Feb 4, 2013

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 music album, 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 downloading it
on iTunes. 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

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.

  1. First, has your institution carefully identified its core audiences? Do you know
    what segmented socioeconomic, academic, and geographic groups they

  2. Second, do you know their collective orientation, their value systems, what
    factors they consider when making decisions, or even how they perceive higher

  3. 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

This process also requires that your core audiences be systematically studied to learn
their collective orientation. There are many 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, posting social media updates, 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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