It’s a New Day for Student Search in Higher Education

Eric Page Feb 19, 2022 Eric Page EVP, Client Success Persona The Innovative and Confident Captain

Last fall, Carnegie hosted a webinar focused on Student Search. When I polled the 150 attendees and asked them what they thought I meant when I said those words “Student Search,” the answers in the Zoom chat were telling: 

“Buying names and sending students emails”

“Names from College Board”

“Prospect communications” 

It’s time for higher education marketing to evolve and change the way we think about Student Search. It’s not just buying names, and it’s not just the direct marketing campaign that follows. Student Search, as Carnegie is redefining it, is building a cross-channel, personalized, and responsive communications plan that ultimately is more about the prospective student than it is about the school. It’s about engaging students and triggering multiple and meaningful micro-conversions that build affinity while incrementally advancing them through their college search journey. 

That’s a lot of words, but each of them is important in helping us think about what we’re really trying to achieve and why yesterday’s approach to Student Search just isn’t going to work anymore. Why? Because yesterday’s approach to Student Search assumes that you, the colleges and universities, are in control. It’s the students who are in control now, and they decide when, where, and through which channels they engage.

Student Search starts with market intelligence

Let me start by making the assertion that direct marketing doesn’t really work. That is to say a direct marketing campaign doesn’t work without first cultivating a market. That’s why we start by gathering market intelligence. If you are to effectively compete in a market, you have to first know and understand the many variables at play, including how your competitors are positioning themselves and how your audiences perceive you relative to those competitors. Without that, you can’t very well differentiate from the noise. And if we can agree on anything about traditional Student Search, it’s that there is a whole lot of noise—just search #collegemail on Twitter or Instagram if you don’t believe me.  

Student Search requires diversified inquiry sourcing

Beyond market intelligence, today’s Student Search requires you to look for new ways of curating your prospective student pool. This is getting more and more important—and more and more difficult to achieve. Even before the pandemic permanently disrupted the flow of student data through standardized testing services, we were already seeing an increased need for colleges and universities to diversify inquiry sourcing. Why? Because the students are in control! They don’t care about the way you’ve always done it. A tectonic shift like this is going to require you to rethink altogether what you consider an inquiry source (social media or website analytics?) and a prospect-to-inquiry conversion (digital advertising engagement or content consumption?), along with your traditional schedule for how and when inquiries enter your system.

The schedule is a really important thing to consider, because students aren’t searching for colleges on your schedule—they’re on theirs. Therefore, your Student Search must be responsive and always ready to trigger relevant communications across channels, from dynamic web content to email marketing to digital advertising.   

Student Search relies on relevant and personalized communications 

Good communications are built on great segmentation. In yesterday’s approach to Student Search, you were winning the day if you leveraged basic demographic information like resident vs. non-resident or academic achievement levels to segment your Student Search. It takes a lot more to appeal to a generation of kids whose entire existence has been carefully curated to fit their personality and preferences. Carnegie-integrated Student Search takes this into account by designing custom segmentation based on students’ personalities, which delivers powerful and emotive messaging across channels that’s proven to increase engagement and conversion.  

Student Search must be fully integrated across channels

Carnegie introduced digital advertising to higher education more than a decade ago, and when we did, we challenged the industry to “Search Differently.” Back then, that simply meant to supplement your traditional direct marketing campaigns with list-based paid digital advertising to reach and influence students online. I say “simply,” but that was some revolutionary stuff at the time—we were blowing people’s minds at conferences talking about IP Targeting. Times have changed, though, and there’s so much more you can do now to meet prospective students where they are. 

Your website should be the hub of your Student Search campaign, and you can learn so much from how and where students engage and the content they do or don’t consume. You have to create an experience that delights your audience while delivering them the content they’re seeking. Speaking of content, it also has to be optimized for search engine performance so students can find you organically (yes, you should consider SEO as another inquiry source). And if you’re not running a comprehensive year-round paid digital advertising campaign that’s designed to 1) build awareness and 2) be responsive to students searching for schools, you’re missing an opportunity to connect with prospects when they are actively asking to be engaged.       


Student Search should gain efficiency as it’s optimized  

Finally, Student Search should not be a cookie-cutter process that simply rinses and repeats each cycle. Everything from name purchases and inquiry sourcing to campaign cadence to segmentation and messaging should become smarter, more personalized, more precise, and more responsive over time. The only way to ensure that happens is by executing your Student Search campaigns in your own CRM. Carnegie (as well as nearly 60% of institutions), of course, is partial to Slate, and our Underscore team is the absolute best in the industry when it comes to optimizing Slate and running campaigns within your instance. You gain so much by taking this approach: strategy, efficiency, transparency, channel integration, and differentiation from your competitors. And by taking ownership of Student Search, you save money, which allows you to reallocate or reinvest in resources—human or otherwise—to gain efficiencies in your enrollment operation.

Change is hard. I get it. It always is. But trust me—change is coming. There was a certain level of comfort in yesterday’s approach to Student Search. It was turnkey. It was easy. Success largely relied on math. Load enough names into the top of the funnel and you were good for another cycle. That was yesterday. That was when we were in control. It’s a new day, and the students are now in control. The only question is, will you be there to meet them when they’re ready?

If you’re ready, join me and my colleague Jenna Briggs on Wednesday, March 23, for a webinar in which we dive into the new approach to Student Search. Register here.  

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