In our age of carefully curated social media feeds featuring beautifully filtered photos, it can be easy to assume that authenticity somehow matters less to the current generation of prospective students. But when it comes to the business of recruiting a new class, nothing could be further from the truth.
To find high school graduating seniors who are the right fit for your school can sometimes feel like it requires a magician’s wand. After all, strategic enrollment management is about more than meeting admissions goals every recruiting cycle. Student retention is just as important as yield when it comes to the overall, long-term health of your school. Filling seats with students who are not likely to retain only means you’re tasked with making up the loss next year, which can easily become a never-ending cycle. (And one that is particularly challenging in the face of the demographic cliff.)
So, you may be asking yourself, does authenticity play a role in recruitment and retention and if so, should I be worried? To support our client-partners and enable us to better assist your recruitment efforts, we conduct a lot of research and strive to stay in touch with the needs and concerns voiced by prospective students. During a recent prospective student focus group, our team was struck by one participant, who stated that they felt like the communications and mailings they’d been receiving told one story, but the campus visit, specifically the campus tour, told them another.
The incongruence of what had been “sold” to them versus what they saw for themselves first-hand felt disingenuous at best and, at worst, like they’d been flat out intentionally deceived. As unfortunate as that was to hear, it was more disconcerting to hear that this feeling was shared by prospective students visiting a variety of institutions. Unsurprisingly, students were far less likely to continue the admissions process whenever they spotted inauthenticity.
How can you ensure you’re staying true to your institution’s identity?1. Be True
Authenticity matters. And recent research agrees. A recent research study identified the importance of authenticity, finding institutions that tied their recruitment efforts to their mission saw higher yield between admitted and enrolled students than those that did not1.
So, first things first, consider your enrollment marketing and communications through the lens of your school’s mission, vision, and core values. They should be the cornerstone on which your institution’s culture has been built. This requires stepping outside of yourself and putting yourself in the position of your prospective students or their families, asking some tough questions, and attempting to answer them earnestly.
An example might be, if I didn’t know anything about the institution I am marketing, would I be able to get a sense of who we are—our mission, vision, core values, and culture—by:
- Visiting our website;
- Looking at our social media;
- Reading one of our direct mail pieces;
- Opening one of our emails; or
- Visiting our campus?
If you’re honest, most likely some or all of the above may need to be refreshed from the new perspective afforded when viewing your institution through this lens. Beautiful campus photos are lovely, but they do not represent the sum of the unique experience your school offers. Don’t hide your school’s light under a bush! Find ways to convey your distinct vision, mission, core values, and culture. Because when you do, prospective students will see your light shining brightly, and begin to see how their own light may shine if they enroll.2. Engineer a Top-Notch Campus Visit Experience
Ensuring that your web, social, and print materials convey your school’s vibe is key. But as FUEL President, Dr. Jacquelyn D. Elliott, so succinctly shared in her article featured in Vol. 4, Issue 2 2020 of Octane, “People come to your campus to learn what your web and print material cannot convey.” Below is an excerpt from Dr. Elliott’s full Octane article, “How Storytelling Can Reshape the Campus Visit Experience.” You can also read the full article in our Octane Library:
“...Don’t miss the opportunity! The campus visit should help students and families visualize the experience of being a student on your campus. Stories make that happen in an engaging way. Stories create connections and loyalty, stir emotions, and make complicated things much easier to understand. Perhaps one of the most critical aspects of the storytelling process is that of credibility. I say this because most people want to know, ‘What’s in it for me?’ Today’s consumer focuses on three people: Me, myself, and I. So, the only thing your student cares about is, ‘Will this be the right place for me?’...”3. Explore & Try New Ideas
Don’t be afraid to “step out of the boat”! Taking a risk every now and then really makes the world a better place. Consider adopting some practices that encourage you and your team to step out of the boat. FUEL’s Boat Day is a personal example I like to share. To commemorate the founding of FUEL—the day I “stepped out of the boat,” every February 10th, FUEL closes for the day so that each member of our team has the opportunity to do something new, challenging, or daring. This is an annual reminder to us, as a company, to lean into life, grow from new experiences, and think differently.
It can be easy to stick with the familiar and sometimes even fear the unknown, but allowing fear of the unknown to turn into complacency can stagnate your recruitment efforts. Making it a habit to step out of the boat where your enrollment marketing is concerned wards off such stagnation.
Explore and find new ways to authentically share your institution with prospective students. Is there some new digital marketing or social media marketing strategy that you’re curious about but have hesitated to try? There’s no time like the present.
Still skeptical? Sign up for one of our REV learning opportunities to help you gain confidence. Our next course, “Higher Education Influencer Marketing: A Step-By-Step Training Course,” runs March 1 to March 31, 2022. If we don’t yet offer a learning opportunity in the area you want to explore, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know. Maybe your learning recommendation will be the next REV: FUEL Learning Series we launch. As your enrollment management partner, we will walk this journey alongside you.Identify & Target
Identify prospective students most likely to enroll and succeed at your school and pursue them intently. When recruiting a new class, who wouldn’t want a crystal ball? Conducting focus groups and survey research is one way to help you identify some characteristics of students who have historically been successful at your school. If you’re looking to explore beyond traditional methods, technology continues to evolve and place more tools within your reach to help you predict the future and work more efficiently.
A plethora of digital marketing solutions are out there to equip you with the tools you need to improve your funnel management and successfully meet your goals. Our predictive modeling solution, clearFOCUS, is a great example of how we can help your team focus on the “right” students through a review of historical enrollment patterns, high school characteristics, and demographics. Using our look-alike predictive model, we can identify households with future college-aged students who are the most similar to your prior enrolling students. Once you’ve identified prospective students more likely to succeed at your school, don’t forget to develop an omni-channel approach to strategically target them.
Research suggests that a school’s brand is most powerful when organizational identity and external image align with its values and mission. This means that understanding the mission and culture of your school is vital when crafting your messaging and promotions for prospective students.
The moral of the story is this: don’t let the carefully curated social media feeds filled with highly filtered images fool you. Today’s prospective students care just as much as their predecessors, and their authenticity radar may be faster at spotting inauthenticity because their access to technology means they’ve basically been their own PR machines for years now.
1 Orosy, G., & Kilgore, W. (2020). Higher education lags in use of brand management techniques to recruit high school seniors. Strategic Enrollment Management Quarterly, 7(4), 3-16.
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