Isaac Thweatt—Director of Alumni Outreach
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Save Prospective Applicants from Hitting a Wall
Save Prospective Applicants from Hitting a Wall

How website analytics and inbound marketing helped Friends’ Central School improve customer experience, streamline staff workflow, and achieve enrollment marketing goals

By Geoff Campbell

Tim Robberts/DigitalVision/Getty Images

We thought we were on the right track. After months of preparation and construction, Friends' Central School in Pennsylvania launched its revamped website in fall 2014. The responsively designed site aimed to show off the Quaker school's offerings and give us an advantage in a highly competitive market: The percentage of students enrolled in the greater Philadelphia area's more than 130 private schools has decreased by 5 percent in the past 10 years. We needed to focus on the first impressions of prospective parents and make our value proposition clear.

Our community members loved the look and feel of the slimmed-down website, which emphasizes rich visual content and communicates the school's culture through prominently displayed photos, videos, and news items. We were confident that our easier-to-navigate, mobile-friendly site would quickly lead to increased interest among prospective parents.

We were mistaken. It wasn't that simple. We weren't getting the results we wanted, namely, an organic increase in inquiries. What happened?

We dived into our website analytics and admission data and found that we were:

  • Losing potential applicants by asking inquiring families for more information than they wanted to provide.
  • Missing opportunities to connect with interested families because our database did not correctly categorize their level of interest.
  • Spending valuable staff time calling prospective families who were not ready to talk with us.

They say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but how a website looks and functions affects how people perceive and interact with businesses and organizations. User experience matters. Here's how we tackled our issues.

Facing hard facts

The admission director and I were new to our roles at the school, which gave us both a fresh take on the situation and the desire to collaborate on solving our problems. We started by working to understand 1) how people use the site, which would help the admission and communications offices improve the user experience, and 2) the site's role in our admission funnel. How well were we drawing visitors into it?

We upgraded our analytical ability, including adding cross-domain tracking between our admission database provider and our website. By managing our analytics and examining our digital outreach efforts, we can attribute conversion goals—important actions people take on our website—with their source. We are now able to see, for instance, how clicks on our social media content and online ads contribute to open house registrations. Getting a handle on this information helped us tackle our three main challenges:

The inquiry form was too long (and our process was confusing). At the time, users began both the inquiry and application process the same way: by completing a five-page form. A path flow analysis showed that many people abandoned the form before finishing the first page.

We considered shortening the form, but the admission office's process required a significant amount of information at the inquiry stage to initiate a follow-up call with a family. Prospective families were advised to fill out the same form, regardless of their objective or level of interest, and our website didn't clarify the process. The technology, admission, and communications offices agreed that we needed to change our perspective and our practices. If we wanted the admission process to reflect the school's culture—approachable, kind, friendly, responsive to community members' needs—we needed to demonstrate it. We needed to put prospective parents first. Recognizing this—and striving for that outcome—would help us tackle and solve future issues as a team.

Users didn't want to share so much information. Whether a prospective parent was requesting information or ready to start the application, the first step in each stage was filling out the form. We revised the website to explain the form's dual purpose and linked the "apply" button to a page that clarified the application process. We also updated the admission checklists, the "how to apply" page, and the text on the inquiry page. We thought this solution would make the best of both the system we inherited and our dual-purpose form. But the situation didn't improve. By spring 2015, data showed that inquiring families continued to abandon the form before completing the first page. Our process wasn't helping users. People understood that they needed to complete it, but they saw no reason to spend so much time or share so much information just to inquire. Either way, we were losing prospects.

There was no distinction between inquiry and application stages. People who completed the inquiry form received information in the mail and a phone call about applying, although some likely weren't ready for the next steps in the admission process. The reason: Our database defined people who completed the inquiry form and a single section in our admission portal as applicants. Our new workaround wasn't working. We were still confusing people. We had changed how we described the form but not how we responded to those who filled it out. Many people were putting their toes in the water, but our admission office reacted as if they had jumped into the pool.

We reviewed the text on our website and realized the instructions we offered prioritized how our database worked rather than what prospective families needed. The result was frustration on both sides and, worse, an inaccurate picture of our admission funnel.

Finding solutions

Using a single form for multiple purposes was not working for prospective parents. We needed to eliminate obstacles for expressing interest.

Marketing industry studies show that shorter forms yield higher conversion rates; they are more effective in getting website visitors to complete the registration and have a lower cost-per-lead. To open the school's admission funnel as widely as possible, we needed to be parent-focused and initially ask for as little information as possible. Once parents came through our virtual front door, we could build up information over time.

To solve the problems with the inquiry form, we:

Created a separate (and much shorter) form. We changed the navigation and text on our website to make clear that people could either quickly request more information or take the first step in the application process by creating an account. We created a brief "request info" form that requires only a parent's name, email address, and phone number. This lower bar for requesting information generates more leads and helps us match interest levels with a drip email campaign—a series of short emails, each serving a specific purpose, that arrive at predetermined intervals between messages. These emails invite parents to take smaller steps that draw them into our more inclusive admission funnel. For instance, a parent who completes the request info form will typically receive a brief, friendly email invitation to attend an upcoming campus event.

By consistently communicating with leads, we can better connect with parents based on their needs and where they are in the decision-making process. The admission office has reached more parents in earlier stages with targeted email messages that remind them about next steps without overwhelming them. This lighter approach helps nurture and move people from the lead stage toward applying. Now we know that families who complete our longer "create an account" form are ready to start the application process and would be interested in a phone call from the school.

Refined our categories. Our new shorter form helped us connect with more website visitors, and our longer form became the starting point for applying. But this switch uncovered some inaccurate data remnants from our old system. We found, for example, parents who had completed the old inquiry form but not an application. When the school called to ask if they planned to complete the admission process, some parents were confused: They had filled out the form only to request information. Since these families were mislabeled in our database, they had not been contacted according to the new workflow process.

Our admission team reviewed this group and labeled them as leads that we should nurture through email contact. After reconnecting with dozens of parents, several signed up to attend a fall open house. We also gained a better understanding of their interest level based on the types of information they wanted to receive.

We adjusted our categories one more time to clearly define when to contact a prospective parent. Once a family creates an account and accesses our admission portal, the admission team calls and guides them through the rest of the application process. Only parents who submit all of the online application materials are considered applicants. With better-defined categories and data that align with these new definitions, we can match our communications to parents' level of interest and gain a more accurate view of the admission funnel.

Started using inbound marketing tools and analytics to supplement our database. Inbound marketing focuses on creating quality website content that attracts prospective customers to a product or service. In 2015, we started using inbound marketing tools designed to increase quality website traffic, leads, and conversions. We have used them to launch a blog, create more appealing landing pages for activities such as requesting more information and registering for admission events, and send emails to people in different segments of our admission funnel. We can track where interested parents are in the decision-making process based on the actions they take on our site and deliver information that appeals to them at the right time. The service has helped us fill a gap in the process and focus our enrollment marketing efforts on parents.

Getting results

Adding earlier touch points and clearer segmentation has produced greater event attendance, and we are confident we will see increases in the number of prospects and applicants. This applicant-focused model has led to an increase in targeted invitations sent to interested leads and has helped us determine the effectiveness of our outreach. While we cannot say for certain that our Google AdWords spending led to open house registrations in fall 2014, we know it prompted more than 60 registrations in 2015. By managing our outreach overall, we increased our open house attendance. By November 2015, prospective students at our fall open house rose by 16 percent, and admission inquiries jumped 40 percent compared with the previous year.

Our inbound marketing tools have helped us contact many more leads in ways that meet their level of interest, and increased staff efficiency by prioritizing phone calls to those who are further along in the process.

To stay focused on user experience, we regularly review how prospective parents are responding to the information we provide on the website. The communications, admission, and technology offices meet bimonthly to discuss our multifaceted approach and the effectiveness of our efforts. We are in the early stages of developing digital marketing and advertising metrics to further measure our work. These could include the number of applicants who reach us via inbound marketing versus those who navigate directly to the application or the percentage of applicants who attended an open house.

With our new category definitions, inbound marketing tools, and metrics, we can provide the admission office with data to accurately track progress. Regularly updating metrics will give us actionable year-over-year data to improve our decision-making. We'll also continue our parent-focused efforts by increasing the amount of engaging content we send parents as their needs and expectations evolve.

Important lessons

Schools, colleges, and universities need to take an active approach to lead management and ensuring that their institutional communications meet their constituents' needs. To make the most of your staff time and properly target applicants:

  • Examine the changes in admission figures over applicable time periods.
  • Discuss with admission staff their challenges in turning leads into applicants.
  • Analyze website data to determine where visitors are failing to convert to leads, prospects, and applicants.
  • Research how other institutions, organizations, and businesses are making their websites more effective and determining the right tools to correct their issues.
  • Ensure that the admission process is as simple as possible for the end-user. Change your website, tools, and processes to optimize their experience.

The changes we have made were not easy or cheap. And we are not done. Focusing on how prospective families engage with the school's website has made us more responsive to their needs. That commitment should yield benefits for years to come.

About the Author Geoff Campbell

Geoff Campbell (@GeoffBCampbell) is the digital and social media specialist at Friends' Central School in Pennsylvania.




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