The process of lead generation in higher education has changed drastically. My first job in high school was transcribing inquiry cards collected from a college search tour that traveled across the country promoting different institutions and advising students on the college search process. Students attended the tour and filled out a card, by hand, with over 30 inputs. My team would copy these handwritten forms into a system, and the colleges would contact those leads. This process could take months from acquisition to the lead entering a school’s system.
Fast-forward almost 20 years and a lot has changed. The rapid development of technology has put small computers in our hands, evaporated our attention spans, and opened up a myriad of digital ports of connection. Organizations like Amazon and Netflix have set the standard for user experience and personalization, which translates to short forms and high expectations for tailored content.
Higher education is experiencing a tectonic shift in the world of lead generation. Gen Z and Gen Alpha students have grown up in a world where the answer to everything is in the palm of their hand. Why attend a college fair and fill out an inquiry form when you can do the research yourself online? These students are sitting in the driver’s seat of their college search process. They are taking fewer standardized tests than prior generations and more of them are exploring skipping college all together. As the younger generation changes their ways, so must we.
Strategies for diversifying your lead generation
A website that converts
Your website should be the #1 priority when designing your lead generation strategy for 2023 and beyond. Gen Z and Gen Alpha have limited attention spans and high expectations, so every second they spend on your website is valuable. Your website should make it clear and easy to 1) Find information and 2) Inquire for more information.
If you’re not sure where to start, these are the areas that will give you the biggest lift:
A well-placed, easy-to-use form can improve your conversions substantially and generate inquiries earlier in the student journey. Consider these four things when developing your inquiry forms:
- Length: The best rule of thumb with any form is to only ask for the information you are going to use at that moment. If you’re asking for a phone number, will they be pulled into a call campaign? If you’re asking for a street address, will they be receiving a piece of mail? Many institutions will ask for both of these pieces of information on every inquiry form, when in reality they won’t be engaging in either of those campaigns until after the student has visited, so hold off on asking for information you won’t be using right away. We’ve found that four to seven form fields is the sweet spot for most higher education websites. Fewer than that and you’ll increase the quantity of leads, but quality will be low; more than that and you will lose them.
- Position: Where does your form live? You want to be accessible to your prospects when they experience that split second of interest. Having a sticky sidebar is the best way to stay in front of them without intruding on the content they’re engaging with.
- Confirmation: Once a student submits an inquiry form, what do they see on the confirmation page? This is by far your most attentive audience, so why not take advantage of the real estate on the “thank you” page? Include the major value propositions of your institution, your best anthem video, or a student story triggered by a piece of information from the inquiry form.
- Device: How does your form look on a mobile device? We spend three to six hours on our phones daily, and most of your users will be accessing and completing the form on a mobile device, so you need to ensure it is mobile friendly.
Search Engine Optimization
Gone are the days when Search Engine Optimization (SEO) simply meant having all the right keywords and a functioning website. With the rollout of page speed insights, Google is now placing more emphasis on user experience than ever. How quickly does the page load? How do the page elements shift as a user scrolls? How do the elements respond to a click? How easy is it to find information?
A good rule of thumb is that you’re going to lose users if it takes more than one or two clicks to get to the information they’re searching for. If someone searches for “scholarships” at your institution, what page shows up first on Google? Once they land on that page, is there an action they can take (e.g., request information, talk with a counselor)? By matching major search queries with a corresponding on-site conversion opportunity, you’ll increase leads driven by your SEO strategy.
According to a recent CollegeXpress survey, 59% of undergraduate students prefer personalized content on a website, and 36% expect it. We’re spoiled by organizations like Amazon and Netflix that provide curated content based on user data. How do they do it? By tracking our engagement with their website, other websites, and marketing campaigns—and by listening to everything we’ve told them through data input. College websites carry a wealth of this information that can be used to impact your lead gen strategy. Here are some examples we’ve seen of website personalization that work well:
- An unknown prospect visits your Business program page 20 times in the last two weeks. You can serve overlay content on-site for an upcoming Business information session.
- An out-of-state (OOS) prospect is viewing your financial aid and scholarships page. On their next visit, we can showcase student stories that highlight the ROI for other OOS students.
- An unknown prospect has visited your admission and financial aid pages multiple times leading up to your application deadline. You can show an app fee waiver message directly to that student, urging them to submit their information.
All of these examples serve the purpose of providing personalized content to a user based on the information you’ve already gathered, which can improve your lead conversion rate by two to three times.
Inquiries that convert on your website are very valuable. Here are a few specific reasons:
- Intent: Students who inquire on your website already know a little bit about you, so you can score them as having higher intent than a purchased lead or a lead generated through in-platform campaigns.
- Data: By owning your website, you have access to a robust inventory of information on students, including the pages they’re engaging with, time spent on your site, any marketing they engage with, and more.
- Quality of information: You fully control the narrative and experience of your prospects and leads. You don’t have to share the space with other websites and schools, so you can tell a more robust story about why they should attend your institution.
Digital advertising as a lead generator
In addition to the leads you’ll generate on-site, there are a number of highly targeted digital tactics you can employ to support your inquiry source efforts. Unfortunately, if you’ve been paying attention over the last year, you saw a slew of privacy changes primarily led by the major players: Apple iOS 14, Google, and Facebook. These changes have not only impacted our ability to generate in-platform leads from under-18 prospects, but we can no longer target our list of prospective students in Facebook/Instagram. With list availability decreasing—and our ability to target those lists becoming equally as difficult—higher education marketers will need to create other ways to generate digital leads throughout the year. But don’t worry—there are still many opportunities offered by digital lead generation.
This is an area that was most affected by the new privacy laws. But despite the restrictions, social media is still an incredibly valuable resource. High school students use social media for two to three hours per day on average, and they’re looking to those channels to learn more about the institutions they’re interested in.
Snapchat and TikTok are still viable options for under-18 lead generation and list match. With an under-18 population of 120 million and 325 million, respectively, Snapchat and TikTok continue to be a massive source. It’s likely both of these channels will follow suit with Facebook/Instagram in the future, but you can still currently reach those 16–18 year olds with confidence. Across all social platforms, parent targeting is also an incredibly strong way to leverage social media lead generation tactics, particularly with channels like Facebook and LinkedIn that tend to lean toward an older audience.
Pay Per Click (Google)
While Google removed the ability to utilize lead generation within the Search Engine Results Page (SERP), Pay Per Click (PPC) is still a great way to generate on-site leads. Earlier we spoke about the importance of SEO and ensuring that users wouldn’t need to click more than one or two times before getting to the page they’re looking for. PPC is a fabulous way to get in front of students with the right message at the right time—and the least number of clicks!
A student is searching for financial aid? By bidding on those keywords, you could show a paid ad speaking to how your institution covers an average percent of need or an ad that provides unique scholarships ranging in award amount. Here, you’re providing information a student wants in the moment they need it, which will make them more likely to convert.
An IP Targeting campaign can serve Display ads to prospective students based on their street address. Coupled with a unique, tailored landing page, this tactic can work wonders for your lead qualifying. For example, if you’re a public institution looking for more OOS students, you can serve ads to a purchased list of students from a specific region that speak to the exciting student experiences available surrounding campus, the scholarships available to them, and the living arrangements on campus. IP Targeting takes the guesswork out of direct marketing by providing clear conversion tracking from the list you are targeting.
There are quite a number of benefits to leads generated via digital marketing, including:
- Targeting: The sophistication of digital marketing continues to get smarter, allowing us to reach the right audience with content that’s appropriate for the channel they’re engaging with.
- Data: You control how much or how little data you receive from your leads—and, sometimes more importantly, the data you get from those that don’t convert. Why aren’t they converting? What message isn’t resonating? All of this can help you make smarter decisions with your messaging and guide all your marketing efforts.
- ROI: Most CRMs allow you to target all the way through to application, bringing you one step closer to true marketing attribution.
Third-party lead generation
A key principle of a solid lead generation strategy is meeting students where they are. Another is being ever present or always on. Third-party lead generation sources, like college search engines, offer both these elements, with the added bonus of being budget friendly.
Students are taking charge of their college search process, with millions turning to college search sites (like CollegeXpress.com) which can provide you with unlimited hand-raisers, early pipeline development, branding exposure to millions of prospective students, and more. The lead generation tactics are straightforward and the benefits are many.
Online college search engines offer students access to information about colleges and universities, scholarships, and the college search journey. Most platforms offer free school profiles, and you can really set your institution apart and capture the attention of your audience by enhancing your profile according to your specific enrollment goals. For instance, if you have increased enrollment goals for your Science and Engineering programs, you might consider adding a program-specific video. In general, adding video, refreshing images, and featuring testimonials are great enhancements to your profile presence, and this extra attention to your profile benefits your brand across the site. For example, on CollegeXpress.com, when a featured school appears in a search, the institution’s name will have an enhanced display with images versus a general listing, which just features a college or university’s name. Enhanced profiles come with a fee, but it’s well worth the investment for year-round exposure. Maintaining your school’s profile with relevant information and fresh visuals is the key to making the profile work for you.
On-site advertising opportunities
Many college search engines offer on-site or in-platform advertising opportunities, giving you yet another option to generate awareness and interest with your audience. Opportunities range from Display ads to featured placements. The benefit of this opportunity is additional exposure to a highly relevant audience that provides a layer of repetition for individuals you’re already recruiting on the platform as well as awareness building with new prospects.
Another tried-and-true lead generation method offered by most college search platforms is on-platform inbox mail. Search platforms offer colleges and universities options to communicate with prospects through emailed newsletters, feature spotlights, and more. The email is sent by the platform and generates increased awareness as well as hand-raisers seeking a direct connection with participating institutions. Benefits of this tactic include segmentation (geographic, GPA, program interest, etc.); ample real estate to share your unique value proposition; and a single-click opportunity for students to connect with your institution. If you’re not already using a college search platform’s inbox advertising to meet your enrollment goals, you should consider it as your next move.
Here are the most compelling reasons to add college search platforms to your diversified lead generation strategy:
An educated opt-in
The beauty of a college search engine is that the prospective student makes the first move. For example, CollegeXpress will never send a name to a school through any service unless the student opts in. With this simple setup, you only receive the names of students who are interested in your institution, and they already have a baseline understanding of what your institution can offer them.
Credibility of an objective party
While students are savvy and aware that colleges and universities contribute the content they find on college search engines, there’s an element of credibility provided by the uniformity imposed by the platform. Each school has the same opportunities to present their information, and that information is available for direct comparison.
Millions of students are using college search sites to research schools, and not all of these students will be captured in a standardized test list purchase. With more schools going test-optional, there may be a pool of students who opt out of taking a college entry exam altogether. Further, states like New York are putting privacy policies in place that make it harder for colleges and universities to access data from testing companies, not to mention the social media platform policies restricting advertising to those under 18 years old. College search engines are a viable option for generating interest in a comprehensive and diverse group of students.
Like many of the digital strategies listed, college search engines offer highly targeted outreach options. For example, CollegeXpress has over 40 different segments that institutions can opt in to for proactive brand awareness.
Always on and multi-cycle
College search engines are always on and ready to educate active college searchers, which directly translates to year-round pipeline building for your institution. Via these platforms, you will reach students—including elusive high school freshmen and sophomores—in the years leading up to their final college decision, making the first connection early and gaining valuable visibility before they build an initial short list of schools. Additionally, you’ll capture late bloomers or still-exploring seniors who can supplement your next class.
Students used to navigate the college search the same way: Take the standardized tests, go to the college fairs, fill out the forms, and sort through all the mail they got afterward. Now, students have more control over how they search for the right institution. This is great for students as it makes the college search easier and more accessible. For institutions, as long as you embrace and adapt to these changes, you’ll be rewarded with a healthy pipeline of interested students.
Curious about Carnegie’s approach to lead diversification? Start a conversation with our team today.
This blog was co-authored by Jaime Oleksik, VP, Strategic Marketing and Megan Gibbs, AVP, CollegeXpress.