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Seven mistakes campuses make with their college student search

Pegi Anton

Vice President

February 11, 2014

My son Christian is in his sophomore year of high school. This past November, he received his first three search letters from colleges—all on the same day. While the envelopes were different colors, the letters were very similar in content, offer, and approach. He commented that two of the three letters were “exactly the same.”

That’s not what a campus wants to hear when trying to capture the attention of a prospective student in this increasingly competitive higher education environment. In fact, watching Christian’s reactions to these search communications made me think about the kind of pitfalls that campuses can encounter when creating their direct marketing campaigns. I’ve been involved in higher education marketing for nearly 25 years, consulting with campuses of all different sizes, types, and missions. Time and again, I have seen an institution’s hard work undermined by correctable mistakes. Here are seven of the most common ones I have seen, and suggestions on how you can avoid making them.

Seven mistakes campuses make with their college student search
Not optimizing for mobile devices is just one mistake many campuses make with their direct marketing campaigns.

Mistake 1: Using a list of names purchased more than three months ago

Using old lists—and three months is old in the fast-moving world of college direct marketing—increases your chances of getting student names that have already been pulverized with marketing communications from campuses. Think about the way we get offers for things such as credit cards. With each solicitation you get, you are less likely to respond, especially by the time the ninth or tenth offer hits you. It’s no different for students.

Suggestion: Purchase new names that have been recently cultivated from your list provider, so you get fresh prospects who will be more receptive to your marketing messages.

Mistake 2: Relying on one vendor for your list purchase

Just because everyone takes the ACT or SAT does not mean you should rely only on those names for your list purchase. No single vendor has every name for a given market or territory. Plus different vendors have different data and variables that you can use.

Suggestion: Diversify your list purchases, pulling in names from a variety of vendors that match specific enrollment needs or recruitment criteria. For example, ACT and College Board allow you to purchase by score range and academic information. NRCCUA offers a variety of student specific information that may be important to an institution like extracurricular interests and religious affiliation.

Mistake 3: Not qualifying your pool by a student’s likelihood to enroll

I visit a lot of campuses each year, and I have yet to visit one that can afford to waste money on student search campaigns. Yet that’s what many do by not qualifying their pools, or by using inaccurate qualification methods. This leads to following up on weak inquiries, which increases the cost of printing, postage, and name purchases, not to mention time.

Suggestion: Use predictive modeling to gauge a student’s enrollment likelihood. Predictive modeling uses your previous enrollment data to create an enrollment model that can be applied to your current pool. It allows you to qualify students before you contact them, so you can save your more expensive and time-consuming methods for the students who are most likely to enroll. (This is one of the fundamental differences between the Noel-Levitz approach to college direct marketing and that of other higher education marketing firms.)

Mistake 4: Completing a search campaign just once per year

Now more than ever students are driving the search process. Some students begin their search early in their freshman or sophomore year, like my son. Other students procrastinate and may be late in inquiring and applying. Restricting search to an annual event can make it easy to miss key groups of students. Likewise, if you wait until the junior year, you can miss an opportunity to build enrollment relationships earlier with high school students.

Suggestion: Build a stronger inquiry pool by conducting multiple search campaigns throughout the year, and target students from sophomore year through the fall of senior year. Combining this strategy with predictive modeling mentioned above can uncover a surprising number of strong student leads, both immediately and for your future pools.

Mistake 5: Using boilerplate creative copy

Christian’s example says it all—“These two letters are exactly the same.” If your search letter can’t stand out, can you really expect a student to respond? And what about your call to action? Does “learn more” or “ask for our brochure” give students a compelling reason to continue the conversation with your campus?

Suggestion: Meet prospective students where they are in their college search process. Use benefit hooks that have a higher chance of relating to why the student would be interested in your campus—academic offerings, campus culture, success stories, job prospects, location. Then give them something helpful and interesting to ask for, something that will not only discuss your institution, but help the student in their search process.

Mistake 6: Making it too difficult to respond to your search campaign

There may be no greater mistake in college direct marketing then to grab a student’s interest, have them initiate a response, and then become frustrated in how that response is handled. A complex inquiry form, a URL that drops them on your home page, or being unable to respond via mobile device are just three examples of how response challenges can derail your efforts.

Suggestion: Keep it simple, guided, and personal. Take a good look at your inquiry form and keep only what you need to continue communicating with the student. You don’t have to collect everything at this stage. Use personal URLs (PURLs) to guide students to personalized landing pages that contain clear incentives and instructions. Finally, make inquiry forms mobile friendly. Our most recent E-Expectations study showed that nearly 70 percent of students browse college websites via mobile, and more than 40 percent browse almost exclusively via mobile device.

Mistake 7: Using number of inquiries as a measure of a campaign’s success

A large number of inquiries may help you sleep better during your marketing campaign, but if these inquiries do not enroll, you have wasted considerable money and staff time pursuing these students.

Suggestion: Use the percentage of your inquiries who enroll as a metric for success. After all, the ultimate goal of a campus marketing campaign is to get students to enroll. Why not make that the ultimate measure of success? It will give you a far better assessment of whether your marketing dollars and staff time were well spent.

How can you build a better college direct marketing campaign?

I hope you found this post informative and that the suggestions provide insights into strengthening your marketing strategies.

I will be discussing some of these points in more detail during a free webinar, Building a Smarter Prospective Student Marketing Program. During the webinar, I will talk about Noel-Levitz Direct, the full-service direct marketing division of Noel-Levitz, and how we create direct marketing campaigns that align with an institution’s enrollment goals. I also welcome your questions, so feel free to email me.


About the Author

Pegi Anton has worked in higher education marketing for 25 years. She offers extensive experience in campus marketing, market research, communication flows, and digital and print strategy. Her specialty is developing branding and marketing communication...

Read more about Pegi's experience and expertise

Reach Pegi by e-mail at Pegi.Anton@RuffaloNL.com.


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