Higher ed’s one-on-one admissions approach

Six ways to customize outreach to potential students

There was a time when colleges and universities could put their best marketing message out to the masses, and wait for students to respond and express interest.

Today, it’s about being aggressive without being pushy, being more student-focused without being intrusive, and being more open to digital communication without sacrificing authenticity. It’s a fine line to walk, but getting the formula right can boost both applications and enrollment.

Consider this: In a survey, more than nine in 10 students said they want communications from admissions offices to be tailored specifically for them, according to “The 2015 Social Admissions Report” from Chegg and Uversity. Because a one-size-fits-all recruitment campaign no longer cuts it, here are six ways to customize student outreach.

1. Go granular

When officials at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Alabama, sought to drive up applications and enrollments for 2014-15, they shifted to a more targeted type of outreach. Personalized microsites (also known as PURLs, or personalized URLs) for students, powered by Boston-based

Liaison International’s enrollment marketing platform (EMP), were a major effort.

“As opposed to going to a .edu site, the website to which students are taken gives them the specific information they are asking for,” says Keith Mock, vice president of enrollment management at Faulkner.

Administrators at the university can now segment student lists to create more precise messaging. After answering a few brief questions on a landing page, a student is instantly redirected to a PURL. At that point, Faulkner also generates a one-off print flyer that addresses the student’s unique interests.

The EMP helps facilitate the electronic fulfillment, customized emails and personalized printed pieces, says Mock.

Juniata College in Pennsylvania has worked with Maryland-based Waybetter Marketing, which focuses on personalized education outreach, to give the school’s communication plan a one-on-one feel, says Michelle Bartol, dean of admissions.

Marketing wisdom in an age of customization

“Every day a new vendor (or three) is pushing this and that new product to get the best yield out of the audience. I think that the more difficult task is finding new and unique ways to authentically connect. This is a task that never get crossed off the ‘to-do list’ for enrollment managers.”

—Jamie D. Gleason, Chestnut Hill College (Pa.)

“We know that students are resistant to being told who they are and what they need. We try to construct messaging around that, and because of that, it’s more accepted. They understand what we’re putting out there is not a hard sell, but seeking to determine what they’re looking for.”

—Rachel Garza, Allegheny College (Pa.)

“Most students are so inundated with technology and emails, that they actually get pleasantly surprised when they get the age-old notecard. They know there’s a real person behind the message.”

—Satyajit Dattagupta, Washington College (Md.)

Waybetter’s role is to get students into Juniata’s communications stream so that school enrollment counselors can connect with them.

For example, after students describe their academic backgrounds, admissions officers can respond with information about merit awards the students may qualify for; other students showing concern about financial aid might get sent a cost calculator, Bartol says. “They get back an immediate response based on the information they put in.”

2. Perfect the timing

Another benefit to Faulkner’s EMP is being able to see a ticker that shows how students are engaging with their PURLs or emailed responses. “In real time, we are watching students browse their page, and can see what they’re clicking on. We can pick up the phone and call them,” says Mock.

But does this amount to a form of cyber-stalking? The Chegg research found that 62 percent of students expect to hear from college representatives within 24 hours of requesting information. And they don’t want just any scripted response. Student who request information may be used to getting a generic thank-you page, says Mock, “but we give them what they just asked for.”

Allegheny College, also in Pennsylvania, was looking to better time its messages as well. Administrators turned to a cloud-based CRM from Enrollment Rx, built on the Salesforce platform. “Messaging is kicked off based on time, data triggers, date triggers and how long someone’s been in the cycle,” says Rachel Garza, associate vice president of college relations.

“We’re becoming more comfortable with mining the data to know where students are in the application process, tracking their interactions with us and their responses to calls-to-action,” she says.

Administrators can then customize their messaging accordingly. For example, in a monthly e-newsletter that goes out to all prospects, students will be prompted to take only the steps that are pertinent to them at that time.

The new system has not only improved message deliverability (i.e., less email getting caught in spam filters), but open- and click-through rates are about double what they were last year, a sure sign of increased engagement and stronger relationship nurturing, Garza says.

3. Be a good listener

Most admissions professionals would love to be a fly on the wall in a room full of prospective students, and that’s just what social media can be if resources are dedicated to what Juntae DeLane, the digital brand manager for University of Southern California, calls “active listening.”

“Students today want more authentic information, and that’s where social can be a valuable tool,” he says.

It’s about going beyond building a social media following, to fostering engagement and then collecting social data and insights. “We look for any gaps in communication and conversations going on in these platforms, find recurring keywords and themes, and launch a customer service initiative in response,” he says.

This tactic was put into play when DeLane’s team noticed lots of questions about USC dorm life. The response was a YouTube video series that showcased the distinct features of its dorms.

“We added a twist to it and mimicked the show ‘MTV Cribs,’ ” he says. “It was cool, engaging, and it related with students.” The videos were optimized with the keywords that DeLane already knew students were using to search, so they quickly began showing up organically in Google searches. Along with some promotion across the schools’ other social media channels, the dorm videos eventually became the most viewed content on USC Admission’s YouTube channel.

In a new freshman class poll, a good number of students cited the videos—and the real-life look they offered—as one of the factors that encouraged them to apply and ultimately choose the school, says DeLane.

4. Create student communities

College-bound students today (as well as consumers in general) are more savvy to marketing ploys and sales pitches. Hence, they are eager to connect with “real students” directly for reviews and advice.

That’s why schools such as Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, which typically has around 300 students in its freshman class, invite applicants and accepted students to join a class-specific Facebook group, which usually winds up with about 400 members.

“We try to get them to start talking to each other,” says Jamie D. Gleason, director of undergraduate admissions. “We have some current students who are moderators who can add input when they need to, but it’s a grassroots approach to having students be a little bit more self-serving. Transparency is the desired outcome.”

USC’s DeLane has also seen Facebook’s powerful influence over admissions. In a survey sent to approximately 4,000 members of USC’s Facebook Group, 70 percent of respondents said they checked the group more than once a day. Twenty-seven students even reported that the group had a 100 percent direct influence on their decision to attend.

“When you think about that ROI, that’s something that we should definitely put more resources into,” DeLane says.

5. Go back to basics

Crafting messages that stand out among the growing number of schools texting, Snapchatting and creating viral videos to impress digitally-focused teens can be challenging for smaller institutions. So some have gone back to more traditional tactics.

“A couple of years ago, we decided to reinsert a paper application into our mailings and we were surprised at how many students used that mechanism to apply,” says Gleason. In fact, there were about 50 paper applications submitted, which, given the size of the school’s funnel, is a sizable intake for something as seemingly antiquated as paper.

Chestnut Hill also sends handwritten postcards with a real stamp. “Is it easier to hit print on 1,000 letters? Yeah. But the personal touch makes a big difference to the students,” says Gleason.

The same old-fashioned approach is working for Washington College in Maryland. “We’ve really doubled down on who we are. Instead of using a gimmick, we have one-on-one interactions,” says Satyajit Dattagupta, VP for enrollment management.

Dattagupta decided to bring all marketing in-house a couple of years back, ending its contracts with outside consultants.

Personalized note cards with short sentiments from counselors are just the beginning at Washington. A new visitor center added in 2013 has amenities such as smart phone charging stations, a refreshment bar and smart screens for accessing the web. Visitors even get their own personalized parking-spot reserved sign upon arrival.

“We want to send the message to parents and students that the role they play is something we really care about,” says Dattagupta.

To seal the deal, the school will send a student dressed as George Washington to hand-deliver acceptance letters to students in the region. “Students are responding to the fact that we are giving them these personal touches,” he says.

Washington’s applications were up 30 percent from 2013-14 to 2014-15.

6. Enlist help from all

Consider outreach that comes from beyond the admissions office. “As a small school, we try to leverage our alumni,” says Bartol of Juniata.

Alumni are asked to talk about the college with accepted students who are still on the fence. “We’ve gotten instant, amazing results,” she says of the personal connections being made.

The yield of admitted students who connected with alumni for the fall 2014 entering class was 51 percent, compared to an average overall yield of 28 percent. Parents of admits also get a directory of current students’ families.

“If families have questions about living at Juniata, they can call the parents on the list,” she says.

At Faulkner, segmenting students by their potential major allows the school to involve faculty.

“Students receive emails, texts or specific printed pieces that point back to a real contact person at the university,” says Mock. In other words, a potential psychology major might actually have lunch or chat by phone with the head of the psychology department. “Students are surprised at the level of response from the faculty members. That’s something not a lot of schools are doing,” he adds.

Faulkner’s 31 percent increase in new students for 2014-15 is somewhat attributable to customized outreach, Mock says.

The big lesson: In giving a new tactic a try, the end goal should be to make students feel like their needs come first.

Dawn Papandrea is a Staten Island, New York-based writer.

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