Giving Early Milestones New Meaning
In the world of enrollment marketing, there tends to be one dominant query; how do we get X number of students to enroll at Y campus by Z date? Clearly articulated enrollment goals are essential as individuals transition from vaguely interested to “enrolled.” However, many campuses are so highly focused on yield strategies and fanfare in the final stretch of decision-making that they often overlook the more subtle opportunities around earlier milestones in the enrollment funnel.
As a Strategist, I find and analyze online, public conversation across social media sites, news sites, and forums. I’ve reviewed a myriad of conversations from students and their support systems to find insights and provide strategic recommendations for institutions in support of their enrollment goals.
In my observation, at yield, students are more likely to take pictures with branded swag and enjoy plentiful admitted students’ programming. However, in the months between interest and acceptance, high school students are often slow to speak and quick to judge potential “dream schools” as they Google, scroll Instagram, and feel out where they’d like to visit and apply. In this phase of the admissions journey, students are often shy and unlikely to mention or actively engage directly with campuses on social media sites.
Meanwhile, many campuses divide their attention between broad awareness marketing and yield, consequently ignoring some of the most impactful opportunities in between—which is where students spend most of their journey. Ask yourself:
- What would happen if your campus garnered their attention earlier?
- If you're not addressing the needs and answering the questions of prospective students along the middle part of their journey, who is?
- Are your students best served by online communities and forum posts?
- Are you comfortable letting others tell your story?
In an environment where institutions are vying for attention, this is an opportunity ripe for gaining a competitive edge in visibility and engagement, grounded in support of our primary audience's needs.
Until acceptance, students prefer to hang out anonymously in forums and crowdsource answers that often determine where they visit, apply, and attend. They’ll ask their trusted network of peers and online strangers everything from what campuses they should visit to which colleges have an application fee. And while admissions offices know the importance of reaching students at this critical phase, they’re often unsure exactly how or where to tap into the potential of engaging this shy audience at the beginning of their college search.
For campuses, the key to demystifying the admissions journey lies in an empathetic and curious willingness to listen. Just as in real life, active (social) listening requires the willingness to let go of our assumptions and status quo, be present, and stay open to the hidden strategic insights and opportunities that naturally arise in the comfortably anonymous corners of subreddits, and flurries of late-night tweets. Admissions conversations go beyond the decisions of early May and relate to visits, applications, academics, financial confusion, and all the small stops in between. It’s time for campuses to break the ice earlier, get creative, and try new approaches of how and where they engage with students before decision day crunch time.
From the countless hours I’ve spent investigating social media and forum rants, raves, and existential crises from admissions audiences, I’ve developed suggestions for you to move forward with eyes and minds wide open to infuse new meaning, creativity, and empathy into early stage recruitment endeavors. At the end of the day, whether we like it or not, I believe all content is admissions content and the decision making process begins well before students have an offer in hand. Use these ideas to optimize your engagement with your audience and sharpen your message and strategy.
Listen to your admissions audiences online.
Just because they aren’t tagging or mentioning your institution by name doesn’t mean they aren’t talking about the college search process and even your campus. Learn from what they say by seeking out their voices in public online spaces and listening.
Generally, what parts of the application process are most stressful for them? What academic programing or experiential learning are they most hungry for? How do their concerns and questions change and vary as they move through the early stages of their admissions journey?
The answers to these questions will reveal the most effective and value-driven creative content to drive your enrollment messaging and strategic campaigns before yield.
The more your campus can customize and provide tangible examples (weaving in your unique brand values and identity) when answering these types of questions and concerns early on, the more potent and powerful your outreach will be.
Connect your audience to their most trusted sources: their peers.
Crowdsource the answers to your admissions audience’s most pressing questions from the current students, and even young alumni, who lived through that journey for them. And don’t ignore alumni, faculty, and admissions staff, when appropriate.
Your community is what makes your campus vibrant and unique, and allowing insiders to own a piece of your campus narrative will resonate more strongly with future cohorts.
To do this, organize, mobilize, prepare and empower your brand advocates to create content that is both authentic, and aligned with the wants and needs of your admissions audiences.
One of my favorite examples of this is the @DukeStudents Instagram account; in their own words “This account is run by Duke students for Duke students, prospective students, and alumni.” This is what service-driven content looks like. From highlights of student quotes, tours, and blogs, the content possibilities and re-purposing across enrollment communications is endless.
Create meaningful moments and experiences before yield.
Celebrate each stage of your audience's journey without hierarchy. Each step is equally important, emotionally fraught, and personally significant to your audience. How can you lift them up, offer value, and support them through each juncture?
For example, West Virginia University tour guides stop each tour group in front of Woodburn Circle and offer to take photos of students in front of one of their campus’s most iconic buildings.
If you’re waiting until admitted student events and yield to offer this type of service and opportunities, you’ve waited too long.
Embrace competitive insights.
“College Compare” posts are so plentiful on Reddit r/ApplyingToCollege that there’s now an entire subreddit (r/CollegeCompare) devoted to the subject. This is enrollment marketing gold. Don’t wait for your audience to mention your campus in a thread (but if they do, great!). Get online and take it all in; chances are the same standards students use to weigh options and determine value and fit with other campuses are going to have overarching similarities you can apply to your enrollment marketing strategy.
At the heart of each forum thread is a human seeking to make a nuanced, emotional, and informed decision. How you nurture and acknowledge these individuals matters. Your audience doesn’t want one more marketing piece reminding them that their journey starts (insert generic campus photo) here. Give them worthy reasons and helpful trail markers to want to geocache at your campus along the way. Western University in Canada is one campus taking a proactive approach to recruitment support on Reddit, where their efforts are being well received.
For even more forum tips and insights, check out the newly launched r/RecruitingOnReddit, piloted by my talented co-worker and fellow Sonarian Steve App and Day Kibilds, the former Director of Undergraduate Recruitment & Admissions at Western University (with amazing work in the Reddit space).
When applied, social listening is a superpower to craft meaningful enrollment messaging that can be measured and supplemented by the internal advocates who know your institution best. We’ve been given an audience-delivered map to value; are we brave enough to fine-tune our approach?