Relationship Building in Student Recruitment: Leveraging your WHY

Oct 19, 2023

The Power of First Impressions

With every new relationship, you are left with an imprint of that first moment that carries on. Details can fade, the vision grows murky, but the feelings persist. In higher education, the marketing communications you send to prospective students are often the first step in creating a relationship. These communications help to create a bond and tell a story, crafting a path for them to—and through—your institution, and helping them envision thriving on your campus.

A master at challenging organizations to hone such messaging is Simon Sinek. In his book, “Starts with Why” (2009), he challenges us to communicate through the lens of ‘Why,’ defined as our purpose, belief, or the cause that necessitates our existence. When it comes to student recruitment, too many institutions simply speak the ‘What’ such as listing the degrees that can be earned. Others go further and speak to their ‘How’ which might highlight courses taught by accomplished faculty. ‘What’ and ‘How’ are helpful, but also uniformly true for all colleges and universities. It is the ‘Why’ that truly differentiates one institution from another and distinguishes it from the herd.

Differentiating With ‘Why’ for Prospective Students

When a higher education institution connects its ‘Why’ with a prospective student, a relationship forms and a story takes root. All of us have heard students say they chose a school because it just felt right. As Sinek puts it, “It is not logic or facts but our hopes and dreams, our hearts and our guts, that drive us” (2009, p. 62). The stories we tell through our marketing efforts seek to reach hearts and minds, not just convey facts and stats. Connecting your ‘Why’ with prospective students will have them saying that your school just feels right.

The center and circumference of a student feeling right about your institution may be somewhat counterintuitive. Most college marketing plans are still aimed squarely at helping students learn more about the institution. For decades, the prevailing strategy for student recruitment was to send a barrage of institution-specific communications with the hope that students would become so enamored with the facts and figures that they would devote themselves to taking all the necessary steps for application and acceptance. This focus on the features of the college, as opposed to engaging the student with meaningful benefits, may have been an effective strategy when the internet was a new concept and readers were more passive. In the internet’s early days, colleges had the luxury of telling students what they wanted them to know about the student experience. Today, the internet serves as an interactive tool for exploration. Yet, many institutions continue to inform rather than engage, even though today’s prospect students are using technology to research institutions to determine where, or if, they should apply.

From Information to Engagement

So, what are prospective students looking for?

Wise enrollment management marketers understand that cultivating a student’s allegiance is all about communicating that you understand them. When a student feels that a college knows and understands who they are and what they need, a strong sense of allegiance develops. This is not surprising or new; corporate marketers do this all the time.  We all have experienced a subliminal alliance with our favorite online brands as they skillfully capture our attention and link a positive emotion to a particular product. If billion-dollar companies rely on this concept, why would we, as educators, not optimize such a proven methodology?

Because it isn’t easy…

Leveraging your ‘Why’ and your marketing in a way that positions the student’s needs takes effort and commitment. It is as big as using a student’s preferred name on their very first search mailer and can be as small as remembering that gaining access to the study abroad trip to Italy is their primary motivation for enrolling in an extra class their first semester. Whatever the application, leveraging your ‘Why’ in a meaningful and effective way requires help. It is a big lift for any college or university to capture and leverage all the data points necessary to demonstrate to prospective students that they are known and understood.

The Need for Advanced Systems

To truly communicate that your institution understands each student, you need a system that can make sense of it all. Bad news up front: your dad’s spreadsheet isn’t going to cut it. Massive improvements in customer relationship management (CRM) functionality, and higher education’s adoption of such functionality for student recruitment, have led to a new age in the competition for colleges and universities to become noticed by students. Ubiquitous today to all but the smallest institutions (and those who just aren’t paying attention), the powerful technology that defines the bulk of the student outreach process simply was not widespread even ten years ago. Even those who have been moderately successful using internal tools for outreach efforts are consulting with third-party providers to keep them in the game.

Focusing on Student Benefits

Interestingly, some colleges and universities have chosen to double down in sending messages that focus on the institution rather than students. As Miller (2017) reminds us in his classic “Building a Storybrand,” the student is the hero in their own story, not us. Enrollment management marketing must clearly articulate to prospective students the benefits of joining the ranks of your student body. The key is that the benefits must be meaningful to them as an individual. Miller explains that overwhelming a prospect with a long, random list of general benefits causes them to use so much brainpower that they simply disengage completely. Focusing your message on the prospective student’s needs and aspirations gives them the mental and emotional roadmap to see how attendance at your school will help them to fulfill their personal ‘Why.’

Taking the ‘Why’ Journey   

Leveraging your ‘Why’ in marketing is difficult; but what of value isn’t? Any meaningful journey has its first steps, and in the coming weeks, we are going to share more detailed information on exactly how you can take this journey, helping you to engage students more successfully and achieve your admissions goals.



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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.