According to a recent national survey, to stay competitive colleges and universities “are focusing on branding and marketing far more than in previous years.” For many schools, the emphasis and investment is shifting toward building brands that differentiate from the competition and, for some schools, this includes hiring marketing leadership from the corporate world.
Despite an increased investment in marketing, at most schools marketing and admissions fail to work with any increased synergy to drive undergraduate enrollment.
Instead, we see two extremes in higher education. Either marketing departments are working on institutional goals like branding and are removed from day-to-day promotion, or marketing departments play the role of internal agency and creative service provider to admissions.
In either case, there’s often a sense that admissions is doing the “real work” of recruiting students and driving revenue, while marketing is playing more of a supporting role to drive campaigns, creative, and brand efforts.
The Traditional Undergraduate Recruitment Process
Despite the widespread shift to digital, undergraduate enrollment processes remain largely unchanged. Sure, prospects can find student life and program information on school websites and complete an online “inquiry” form or sign up to receive email rather than snail mail, but the process of engagement remains very similar to process before the internet existed: personal interactions, campus tours, snail mail, and a slow response cycle.
Why Digital, Why Now?
A full embrace of digital can change the admissions process by allowing for more visibility into the funnel and more informed investments of time and money. Without a doubt, the demand for digital engagement exists. Across student types and schools, the website is consistently ranked as the number one research tool used by prospective students.
Breaking Down Barriers Between Marketing and Admissions
Reinventing the admissions process for colleges and universities to leverage digital requires reimagining how admissions, marketing, and IT work together. For-profit schools and a number of graduate programs have already changed their admissions process to include digital and they are reaping the benefits. It’s time for other schools to follow suit and create a structure in which marketing and admissions form a partnership that produces a more efficient recruitment and enrollment system.
To make the shift to increased collaboration through digital marketing, marketing and admissions need to change make three cultural shifts:
Align around a common business goal. Both groups must agree that the business goal is to reach students and generate revenue. The business goal needs to have a commonly defined metric: “Increase student applications by 4%”.
Put data tracking in place from end-to-end. Marketing and admissions need to know the impact of a recruitment campaign on recruitment. Currently, most marketing groups know how many clicks the campaign generated, but not how many applicants were created.
A quicker tempo. A shift to digital means more data is available. Both groups need to more frequently analyze the data and change course accordingly. For most schools, data reporting happens “after-the-fact.” In the new digital world, data review happens in real time before the admissions cycle ends.
By partnering to reduce admissions’ risk of falling short of their numbers, both departments can become more efficient and learn more about their “customer.”
The Advantages of Digital Engagement
A digitally-engaged audience offers colleges more touch points to to educate, engage, and influence prospects. More importantly, digital channels provide more data and allow colleges to track, analyze, and understand prospect’s behaviors and motivations.
Let’s take a look at a few ways digital channels can be used to track and influence prospects.
Increasing Yield by Influencing the Funnel
Let’s start with one example: the undergraduate enrollment funnel. A typical enrollment funnel runs from prospect to inquiry to application to acceptance to matriculated. In 2014, DePaul University in Chicago started with 300,000 names to generate 20,000 applications to matriculate 2,500 students. Their rate of return is less 1%.
If the funnel is looking weak, a go-to solution is add more names into the top of the funnel or lower admissions standards. But with new digital tools such as personalization, marketing and admissions can engage and influence prospective students already in the funnel.
Incorporate Website Personalization
Real-time website personalization allows a website to build a profile of a site visitor based on the content the user views as well as other digital attributes. For example, if a user visits the business degree section of your school’s website, her interest in “business” is captured in her profile. Then, based on profile attributes, your website can start personalizing her experience. The personalization is done automatically and in real-time. Other attributes such as location, time on site, and number of visits can also be used to personalize the experience. Once a user shares personally identifiable information – such as an email address – all of this past history can be associated with an individual user and their history can be passed along to admissions.
3 Ideas for Website Personalization
Conduct extensive user research to learn about the motivations of their prospects – such as, job advancement or job changer – and to create user segments for each of their primary offering areas: education, health care, law, business, etc. Once a website visitor’s preferences are identified, the user is added to one or more of the segments. Using insights based on the user research, the school can tailor the website messages and images to “speak” more directly to the prospect.
Review analytics to understand the behaviors of website visitors before they completed an inquiry form. Use that information to personalize which CTAs appear on your site, where on your site they appear, and when. Research has shown that personalized calls to action increase conversions by 42%.
Engage students from corporate partners with personalization by using the website domain of corporate partners to identify site visitors coming from a specific channel. You can use this attribute to change text on the website to promote and highlight tuition discounts.
Uncovering the Stealth Applicant
A growing challenge for admissions are stealth applicants – i.e., applicants who never fill out a request information form or visit campus, but apply to the school. By partnering with marketing and installing better tracking, admissions can “see” and “watch” a prospect on the website.
This “stealth” tracking can show how many times users visited the website and which content they viewed. The availability of this data allows admissions groups to “qualify” or “lead score” prospects and make wiser choices about their follow-up.
After acceptance letters are mailed, admissions counselors can “watch” the website for activity from prospects. They can be provided with more data about the behavior of admitted students on digital channels. Rather than cold calling students or sending generic emails to engage them, real-time data about the prospect’s engagement with the school’s website can help admissions counselors know who to follow up with and on what topics.
What Are the Benefits of Marketing and Enrollment Working Together?
More data allows marketing and admissions to make better decisions, use budget and staff more wisely, and make decisions in real-time.
Save money. If a program or region is not producing results, resources can be redirected to more productive regions.
Save time. Staff have better data to prioritize one-on-one phone calls or emails.
Immediate feedback from the market. Many schools start graduate programs based on the interest of a faculty member. A digital first and data-driven approach can market test programs.
Test ideas. Collaboration allows groups to test ideas and measure the impact.
Ultimately this approach results in success for both marketing and admissions. Marketing can be transformed from a cost-center into a critical portion of the revenue generating process because they can prove their impact. Admissions can succeed in recruiting the right students and hitting their numbers. And together, they can help provide critical market data that ensures the institution is developing the right programs and offerings.
Starting Small: How to Begin Collaboration
Making this shift in strategy and approach is exciting and also overwhelming for many schools. And, in many cases, it requires socialization from one of the groups. So, if you’re excited, here are four ways to start this shift at your school.
Bring data to the conversation. Start with the data you have access to using your analytics platform to begin to identify user behavior. Presenting even basic website data helps people start catching a vision for making data-driven decisions. And, it helps people start asking questions and seeking answers.
Use available analytics data to start educating admissions and changing the conversation. Next, in your analytics platform, marketing should set up conversion goals on campus visit forms, lead generation forms, and the application so you can start quantifying the impact of the website on the admissions funnel.
Map the customer journey. Talk to students about their research and decision-making process. You want to understand which content is important at different points in their process and then look to improve your website to meet these needs.
Ask for data and manually collate. Ask for data from admissions and IT and try tying it to the website. This may be manual at first, but it starts the conversation.
What the future looks like
Marketing and admissions working together is a cultural change. It requires marketing to be more goal focused and better at using data. It requires admissions to be more flexible and work in real-time to respond to people’s needs. But when they work together, they can achieve the business goal of attracting students, increasing revenue, and advancing the goals of the institution.
Originally published Oct 28, 2015 7:00:00 AM, updated July 28 2017