What COVID-19 Means for Student Search and Your Prospective Student Pipeline

Carnegie Higher Ed Mar 19, 2020 Carnegie Higher Ed Persona The Visionary Frontrunner

The landscape of sophomore and junior student search, no doubt, has been changing over the past several years. With the sweeping adoption of Slate across higher education and the vast improvement of other CRMs, college and university admissions offices more and more are bringing search campaigns in-house and taking ownership of their entire funnel. In the process, they’re reallocating resources previously dedicated to vended search providers in order to build up staff, develop custom research-based strategy, integrate multiple digital channels, and enhance data analysis to test and refine their campaigns. They’re buying fewer names at the top of the funnel, increasing conversion points throughout, and turning their focus toward yield. 

This has been slow innovation brought on by the availability of better tools, a desire for financial efficiency and long-term sustainability, a movement away from direct marketing to market cultivation, Gen Z audience expectations, and the need to be more precise in targeting because of the looming demographic cliff wall approaching in 2025. 

And now, COVID-19. This crisis will rapidly accelerate innovation and force colleges and universities to continue to find a better way.

Canceled ACT and SAT tests will cut off supply of student data

Hundreds of thousands of high school juniors were set to take the ACT and SAT standardized tests last weekend, and most of those tests were canceled to mitigate risk of the spread of COVID-19. Future test dates likely won’t happen until June at the earliest and AP exams are cancelled in many places across the country. We will address the obvious challenges and anxiety this is creating for high school students, among other student- and parent-focused issues, in a separate post. For colleges and universities, though, which were planning to launch student search campaigns targeting high school juniors, this presents a significant issue: the supply chain for student data has been cut off, and we don’t know for how long.

So, how are you going to build a pipeline of prospective students for 2021 and beyond?

The students are out there and, in truth, have never been more accessible. It’s just a matter of how and when you’re reaching them. I mentioned earlier the shift in mindset from direct marketing to market cultivation. The cutoff in student data supply is going to mean a more rapid shift to adopting this mindset.

You won’t have student mailing or email addresses for many members of the class of 2021 to send emails, letters, and postcards to over the next several months, but you still have to get in front of those students and get them engaged. Now more than ever, that means having a strategic online presence and driving them to your website where you can capture their information.

So, how do you do that?

Inbound marketing has never been more important

If you don’t have an active and strategic inbound marketing content plan, now is the time to create one. Here are some things to consider:

  • Do you have an admissions blog that is designed to serve prospective students and their parents through all stages of the college search process?
  • Is your school’s website, especially the admissions section, optimized for search engine performance to ensure your content is showing up when students and parents are searching for answers online?
  • Do you have an organic social media strategy that is integrated across platforms to engage with prospective students and parents, answering their questions, highlighting the student experience, and promoting your content?
  • Specific to social, do you have an active YouTube channel and relevant videos with good, searchable tags and descriptions? This will be more important than ever this spring as students are unable to make physical visits to campus.
  • Speaking of visits, do you have a virtual visit or a series of videos that can serve that purpose? Now is the time to package what you have and make it easily accessible to prospective students and their families.   
  • Does your website serve dynamic content to visitors that becomes more custom and more personalized as they come back to your site again and again, and does this data sync to your CRM?
  • Are you making it very, very, very easy for students to give you their information? Elevate your RFI forms on the website and strip all unnecessary form fields. Get the students in your system and then you can follow up.

Re-examine your digital advertising strategy

It wasn’t that long ago that Carnegie Dartlet introduced IP Targeting to higher education as what was then a cutting-edge digital strategy. I was a client back then as the Director of Recruitment and Communications at the University of Iowa. It has been a natural progression for list-targeting tactics like IP, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat to mesh with and enhance traditional student search campaigns taking a direct marketing approach. You take the physical addresses and email addresses, match with the digital platforms, and deliver the ads. We even segment the ad creative by prospective student personality types now, and it is very effective for driving awareness and engagement.

But, if you don’t have those lists, how do you create an audience to target at the top of your funnel? There are lots of ways, especially in a time when prospective students will be spending so much extra time online and connected to mobile devices.

  • Use your current student data for inquiries or search names to create look-alike audiences you can then target on various platforms.
  • Enhance your targeting parameters around paid search campaigns to ensure you’re showing up in search results when students and their parents are searching for schools.  
  • Shape display advertising audiences by specific user behavior and geographies in your core recruitment areas. Also consider modeling audiences based on propensity for academic achievement levels.  
  • Leverage mobile footprinting, which allows you to reach back 90 days to capture an audience of mobile devices at target high schools, track those devices to their home IP addresses, and deliver ads to all devices in that home. This will be particularly valuable over the next one to two months as high school students and their parents are at home.
  • Gather video assets and use behavioral targeting to promote that content on YouTube.
  • Speaking of video, prospective students and their parents are going to be spending more time streaming video than ever before. Use that to your advantage and target them on those platforms with Over the Top (OTT) advertising, where you can reach audiences based on what they’re watching on Roku, Sling, PlayStation, ESPN, Fox, Discovery, Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV, and more. You can segment audiences here by parent vs. student.

Consider alternate sources for student data

With the supply chain of College Board and ACT names going dry for a few months, it’s time to revisit other data sources in the industry that you might have bypassed or not been aware of in the past. Carnegie Dartlet offers one of the best in CollegeXpress, a college and scholarship search hub powered by a database of more than six million prospective students and digital reach into more than 250 million American households. There are dozens of ways to get in front of segmented audiences on the CX platform, which delivers qualified prospects and offers daily data loads into Slate.

That’s not to say that CollegeXpress is your only viable option as an alternate source for getting students in your pipeline. There are others like Cappex, Niche, ScholarshipOwl, Unigo, and RaiseMe. Now is the time to explore them all and consider how they can help. 

Will COVID-19 be the big push the test optional movement needs?

Because of the ACT and SAT test cancellations, many schools are waiving standardized test requirements, falling in line with the “test optional” movement that has slowly been taking hold across the country. What will that mean for the future? If schools can provide solid admission evaluation and offer enrollment to students without test scores this year, why can’t they next year…and the year after that? That will be a question that is raised again and again as these next few months unfold. 

If standardized tests become fully optional, what does that mean for access to student data, which has been the foundation for traditional student search campaigns rooted in direct marketing? 

Crisis often leads to accelerated innovation, and the COVID-19 pandemic will be no different. Bottom line, student search already was changing, and it likely won’t be the same after the virus has come and gone. There are things you can do now to make sure your pipeline continues to develop for the future. This is a new normal, and we’re all going to have to figure it out together.   

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