etc. 


So that’s a big part. The other part I would say is our chatbot experience, which today is based on natural language and IP, and we are exploring the idea of moving to AI these days. And I think that the last part is our ability to, which will still explore, is to understand the multi-touch attribution model. 


Basically to understand how each channel and each activity are contributing to the conversion rates and their impact. We’re still not quite there, but I think we are on the right way to get there.


Steffen: Well, you just touched on personalized customer experiences from a website perspective. When we spoke earlier, you had mentioned that if you’re seeing student enrollment skyrocket, doubling every year since 2013, or ’14 better, and it’s projected to exceed 150,000 by September of this year. Now, how has technology been pivotal in this exceptional growth? In particular, this personalization element that you just mentioned?


Asaf: Right. So technology was everything to us. It enabled us to create basically a personalized experience to the customers. So if you get an email, if you go to our web page, if you get a text message, you will see that we engage with you. We will talk about what you want, what you are interested in, what we think is your aspiration, and what you are hoping to achieve from studying with us. 


All the communication is based on the right segmentation and personalization. Even when we are targeting the choosing how to target and who to target we are basing that on on data. So our acquisition cost is around 1% of the average in the market. An average university in the US will spend $3,600 to bring a student. We spend $60. 


And the way we do that is that we choose the blue oceans, right? We are looking for places, areas, interest areas where other brands, and other universities will not go. And the way to get there, the way to know where to go, it’s all about the data. It’s all about the technology. 


And so we choose an area, and we are creating a personal experience from the first moment. I’ll give you just one example. We identified using data, a certain county in the US where we knew that there was a need for our offer. And we created basically, a multi-channel campaign, omni omni-channel campaign that basically created the same message across all channels about the university. 


And we went to CTV, and we went to, you know, Google, and Meta and so on and Tiktok, etc. And we targeted all in one county with one message, one call to action, and it was all personalized for that specific county. And the offer that we knew that is most relevant to them. And we saw amazing results there and I think that’s a good example of what I’m trying to say.


Steffen: Yeah, what you’re basically saying is you’re ultra-targeting, and designing a really custom journey for different audience segments that you identify. From content of your audience segment definition, to what channel are we going to use to engage with them in, to what’s the right message from where they are in the funnel, for example, or related to the channel? And then what’s the landing page? What information do we need to have there based on their need. Based on the message that you expose them to.


Asaf: Exactly, because that’s our mission, right? Our mission is to open the doors of higher education, by enabling everyone, no matter who they are, no matter what they’ve done before, to gain access, and to study what they want, and to pursue the career that they desire. 


And so from our perspective, we need to be there from the first moment talking about what they care about what they want to do. And that’s basically the personalization. So usually the personalization would start off still they apply to us after they come to our website and start engaging with us. And so we’ll know what they’re interested in, what they want, who they are, as much as they tell us, etc. 


But many times we’ll also be able to look at the market and say, okay, where are we needed the most? What do we need to say there? How do we do that? What’s the right channel? And then we’ll go after that. Make sure that people know we are an option for them.


Steffen: Yeah. Now, once you have this setup, it probably runs like a smooth machine, in many cases. But could you tell the listeners a little bit about the challenges you faced before you implemented this marketing technology? Before your system was able to identify needs and behaviors of site visitors, and therefore, adjusted the content and information for those people?


Asaf: Absolutely. I would say there are two main challenges. One is a challenge that we faced, and one is a challenge that I think will always be here. So the first one was the initial integration, right? Everyone is telling you simple API, plug and play, everything is great. And then you buy the product and actually go and try to implement it and then your tech team will say, wait a second. 


So in our case, that was also very much too, and actually, we still struggle with implementing marketing automation on the student side. So we implemented it on the admissions side, but the moment they become students, that’s where we don’t have right now, a good marketing automation and experience because of those integration issues. 


I think the second challenge that we have is that we look at the application front end as a product, and anyone who works with online products knows that you can’t stand still, right? You always need to evolve, you always need to improve. There’s always a new approach out there. Better tools. 


And I think that the application funnel that we have today, which converts fantastically, is not the application process that I want to have a year or two from now. So every year we always look at the funnel, we always think about what do we need to do to improve it? How do we make sure that we stay ahead of the game? And talking about your previous question about the acquisition cost and how technology helped that, I think that’s a big part of that. 


Stay ahead of the game. Do things that others don’t do. We went into CTV, connected TV, I think, much earlier than most other institutions out there. We were one of the first the universities to launch a chatbot on our website before other universities went ahead and did that. 


Marketing automation is something that we have done years before any university consider that. So I think that’s the key. If you want to win the acquisition cost game, you need to be ahead of the curve in terms of the implementation of technologies.


Steffen: Interesting. Now, you mentioned retaining students as kind of a challenge or an area that you’re currently it sounds like working on improving. Now, it’s a crucial aspect, obviously, of any educational institute to succeed, right? How have you utilized marketing technology to nurture and retain student bodies, ensuring continued engagement and satisfaction throughout the academic journey?


Asaf: One of the best definitions that I know of marketing is the one of Scott Stratten who said marketing is not a task, and it’s not a job, and it’s not a department. It happens every time you engage with your customers. And I think that marketing doesn’t end at the end of the admissions process, once our applicants become students. 


It actually just starts at that point. And I think that the engagement and experience of our students is crucial to our mission because thinking again about our limited resources, having our customers, our students ecstatic about what we do and what we offer is the key for us to make sure that they will go around their communities and families and talk about us and what we offer so we can continue to grow. 


Because our future students are out there. And I think that what I’m thinking about the experience in terms of automation right now that we have, it’s not good enough. And we are working on it. 


But I think the overall experience we can create for our students to where over 80% of them will continue to second year. Where our graduation rates at the master level program, for example, now are around 90%. I think that that’s the key, that experience, that satisfaction, I think we have also 90% satisfaction of our students, and over 90% say that they would recommend us to a friend. 


That’s the key to expedite growth. Because if your customers, if our students won’t be satisfied, ecstatic, and happy with the experience that they have, they won’t help the word of mouth, and without word of mouth it is very hard to go fast.


Steffen: That’s interesting. Now, can you say examples of how you use marketing technology to personalize the direction with students at various stages of the journey, from the initial inquiry to graduation? How does that apply?


Asaf: Yeah, so I’ll try to give you a few examples. When our students come to the portal where they’re asked to take actions they will see a message in the portal and that message is personalized. It tells them basically where they are at that moment, what they need to do next. That’s a personalized message that basically guides them on what’s happening right now in their journey and where they are at. 


We also personalized recently the course selection process. So when a student comes to register for the next term, there are five terms a year, they need to choose the courses that they want to study next. 


We have personalized that journey so we offer them the courses that will help them to graduate at the fastest rate possible. So that’s another example. Other than that, it’s a lot of communication and yeah, I think those are the best examples I can give you.


Steffen: Now, before we come to the end, Asaf, you obviously, the University of People is aiming to revolutionize higher education and reach students globally. How has marketing technology facilitated the university’s expansion into new markets and demographics?


Asaf: I think that the two biggest challenges that we have to fulfill our mission and grow are around the brand awareness. People have no idea that we exist. And the second one is that who even those who learn that we exist, think we are a scam. It sounds too good to be true. 


Tuition-free, American accredited, no commitment, completely online. So that credibility is a big, it’s a big challenge for us. Our ability to personalize the messages and to create a tailored journey for students from different cultures and countries and nurture them and slowly let them enable them know who we are actually plays the fundamental goal in our ability to grow. 


I don’t think we’d be able to reach the numbers that we had if we if we wouldn’t have the marketing automation capabilities and the personalization. I’m just thinking about the amount of emails that we need to answer, you know, and questions from 140,000 students and over half a million applicants at this point. It just doesn’t make sense. 


And so yes, I would say, a very important goal. You know, that over 90% of our applicants right now, they don’t engage with the human. On the way to themselves to their classroom when they meet their instructor. That can’t be the whole story.


Steffen: So you talked about credibility challenges for people saying, really, I don’t have to pay anything, and I can get a degree. How do you increase that element? How do you increase credibility? How do you show people that this is true. That they don’t have to pay, but they can get a degree that they can use to advance themselves?


Asaf: Yeah, so I think three main targets. Sales, marketing assets, such as our partnerships, collaborations, and accreditations. We partner with NYU, we partner with McGill University, our business school, and so on. And second, our staff. So our President’s Council Members from the most distinguished universities out there. 


And third, I would say, our students. So we put them in the front. We have amazing success stories. Students who went and graduated and now are PhD. And when you are working at MIT or working at Apple, and Amazon, and so we put out their faces and their names, and their stories out there as a main tool of communication for us.


And also, if you know, if you google our name, you can see the reviews that we get from our students. We make sure that they will be out there as a brand, as an army of the brand, and tell the world what they think about us.


Steffen: Yeah. Now, you obviously engage with different diverse audiences. How do you maintain a consistent brand message?


Asaf: We have one team that is in charge of brand and messaging. And that team is basically like an internal agency, that sells the other teams in marketing. We have a total of maybe 50 team members total in marketing and experience. And roughly, I would say, five major teams. 


So one of them is basically in charge of that and they serve as a center to the other. And that ensures that our message will be consistent. We also implemented a task management system and we work with very clear workflows. So we know that everything that goes out there went through a few rounds of approval which is very critical to us. 


When policy in place, and etc. So we are trying to be very organized. We are not great at that yet. But because we always try to be very lean and quick and dynamic, but yeah, I think we’re doing a pretty good job when it comes to being consistent.


Steffen: Wonderful. Well, Asaf, thank you so much for joining me on the Performance Delivered podcast and sharing your knowledge on marketing automation and technology. Now if people want to find out more about you and the University of People, how can they get in touch? so university with


Asaf: So the University of the People, just Google it. it And then me, LinkedIn of course. And thank you so much for having me. It was fun.


Steffen: Great. Well, we’ll leave that information as always in the show notes. Thanks everyone for listening. If you liked the Performance Delivered podcast, please subscribe and leave us a review on iTunes, or your favorite podcast application. If you want to find out more about Symphonic Cigital you can visit us at or follow us on X at Symphonic HQ. Thanks again and see you next time.


Voiceover: Performance Delivered is sponsored by Symphonic Digital. Discover audience-focused and data-driven digital marketing solutions for small and medium businesses at