Over the past several months, our team has been asked many questions related to marketing, content development, digital execution, lead generation, name availability, and the impact of COVID-19 on everything we do in higher education. We wanted to take some of the most common and pressing questions and ask our internal experts to chime in with their best advice.
This month’s questions:
- With 90% of decisions being based on feelings, how do we include this in our messaging when we have so much information to get out there? What are actionable steps we can make as marketers to do this?
- A recent NACAC survey noted that 46% of respondents believe there will be a substantial impact on their ability to build a prospect pool. What are your top suggestions/strategies to make the most of the current situation to fill the pool effectively?
- With social media activity so strong and the continued increase of screen time, how should schools be leveraging social differently (or more) during this unique cycle?
- With the plethora of student surveys that have been conducted over the past several months (by Carnegie Dartlet and others) and some of the primary themes and results from them, what are your top recommendations from a strategic marketing standpoint in response to it all?
Our panel of experts includes:
For this installment of expert advice, we’ve focused on messaging, building prospect pools, social media, and student survey themes and results.
Question 1: With 90% of decisions being based on feelings, how do we include this in our messaging when we have so much information to get out there? What are actionable steps we can make as marketers to do this?
Jorie: Be empathetic in your research and messaging. Look at what students are saying about their college decisions on social media—trending hashtags from spring/summer 2020 will reveal a trove of honest thoughts (and not just hashtags that are specific to higher education). Start your message with content that addresses their real concerns (using your institution’s distinct voice/tone) and follow it with the information/facts you want to share about your school.
Kristy: Remember the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words”? This 100% applies to the photos selected for your messaging strategies. Often, we’re more focused on the call to action and messaging but overlook the image selected. Especially at a time when campus visits are few and far between, look at the photos you choose. What emotions do they make you feel? If you aren’t getting butterflies and feeling the magic of stepping foot on your campus, maybe it’s time to choose another image.
Melissa: With so many institutions historically relying on the awe-struck moment of walking on campus to tap into the emotional decision-making process, institutions must bring the emotions and feeling to the student. Now is the time to abandon bland, boring, common messaging and tell deeply emotional stories of the campus culture and excitement students can expect once they come to campus.
Bethany: When creating your message, start with the question, “How do you want a student to feel?” then try to include only the content that serves to produce this feeling. This doesn’t mean you have to avoid technical facts and figures entirely, but try to not let these overtake the message. Instead, prioritize emotive narrative and integrate facts in such a way that they support and prove out the larger story—that is, the larger narrative about your brand. In cases where you have many facts to communicate—so much so that they dominate the space allowed for writing—explore whether you can move the more technical how-to’s or informative lists to a linked website or landing page. Finally, consider your audience and the worth of the real estate where you are communicating your message. If the message is for prospective students, fostering a feeling is incredibly important to ensure greater interest, affinity, and engagement, whereas a statement to partners or donors may suffice with a sentence or two of emotive narrative followed by a message more informative in nature.
Sheridan: Segment your messaging based on the motivators of your specific audiences. You can then be very intentional about what messaging you’re putting where. When you layer that with authenticity, you’ve hit a home run. If you haven’t already, take a deep dive into who your audience is, looking past location and GPA and measuring their feelings (it’s possible!) so you can deliver messages that will resonate.
Question 2: A recent NACAC survey noted that 46% of respondents believe there will be a substantial impact on their ability to build a prospect pool. What are your top suggestions/strategies to make the most of the current situation to fill the pool effectively?
Megan: Continue with ongoing daily/weekly sources providing names that are truly interested in you, like CollegeXpress. With year-over-year increases in registrations, CollegeXpress is gaining incredible traction with students as a top college search resource and lead generation tool. Data from schools that have been a part of the CollegeXpress service show CollegeXpress reach into their inquiry funnel via email by more than 75%, and over 30% of these names are engaging directly on the CollegeXpress website. Being visible on a site like CollegeXpress promises a stream of student inquiries throughout the year when other sources can’t.
Kristy: Now more than ever, it’s important to think of the student journey and where/how the lead is coming to your school. What level of brand awareness do these students have for your school? It is critical to be aware of how much “warming up” your comm-flow and admission team will have to do before a student takes action to move through your funnel. If the majority of your funnel is focused on top-heavy names, now is the time to be strategic and diversify where you source your names. One strategic way is to expand your CollegeXpress segment mix or invest in adding CollegeXpress as a lead generation platform for your school. This is a powerful lead gen tool that connects institutions to funnel-ready leads. Your CollegeXpress leads are students directly leaning into their college search, knocking on your door to learn more, ready to directly enter your comm-flow and engage with your school.
Ben: Evaluating the extent to which your enrollment operation mirrors a funnel timeline versus anticipating more unpredictable timelines of engagement through various ports of entry within an ecosystem environment is the first step. Layered and coordinated strategies that include cross-divisional outreach through consistent tactics like digital, social, SMS, email campaigns, and reputation saturation are more important than ever. Those who manage this well are likely to experience stronger results. Additionally, qualifying students should come from aggregate interactions and form submissions rather than traditional markers from visit registrations and application starts.
Consider creative ways to further build affinity with any and all students who have initiated interest. Go beyond the virtual visit and create pathways of connection that might include optional interviews for students (those who couldn’t test, scholarship opportunities, key populations), a return to higher-impact print collateral, and ongoing micro-interactions through polls (get them to your portal). Leverage these opportunities for yield (which, as a function of smaller admit pools and increased interactions, will likely rise this year). Application counts could be the result of a delayed timeline (stay patient). Perhaps this is a notable year for a shortfall (yield is now a constant strategy, not a season), or it could be that a smaller inquiry pool is exactly what some universities need (high-volume search could be a thing of the past).
Eric: First, for the 54% who don’t believe there will be a substantial impact, you have to accept it. This cycle is going to be different. And some of the changes will be permanent. With the disruption to standardized testing and so many schools going “test-optional,” likely for good, the volume to which you build your prospect pool and the way you build it is going to change. The key in the short term and in the future is going to be diversifying your lead sources and thinking beyond traditional ways of reaching students. Beyond your student search strategy, what is your inbound marketing strategy? What’s your social media strategy? How are you cultivating markets to elevate awareness and drive engagement? And “engagement” is going to look different in the future. Ultimately, because your prospect pool is going to be smaller, you have to shift the emphasis to yield, and you do that by getting really intentional and strategic about delivering a personalized experience to those students you can reach and engage.
Question 3: With social media activity so strong and the continued increase of screen time, how should schools be leveraging social differently (or more) during this unique cycle?
Erika: We all know the importance of getting students to campus to be able to experience what makes a particular school and program unique. But travel hasn’t been able to resume to pre-COVID levels yet, so that means prospective students and their families are seeking more opportunities than ever before to experience different campuses virtually. If you don’t have a video strategy in place yet, this is something to start prioritizing! Now is the time to tap into your students, faculty, stuff, and alumni to bring more of those authentic stories through video content to your social channels—on both the organic and paid side of things. Don’t be afraid to let your current students generate the content you’re sharing on channels like TikTok, Instagram Stories, and Snapchat. Your current students will be much more in-tune with what’s going to resonate with prospective students, especially if it’s for a channel you aren’t active on yourself.
Sheridan: Meet them where they are. Build a brand presence and be sure to offer a strong call to action leading them to the information they’re after. Now is a great time to engage with students and focus on the top of the funnel. There’s immense value in developing a comprehensive campaign that aligns with your unique challenges and goals so that you’re able to eliminate the risk of going dark and reducing engagement and better push prospects through the funnel.
Melissa: Short, powerful, and awe-inspiring videos are a must. While screen time has increased, attention spans have not. Fact and data-driven messaging will be easily tossed aside. So you have a deadline to promote? Wrap that into a story about the impact made on a life because someone took that step you’re looking to promote. Also rely on your students and alumni to tell stories on your behalf. Think like a social media influencer: rarely do people buy products because the company told them to—it’s a celebrity or real-person testimonial that drives us to purchase, click, or read.
Kevin: Now more than ever, schools need to leverage their social media presence not only to drive inquiries and applications but to leverage their brand. Your audiences are on their mobile devices the majority of the day, so you have a captive audience who is searching for colleges. Your social media presence should be leveraging not only high school seniors but also juniors, sophomores, and parents. Use this opportunity to get underclassmen into your communications flow and begin the process of “courting” them with the admission materials they’ve requested from your school. Drive your seniors to inquire, sign up for, and attend your on-campus or virtual events. Parents are sometimes overlooked, so you should have a campaign designated to highlight information about your school that’s important to the decision-making process that parents are going through with their children (including financial aid, student services, career services, five-year programs, etc.). Your messages should be segmented based on the audiences you’re trying to reach, driving them to a designated landing page for each campaign audience.
Question 4: With the plethora of student surveys that have been conducted over the past several months (by Carnegie Dartlet and others) and some of the primary themes and results from them, what are your top recommendations from a strategic marketing standpoint in response to it all?
Jen: In my opinion, the biggest thing that stands out is that the admission cycle has shifted and is now pushed back by at least two months. Students haven’t had the guidance they normally get, the tests they normally take, or the ability to visit. They are waiting—waiting for test scores, waiting and hoping for the ability to actually visit campus. Normally we’re in the thick of application season, but many schools won’t see that until December or later.
Eric: One theme I’ve noticed is that students, across the board, are open to more frequent communication, but they expect relevant, timely, and transparent communication about COVID-19. How schools have been handling communication about COVID to current students and their families has become a defining characteristic of their organic brand.
Dave: Based on the surveys, students have told us test options were what they wanted, but nobody really knows what that means. So many prospective applicants are waiting to take standardized tests again (or even for the first time) in order to apply. There could be a fear that if they apply to a school without test scores, they won’t be considered for merit aid. It’s quite possible that schools that rely on SAT test takers are further behind than schools that have a lot of ACT test takers because of the differences in each organization’s response to test administration during the pandemic. Schools should articulate what being “test-optional” truly means and be very up-front about it in their communications and on the web. They have to combat the notion that schools are being duplicitous on what test-optional means and perhaps even provide an incentive of some kind to encourage prospective students to apply without their test scores. To get to the bottom of some student behaviors, schools may also want to consider doing much more polling and surveying. It’s another engagement opportunity within their comm-flows or other operations but also a signal to the institution on potential interest, which may yield actionable results that are more specific to their institution than national survey results.
Scott: The lack of in-person visiting means schools need to change up the channel strategies to account for homeschooling and virtual learning environments. Plan for a longer than normal application generation cycle. Yield will likely extend further than before as well, and melt could be intense given the shifting dynamics. That means marketing needs to be thought of as a 365-day campaign this year, something new for higher education. Other tactical actions include amping up video efforts and other 30D content strategies to fill in the on-campus experience gaps, aggressively marketing financial aid and the appeals process, and actively engaging other audiences such as parents and counselors, who need dedicated campaigns more than ever before.
Ben: Portals, portals, portals. Students and parents are on their own (at least they feel that way). Universities need to provide a one-stop location where everything is updated in real time, next steps are clear, and students know exactly where they stand (in terms of missing items, decisions, etc). Also market cultivation through direct connection with key CEEBs, and don’t forget about FA22. That timeline will also be off, so why not start cultivation now?
Have other questions you’d like our experts to answer? Want to connect with them to chat through ideas? Let us know.