The first version of this post was published by Kalix Communications, an innovative, full-service marketing firm serving independent schools as well as higher education and non-profit institutions. William is a Kalix strategic partner for digital and data-driven marketing.
By William Bullard
Strategic enrollment management is increasingly seen as the key term for a broad range of a school’s admission, retention, and other growth-related programs. A key component under this umbrella is enrollment marketing, which first focuses on increasing interest and applications to your school and then on “nurturing” prospective families throughout the admission process.
With schools facing looming economic and demographic challenges, it is more critical than ever to optimize your marketing strategy and spending on enrollment management. The recruitment phase harnesses tools such as Connor Associates Strategic Services External Image Audits to assess the perceptions of a school held by its various constituencies and understand what each group values the most. These research findings enable the school’s communications and admission leaders to develop targeted multi-channel marketing campaigns based on the interests and concerns of prospective families.
This initial phase of enrollment marketing can be broken into five steps. First, clarify your strategic marketing goals; second, define your target audience; third, select the appropriate marketing channels; fourth, create the message for each segment and channel; and fifth, execute the campaigns and measure the results. In step two, Connor Associates’ Predictive Modeling and Five-Year Forecast program can help your school zero in on your best prospects at rooftop level, especially if you 1) hope to increase full-pay families or 2) want to diversify your student enrollment or 3) are considering expanding into new geographic areas. Each of these steps is substantive and worthy of its own analysis, but for our purposes, this summary will suffice.
While the recruitment phase has been widely examined in school circles, maximizing acceptance rates by creating automated personalized touches with potential constituents has not been as carefully considered. The second, nurturing, phase of enrollment marketing has three primary goals: develop a closer relationship between prospective students and families and your school; qualify the prospects by tracking their interests; and improve the efficiency of your admission office. In sum, this involves sending emails with personalized information to each prospect from the first interaction through the decision to attend the school. This approach augments the personal attention shown by admission officers to each prospective student and family by creating an ongoing but crisp electronic dialogue based on their interests, with the relevance of that content being paramount. Ideally, most of these “touches” can be tracked, so they not only strengthen your school’s connection with these potential students, but also enable you to gauge their interest in you. This in turn helps busy admission people determine where to focus their attention during the critical home stretch.
In business and higher education, marketing automation systems allow an organization to target communications to a prospect based on that person’s demographics, position, response to emails, web activity, information requests, and survey responses. Typically combining a customer relationship management system (CRM, e.g., Salesforce.com) and sophisticated email system, or an integrated platform like HubSpot, these lead nurturing programs help an organization stay in touch with a prospect cost-effectively, build profiles of their prospects, and qualify them, i.e., determine their propensity for taking the next step in the process, often called “moving down the sales funnel.” In schools, this covers the entire process: requesting information, visiting, applying to, and then deciding whether to attend your school.
Most schools, especially small ones, do not have the budget for automated marketing systems, and may feel each touch needs to be personal. Every school or business should prefer 100% personal interaction, but it’s often inefficient or infeasible. Can your school support your personal touches with highly targeted e-communications? Read on and you can decide.
Developing Your Process
Whether you have a marketing automation platform or plan to test a manual approach initially, the first step is to determine your audience. In pre-K to 8 schools, the decision-makers will almost surely be the parents, while in high schools, the student is increasingly involved. Next, select several broad but targeted topics that best represent the interests of your potential students. Let’s say you choose athletics, arts, academics, community service/trips, and technology/innovation. To resonate with your prospect, at least two of those require sub-sets; academics or athletics may have several subsets, because an article on math won’t be relevant to a history aficionado. Automated systems can handle these additional requirements easily, while they become more complex for a manual program.
Creating Your Content Streams
Then, create a set of very concise emails for these subjects – two or three sentences and a link to a web page, news item, video, document, or survey. In sum, you will end up sending a personal note to each interested party once a week with news or highlights in each area: “Hi Joey, I hope your autumn is going well – take a look at our (great win over our soccer rival/video of our latest play/news about our community service trip).” Do NOT generate new content for these email touches; instead, use your communications calendar or historical pieces to leverage topics you typically communicate to your parents. You know you have your main community service day on X date, the marquee football game against your rival on Y date, the big musical on Z date. Build these topics into your “content streams” as a natural way to strengthen your connection with the student or family.
Assessing Interest Via Activity Tracking
If you are using a marketing automation system, it’s straightforward to create audiences (often called “personas”), e.g. the baseball players, science students, service advocates, and artists, and then build content streams for your admission cycle. These systems will track the recipient’s interest via email opens, clicks, pages visited on your website, and items downloaded, and this data “scores,” i.e. qualifies, that person’s level of interest. If you do this process manually, it will be difficult to track all the data, but you can still accomplish many of your goals. When you use a basic email system like Constant Contact, you can set up lists once and see the open and click data. You will know if the recipient replies to the sender, which is fairly common once a close relationship is created, and you can also deliver one or two emails requiring action from the prospect, such as registering (just name and email address) for an article on macro trends or school rankings, or completing a brief, fun survey. These activity-based notes or data can be added to an excel spreadsheet or the system where you track prospect information.
There are many variables and nuances in creating an automated and especially a manual lead nurturing system, so surely not every question or issue has been covered here. Of course, there is an incremental time investment to build content streams and create micro-segments, but they need to be seen in a holistic context. How many more enrollments can you get by building a tighter bond with the prospective family? How much more effective and efficient can your admission team be when focusing on the high-potential leads versus calling them all? Only with this strategic level of analysis can you project whether lead nurturing is worth considering for your school.
William Bullard is a strategic marketer who spent the majority of his career in the business world before moving into education. He has been the director of communications at two independent schools in greater Boston as well as a social media consultant for a leading literacy training company. He is especially interested in applying lessons from his early-stage work in direct marketing, the Internet, and digital marketing to schools. William is a strategic partner for Kalix Communications, focusing on digital and data-driven marketing, and is open to expanding his marketing consulting with other school clients.