Building the right list for campus direct marketing

Pegi Anton

January 15, 2013

A picture of students, respresenting the importance of colleges and universities identifying and targeting the right students for their direct marketing efforts.
Building a prospective student list is one of the keys to successful higher education direct marketing.

Part one of a series, Five principles of a successful prospective student direct marketing campaign.

Read part two: Communicating with prospective college students at the most strategic time

Read part three: The importance of the offer in college direct marketing

Read part four: Developing the right creative approach in college direct marketing

Read part five: Using technology more strategically in college direct marketing

Read the follow-up: Applying the lessons of college direct marketing: A case study

If you’ve been involved in campus marketing for any length of time—I’m approaching nearly a quarter century—you have witnessed an incredible change in the nature of direct marketing to students. In the past a college could mail a brochure to a high school junior and wait for the student to respond.  The college was able to control when they wanted responses and push the student to the next phase of the admission cycle.

Today, prospective students can gather information about colleges and universities from so many sources that they do not need to rely on printed pieces from prospective colleges.  In fact, many do not even let an institution know they are researching that college until they apply. In the latest e-recruitment practices study by Noel-Levitz, both four-year public and private campuses said 30 percent of applicants first made contact when they applied. Mobile technology is further changing the recruitment communications paradigm. According to the 2012 E-Expectations study, 52 percent of college-bound high school students said they have browsed college sites on their mobile devices, with 20 percent of those mobile users saying they have done so on a tablet. Meanwhile, developing electronic messages that are deliverable has become more difficult as ever-changing spam filters can snag even the most carefully crafted recruitment e-mails.

Does this mean that college direct marketing is a losing proposition or a dying art? Not at all. Developing, executing, and analyzing your prospective student direct marketing campaign can be very challenging, but it is still a strong, productive component of student recruitment—as long as you adapt to the new realities of campus direct marketing.

In the coming weeks, I will be discussing five key principles of successful direct marketing to students:

  1. Creating strong prospective student lists
  2. Communicating at the most strategic time
  3. Making a compelling offer
  4. Developing the right creative
  5. Using technology more strategically

These strategies can help you build direct marketing campaigns that reach the students you want to reach, engage them, and start them on the path toward enrollment. In this first post, I will discuss the most important component of any direct marketing effort: the list.

Creating a strong prospective student list is the key to successful college direct marketing

Many marketers have heard about the 40/40/20 rule for direct marketing (attributed to direct marketing guru Ed Mayer): 40 percent of the success of a direct marketing campaign depends on using the right list, 40 percent on the offer, and 20 percent on creative execution.  The right list is paramount in the success of a direct marketing campaign. That is especially true in the increasingly competitive world of higher education and enrollment management.

But what does it mean to build the “right” list? It’s about building a list with names of students who are likely to enroll. Inflating your prospective student pool with names of students who are not inclined to enroll may help you sleep better, but ultimately it could add additional work for your staff and additional costs to your budget. What you want is a mutual fit: a student who matches your desired profile and a student who is interested in what you have to offer.

Building a list that matches your enrollment goals

First, your list strategy needs to align with your overall enrollment strategy. For example, are you planning to maintain enrollment but increase the academic profile? Grow enrollment overall? Increase specific student populations? Expand your geographic reach? You have to know where you want to take your enrollment in the coming years before you can build a list.

You also need to analyze previous list purchases so that you are focusing your resources on the right geographic areas. Conduct specific reviews by county, Enrollment Planning Service, College Board, and Sectional Center Facility (post office) codes.

In most cases, your primary market will represent the dominant part of your list buy, as these students will be more likely to respond and enroll at the highest rates. (Most students attend a college within a four-hour radius of their homes.) The choice of secondary markets should be based on a thorough analysis of your enrollment trends in those markets not simply on intuition. For many institutions, demographic shifts, increased competition, or other factors have driven the need to look for new markets.  Direct marketing can help develop a new market. It is most effective when used in a market you have already made an investment in—for example, a market where you are sending admissions representatives to conduct high school visits and attend college fairs, or a market where you have a strong alumni base. Expect your direct marketing campaign yield to perform at a lower rate in these markets. Note that it generally takes three to five years to fully develop a new market.

Purchasing lists from multiple vendors is essential to direct marketing success. We know that a single vendor does not have 100 percent of student names in any region and that some vendors are stronger than others for certain institutions. You can take different approaches with different vendors when making your purchases. For example, the College Board and ACT allow you to purchase by test score ranges and academic information, while NRCCUA offers a variety of student-specific information that might be important to your institution (such as religious affiliation, extracurricular activities, etc.). Finding a balance in this list selection process is a key to your success.

Finding students who are likely to enroll: revolutionizing your lists with predictive modeling

Because we believe you should focus on students who are the most likely to enroll, we recommend using a predictive model to create a statistical profile of the type of student who enrolls at your institution. This profile can be used to help with list purchases or to segment your direct marketing campaign.

This strategy allows you to segment your student list by score. For instance, with the predictive modeling Noel-Levitz offers, students receive a score from 0.00 (highly unlikely to enroll) to 1.00 (highly likely to enroll). At a glance, you can segment your lists and find students who are the best enrollment prospects. You may still communicate with students on your lists who have lower scores, but you can focus your most intensive and expensive efforts on higher scoring students. In fact, among all campuses using our predictive modeling services, 97 percent of their enrolled students came from those scoring 0.60 or higher.

It’s very important to make sure you use a predictive model that is specifically built to your institution and that looks beyond simple factors such as geography. A reliable predictive model will include individual student information (such as major or household income), source codes, and other variables that truly predict enrollment. It can also help you gain a solid foothold in new markets over time.

If using a predictive model is not a possibility, conduct your own internal analysis of basic geography, majors, and performance by list source and class level to help guide your list purchase.

Investing in list management can pay major enrollment dividends

List building and management can be a complex, data-intensive process, but in today’s shifting enrollment environment, it means the difference between success and failure in college direct marketing. You simply will not get the results you want from your direct marketing without giving list management the attention, priority, and analysis it deserves.

My Noel-Levitz colleagues and I will be discussing this and other topics in a free Webinar, What Makes a Prospective Student Direct Marketing Program Successful. I invite you to join us. Or e-mail me with any questions, concerns, or comments. I’m happy to share strategies that are helping other campuses build strong, successful direct mail campaigns.

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