Tips and Tools for a New Era of Lead Generation

During these trying times for higher education, perhaps no one feels the crush of various disruptive forces more than enrollment management professionals, who must navigate an ever-changing, unpredictable marketplace to reach ambitious admissions targets every fall. Compounding the unending pressures is the fact that the “tried and true” methods of student recruitment have eroded rapidly during the past decade—altering the field so significantly that today’s senior enrollment managers hardly recognize the profession many of them joined as idealistic twenty-somethings in what now seems a bygone era.

During the extended period of growth and stability beginning with the GI Bill that jump-started a higher-education boom in the 1940s, the student recruitment process—while far from easy—was at least predictable.

Before the explosive growth of the Internet took hold, colleges largely controlled the limited channels of communication between themselves and prospective students. Though it seems almost quaint given the dizzying range of options available now, for more than 50 years the path from prospect to matriculant hardly changed at all.

If a student and her family wished to learn more about a college, they probably began first with word-of-mouth recommendations from their immediate and local network of family and friends. She would sift through direct mail pieces from colleges and universities that had purchased her name based on surprisingly reliable and time-tested metrics. The student would research a few institutions at the library or in the college counselor’s office through established (and largely unquestioned) third-party college ranking print publications such as Princeton Review and U.S. News & World Report.

Having narrowed her choices down to three colleges—a “reach,” a happy medium, and a “safe” school—she or her parents would contact the admissions offices at these colleges to ask questions and perhaps schedule a campus visit. Having advanced herself from prospect to inquiry, she would be assigned to an admissions counselor and guided along a predictable path through the visit, application, and matriculation process. The student’s communication with the institution would be almost exclusively limited to her assigned admissions representative, who would answer questions that she may have about any aspect of college life—ranging from academics to campus culture.

This predictable experience was indicative of nearly everyone’s experience along a well-worn path to enrolling in a four-year institution. While geographic patterns shifted and financial discussions grew in prominence, the process of identifying, connecting with, and enrolling prospective students was clean, linear, and largely without surprises.

Let’s pause for a moment and shed a fond tear for those simpler days. Because as any enrollment professional knows, the times, they are a changin’.

Hello, Technological Disruption

What was once a lock-step progression now varies greatly from student to student. While colleges previously had a strong grasp of their prospect pool and the shape of their future classes, now there is much more ambiguity and uncertainty—and the cloudy picture remains much later into the recruitment calendar. Reliable leads are harder to come by as list purchasing and direct mail yield diminishing results. Prospective students have become much less likely to contact colleges directly prior to applying. And even when they do make contact, student inquiries don’t carry the same weight that they once did, since students now routinely apply to six or more colleges and hedge their bets until later in the admissions cycle.

Given the ease of conducting online research, the explosion of college information aggregators, and a broader cultural shift toward anonymous information-seeking activities, it should come as no surprise that the admissions tools of the past have lost some of their sharpness. Instead, university websites—a novelty 15 years ago—are now the most prominent outward-facing recruitment tool for most institutions. Social networks, dismissed by many institutions as trivial five years ago, are now crucial platforms for communicating with prospective students. The common application providers grant students the ability to apply to multiple institutions from a single screen. And third-party ranking or matching websites provide prospective students with dozens of online tools to read reviews from current students and alumni and compare everything from the caliber of institutions’ research programs to the quality of their dining options.

To their credit, enrollment officers have typically been among the most innovative and creative adopters of new technology on campus—perhaps because they realize sooner than other, more insulated, administrators how quickly the status quo can crumble.

Consider this typical scenario: A college struggling to keep up with the pace of change has an institutional website that is ineffectual, held back by political turf wars. The college’s official social media presence is woefully behind those of its competitors. Yet inside the college’s unassuming admissions office, there’s the entrepreneurial spirit of a tech startup. Largely free to try anything that could produce results, the admissions counselors are actively generating leads via Twitter or admissions-only Facebook accounts and Skyping or exchanging text messages, often after hours. Determined to meet prospects where they are most comfortable, these admissions counselors show a comfort with technology and an openness to new ideas that stands in refreshing contrast to the institutional culture that is otherwise reluctant to evolve and suspicious of new ideas.

Among groups of hustling counselors like these—innovative and nimble, open to any solution, unattached to any particular forum or technology and willing to connect in multiple places at once—we find emerging models for operating successfully in the new era of lead generation.

Diving into the Stream

With so many web-based avenues of research available to prospects, it’s clear that a majority of students and families happily conduct their own private investigation of a college completely outside the traditional reach of its admissions office.

In fact, recent studies from multiple sources have counted approximately one-third of applicants as “stealth” because they make no contact with the college before applying. Findings from Zinch indicate that students conduct their online research into colleges predominantly by starting with search engines like Google—but the vast majority of them do not land immediately on an .edu site from the search engine. Instead, they tend to choose college comparison or matching sites.

These self-initiated searches allow college-bound students to rely less on a college to bring itself to their attention at the beginning of a linear process and instead let them decide for themselves when to enter the formal admissions communication flow.

As a result, colleges now must think of their recruitment efforts in terms of dozens of touchpoints—or streams—for initiating contact that might ultimately lead to inquiries and applications. These may include in-person events like high school visits or college fairs, printed communications like direct mail or viewbooks, or online communications that utilize the institutional website, email templates, admissions microsites, mobile apps, and social networks.

What can be frustrating is that any one of these streams may greatly influence a prospective student’s likelihood to apply—or have no impact at all. While the old-school funnel yielded predictable matriculation results, the stream approach can feel scattered and disconnected from results that are harder to pinpoint or trace back. Yet the collective effect of a consistent presence across multiple messaging streams has the potential to reach prospective students where they are and nudge them to express their interest.

The stream approach also requires abandoning a single-source origin tag to track conversion rates and measure the effectiveness of lead sources. “College admissions is the only industry, as I understand it, that puts so much weight in first source of contact,” notes Gil Rogers, director of marketing and outreach at Chegg Enrollment Services. “In most other industries, digital marketing is not about the first point of contact, it’s about the last point of contact [before the buy].” He advises tracking by all lead sources to get a fuller picture of engagement throughout the entire admissions cycle.

Fortunately, analytics tools increasingly allow a college to track even passive interactions with prospects across a myriad of streams. When this data is interfaced with the admissions office’s customer relationship management (CRM) database, it provides important glimpses into students’ interest level and status.

Retargeting Prospects Online

In the frenzied digital landscape, getting prospective students to land on a college’s website is not enough to ensure success. Across industries, approximately 98 percent of first-time website visitors will leave a site without having completed a purchase, inquiry, or application. The key for any business—whether it sells baked goods or advanced degrees—is to get prospective customers to return for multiple visits as they consider making an inquiry or purchase.

Increasingly, colleges and universities are turning to “retargeting”—also known as “remarketing”—to remain top of mind among students who are online. Retargeting is a form of web-based advertising that allows organizations to tag and “follow” users who have searched for key phrases related to their business interest or who have visited the organization’s website. Unlike most single-display advertising programs, retargeting provides organizations with repeated opportunities to connect with prospects by serving highly personalized affinity ads to them as they journey across other websites and social networks.

Online marketing statistics suggest that retargeted advertisements are up to 400 percent more effective than traditional display ads, because retargeting is aimed at prospects who are familiar with and interested in the advertiser’s brand, having already visited its website or searched for its products and services. Retargeting is also effective because it reaches target audiences on their own terms. Social media retargeting is particularly effective, since most web users now spend up to 30 percent of their time online on social networks.

Though a relatively new addition to the higher-education marketing toolbox, retargeting seems particularly well suited to college recruitment. Unlike simpler e-commerce transactions—buying a camera, for example—the college search process for most students takes place over several months and progresses through a number of steps. As we have seen, college-bound students conduct their search across a myriad of websites, social networks, and other digital streams—not to mention from a range of devices. When done effectively, retargeting provides institutions with the means to gently remind students wherever they may be about their programs and offerings during the drawn-out research phase when students may not yet be reaching out or making direct inquiries. Consider the following retargeting scenarios.

Example 1: A prospective student visits a college website and clicks through several financial aid and scholarship pages. She leaves the website without making an inquiry or using any of the financial-aid estimation tools. A few days later, while surfing an unrelated e-commerce website, she notices an ad inviting her to use the college’s financial aid calculator to estimate her potential financial aid award. Reminded that she never finished her research, she clicks the ad, which takes her to the institution’s net price calculator.

Example 2: A potential transfer student visits a university’s engineering department webpage. He reads the program information and course descriptions, and then closes the website. Later that evening, an interactive ad in his Facebook stream catches his attention: a video featuring alumni from the same university’s engineering program talking about its strengths and the career opportunities they have enjoyed since graduation. The prospective student watches the video and likes the university’s page on Facebook.

Example 3: A high school senior and prospective Spanish major receives an e-newsletter from a private college. She opens the message on her smartphone and briefly reads about the study abroad opportunities offered through the institution. She is interrupted by a text message and doesn’t return to the e-newsletter. The next day, while using Google on her phone, she clicks on an ad from the college highlighting its international campus in Barcelona, Spain.

As these scenarios suggest, retargeting is most effective when it provides additional information that supports the recipients’ earlier activity or inquiry, or when it surprises or delights them in some way. The appeal and effectiveness of retargeting lies in providing carefully segmented content that feels more like a personalized follow-up and less like a hard sell.

Embracing the Aggregators

The dizzying proliferation of third-party college review websites and matching apps is enough to make any enrollment professional’s head spin. Cappex. Zinch. College Confidential. College Navigator. Big Future. Unigo. Noodle. The list goes on and on, with new startup companies regularly joining the fray.

Some of them have primarily an informational function, comparing data (about class sizes, academic programs, expected outcomes for graduates, and the like) side by side across colleges or finding college matches based on a student’s desired criteria. Some of them function more socially, allowing interaction and messaging within the site. Still others are highly focused for niche areas, such as athletic recruitment.

No matter what the primary function, these third-party websites have become accepted tools for students (in the same way their parents are comfortable consulting Orbitz or Yelp for travel or dining purposes) as sources of authentic “user reviews” and as trusted guides in helping them determine whether a college is a good fit for them.

Much like social networks, it’s impossible to have a presence on every platform. But crucially, colleges themselves have an opportunity to provide or amend much of the data about their institution on these third-party sites, thus at least contributing to the messages being conveyed about them on these platforms.

Perhaps even more importantly, many of these sites offer paid services to deliver leads to an institution. While the traditional “name buy” sources (NRCCUA, ACT, and College Board being the leaders) allow purchases based on fixed criteria such as scores and grades, home address and high school, and certain demographic information, the third-party providers at the social end of the spectrum (Cappex and Zinch the most established among them) add a level of interaction to the criteria. Thus, they are able to further qualify the names by gauging a student’s prior interest in the college via its data analytics, not to mention the additional information students volunteer as they engage with the site. 

Despite these enhanced qualifying features, colleges and universities have been risk averse when it comes to fully embracing this type of social lead generation and ending their dependence on the traditional list sources. After all, purchasing names that are not “pre-qualified” has the advantage of introducing the college to those who have never even heard of it. But the diminishing return on investment (given the declining rates of response to this “cold call” approach) argues for a reallocation of funds at many colleges.

As Rogers sees it, “Schools are using up all of their resources trying to gather and garner as much attention as possible at the expense of paying attention to the people who are already saying they’re interested. The order of purchasing needs to change.” From his vantage point at Chegg (which offers paid lead generation services via Zinch and other third-party college search websites within its network), he advises first buying qualified leads from the social aggregators, next supplementing that pool with strategically targeted, predictive-modeled names—such as those provided through NRCCUA’s Talent Identification Program and similar “match-plus” services from other name buy sources—and only then reaching out to aspirational markets of students who don’t know the college but whom the college wants to be in front of.

Still another opportunity for utilizing third-party college search websites is to purchase banner ads to display within the sites, thus reaching students who may not already know of the college. One new vendor, Noodle, has focused on using data analytics to determine who will see the ad, optimizing for likelihood of interest in the college. According to Jeff Herbst, chief operating officer, “At Noodle our mission is to help students discover and compare colleges they’d be a great fit for based on what matters most to them as individuals. At the same time, we want to help colleges who are looking to expand their reach by placing the right ad in front of the right student at the right time. We use data to eliminate the guesswork from media buying.”

Segmenting Audiences and Personalizing Content

The very term “lead generation” conjures up images of automatons filing into classrooms. Yet if today’s high school students are allergic to anything, it’s being treated as commodities. They are less interested in what makes an institution unique and more intrigued by how a college can enhance what makes them unique.

Because prospective students are inherently comfortable with technology and will research colleges extensively on their own time, they don’t need or want general facts or broad-swath messages when it comes to direct communication with an institution. What today’s prospective student craves (along with her parents) when facing so many choices, is not the reasons why any student should attend a given institution, but the reasons that she should.

That’s yet another reason traditional lead generation (“search”) campaigns are losing their effectiveness: They tend to employ one-size-fits-all messaging.

Yet it doesn’t have to be that way. Advances in variable printing and CRM software allow for personalization of both printed and electronic communications. The key is first knowing what data can provide the basis for segmenting audiences into groups, and then delivering content that is specific enough to satisfy each targeted group.

In the final analysis, this brave new world of student recruitment requires a shift in emphasis from generating leads to building personal relationships—on social networks, messaging platforms, and in real life.

It might seem warm and fuzzy, but it takes painstaking work, incredible attention to detail, and the kind of attributes that have always been required of a successful admissions staff: compassion, empathy, and a tireless work ethic.