Since the dawn of the Internet, the role of a college admissions professional has significantly changed. Of course, prospective student recruiters have always worn many hats. Still, there is now a digital marketing element to the job with digital applications like Common App, customer relationship manager (CRM) software, paperless application review, and enhanced email automation tools.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the power of virtual communication in the college search process. Not only were students attending Open House, information sessions, campus tours, and counselor meetings from the comfort of home — counselors were not allowed to schedule in-person visits due to the social distancing restrictions. The ability to adapt to change should be in the job description of every admission counselor job post. "New normal" recruitment strategies transformed the way admissions professionals communicate with students (and their families), but we also saw a shift in how students engage with the future colleges. As the well-known proverb says, "Necessity is the mother of invention," and now is the time for traditional recruiters to learn lessons from the digitally-saturated, socially distanced lifestyle of 2020-2021 for future communication strategies.
Here are 5 ways to enhance college recruitment efforts for future students:
Give them options Before the Internet changed everything, admissions communication strategies revolved around print collateral, campus events, and good old-fashioned phone calls. Today colleges and universities have more ways than ever to engage with prospects. If done correctly, this is a benefit. However, if not done correctly, multi-channel marketing efforts will deter students from considering your institution.
One positive outcome of the pandemic is colleges were forced to put a microscope on their virtual communication efforts. Visiting the same list of high schools and attending in-person college fairs was no longer an option, so screen-to-screen communication was vital. Colleges with low budgets and outdated virtual campus tours were forced to revamp their content immediately, and Zoom conferences became part of the daily routine. Prospective students learned that visiting a college and scheduling an in-person meeting was not the only way to communicate. Now that there are far fewer social distancing restrictions in late 2020, colleges must continue focusing on virtual communication for students while returning to the old-school strategy of in-person recruiting.
Providing options will modernize your institution while giving students the power to connect at their own pace. It will save families money on travel costs as tuition affordability concerns increase among future college students. By normalizing screen-to-screen communication, your recruiters also cast a wider net. Students from the other side of the world can form bonds with admissions professionals like never before, and advancements in technology will only make this process more common in the years ahead.
Stop sending irrelevant content
Generation Z knows when they are talking to a robot. They are experts at ignoring irrelevant content and expect a personalized experience throughout the college search process. One way to combat generic messaging is by segmenting the student search list at the first stage of the marketing funnel (the prospective student stage) and modify your content as you get to know more about each student. Don't send the same campaign to a prospective student-athlete as you would to a theater major. Don't tell your English programs applicants how a STEM education will help them find a career. And international students would likely benefit from a virtual tour link rather than an in-person invite to an "Open House."
A common mistake is placing relevancy on what you think students want to hear rather than asking them what they want to hear. To keep a finger on the pulse of future student engagement, make short surveys a part of the recruitment strategy. Empower prospective students by valuing their opinion getting feedback from them. Send home surveys after on-campus and virtual events. Don't expect every student and family to complete every survey (many won't even open the link). Still, the feedback you do receive will result in more relevant content for future campaigns. Also, reach out to current first-year students for focus groups, testimonials, and feedback from their college search journey. Who knows your institution better than the students?
Communicate with CURVE
Long-form content writing does not belong in higher education marketing anymore. Gone are the days of sending home course catalogs. Student engagement begins with Curiosity, Urgency, Relevancy, Value, and Emotion (CURVE). Don't write another email, print campaign, digital advertisement, or text message without elements of CURVE in mind. And it isn't just what content you send, but when and how you send it. This leads to tip #4…
Immediacy and simplicity
Because Generation Z has a shorter attention span than their parents, college marketers only have about 5-10 seconds to engage students at the early stages of the recruitment funnel. Therefore, when they digitally raise their hand to express interest, it is essential to have an automated response ready to go. This tip may seem obvious, but it is shocking how many institutions allow newly interested students to sit and wait for a response. Automated emails respond to students' desire for immediacy and provide clear instructions regarding "Next Steps" at every stage.
The easier it is for prospective students to complete a task, the more likely they will do so. On the other hand, colleges and universities with seemingly automated admissions reviews may appear less competitive and even desperate for students, so immediacy should only be considered in engagement, not always in the admissions process itself.
Take better notes
This one may seem simple but utilize the power of your CRM. Unlike the late 20th century, there is no need to sift through paper inquiry forms each night after a college fair and mark each one with hand-written notes. Personalize the student journey by remembering every detail about your interactions. Where did you first meet the student? What are their interests outside of the classroom? How are they enjoying high school? What is their ability to afford tuition at your school? Have they asked you for help in a specific area?
It would be impossible for one admissions counselor to form personal bonds with every student, and they go from inquiry to a first-year student, but with proper tracking and note keeping, counselors can stand out. When there isn't a budget to hire an assistant for every recruiter, the CRM becomes admissions' best friend.
There is no magic bullet or perfect strategy for college searching or student recruiting. Statistically, even the institutions with the best retention rates in the country rarely meet a perfect 100% for first-year students. There are, however, ways to improve recruitment strategy, marketing communication, student engagement, boost first-year confidence, and reduce melt. Everyone likes a good story, and it is up to your admissions team to tell your story from the road, behind the screen, and during campus visits. Eliminate confusing content clutter, keep messaging clear and concise, and utilize modern technology like many other industries do outside of higher ed. By looking at the big picture, you can improve the student journey while helping counselors work on what matters most—creating authentic experiences for future students.