The next admissions cycle is back in full swing after an eventful summer for higher ed which included major Supreme Court rulings on affirmative action, significant changes to the FAFSA, and continued post-Covid restructuring. As schools navigate these emerging and sustained challenges in the marketplace, the need to be successful at communicating with prospective students has never been greater.
In this post, I’ll share some tips and recommendations for effective email campaigns in the upcoming cycle. In a crowded marketplace of channels to reach an increasingly fragmented audience of prospective students, email remains a fundamentally reliable and necessary channel to use to reach the next year’s class (and the parents and families who help them make college decisions.)
In fact, email may offer the most value because it is usually connected directly to a contact record in a CRM and as an “owned” channel, it’s not as affected by the frequent disruptions happening across ad networks and social media.
Here are four key recommendations to consider when setting up your campaigns this year.
1. Personalize and segment, but audit your email schedules.
Veteran email marketers know the value of message personalization and audience segmentation. The current suite of CRM solutions makes it extremely easy and intuitive to segment and run parallel campaigns. The options for targeted campaigns are limitless: campus visit, interest surveys, brand awareness, search, apply, fee waiver, deadline reminder, find your major…the list goes on. The tradeoff of being able to automate several campaigns at once is that students are often added to several campaigns at once. In other words, you may be sending too many emails, too many touchpoints, too frequently without realizing it. Admittedly, this can be the product of simple oversight in timing or staggering the logic in your drip campaigns, easily rectified with a quick scheduling audit or some closer coordination with your search provider. If this is not something you’re thinking about it, it’s a good time to do an audit of your campaigns.
Consider too, that as students think about their college journey, they may change their mind about majors and interests and thus may be entering multiple segments as they explore. Evergreen messaging that can help students see themselves on campus and understand the benefits of attending your institution will always help deepen your relationship with them.
2. Your emails serve multiple audiences, craft content accordingly.
Parents and families are extremely influential in a student’s decision to select a college and they read their student’s emails (sometimes on behalf of the student entirely). It’s important to consider this dual audience with your communications and to be mindful of other content best practices including:
- Using clear and direct calls-to-action (CTAs)
- Optimize for mobile
- Develop relevant and engaging subject lines
- Conduct A/B testing for subject lines, preview text, images, etc.
- Include links to video content (when possible)
3. Improve the effectiveness of your messaging—by collecting feedback outside of your email ecosystem.
While most CRM platforms offer robust performance metrics to measure the effectiveness of your email campaigns, there are other perspectives to consider, such as actual, in-person student feedback.
Phones, digital ads, emails, and the students themselves get more sophisticated every year. Consider creating your own focus group. Perhaps a high school could provide volunteers in the spirit of demonstrating the business function of a focus group to future marketers. Even faculty and staff children can be a particularly honest and objective group. Remember it doesn’t matter what they think of your campus. Find out what they think about how schools should market to them. Enrollment teams will also know what kinds of questions families and students typically ask—can you build systems to surface that kind of information so it’s easily accessible for decision makers?
There are informal ways of collecting insights too. For example, if your school holds an annual information session for children of employees as a public service to provide some advice on the general process of applying to college (many often do), consider how to collect valuable feedback at these events. A simple open question soliciting their impressions of what colleges and universities are saying, sending, and doing to attract their attention can be enlightening and can produce some form of pivot in operation or messaging.
4. MARKETview can help you test your assumptions about what messages work with each segment and uncover additional insight.
One of the advantages of MARKETview is that it connects directly to your CRM to produce predictive insights and recommendations about how to move students through your funnel. For example, over the past three years, MARKETview’s real-time analysis of inquiry pools has revealed that the “Application Materials” source grew by almost 30%, anchoring its place as one of the top three sources across more than 130 institutions nationwide. Not surprisingly, the largest group is comprised of students who are application starters. Common App Suspects and Prospects lead the population but there are several institutional app starters in this population as well.
Interested in learning how MARKETview can help you reach your enrollment goals?
Yet, we see the average application conversion rate among these students hovers around 35%!
For this group, are schools acknowledging a student’s impulse to apply, and are they sending messages with specific incentives to take the next step of applying? Or are schools communicating with this group as if it were any other inquiry? At my previous institution, we observed this divergent behavior in MARKETview and completely changed the way we handled our app starters. That pivot resulted in a conversion rate that beat the average by almost 20 percentage points last year. For more information and recommendations on how to optimize your population of students who start the application, check out our recent post about the behavior of application starters.
Ultimately, students from different backgrounds and those who engage in different ways often benefit from different types of messaging. The most successful campaigns we see are those that leverage information you might not have but should. For example, MARKETview partners often tailor content based on projected household income and consumer profile (such as likely Pell or likely full-pay), allowing them to create a message that better resonates with the family’s cost and value expectations.