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How to Unmask Stealth Applicants With Strategic Discipline

The EvoLLLution | How to Unmask Stealth Applicants With Strategic Discipline
Today’s students are thinking and behaving more like customers than ever before, so colleges and universities need to start treating them that way.
Today’s shopper is mobile, global and cost-conscious. Consumers want to interact with businesses on their own time and their own terms. Students are no different. Technology has enabled students to research, evaluate, apply to and, yes, disregard institutions without ever having to interact with them. Colleges and universities don’t even know these secret shoppers are interested in applying until their applications show up in the portal.

The rise of stealth applicants has uprooted the traditional inquiry management and lead cultivation recruiting model. This disruption has forced higher education marketers to pour resources into trying to convert these post-traditional shoppers into more traditional prospects that fit more cleanly into well-oiled funnels.

But how much effort should be put toward unmasking stealth applicants? The stealth applicant trend is at least partially an outgrowth of the intuitive web experiences many colleges and universities have built. There’s no unringing that bell.

They are often stealth because they are simply taking advantage of the opportunity that these colleges and universities have provided. Online consumer behavior is constantly evolving, as are our expectations of an agreeable online transaction. We’re more diligent about managing our digital footprint. Do you really want your phone and email blowing up after every online shopping search?

But unlike some Amazon queries, an official interaction is crucial in the student recruitment lifecycle. For admissions teams, stealth applicants were initially considered a “bonus.” Their continued rise, however, has hampered enrollment management. Forecasting becomes less exact, upsetting funding models. The stealth applicant can be shortchanged as well, since their previously unknown profile may not fare as well as a known, but otherwise comparable, applicant.

Higher education marketers might feel forced to cast a wider net, hoping to dilute the number of stealth applicants in the pool. Not only is this practice expensive, but it fails to convert prime leads.

The marketing and admissions teams must adjust to best serve this population by understanding why stealth applicants are reluctant to engage.

Where to start? The most that might be known about these potential students is an IP address. Use it as a proxy to draw conclusions about the information needs of their key demographics and modify page content based on the presumed identity. The calls-to-action should be engaging, but not overwhelming.

Once you have built a more personalized shopping experience, capitalize on two defining moments in a prospect’s web research process: initial information gathering and application preparation. These necessitate distinct approaches to content in order to encourage identification.

Though stealth applicants are experts with research and data, admission sites should not be dense with information. Gating essential admission facts behind a form is an option to unmask, but it will slice some stealth shoppers right off the top of the funnel.

Instead, highlight prominent details and provide easy opportunities for users to say hello with contact forms. If they engage, incorporate a Customer Relationship Manager (CRM) platform with personalized, tiered calls to action. Mass marketing emails are easily recognized and easily dismissed. They can also be misleading and frustrating if the information is not tailored to the prospect.

Live chat is another opportunity to attract these users. Stealth applicants might be more willing to engage if they know they won’t be actively recruited. University staff responding to these questions need to be trained in the conventions of stealth prospects.

Social media can be integrated into these processes as well. With social media, focus on needs of the audience, not the capabilities of the tool. Understand the platform dynamics and tailor strategies to fit the stealth profile. On LinkedIn, for instance, recruiters could participate in group posting discussions relevant to the university’s programs and provide useful content that goes beyond the typical “hard sell.”

If the stealth applicant avoids these touchpoints, engage with specialized messages when the application shows up in the portal. To mitigate stealth applicant melt, schools could encourage faculty to immediately send welcoming messages to these applicants to foster a connection both to the faculty and institution.

The key is to not overload. Content is everywhere, but discipline should be exercised with stealth applicants. Just because you could does not mean you should. Remember, they are often stealth for a reason.

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