May 29, 2011

It’s All in Who You Know

Let’s face the facts.  If you want to be not only successful but serve your students the best, your enrollment success lies with meeting the needs of your core audiences.  Student recruitment and retention, as a marketing endeavor, must be an audience-centered experience to be successful.  In the enrollment profession, our clients are prospective students, seeking out the basic questions associated with attending our college or university. Prospective students have the questions-but do you have the answers?  And, even if you do, can you grow the relationship?

The world of higher education-especially the admission and financial aid process-must seem, at times, a bit unusual to our prospective students.  I often like to compare the process of selecting a college, which is actually a consumer research project, to other kinds of consumer processes in which prospective students might participate.   Selecting a new CD, for example, is simply a process of identifying a taste of music, determining if the consumer has enough cash (or credit) to afford it, and finding a store-or even Web site-to purchase it or, better yet, download it.   Buying a new pair of jeans could lead consumers to compare prices, try a few on for size at their favorite store, and purchase the pair they like the best.  These are nominal purchases, for certain, but nevertheless they are intuitive, straightforward, and simple processes in which the consumer is really in charge of the exchange.

Enter the world of selecting a college.  First, the student begins by focusing on colleges that might fit their interests and needs.  As they begin narrowing their choices and considering their options, they run into a process that, I perceive, is pretty confusing and downright anxiety provoking.  To “purchase” the product, the students find that they first have to “qualify” for the purchase.  In other words, they must submit some pretty personal information – primarily their permanent academic record – to a committee for review.  This “qualification” process is, of course, our admission process and it may also include, depending upon the institution, a personal essay, personal interview, and a review of extracurricular activities or community service projects in which the candidate participated.

After learning, let’s hope, a positive outcome of the admission process, which of course could take several weeks to a couple of months, our consumer runs into another interesting process.  Since the advertised price of our product is rarely the price most students pay, they must go through another qualifying process-called financial aid-to learn what the real price of the college will be for them.  This “differential price” is determined after the students and their families share personal financial data with the government and the school.  Finally, they learn their price only after becoming pretty adept at interpreting a complex variety of financial aid funding options.

I share these examples to emphasize a point, not to degrade the importance of the college search process.  While I believe that choosing the right college is one of the most critical decisions in an individual’s life, I also believe selecting a college is not a very simple or straightforward process and the audience is not particularly in the driver’s seat of the exchange.  While it is a really important decision and a significant financial investment, it is not particularly audience-centered in its approach.  In fact, it is an institution-centered process, with rules and procedures developed by the government and institutions, leaving the audience, who likely as not has no experience in this process, to navigate some pretty challenging waters.

So, from a sheer marketing orientation, the enrollment process doesn’t win the gold medal.  How does this help us-or hinder us-in meeting our enrollment challenges? Do we, or can we, change our thinking and view our processes from an external point of view, just as our prospective students see us?  Can we adapt our processes and communications to the needs and expectations of our clients?

I think one of the keys to solid, integrated marketing, including recruitment and retention efforts, is to truly understand the needs, expectations, and orientation of your institutions’ core audiences.  A few critical questions are important at this point. 

  • First, has your institution carefully identified its core audiences?  Do you know what segmented socioeconomic, academic, and geographic groups they represent? 
  • Second, do you know their collective orientation, their value systems, what factors they consider when making decisions, or even how they perceive higher education? 
  • And, finally, can you draw insight from the answers to these questions that lead you to take action?  In other words, can the insight from what you have learned about your core audiences lead you to organize your recruitment and retention strategies and tactics around the needs of your audiences?

Answering these questions requires systematic study of your institutions’ enrollment.  It requires that someone or some group on your campus do the necessary research to identify the core subgroups of students who call your institution home.  If that work has yet to be accomplished there is plenty of help within the institutional research community to assist your institution in answering those key questions.  And, of course, ISA helps many institutions identify their core audiences as part of our research capabilities.

This process also requires that your core audiences be systematically studied to learn their collective orientation.  The Admitted Student Questionnaire, for example, was developed years ago by the College Board and is a great way to learn how your admitted students perceived your institution during the admission process.  There are similar research instruments designed to measure student satisfaction once students have enrolled and have some collective experience as a student at your institution.  Again, this is valuable information and can truly assist you in developing sound retention strategies taking into account your clients point of view.  Solid integrated marketing efforts, such as recruitment and retention, always have well-developed key messages.  These key messages are born out of the insight gained by systematically learning the orientation of your audience and how they make choices.  With insight comes the opportunity to effectively arrange resources around your clients and, especially important, the opportunity to influence their behavior.

So, how might this kind of thinking be put into operation in effective recruiting practices?  How can an audience-based philosophy improve your institutions’ recruitment effectiveness? One way  is to think of the recruitment process as “courting” a student.  In fact, recruiting has a lot of similarities with the ritual of dating or similar close interpersonal relationships.  Both activities rely on three key components.

First, there must be reciprocity of information.  A relationship with a prospective student will not grow if only one party shares information about themselves.  There must be two-way communication that allows for a greater understanding of the other to grow.  When a student fills out an inquiry card at a college fair, it is not only an act of interest but it also serves to verify that they are growing the relationship by providing more information about themselves.  Are you listening?

Second, there must be increasing intimacy of the information that is reciprocated.  In any interpersonal relationship, two parties grow to a deeper understanding of each other only through sharing more in-depth information about each other.  At any time, if one party does not like what he or she hears, the relationship can be ended.  For instance, when a prospective student shares that they are really interested in studying biology and playing lacrosse, simply responding that the sciences program is strong and athletics are popular is not enough to grow the students’ interest.  A strong approach might be to make personal connections between faculty in the biology program and coaches and current players on the lacrosse team with the prospective student.

Finally, take the relationship to the next level. In recruitment, the next obvious step might be for the student to visit your campus, talk to a professor, or apply for admission.

It sounds obvious, right?  Somehow, though, we often lose our focus.  Admission officers and their staffs spend a lot of time in busy work: making the phone calls, sending e-mails, visiting high schools, and sending out massive amounts of snail mail.  We spend a lot of time with the outreach side of recruiting students.  When we finally get the date, we often lose sight of the most important element, the information needs of our clients.  We become so focused on our efforts that we fail to listen to what prospective students are really telling us.  And, what they tell us is the key to taking the relationship to the next level. 

It really is all in whom you know-and how well you know them.  The more you know about your prospects, the better you can meet their information needs.  Sometimes you just have to stop talking and listen.

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