Communicating Authentically with Prospective Students

If you are involved in marketing development or marketing management at a college, university, or independent school today, you are involved in a high stakes contest with tough competitors.  Today, promotional campaigns in the recruitment effort - in particular - have become unusually sophisticated, with social media, print, web, and email strategies all working - we hope - in an integrated fashion to directly reach, and influence, our core audiences. The higher education landscape is beginning to look a little bit more like the for-profit sector when you examine the promotional efforts we are all developing.  But, despite the creative genius of social media, email, web portals, and print media - while critical to meeting our end enrollment goals - something doesn't seem quite right.  Doesn't is occasionally seem like we are playing right into our core audiences' strength?  Maybe that's both the problem and the solution.

Prospective students today live in a more complex world than any generation before them.  They enjoy unprecedented access to information and communication.  The prospective students we are all trying to communicate with are tough customers on promotional media.  They have very high expectations of social media, websites, print media, and other promotional efforts.  Why?  They have had access to information and are more media savvy than virtually (no pun intended) any other generation.  While they have had more available to them than any students ever before, do they know how to make sense of it all?  Have they developed the critical thinking skills to sort this stuff out?  Even more, are they finding real meaning through their interactions with your institution?

Here is the problem.  Today's prospective student is a master of the superficial.  It's not a criticism - it is simply reality.  High school students today, in particular, are experts in the virtual, and have great capability in evaluating an institutions promotional media or "curb appeal".  They have great experience in this endeavor and are quite savvy customers when it comes to evaluating an institution's more superficial qualities. 

But, the buck stops when it comes to evaluating deeper meaning.  Even though today's prospective student seems to be highly sophisticated, they often fall short of being truly capable of sorting out their own educational needs.  Why?  It is out of context.  Most prospective students today are not capable of evaluating the quality of a faculty member, the value of a program, or the inherent virtue of a freshmen seminar class - all things we are all trying to sell them on - simply because they have no deep experience in doing so.  Therefore, they cannot really evaluate the core qualities of an institution. 

So, how can we respond?  I believe there are three things that are important to know and utilize when developing promotional media for prospective students today. 

  1. Engagement over promotion.  Use your promotional efforts to lead to human dialogue whenever possible.  Sounds obvious, right?  But, few institutions really do this.  In my mind, your social media, web, print, and email campaigns should always have the goal of increasing the likelihood of person-to-person interaction.  Through responses social media, email, and visits, human dialogue should kick in, allowing the institution to personally communicate with students who have demonstrated an interest in their institution.  When the personal effort becomes a reality, then you have an opportunity to educate the prospective student on the real context of their interest and how it relates to your institution.
  2. Get real.  In other words, focus on being as genuine and meaningful as possible in your promotional efforts.  Your promotional media should reflect your true qualities, not some artificial reflection of your institution.  In fact, sometimes the more quirky the better - it may just prove your institution is real and willing to be honest.  And, you never know - the honesty and genuine approach might just resonate with your core audiences.

  3. Hire the best.  More often than not, some of the best communications firms have seen problems that are similar to your institutions before.  Hire the best firm you can afford and let them do their best work for you.  Keep in mind that - no matter how important it is to communicate with students with real context - you still have to get on their radar screens!  These are highly sophisticated media consumers.  If your communication campaign does not grab their attention, then you really can't have the next, more meaningful conversation with them.

Today's prospective student can be a tough client.  They have high information and media expectations that are often not particularly grounded in true meaning.  Your institution will be served well if you focus on getting on prospective students' radar screens with rich, meaningful dialogue, be genuinely interested in them, and hire the best firm you can find.  And, in the end, perhaps you will have recruited a student just slightly better equipped to enjoy the value of your institution.