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Does your marketing deliver?
Does your marketing deliver?

What a higher education marketing professional learned from his daughter’s college search

By Rob Moore

©Bryan F. Peterson/Corbis

After 30 years in higher education marketing, resolving brand and reputation problems for scores of colleges and universities, I thought I had things figured out. Do the research, develop the brand platform, get creative in brand expression, and help prospective students find their right-fit institution in a noisy marketplace. But a couple of years ago, my daughter and her BFFs got caught up in the admissions funnel, and I confronted an old maxim: You're never too old to learn. I gained a new perspective on the college selection process, particularly what sought-after prospects want from institutions and how colleges and universities can improve their marketing efforts.

I am, of course, inordinately proud of my daughter. She is smart, beautiful, brave, loving, and independent of spirit—and her friends are cut from the same cloth. All their lives they had heard from parents, teachers, and counselors not just about the importance of college but the importance of choosing the right college. They couldn't escape the media's reporting on skyrocketing tuition costs and the difficulty of entering top institutions. In 2012, these confident kids began growing more anxious than a basket of cats in a tippy canoe as the pressure mounted. They talked about colleges constantly.

My daughter had accompanied me to numerous campuses over the years, and we toured several during her junior year, so her on-the-ground experience gave her a balanced perspective. But in this early phase—what enrollment marketing professionals call the development of the consideration set, those institutions that prospective students seriously compare as they move through the decision-making process—she and her friends were obsessed with websites suchas College Prowler, College Confidential, RateMyProfessors, and the College Board's BigFuture site. If your job depends on enrolling a strong entering class, if your institution is tuition-driven, if you want to know how prospects assess your college or university, go to these sites. Now. I'll wait.

Show me the data

Eye-opening, isn't it? My daughter and her friends were particularly fond of College Prowler because it aggregates information from what they regard as the ultimate reliable source: students on your campus. The site includes lists of the 10 best and 10 worst things about individual institutions; countless ranking categories; and report card grades for areas such as academics, social life, facilities, and safety. Such judgments aided the teens' decisions about whether to keep or cut a college from their list.

These third-party sources held sway in part because the information did not come from the institutions. Today's media-savvy teens have highly developed marketing-speak detectors that can see through a college's cookie-cutter claims. That diversity shot capturing the perfect demographic mix of students chatting under a sprawling oak tree? Laughable. A university's claim to be student-centered? Prove it. Recycled photos on the admissions website? Last season's fashion trends stand out like a vampire at a clown convention.

At this point in the search process, they hungered for information, devouring data from all sources: scattergrams of how their test scores aligned with previously accepted students, mounds of direct-mail outreach, and new stories from peers on the same quest. My daughter focused on liberal arts colleges, desiring the close collaboration and individual interaction they promise, but she checked out some major research universities too. (An institution's medical, law, or business school—or other top-performing professional program—contributes mightily to national or global reputation and ranking, which are important to these high-achieving teens.)

Soon we were in the throes of application season. She submitted materials to about 10 institutions—a few more than average. Considering year-over-year increases in applications to be a useful enrollment predictor is as reliable as using last year's Farmers' Almanac to forecast the weather. More applications do not necessarily mean more enrolled students; an increase simply means that your marketing efforts to positively affect your institution's yield rate (the percentage of admitted students who actually enroll) are more important than ever.

Nail-biting time

Then the wait began—and so did the silence. After the application deadline passed, most recruitment shops seemed to take a holiday. Crickets from marketing. Not a squeak from admissions to suggest that staff members were diligently reviewing stacks of applicants' paperwork. Anxiety took hold: "Am I going to get in where I want to go?" my daughter and her friends asked. "Am I going to get in anywhere?!"

"Yes," I would answer. "You're all smart kids with solid scores, good grades, and strong profiles. You're going to get into a number of places. The biggest question is: Where do you feel like you belong? You'll have great teachers and crappy teachers wherever you go. You'll have tough sledding academically and fights with your friends or parents. But if you feel like you belong, you'll push through the tough times and succeed. That's what matters."

Be top of mind

My preaching didn't ease their apprehension. They revisited the websites of their top choices, reinforcing their impressions of the institution and seeking reassurance. They lit up websites, burned through social media, and texted like mad. What's happening on the activities page? Are there e-updates from admissions? What's on the message boards? Has anybody announced that they got in?

Marketers must take this opportunity to retain and spur applicants' interest, reinforcing key brand messages and continuing to create opportunities for engagement. This becomes especially important when it's time for admitted students to make their enrollment decision. It's a delicate dance, since an institution doesn't want to indicate that an applicant has a guaranteed place in the queue. But marketers can stay on prospects' radar screens through messages from current students and alumni praising the quality of their experience or notices about interesting on-campus activities such as lectures, concerts, and community gatherings.

In the pre-acceptance phase, engagement is the crucial currency, so make sure your website is rich in new content. In 2012, the University of Pennsylvania began sending prospects who were likely to be admitted a three-minute video that reinforced important marketing messages such as Ivy League status, vibrant culture, and urban location and made the case for enrolling at Penn. Hearing "this is exactly where you're supposed to be" can give an anxious applicant a big boost. The lesson: Use all your tools to engage prospects and keep them leaning your way.

You've got mail

Each day my daughter asked, "Is there an envelope for me?" Then, finally, yes. Yes! Congratulations, Fordham University. Yours was the first acceptance in the mailbox. Our responses to this welcome news differed greatly. My daughter: "I don't know much about Fordham except that it's a good school in New York. What's it like?" She headed to her laptop for a deeper dive into the university's website. Its quality and location had been enough for her to apply, but she wanted to know more now that attendance was a real possibility. Meanwhile, I was silently gleeful: She got in! She's going to college! (It wasn't a surprise, but the answer was still a relief.)

Soon more envelopes arrived, along with a flood of emails offering application status updates through the institution's admissions portal, URL redirects to financial aid web pages, and other online resources. Some responded yes, others no—almost nobody bats a thousand in this game. But she and her friends had choices. Their years of hard work had been rewarded.

The acceptance process automatically narrows prospects' consideration set, so yield management becomes even more urgent as applicants become admitted students. In the four- to six-week period between acceptance and the May 1 commitment date, admits scour the Internet and social media for new clues about which institution is the right choice. (These dates may shift for institutions with rolling or open admissions, but the need to market aggressively remains the same.) What are people really saying about university X? What have I heard from my top choice lately? What kind of deal can I get?

It was the marketers' turn again. Some institutions harnessed all their resources to welcome admitted students to the community with a full array of direct, digital, and social media outreach. Others sent a letter or two, or maybe a template email message from a dean, professor, or alumnus—seemingly satisfied with appearing to sit back and wait, sure that the admit would make the right decision without further coaxing. The stronger the college's or university's brand, the greater the possibility of this latter situation, but sitting smugly is likely not a stance that Moody's Investors Service would approve of at a time when selectivity and yield are key measures of an institution's reputation.

Celebrate good times

My most surprising observation was that many institutions still aren't taking advantage of their best marketing moment: the acceptance announcement.

The observation that a fat envelope is better than a skinny one holds true, but fat envelopes vary greatly. Some of my daughter's acceptances contained a simple congratulatory letter accompanied by a stack of forms for housing, meal plans, financial aid, adviser assignments, and so on. It was like having the maître d' of a top restaurant greet you warmly and then tell you to pick up your own silverware, napkin, and glassware before sitting down. Turning acceptance into a business transaction is a major letdown.

The acceptance strategy and package should set the tone for creating, ideally, a lifelong connection with admitted students. Make it an experience that celebrates their entry into your institution's family. Assume they are going to join you, and share your community's enthusiasm and spirit.

American University in Washington, D.C., sends an acceptance package that's as vibrant, welcoming, and message-driven as its viewbook. Many institutions develop Facebook pages for admitted classes so members can connect and influence each other's decision. University of Cincinnati President Santa J. Ono sends congratulatory tweets to students who express excitement at being admitted, strategically including the hashtag #HottestCollegeInAmerica, which is also the name of the multicity tour Ono has led the past two years. At smaller institutions, presidents, faculty members, or trustees may call a select group of students to say how much they are wanted. Remember, these are teens who seek validation and want their hard work recognized. High-level contact makes an impression.

For my daughter, the package from Macalester College in Minnesota was the one she'd been waiting for. Her acceptance was obvious (a bonus for eager parents) because Yes was printed in 60-point type beside an orange being peeled to reveal the world—an icon used by the institution's admissions office that's popular among prospective and current students. Holding the envelope, eyes alight and day made, my daughter exclaimed, "I got into Mac!"

It was the yes she wanted more than any other. She had frequented the college's website and devoured its print and email outreach; she had met the dean of admissions at a Colleges That Change Lives event in a Chicago suburb; and she visited the campus twice, including an overnight stay in a residence hall. She liked the idea of a liberal arts college in an urban setting. Decision made. Yield: One student.

Never stop connecting

For any decision of this importance, the tendency to choose, revise, assess, and rethink is constant. Ever bought a car, a house, or an engagement ring? The commitment is fluid until it's final, and even then it can change.

Here are some things to keep in mind about prospective students, applicants, and admitted students:

  • They are twitchy, repeatedly viewing your website and materials for clues as to the true nature of your institution.
  • They are omnivorous, consuming information from all sources, particularly third-party websites and other outlets that provide perspectives from current students.
  • They are determined to make the right choice (and the realization that they can't know what the right choice is only adds to their anxiety).
  • They are brand-conscious. They don't want to say, "I'm thinking of going to university X," and have their friends wrinkle their noses in response.
  • Like all of us, they want to be loved—and they want you to show it.

How can your marketing efforts meet these expectations?

  • Know what distinguishes your institution and what it can deliver. Stay on brand.
  • Never stop reinforcing their choice to attend. (See the point above about showing them the love.) Keep your digital and social media presences fresh, updating them regularly with new stories so admits can discover more reasons to love you. Your website is the No. 1 place prospects go to learn about your institution and inspire passion for their selection. Make sure it's not only current but also an active and appealing destination. New York's Ithaca College prominently features alumni success stories on its homepage. The University of Pittsburgh directs admitted students to an admissions and financial aid website that brims with key messages. Hamilton College curates its community's social media activity on The Scroll, the moderated custom-made web platform the New York institution launched in February 2013. (And make it mobile: If your website doesn't work on a smartphone, it doesn't work.)
  • Make acceptance a celebration, and make it shareable. Earlier this year, Marquette University in Wiscon­sin and Canada's University of Guelph each tasked their mascots (a golden eagle and a gryphon, respectively) with hand-delivering admissions offers to a few lucky students. These joyous videos show how emotional the moment can be, eliciting more OMGs than a backstage pass to Coachella, and are ripe for sharing on your college's social media channels. In addition to using the #FutureGryphons hashtag, Guelph crafted a Twitter campaign—#WhereWillGryphShowUpNext—around its mascot visits.
  • Speak honestly and urgently to admitted students' interests and concerns. A tweet from the university president, phone calls from faculty members, or the opportunity to help select their roommate are all touches that suggest your institution is focused on their needs.
  • Make every touch point count. Commit­ments are made or abandoned over seemingly minor or routine interactions. For example, a highly regarded institution in the Southeast accepted my daughter but never responded to her inquiries about a work-study position. This experience undercut the institution's promise of being a student-centered research university.
  • Don't forget the parents! They also need to validate their child's choice. Through direct mail, web portals, event invitations, and other methods, show that you take their concerns seriously—and are committed to their kid's success.
Like a glove

Every interaction with Macalester reinforced my daughter's view that she'd made the right choice, but none more than move-in day in August 2013. An enthusiastic brigade of students emptied the car of her belongings ("Cool. You have a bonsai!"), carried them to her room, and gave her the lowdown on everything from the residence hall and the meal plan to campus must-do activities. She immediately felt like part of the Mac clan. So much so that when I drove her back to campus after Thanks­giving break, she said with a sigh, "I'm really glad to be going home again." Then she began to stutter an apology: "I mean, you know."

"It's OK," I said. "I'm glad you feel that way." And I am, because it's a sure sign that she made the right choice and that she's going to get all she can out of her college experience. Happily, that's a goal parents and institutions share. We're all winners when the story ends this way.

About the Author Moore_robert_headshot Rob Moore
Robert M. Moore is a managing partner at Lipman Hearne, a marketing communications firm serving the nonprofit sector.




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