Inside Enrollment Management: Communicating With Today’s Electronically-Oriented Students

James Barrett

May 27, 0008

In what now seems like 100 years ago when I was a young professional, I attended a conference where a marketing speaker went around the room and asked us who we considered to be our competition. Everyone predictably rattled off our application cross-over colleges and universities and dutifully cited our copious statistical sources. After we finished, the speaker showed us some corporate logos. Now just to prove how quickly my life is approaching middle age, he projected, ahem, a transparency on an overhead projector with a logo for Coca-Cola, The Gap, Nike, and I don’t know, probably the logo for that hot new media starting to dominate the PC market, CD-ROMs.

The point of this trip down memory lane is that he was telling us that our goal is the attention of our potential clients, and until we understood how they communicated, our efforts to break through the cacophony of messages in their daily lives would prove ineffective. Our true competitors were everyone vying for this attention. This observation has never been more relevant for traditional-aged student recruiting than now with the advent of social media, and we as enrollment professionals are working hard to understand how it all comes together coherently. There is a dizzying array of options and directions that we may pursue, but we know we lack the time and treasure to explore all of them. As always, the key is not trying to overextend our finite resources, but rather trying to apply them with the right sort of focus to exceed our goals. With that in mind, here are a few things to ponder related to our Noel-Levitz 2010 E-Recruiting Practices and Trends Report.

Never forget the funnel

Not all new media is used for the same level of communication, and depending upon where prospective students and families are in the decision-making process, e.g. the funnel, we often need to communicate on different levels as we build and deepen relationships. Let’s take the wildly popular Facebook for example. Accessing quality, relationship-oriented information requires “friending,” a one-to-one invitation and acceptance process. A prospective traditional-aged undergraduate student, or even a prospective graduate student, has very personal information on his or her Facebook pages geared toward peer relationships. How likely are they to really use this media to open up to a college administrator or to a generic college Facebook presence at the applicant stage of the funnel, let alone the inquiry stage or as a secret shopper? My experiential observation is that they are currently not very likely, although our report shows that most prospective students do want colleges to have a social media presence.

This issue underscores the importance of having a funnel-based enrollment strategy. If you have an effective relationship-oriented recruiting program, I have seen evidence where, in the post-admit and commitment (deposit) stage, prospective students and their families are willing to make extensive use of Facebook communication with individual admission counselors if they have done their jobs effectively. In a similar manner, I have seen online communities that were using either message board technology or Ning languishing at the top end of the funnel, but conversely being successfully used in the post-confirmation stage as a pre-orientation/pre-move-in tool to begin the transition from recruitment to retention. For those of you seasoned enough to appreciate my opening paragraph, confirmed student communities are almost analogous to the old “freshman books” some schools used to distribute with the pictures, names, and information of incoming first-year students, except that they are interactive.

Always keep in mind that technology tactics are never substitutions for enrollment strategies. This axiom has held true ever since Homo habilis first picked up a rock: technology is a means to an end, not an end itself. When anyone is considering time and budgetary investments in tools such as personalized portals, Twitter, and texting, there should always be a lengthy discussion and consideration about how these tools will be used, the goals for using them, and how effective they can really be compared to other proven tactics. Be discerning rather than simply trying to appear trendy. And remember that Facebook and other social media have multiple capabilities that can be tapped into that sometimes cross traditional funnel categories, such as news updates and page presences from colleges, as well as evolving user privacy settings.

Stop making excuses for your Web site

Sometimes it can be difficult for consultants to appreciate the day-to-day realities that engulf their campus partners. I am but a year removed from my role as a practitioner on a college campus, and already the endless meetings and task forces, the staff-personality-based concerns, the nuts and bolts functions of admission and financial packaging processes, the endless attention demanded of complex ERP systems, and the occasional ultimately petty turf battles seem a million miles away. It can be very difficult on a college and university campus to find the resources, staffing patterns, competence, and time to build an effective online presence. And yet the data associated with this report suggests that there is perhaps no single more crucial endeavor related to new student recruiting at the top of the funnel than your online presence.

If you play a key enrollment management role on your campus, you must be a champion not only for your campus Web presence, but also for content management. The new report on e-recruiting shows that the percentage of “application for admission” as first inquiry source now represents over a quarter of incoming students’ first source from responding institutions, up 7 percent in just two years. While there are other discussion topics related to this secret shopper phenomenon, such as the importance of analyzing prospective student search through a different perspective (I recommend Kevin Crockett’s reports related to the importance of coverage rate analysis, such as Retooling the Enrollment Funnel), the stark reality is that your Web presence must be stellar to maximize your enrollment potential.

There are plenty of reasons on many campuses to defer or delay a focus on Web presence maximization and I’ve lived through most of them. I’ve experienced overwhelmed marketing/communication offices held hostage by end users who refuse to update content, staffed by those with limited transferable skills for new media management. I have struggled with IT-centric approaches where poor technology due to bad choices, obsolescence, or failed budget allocation rendered a first-rate site impossible. I’ve waited through years of stalled initiatives due to uncertain technology decisions unable to take advantage of new approaches. And then there is my favorite: antediluvian committees or legal teams that ensured the latest trends and user preferences were impossible to accommodate within the academy for trumped up reasons. In the end, none of those barriers matter to your clientele. They want what they want when they want it, or they are likely to move on without your even knowing they were considering you. Again, the point is that while there are plenty of reasons to slow investing in and creating a great online presence, the competition—both related to college enrollment and how your prospective students choose to spend their time—is finding solutions. If you are struggling with this realization at your campus, and if you share the responsibility for your enrollment goals, you must champion the importance of a great online presence.

Personally, I think the most significant issue in the next year will be the universal introduction of tuition calculators. Will your institution provide the bare minimum to meet government standards and basically tell your prospective families no more than would a decent table because of a lack of prioritization or an overly conservative approach to conveying scholarship and financial aid information? Or will you fully take advantage of this gift from DC to ensure that your institution is perceived as an affordable and therefore a viable choice for the hundreds and thousands of secret shoppers pinging your Web servers? The choice is again yours to meet the challenge of the competition. I know what I can do online with mortgage, automobile, and premium vacation self-service as an adult user making high-end purchasing decisions before I take the next step and qualify my interest. What will prospective students and families be able to do with your institution’s cost calculator in a few months?

Going mobile

A May 13 piece in the New York Times Personal Tech section cites reports from various sources that mobile devices as phones are obsolete. In “Cell Phones Now Used More for Data than Calls,” Jenna Wortham reminds us that mobile devices have now completed their transformation from phones to mini-PC’s, complete with new applications and a new culture. How are we responding?

For example, the author cites a Pew Research Center study that more than half of U.S. adolescents send over 1,500 text messages per month. (Because I studied humanities, I can tell you that is almost 50 per day. Fortunately for me, Noel-Levitz has an outstanding team of professional statisticians.) And yet even in our 2010 findings in this report, almost 20 percent of college admission offices still don’t even collect cell phone numbers. Of the 80 percent who do, I wonder how many utilize text capabilities in their communication plans beyond the individual ad hoc territory manager level for such messages as deadlines, visit confirmations, or even birthday wishes? For example, one of my favorite places to dine is the On the Border chain. They sent me an invitation on May 3 to be sure to come in and celebrate Cinco de Mayo. Ironically, I tried to go, but the place was so crowded I went elsewhere. The campaign was too successful for me.

Institutions also face new software design decisions. If your site uses Flash technology, do you have an accommodation strategy for the iPhone and iPad? How is your site’s mobile navigation presence? Are you doing what Roanoke College has already put into production at i.roanoke.edu? Is there a team on campus considering these issues empowered to move forward?


Our prospective students and their families now have more channels and new media options available to them than ever before, both for entertainment and information. Their expectations have never been higher, nor in many cases have our budgets been so constrained relative to demands. To address these pressures, there will never be a more sound approach to enrollment management than relying on strategies based upon data that is derived using reliable analytics. Social media and other new web technology will not change this. However, we must account for these robust new media tools as we shape our tactics and re-consider our customary approach to admission counseling and new student recruitment.

Clearly, we need to augment the now decade-old triangulation communication strategy of mailing direct marketing collateral, conducting telecounseling campaigns, and sending mass, customized e-mail messages and consider how we augment or even supersede some of these time-tested tactics with new media. As we do so, we need to pay close attention to how we may best apply these new communication tactics within our defined funnel stages in the context of fixed or declining resources. How we use these exciting new tactics available to us within a coherent and focused enrollment strategy is more important than whether or not we use them.

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