Creating an Effective Graduate Student Engagement Strategy

Aug 8, 2017

Leveraging the 4 Ws to Recruit Best-Fit Students

For-profit businesses, nonprofit organizations, schools and graduate programs have one goal in common: Finding and implementing new — and better — ways to engage their target audience.

As proof, look no further than the seemingly endless array of whitepapers, presentations, think pieces and studies devoted to exploring the nature and metrics of engagement. Clearly, engagement is a force to be reckoned with.

But what does engagement really mean? And what are the specific challenges faced by institutions of higher education who want to engage prospective graduate students?


When it comes to current students, engagement is relatively easy because they already have a relationship with the institution they are attending. They’re invested in the ongoing story of the university because now it’s their story, too.

Throughout our over two decades of powering admissions and enrollment marketing solutions for higher education, Liaison has recognized that prospective students, on the other hand, present a greater challenge.

It’s not that prospects aren’t interested in engagement; it’s simply that they are interested in developing connections with people they already know. Because they don’t know us yet, institutions have to work harder at reaching out consistently and in ways that feel personal — without crossing the line into invasive — to our prospective students.

The Golden Circle

 In 2009, author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek gave a TED Talk titled “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” While his message was tailored for the business community, it’s just as relevant for anyone trying to run a successful graduate program. Let’s start with his primary concept, which he calls “The Golden Circle.”

The Golden Circle illustrates how businesses and organizations think, act and communicate. The outermost ring represents the “What” which would be your graduate program.

Moving into the next ring, we encounter the “How,” or ways and means by which you get your your “What” out into the world.

Finally, we get to the innermost heart of the circle, which is where we locate our “Why” — also known as our purpose and reason for being.

Communicating from the Inside Out

In his talk, Sinek points out that many companies, organizations and schools work from the outside of the circle in: They start with the “What”, the product or program that they’re offering.

What’s wrong with that, you might ask. Isn’t the “What” important? Absolutely — but research and real-life experience have proven time and again that human beings are not nearly as guided by logic and reason as we like to believe. Whether we like it or not, humans tend to make decisions based on emotional motivations — and then use our rational brain to construct a reasonable justification for whatever decisions we’ve made.

In an abstract for their academic paper titled “Emotion and Decision Making”, a team of researchers proclaimed, “A revolution in the science of emotion has emerged in the last few decades, with the potential to create a paradigm shift in thinking about decision theories. The research reveals that emotions constitute powerful, pervasive, and predictable drivers of decision making.”

At this point you may be thinking, “Interesting stuff, but what does any of it have to do with creating a meaningful engagement strategy for my program’s prospective students?”

Understanding the driving forces behind how people — including your prospective students — decide to interact with you is an important part of crafting an effective engagement strategy.

In the end, engagement is actually much more than a strategy. It’s a natural outcome of relationships that have been nurtured over time. Engagement with our prospects is more likely when we are able to emotionally inspire them to connect.

So, how do we do that?

The Four Ws of Engagement

Your institution is unique, which means your reason and purpose for being will be, too. So how you define the metrics of successful engagement will depend on factors that are unique to your program and institution — in other words, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all engagement strategy. What works for another program may not work for yours, and vice versa.

Which isn’t to say that there’s not much to be learned from how other institutions have managed to connect with their respective audiences. There’s a wide array of best practices that can apply in almost any situation, so we should definitely seek to learn from the experiences of our peers.

What’s important to keep in mind is that just because a certain tool is being used effectively for another program doesn’t mean it’s the exact right one for your needs and goals.

Who? What? Why? When?

In order to create and maintain an effective engagement strategy, we need to know more than just who we’re trying to reach — we also need a deep understanding of what tools are best to use, why an engagement strategy that drives how we use these tools is key and when it’s best to use them.

Defining the “Who” of engagement is actually the easy part — it’s your prospective students! But building a strategy on only one W is a little like trying to drive a car with three flat tires. The other Ws — What, Why and When — need to be equally balanced.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll go over each of these in turn. Follow Liaison on Facebook and Twitter for updates about the next installment in this blog series.

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Over the last three decades, Liaison has helped over 40,000 programs on more than 1,200 campuses more effectively manage admissions through its Centralized Application Service (CAS™) technology and complementary application processing and support services. The higher education technology leader supports its partner institutions’ total enrollment goals by pairing CAS with its Enrollment Marketing (EM) platform as well as the recently acquired TargetX (CRM) and advanced analytics software Othot.