Admission numbers are trickling in. Highly selective and less selective colleges are both missing their enrollment targets.
We believe that enrollment VPs and college presidents ought to be examining their shared, but ineffective habits, instead of blaming the usual suspects: unfavorable demographics, increased sensitivity to the rising cost of college, society questioning the overall value of a college degree, reduction in international student applicants, and students applying to multiple colleges. Not that these forces can be ignored, but the real test of leadership for enrollment leaders is to claim an outsized share of an uncertain and dwindling market.
In our view, Enrollment professionals share, and must break, the following ineffective habits:
1. They are buying names of high school seniors and juniors instead of cultivating names of right-fit prospects.
Instead of attracting right-fit prospects with inspired marketing, they are employing tired enrollment tactics from firms who buy names in large numbers, then throw commoditized direct mail/email at prospective students, hoping to snare a few. These outdated methods disregard the habits of savvy Gen-Z kids who are maintaining five to six email accounts to filter out email noise from colleges, and are mercilessly tossing away the similar-looking direct mail pieces. These tactics result in the traditional admissions funnel.
Instead, the Enrollment VPs need to market to create an inverted funnel. They ought to be focused on promoting the various segments of their star students and alumni, which in turn will attract look-alikes, creating tribes of like-minded prospects. This will increase the number of prospects who are likely to convert into applicants, engaged students, loyal alumni and lifelong donors.
2. They are investing in expensive or ineffective paid digital media instead of data-driven machine-learning strategies.
Many VPs of Enrollment Marketing, comfortable with traditional out-of-home advertising, are investing in ineffective display advertising; they are also buying expensive Google paid advertising where the prices have been jacked up by for-profit schools; publics like Arizona State and Purdue; and privates like Western Governors and Southern New Hampshire.
The should invest in cheaper, less wasteful paid social advertising, A/B testing, look-alike marketing and micro-targeting which all leverage partly human judgement and partly machine-learning based on data-rich social media.
Deploying these smarter strategies will turn admission funnels into admission pipes.
3. They are communicating exclusively with students instead of a broader set of audiences.
Instead of making a shortlist of colleges on their own, Gen-Z’s are heavily influenced by the opinions of their social network of peers, teachers, college counselors, principals, parents and friends.
Instead of investing most of their marketing dollars on high school seniors and juniors, the VPs of Enrollment should target a mix of students, parents, teachers, college counselors in high schools, and principals. This creates a stereophonic set of messages that surround and engage a prospect with what’s distinctive about a college.
4. They are investing in an ineffective media mix of direct mail and emails instead of one-of-a-kind memorable pieces.
Gen-Z kids are maintaining five to six email accounts to filter out email noise from colleges, and are mercilessly throwing away the similar-looking direct mail pieces they are receiving. They are only paying attention to and keeping the most memorable pieces (what Seth Godin calls “the purple cows”).
Instead of wasting money on big print pieces which are tossed, or generic emails that are never opened, the VPs of Enrollment ought to be creating smaller attention-grabbing pieces. Harvey Mudd’s playing cards and North Central College’s iSpeak book are good examples of innovative marketing.
5. They are presenting their academic product pages on their websites as commodity products instead of programs of distinction.
Mobile-friendly, price-sensitive, data-driven Gen-Z and their parents are researching programs/schools with more intensity than ever before.
Program pages, what we call “money pages” on a college website, are where many college decisions are made and college preferences are created. Even though the colleges are asking families to pony up fees that are close to the price of expensive cars, it’s rare to find the level of romance and presentation that even economy car companies put into their entry-level model pages.
Instead of settling with bland program pages packed with facts, the VPs of Enrollment Marketing must create program pages that romance prospects and their families. They must feature stories of peer students, faculty and labs, facilities, studios, and centers of excellence where the students’ minds will be shaped and skills will be developed. They must paint pictures of exciting opportunities that await them after graduation and offer stories of alumni as demonstrable proof of their program’s distinction.
6. Their teams are overly dependent on tools, technologies and analytics rather than leading from the front.
Enrollment is sales. It demands the highest form of persuasion and consultative salesmanship.
Enrollment teams must be equipped with data to help guide their conversations, but they can’t hide behind a sea of data with limited instinct and ability to create trust and comfort with the most important decision of a student’s life.
7. They are producing a sea of content but aren’t weaponizing it.
Google page 1 is destiny. As is high-fidelity, persuasive content “discovered” on social media.
Staff at many colleges don’t have the wherewithal to weaponize the content they create for the digital world in which Google page 1 rankings are shaping institutional reputation. They are creating new content (news, social media, university magazine, blogs, website, etc.) at a furious pace without informing it by a Keyword Lexicon – comprised of high-value words and phrases they can rightfully claim and “own” to drive right-fit conversions and marketing ROI.
8. Their enrollment marketing budgets are meager in comparison with their competitors and online juggernauts.
Most non-profit colleges and universities are investing between 2% and 5% of their total revenue on marketing (most rarely invest marketing budgets in excess of $1M annually) . Many of them are reluctant to grow the marketing budget annually despite the fact that the pay-per-click costs and media costs are rising annually. They are also oblivious to the large sums of money that for-profit colleges are throwing into the market – investing almost 20% of their total revenue on marketing. The University of Phoenix and Grand Canyon University alone spend over $100M on their marketing respectively. Even non-profits like the Southern New Hampshire, Western Governors, Arizona State, Purdue and Liberty each spend over $100M on their marketing budgets. A handful of public educational systems, like University of Maryland and University of Massachusetts, are about to join the $100M marketing club.
In the face of such odds, the enrollment VPs must embrace the mantra of “money makes money”.
In conclusion, blaming the usual suspects isn’t going to solve the problem of enrollment declines. As the author Rita Mae Brown famously said “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” I urge VPs of Enrollment to shed their tired habits and adopt new and innovative ones – or at least invest in new tactics that might give them a fighting chance at reaching the promised land.