Redefining and Redesigning Student Search: Your Questions, Our Answers

Carnegie Higher Ed Apr 21, 2022 Carnegie Higher Ed Persona The Visionary Frontrunner

We recently hosted a webinar called It’s Time to Redefine and Redesign Student Search, where we made the case for a new model of Student Search—one that’s market-minded and student-centric. We got so many great questions that we didn’t have time to answer live, so we’re delivering those answers now. For those who attended the webinar, feel free to jump down to the Q&A section of this blog to find your questions answered. For those who did not attend, I’ll set the stage for the audience questions below.

Why do we need a new model for Student Search?

  • The landscape has changed. The drop off—“the cliff” of college-bound students that we’ve been talking about for at least a decade—is here.
  • The student journey can no longer be described as a funnel, which conjures a linear path. It’s now a diverse ecosystem with many entry (and exit) points. Technology has multiplied our channels, and we now must be prepared to not only have a presence but a plan for each (or most).
  • Our dynamic with students has changed. We (colleges and universities) are no longer in control of timelines or engagements. The best we can do is acknowledge this and adapt.
  • Gen Z and Gen Alpha expect customization and demand authenticity from the brands they know and love, more than any generation before.

How do we adapt to this landscape?

Focus on fit

Given the landscape we just described, our first strategy focuses our time and energy on where it’s going to matter most: recruiting the right students. It starts with research and buying right-fit names. And it’s about leveraging data beyond demographics to narrow in on the students best matched for your institution.


To capture the attention of this generation in an oversaturated market, we must go beyond {first_name} and {academic program}. The good news is that we can! With advanced segmentation and psychometric (personality, motivations, and beliefs) data, better, authentic, and more human communications are possible.

Always on

The new Student Search model deploys an always-on strategy to ensure that we’re meeting students where they are and when they are ready. This strategy relies heavily on digital strategies that offer full student journey influence and loads of behavioral data to be used to further optimize our work.

Leverage your CRM

You’ve invested in a powerful tool—your CRM—so why not maximize it? Executing your search communications within your CRM allows you to:

  • Fully integrate all Student Search channels;
  • Have total data transparency and custom reporting;
  • Optimize your campaigns often and at any time; and
  • Reallocate savings to diversify your Student Search efforts.

What are the strategies of this Student Search redesign?

  1. Know your market:
    The new model of Student Search is market-centric and data-driven. Market information is a tool that we in higher education haven’t used to its full potential—let’s change that now! Market research takes the traditional data sets—demographics and enrollment data—and also adds market intelligence, which can tell you what your market thinks about you, compare your messaging to competitors, and yield data on student expectations, behaviors, and more. Together, these data sets chart the course for your name-purchasing and messaging strategies, narrowing your focus to the right-fit students and the most motivating message.
  2. Diversify your inquiry sources:
    Traditional Student Search is heavily reliant on name purchasing from standardized test services, but with test-taking numbers going down and test-optional policies gaining popularity, we need a diversified sourcing strategy. A silver lining to the many ports of entry created by technology is that we can consider each a potential source for a Student Search inquiry. Think about social media, SEO, SEM, digital advertising, web personalization, and your website in general—these can all be lead sources. With the right strategy, these sources can yield highly qualified leads, along with data points beyond a test score and home address—highly valuable info for message targeting. Additionally, third-party college search platforms like CollegeXpress offer community building and education opportunities for students, plus awareness and lead gen opportunities for you.
  3. Generate real connection:
    Your Student Search should leverage psychometric (personality, motivations, and beliefs) data and advanced segmentation to generate a real connection. This pairing ensures that you better understand the student and can identify commonalities between your institution and the individual, resulting in targeted and humanized messaging. Our advanced segmentation (Darts and Motivators) has proven to increase engagement, create affinity, and drive action. In one case study, Dart-segmented emails saw an 11% increase in open rates compared to the control group. To capture attention in an oversaturated market, you must differentiate, and what better way to do that than in a way that’s authentic to you and driven by data?
  4. Integrate your CRM:
    Security, transparency, campaign optimizations, and operational efficiency—not to mention budget efficiency—this is the power of a CRM execution. This piece of the new model is perhaps the most divergent from traditional Student Search, and it’s game-changing. When you execute your search out of your Slate instance, you own all your data—every name you purchase or source is loaded directly into your instance. There are no data exchanges or opportunities for exposed records. You have real-time reporting at your fingertips, which leads to campaign optimizations that you can implement immediately. Data is tagged for advanced segmentation and deployed for automated communications, and your omni-channel effort is tracked in one place. Digital ads, web personalization, and print and email engagement data all meet on the student dashboard, giving you full-journey visibility and attribution. You own the technical infrastructure of your Student Search so you’ll use it year-over-year, freeing up valuable budget resources to diversify your Student Search strategies. If you need assistance with your Student Search, we have an entire team who will dedicate themselves to your success and provide support from implementation to YOY optimization.
  5. Think digital first:
    Your primary digital channels must be central to your Student Search strategy. Digital marketing strategy is no longer an optional add-on to a Student Search campaign. A digital-first approach considers your entire enrollment ecosystem—beginning with your website. Every element of your site should cater to your Student Search audience. This can be accomplished by repositioning content, implementing website personalization, or—if your site isn’t a prospective student site already—doing a complete redesign. Digital advertising strategies like Display ads, social, and SEO/SEM should engage a student at each phase of the journey from awareness to enrollment. Any website or ad engagement should trigger meaningful and relevant communications from your CRM. And all communications should work in concert (made much easier when all reporting is available in your Slate CRM) to meet students where they are, whenever they are ready. A robust digital strategy is what makes an always-on strategy possible.


Audience questions and Carnegie answers

Question: ”We heard a lot about moving away from traditional methods—what about non-traditional audiences? How do we expand Student Search beyond the traditional high school student population?”

A Carnegie Student Search is a search philosophy for all students because it removes the emphasis on the traditional undergraduate calendar and leverages always-on, digital-first strategies that focus on a student’s behavior. Where the audience is critical is in the execution of the six pillars of our search model. For example, your platform strategy will differ from one audience to another. Your communication campaigns will include a different mix; you might include a parent campaign for undergrads and a deferment campaign for grads. Your core messages, of course, will be tailored to the audience.

All executions of Student Search are tailored to your institution’s goals and specific audience, but the philosophy is the same: Your audience needs a comprehensive Student Search that considers today’s enrollment ecosystem, focuses on the student, and acknowledges your market.

Question: “How do you get buy-in from individuals who have been using the traditional search method for so long and have a hesitancy to buy less, even if we’re buying smarter?”

This answer depends on the enrollment situation. If the traditional Student Search is no longer providing results, then this is an easier conversation, right? The definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Now, if you’re at an institution with positive results year-over-year, this is a different discussion. Maybe decreasing your name buy isn’t the right optimization for your institution, but for many colleges and universities, it will be the first optimization in a series of many that will improve Student Search. The landscape has changed, and the old approach will stop working. So for many of us, it’s a matter of getting ahead or falling behind.

We’re advocating for a more sustainable version of Student Search, one that can be always on and student centric. In order to take this approach—and assuming we’re not all getting major budget increases—we need to look for opportunities to optimize, starting with how we spend our Student Search dollars. One place to look is the number of names purchased and the associated cost—cost per student name, fulfillment costs, and associated fees by volume. There’s a good chance that there’s incentive in those numbers for change.

[I want to stay on task here, but I need to mention that the other major budget-efficient optimization to look into is executing your Student Search out of your own CRM.]

Additionally, the strategy you’re arguing for isn’t buying fewer names—it’s building a better strategy and increasing engagement. You’re shifting to buying the right names and leveraging advanced strategies that will increase your yield at major milestones. With better channel coverage, personalized messaging, and precise segmentation—an optimized ecosystem—your engagement will increase. Engagement leads to increased affinity and action.
In summary: Don’t make the argument for fewer names—make the argument for a better strategy that increases student engagement.

Question: “Where do you see parents fitting into search?”

Parents and guardians are a critical audience for Student Search, as they are often primary influencers in the college search process, and their engagement is usually a strong indication of a student’s intent to enroll. With Carnegie Student Search engagements, we recommend running parallel parent communications via email, digital, and print. We collect parent information via Slate forms, which adheres data to a parent profile associated with (but separate from) the student record. Your email, digital, and print campaigns are run through and tracked in your CRM. Long story short: Parents and guardians are a critical audience for Student Search.

Question: “With email hosts pre-loading messages for recipients (and therefore blowing up open rates), what other strategies can we utilize to determine message effectiveness?”

We recently published a blog on this topic called How Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection Will Impact Higher Education Marketers, so check it out for background information on this question. But here are a few recommendations on how to determine message effectiveness without open rates:

  • Contextualize, don’t ditch: Instead of completely abandoning open rate data in reports, review your open rates to evaluate the impact of Mail Privacy Protection (MPP) for your institution. First, compare year-over-year data on messages sent. Are this year’s emails opening at a significantly higher rate than last year’s emails? If so, MPP might be the cause. If not, it could be that only a small percentage of your audience is impacted by MPP. Continue to monitor your open rates; they will eventually reach a new normal. In the short term, use email-to-email open rates to determine success. If the data is or seems volatile, then you might consider a…
  • Shift to clicks: Use click rate data, which will not be impacted by MPP. While the open rate on your first application generation email might be questionable, you’ll still be able to track how many students clicked your “Apply” CTA. Admittedly, click rates will never be as robust or inspiring as open rate data. But that may inspire you to…
  • Re-evaluate: When one door closes, another one opens. Use the inconvenience of MPP to re-evaluate your email marketing strategy. If they open your email, is your narrative compelling? Do your messages offer the opportunity to click to learn more about your institution? How many links do you include? Are your calls to action descriptive? Ensure that you have proper tracking set up to evaluate your engagement beyond open rates.
  • Supplement with micro-conversions data: Micro-conversions are the small steps or secondary actions your students are taking within your ecosystem, and they’re strong indicators of effective messaging. Beyond open rates, you can track the influence of that email by identifying and benchmarking related micro-conversions, like website traffic, form submissions, new followers, or engagement on social media. Additionally, if you’re leveraging a comprehensive campaign, email is not the only channel where you’re leveraging these messages, so look to your other channels like your website, as well as digital advertising, where you can find supplemental data to indicate message success.

Question: “What are your social media platforms must-haves [for Student Search]?”

It depends on the audience. For undergraduate Student Search, we’re seeing success with TikTok and Snapchat, because those two platforms allow for more precise targeting than Instagram and Facebook, who’ve recently changed their marketing policies. For all audiences, we recommend including YouTube in your social strategy, because video is a popular way students of all ages consume content—and as you know, YouTube is the second-largest search engine after Google, so it’s a dual social-SEO strategy. For graduate, professional, and adult audiences, we often recommend LinkedIn, which offers a suite of tactics from inbox messages to on-platform Retargeting, and Twitter, which offers a similarly diverse number of targeting options. Facebook and Instagram are effective platforms for audiences age 18 and up, so these platforms remain in play for transfer and graduate strategies. Additionally, we always recommend supporting a paid strategy with an active organic social strategy, so you’re covering all related ports of entry and engagement.

Question: “What about other media (OTT, radio, steaming services, etc.)—do you have recommendations?”

OTT, radio, and streaming services are great to build brand awareness for an institution. These brand strategies can be strong partners to a Student Search if the budget allows and the audience-platform match is appropriate. These media are not typically part of our Student Search strategies because they are costly, but they are absolutely additional ports of entry that can be optimized to drive awareness.

Streaming media like Spotify, Hulu, and Twitch are good strategies early in the student journey to capture attention. Undergraduate, transfer, and graduate students are all using these platforms in force.

When given the choice between radio and streaming platforms, we’ll choose streaming every time, but a hyper-targeted awareness campaign for an open house—which can be tracked via a question on the event form—would be our recommendation on this platform.

Finally, OTT—similar to radio OTT—is about your goal and complementing strategy. New market penetration or home market protection are reasons we might recommend OTT.

Question: “How does operating out of my Slate instance impact my email sender reputation?”

As an email service provider, Slate ensures your sender reputation remains high—it’s something to monitor, but not something to worry about.

First, Slate uses DomainKeys Identified Mail, or DKIM, which is a technical standard that helps protect email senders and recipients from spam, spoofing, and phishing. This verification process allows your institution to claim responsibility for a message, adding a digital signature, which helps the email recipient service validate your email as “safe.” The end result: Your email hits inboxes. Second, Slate will never send an email with improper formatting (typos, missing domains, etc.) to protect your delivery rate.

Slate also protects you from high bounce rates, which can also affect sender reputation. Slate automatically creates suppression lists for email addresses that bounce repeatedly to keep your bounce rate low. Additionally, audit querying and rules can be built to assist with monitoring bounce rates.

Finally, Slate can help increase your sender reputation by increasing engagement. Slate gives us a number of opportunities to optimize engagement, including advanced segmentation by Motivator or Dart (psychographic segmentation—personality, motivations, and behaviors) for more personalized communications, optimizations to subject lines and preview text, and A/B testing with CTAs and creative. You’ll have an entire team of Slate experts (project managers, creatives, and strategists) behind you to help monitor and make recommendations that will protect and boost your sender reputation.

Thank you for all these great questions! If you would like to discuss any of these points further, you can email us directly.

Next steps for your Student Search

Look for opportunities to optimize your current Student Search—for every port of entry, there is potential for optimization. If you’re ready to redesign your Student Search, we’re here for you. Reach out today to talk to a strategist about your Student Search.

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