Conversion Inversion – The myth of Big Search and how late-cycle nurture can maximize your enrollment

How you approach yearly budgeting for recruitment efforts can have a massive impact on the how successful your program is at converting students through every phase of the student lifecycle. While it seems intuitive that starting with as many Search names as possible would directly increase your yield just by nature of having more students in your outreach plan, we’ve observed time and time again that prioritizing a large Search population over later-stage nurture is a hazardous gamble that can distort your outcomes and diminish your enrollment (for advice on how to make your list purchases strategically to capture names of likely enrollees, see our article Strategic Search: Beginning Your 2015 Communications Plan).

We often hear from clients that vendors promise massive increases in inquiries or ‘applicants’, and are later surprised to find that this is a numbers game where the vendor simply qualified unvetted students for a higher stage. In other instances, we’ve seen directives for increased search pools as a response to lagging numbers—a reactive solution that fails to confront endemic problems that caused the lag in the first place. Namely, a purchased name and an enrolled student are separated by an extensive relationship and many moments of positive recommitment to a school, and failing to support those moments of recommitment in later stages can lose possible enrollees.

Silly businessman

Simply put, the only numbers that matter in the end are your paying students.

Let’s use a hypothetical case study here:

  • A school anticipating 500 students to enroll purchases a list of 300,000 search names
  • If 500 of their anticipated search students stem from that initial search list than 0.167% of that search list is converted
  • Increasing the list purchase by another 100,000 names would increase enrollment by only 160 students

What this illustrates is that increasing your end-stage enrollees by inflating your preliminary purchase list is an exorbitantly expensive, unpredictable and slow-moving way to increase numbers. This is expounded by the fact that, as revealed in NACAC’s 2013 State of College Admission Report, nearly 80% of students apply to three or more colleges, and 30% apply to seven or more. With broad options and increasingly less meaningful classifications of ‘applicant’ students, investing in early-stage marketing simply isn’t a solid strategy.

Here is a general example of a proposed expenditure schedule for more effective late-cycle nurture:

  1. Start with a Strategic Search purchase
    Hone the messaging for profiled students and growth areas to increase viability of prospect-to-inquiry conversion
  2. Once converted, diversify marketing mix
    Coordinate phone call, text, email and print marketing (scheduled to prevent accidental messaging overload) with clear calls to action leading further into the conversion funnel (application incentives, visit invitations)
  3. Personalize all outreach
    While it may be tempting to save money by generalizing your print pieces or emails, personalization is a proven conversion enhancer. Econsultancy’s The State of Online Personalization Report, along with several other similar reports on personalized print, tout massive successes for all varieties of marketing efforts once personalization is introduced. An added benefit to this is that having developed a relationship with your students more completely, you can fulfill their outreach with more varied types of personalized messaging (like Stephens College’s pet personalization!) beyond Name and Location (highlight major and interests at every opportunity with related information about salary and placement rate).
  4. Make your Drive to Apply campaigns stand out
    Yes, students still fill out paper applications. And online applications. And Common App. If you provide an attractive, personalized package (again, featuring placement rates and salaries for their major career fields) that gives easy to follow directions on how to apply, what test codes to use, and what they’ll need to do beyond the application itself to have their full materials reviewed, you’ll find students far more likely to complete the application than if they have to dig for information.
  5. Nurture your applicants and accepts
    Most frequently, we observe communication gaps after the application has been received. Campaigns to applicants and accepted students are required so they don’t feel taken for granted, and good cross-media outreach can keep your school front and center for post-app pre-enroll students. Remember, with the number of students applying to seven or more students climbing, keeping your voice loud and inviting after application is the best way to encourage further conversion.
  6. Tchotchke Time!
    So, you’ve saved money by not paying exorbitant fees for untargeted search lists and your numbers are looking good. Lock in your class with some fun takeaways! Personalized refrigerator magnets, tickets to parent weekend events, stuffed keychain mascots, creative bumper stickers – if you treat pre-enrolled students with the same gusto as enrolled students, they’re more than likely to line up with your way of thinking!

Spectrum champions late-cycle nurture (sign up for our Quarterly Newsletter for an item on ideas for late-cycle nurture in our upcoming installment) as a valuable and underused component of the higher ed marketing mix. As competition for students grows more intense over the next few years (and it certainly will), schools that can support and nurture a student from a cold list-purchase name to an invested enrollee will have an easier time thriving.

So, when you’re planning your budget for next year’s recruitment outreach, ask yourself one important thing: what is the longest gap in messaging that a student will experience without direct intervention? Patch that hole, because that period of time will have you hemorrhaging student interest and losing possible deposits. A print piece, an online campaign, even a text to say hello is a much better way to gain and retain than starting all over with a new purchased list.