Accepted and Connected: Using Private Social Networks to Retain and Convert

PSN-chart

If one were to chart the volume, frequency and urgency of marketing efforts made by colleges in relation to a student’s journey through the enrollment conversion funnel, a precipitous drop post-acceptance would characterize the chart’s path in most instances. Post-accept/pre-enroll is a period of time when typical marketing strategies struggle to take root. For most accepted students, the steady flow of information designed to inform a student of your school, intrigue them to the point of inquiry and then compel them to apply worked to its desired end — so what’s left to say beyond the drive to deposit? We suggest letting students do the talking to one another, enabled by your school’s private social network. For late stage conversion, there is no better tool than authentic conversations between prospective students as the centerpiece of your marketing mix.

And, in a recent case study of Spectrum clients that use PSNs, we can see the merits of this suggestion: an average of 76.3% of accepted students who went on to enroll were PSN users, with one clients seeing a 61.3% total accept-toenroll conversion rate. In addition to significantly reducing withdrawals, PSNs are proven to increase enrollment.

Changing Your Strategy for Post-Accept Students

Ushering a student from accepted to enrolled is a process that requires sound strategy—and we suggest that strategy take a noticeably different form than what students have experienced earlier in the process. The mentality of an accepted student has shifted post-acceptance—where once they required your acceptance, now you are vying for theirs. For this reason, a pivot in marketing strategy makes sense, as a new side of your marketing can compliment the new color of your relationship and separate you from competitors who have also sent your students acceptance letters. Covering old ground at this stage, while an easy option, isn’t necessarily a safe one in light of this. Redundantly highlighting your key selling points can come across as spammy or have the unintended effect of reiterating a point about which the student views your school at a comparative disadvantage (e.g. when your big ticket scholarship is less valuable or more difficult to obtain than a competitor’s). Similarly, students have been driven to inquire and driven to apply, and may have ‘drive fatigue’. In other words, if your idea of post-accept nurture is to capture deposits through another drive campaign, you may be alienating or turning off students who are working through a variety of factors affecting decision. It’s a bad time to come off as oppressive or annoying, or even worse, impersonal.

While this may seem to suggest that the aforementioned dip in marketing efforts to convert potential enrollees is justified and perhaps even wisely informed, it does not excuse the fact that unattended students post-acceptance are less likely to enroll than they would be if they had some sort of continued engagement with your school and your brand. Something that gives them interactivity and space to explore your school on their terms. Something with a high return rate and actual benefits to help them meet their college expectations. Such as a private social network.

What is a PSN

A private social network is an online forum where students who have been accepted to your school can have open discussion with one another, as well as with student ambassadors currently enrolled at your school. Much like familiar social networks—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—millennial students will not only find it a comfortably familiar environment in which to interact, they will also carry this sense of comfort towards more candid, open conversation. Unlike these networks, PSNs are tied directly to student microsite and a school’s CRM, to better adjust the user experience and enhance the information a school can glean from student dialog. While there is a direct utility in the PSN both for your school (advertising upcoming events) and for students (finding a roommate) it is the indirect power of student-to-student conversation and conversion that gives PSNs their power.

PSN-screenshots

How Does a PSN Compliment Your Current Social Media Presence?

As is evident in the name, a private social network is private—gated membership confined, in our example, to students who have been accepted or enrolled at a school and select ambassadors currently attending the school. You can think of your Facebook and Twitter feeds as marketing tools for public consumption, while your PSN is an elite, exclusive community (and can be marketed as such). A PSN borrows its format and function from standard social networks, and is made unique by its membership. Using familiarity is useful, as we can see in this quote from Fortune’sThe Social Side of College Planning

“A lot of the things that my generation does to communicate is through Facebook and Twitter,” says high school junior Alan Young from Maine. Blending social media and college planning “is more of what we’re used to.”

Screenshot 2014-12-09 14.49.44Where the standard usage of Facebook is institution-to-student communication (typically in that direction), a PSN creates a student-to-student communication pathway.

Rather than viewing the population of your PSN in competition with the population using your other social media outlets, consider your entire network to be mutually supportive, with the PSN acting as a velvet-roped area for select students. Fluid use of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and your PSN provides students with different preferences on how they use social media to find what they want and carry it through other media—a photo on Facebook might inspire a discussion on the PSN, for example. Alternatively, students on a PSN can refer each other to private profiles on other networks that they’ve spent more time curating. Even though the subsequent interactions aren’t happening on your PSN, they’re still tethered to your school’s identity.

Building Accepted Students Relationships Early and Filling the Communication Void

One of the most immediate advantages of a PSN is that it serves as a platform where you can patch the communication void for post-accepted students mentioned in the introduction. Replacing drivebased active marketing with an open, passive channel, a PSN almost serves as a virtual campus quad, where students are free to interact with each other within the context of your brand in a selfdictated manner. Essentially, all conversations in a PSN are colored by the simple fact that they are happening in your PSN. Even discussions covering general concerns that aren’t necessarily related to your school exclusively are wrapped into, and reinforce, your school’s name. While this hands-off brand expression might make some schools wary, the member-base is comprised entirely of students who care enough about that school and its principles to advance to the point of acceptance (at the very least). The chorus, then, is reliably sympathetic.

Another distinct contribution PSNs can make to a post-accepted marketing mix is that they enable early connection between accepted students. Where a sense of cohort-community typically begins at on-campus orientation events during the early weeks of the school year, members of an incoming class can get a sense of their fellow possible-enrollees half a year earlier when a school utilizes a PSN. With features that allow students to see students who share their major, are from their home state, enjoy the same books and more, the profile information provided by students creates a dynamic catalog of similarly-minded students who can benefit from their obvious and immediate connections. While this provides a useful overview of the student body as a whole, it also provides an anodyne to students who are apprehensive about being paired with one or more strangers in the famously anxiety-ridden roommate matching process. Most schools offer student-directed roommate pairing if both students choose each other, but many students attend colleges without the comfort of a familiar face. PSNs change that. If nothing else, using a PSN as a way to avoid being paired with an incompatible roommate is more than enough to encourage log-ins. Franklin Pierce University, a private northeastern school utilizing a PSN in their enrollment strategy, cited a precipitous drop in requests for random matches from their accepted students once their PSN was instituted. Clearly, students were finding each other on the PSN and submitting housing applications with their mutual match already made, leading to less work for the school and a better Freshman year experience for students.

As these fresh relationships begin to develop, conversations gravitate to next steps—both concretely about your school as well as abstractly about how other students are approaching the commitment process. Again, the populi lending vox to your PSN is one that is skewed to view your school favorably, and these conversations lead to ‘mutual recruitment’—where two students who are 75% sure about sending in an enrollment deposit convince each other to become 100%-ers, winning two deposits without any direct intercession from your staff. Alternatively, apprehensive students have unfettered access to current students in the form of ambassadors and can have worries quelled (yes, there is good food near campus. No, the Greek system doesn’t dominate the social scene, etc.) that aren’t typically featured in official marketing collateral. In a sense, it makes the ‘student panel’ feature highlighted in many campus visits and makes it constantly available, and through students working in your admissions office no less.

Engagement Year-Round

Depending on the membership conditions of your PSN and the date when you begin accepting applicants, the PSN is an always-available tool that exists outside of a deadline or a schedule. Populating it with students and maintaining worthy discussions may require print and digital campaigns, but the network itself is one of the most plug-and-play marketing tools in a school’s arsenal—as noted above, students are well-synced to the social network paradigm. To that end, preparing the PSN and your promotional materials can happen at any point during the year, attuned to the date that your students begin receiving their acceptance letters. It’s an exceptional way to offer a value-added acceptance package that out-competes other acceptance letters your applicants may concurrently be receiving. Instead of the yawning gap students will experience from most schools, you can offer a lively environment for discussion, exploration, and development of brand affinity—all of irrecusable value to drive enrollment conversion.

Your Future with a PSN

In collecting data for the PSN case study, the four clients we tracked recorded, cumulatively, 1656 students made 7480 distinct comments, both in group discussion threads and as posts on personal walls (or an average of 414 students/1870 comments per client). The content in this largesse of information reveals an extensive amount of demographic information about student populations (discussed further in the case study), but in a more quantitative sense, these figures represent an amazing amount of interaction with college brands and identities. Maintaining this degree of engagement at the the post-accept stage, especially as students entertain offers from competing institutions, is noteworthy, and something every school should strive for. What makes these figures more impressive is that they occurred with minimal institutional pressure—rather than being asked or told to do something (as we see in a drive campaign), students are invited to use something on their own terms, on their own time.

Consider instituting a PSN for your future enrollment efforts—both as a means to examine the tastes and habits of your prospects and as a way to enable their conversations. As an enrollment accelerant, it’s hard to find a lower-cost, lowermaintenance tool that does the job well at just the right point in the conversion funnel. As we like to say, “You’re Accepted. Get Connected.” Make the connection with a PSN.

Further Reading

EDUIntelligence: Yield Students with Private Social Networks http://blog.spectrumedusolutions.com/yield-students-with-private-social-networks/

Fortune: “The Social Side of College Planning” http://fortune.com/2013/09/12/the-social-side-of-college-planning/

Proactive Investors: “MOKO Social Media to Launch New College App Speakeasy” http://www.proactiveinvestors.com/companies/news/56990/moko-social-media-to-launch-newcollege-app-speakiesy-56990.html