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Defining and Executing on a Marketing Strategy That Targets Non-Traditional Students

The EvoLLLution | Defining and Executing on a Marketing Strategy That Targets Non-Traditional Students
Attracting non-traditional and distance students requires institutions to think more actively and consciously about their place in the market and what their students are truly looking for, and then not only deliver on those elements but communicate them too.

Most colleges and university admissions directors are satisfied with their marketing software but dissatisfied with their institution’s social media strategy, according to a recent survey by Inside Higher Ed and Gallup. The survey of TKTK administrators also reported that their institutions had significantly increased efforts to recruit online students (from 41 to 54 percent) and students older than 24 (from 39 to 52 percent).

It’s clear that, regardless of how happy administrators are with their marketing software, they still aren’t satisfied with the level of student interest their social media marketing efforts are able to generate.

Perhaps without realizing it, we may be losing sight of the distinct roles that technology and strategy play in successful enrollment management strategies and practices. No matter who we are trying to recruit or how we do it, there are basic fundamentals that apply to all students.

I asked my business partner Jodi Ashbrook—who specializes in helping marketing and enrollment management units with their recruitment strategies—about her views on technology and strategy as they relate to the process of enrolling, supporting and retaining new students.

Susan Kryczka (SK): What do you think is the most important part of the recruitment process?

Jodi Ashbrook (JA): Definitely strategy. As we know, technology is made up of tools that should support an overall plan. Sometimes I think that we expect technology to make up for what we lack in strategy. If we have all the latest tools, we can only improve our strategy, right? Or we fear that if we don’t have the right tools, all of our strategies will fail. Neither is true.

When I talk with an enrollment management, marketing team or admissions office, I suggest they step back and look at what their primary goal should be: To help reach and cultivate each potential student group according to the needs of the student, not the needs of the institution. Out of necessity, we are so driven by budgets and goals. Our tools provide data in efficient ways, but technology doesn’t tell us specifically how to improve our outreach efforts based on what the student wants.  Do we know what the learner really needs from us? Have we defined the type of student journey we want to be known for as an institution? That’s where strategy comes in.

This may seem like common sense, but sometimes we have to go back to fundamentals and build from there.

SK: What are those fundamentals?

JA: You should have a thorough understanding of your target student, including his or her particular needs and goals. The cost of education is a concern for all students, no matter their age, degree level or delivery system. I often see institutions that don’t put a lot of thought, time or effort into ensuring they are educating the student by way of a financially responsible conversation about cost.

As educators, regardless of whether a student chooses to come to our institution or not, the role we need to play is one of educators. We need to provide the student with the right information about their financial options, up front and center, whether it’s on the website or when you have the initial discussion with a potential student on the phone. The specific areas that concern on-campus students and their parents are campus safety, amenities, campus social life, admissions, enrollment and support services, and academics. Increasingly, these students are also concerned about internships and job prospects upon graduation. Address these immediately and listen to what a potential student tells you. Having said that, each student is unique and each discussion should be personalized to their situation and goals.

SK: How is the strategy different for reaching adult online students?

JA: While the cost conversation between the two populations is not that different, for adult students who hold down jobs and have family obligations and are thinking about going back to school, flexibility in terms of options for study and support are paramount. They need the same services that on-campus students need, but they need them to work at a distance. Is your institution able to provide a straightforward application process with a quick decision? Is registration and advising easy and available at convenient times via phone or online? Does a potential online student have a point person to talk to about any questions or problems that may come up during the admission, advising and registration process?  Are the services these students receive on par with those on campus? You have to be honest and realistic about the support services your institution offers and how they meet the needs of adult students.

SK: How do you start building a good strategy?

JA: Outline a “student journey” based on the type of experience you want the student to have at your institution, from beginning to end. From the moment the student calls or emails for information, what are the touchpoints and how prepared is each support service unit to respond to that student?  Begin by charting each step of the student’s journey all the way through to graduation and thereafter, through alumni services and the job placement office. I would suggest mapping out the student journey in sections to avoid overwhelming the leadership team and getting stuck in the weeds. A suggested exercise during the student journey mapping is to ask your leadership team: “If I was the student, what would I say about my experience given the current processes, support and infrastructure?” A powerful follow-up question would be: “If I was the student, how would I feel about my experience?”

This reflection process will help your team understand your students at a deeper level and determine if your institution has the structure in place to support them. From there you can better hone your message based on what you know your students need and get that message out via advisors, website, social media, graduate fairs, newspapers, employers—wherever your students gets their information. You should, of course, adjust the approach as you see what is working, but a solid support system can help mitigate bumps in the road along the way.

SK: What if you don’t have the technology in place right away?

JA: Don’t worry. There are schools that don’t have a CRM who use a simple Excel spreadsheet and make it work. The right tools are great to have, but not having them should not stop you from building a strategy that works for your institutional needs.

That said, it’s worth looking into technologies when it’s time to scale your strategy and its execution. At a certain point, technology becomes important in helping your staff keep their focus on what’s mission critical, rather than on repetitive and automatable tasks.

The important thing here is not to simply buy a system and expect it to be the answer in and of itself. Without the right strategy, many people wind up turning their expensive CRM into a glorified Excel spreadsheet.

SK: What are the tops areas to look out for?

JA: Here are the five key areas to focus on:

  1. Look at your current enrollment processes and infrastructure to see how they can be improved for everyone, especially students at a distance.
  2. Develop your team’s ability to have meaningful front-end conversations with each student, so that you can develop an understanding of what their questions and needs are when considering their decision to return to school.
  3. Assess your institution’s ability to prioritize and conduct the cost conversation, and to educate students on their payment options for returning to school. What steps are currently working in the process and where are the opportunities to improve?
  4. What is the communication platform for interacting with students? How is this platform working and how does it support your vision of creating the ideal student journey?
  5. What would a student say about the academic support services and options available to them? Where are the areas of opportunity?

The best way to attract students is to focus on what you are doing right in supporting students, identify the gaps and then try to do it better than anyone else!

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