Take a 30-Day “Branding Break”… A 6-Step Exercise to Improve Recruitment Marketing

Bad Tactics Kill the Best Brand Strategy… A 6-Step Recruitment Review

Yes, the little things can kill (or boost) your brand.

That’s as true for colleges and universities as for any other organization striving for marketing success. In higher education marketing, this is the “branding era.” This 2017 “Five Strategies…” article is typical. Each of the 5 points is fine. But a 6th point is missing: make sure the tactical nuts & bolts work.

If the tactical response to an enrollment inquiry isn’t handled with due diligence, a favorable impression created by a new, creative, well-researched (and likely expensive) branding campaign can equal nothing more than wasted time and money. Not to mention an unhappy president and trustees.

Tactical marketing details deserve the same priority as your branding efforts.

To ensure maximum return from your branding investment, take a 30-day, 6-step “branding break.” Focus the attention of your marketing team to make sure that the tactical plan in place is creating the best possible first impression with potential students.  Especially those who respond to an online ad or who make a first visit to your website and become an inquiry.

  • “Marketing team” is defined as everyone in “marketing” and “admissions” and the “tech” people who support those areas. Everyone needs to be in this game. It isn’t hard to play. Or overly time consuming.
  • The mix will differ from school to school, but it should be varied. Ideally, it will include people from both the “advancement” and the “enrollment management” areas depending on your internal organization. Silo crossing encouraged. Perhaps essential.

Why not assign one person to test your tactics and present a report at the end of 30 days?

  • Involve everyone as a “first impression” tester. Unless everyone makes the 30-day investment, tactics will not be a priority.
  • You’ll learn more from a varied collection of “first response” impressions than from any single person.
  • Everyone has to experience what a potential student experiences. Everyone has to contribute to a “make it better” list to give you a competitive advantage in student recruitment. Especially if you need to adjust resource commitments.

What will you do in 30 days?

1.  Fill out the inquiry form at your website… and at your 3 primary competitors’ websites

  • If you want to increase inquiries (not everyone does) is your form as short as possible, asking for only the basic content info you need for a first contact response?
    • The longer your form, the fewer are the people who will complete it. And in this new time of stringent GDPR-inspired privacy rules, you don’t want to collect overly personal information. Are you resisting the urge to conduct a mini-demographic survey?
    • Do you require a phone number? That’s fine if you want to reduce casual shoppers right from the start.
    • Is a phone number optional? If it is and people give you one, be sure to see response time notes below.
    • Fill out the form twice. Once on a laptop or desktop and once on a smartphone. Is one as easy to complete as the other?
    • Do the same with your 3 primary competitors. Not the “wish we were like them” competitors but the ones you truly compete with for students. Is your form as easy and quick to complete as theirs?
      • Can’t decide on the top 3 rivals? If you had 3 chances to magically transport schools to an alternative universe because they enroll “your” students, which 3 would you transport?
    • People who are most interested in your school will give permission to text early in the recruitment cycle. Did your inquiry form ask for permission to send text updates? If not, why not? That was rare just 2 or 3 years ago. Now it is much more common. If your competitors are texting, you can’t omit that option. If they are not texting, offering it builds competitive advantage.

2.  How well is your “auto-response” form working?

  • Compare the “auto response” that appears on your website immediately after an inquiry form is completed.
    • Does it thank people for their inquiry and tell them what to expect in the weeks ahead?
    • Is it friendly? Or does it seem produced by a bureaucratic machine?
    • How about those three competitors? This is a great place to gain competitive advantage. Or lose it. (Purdue University Global promises email or phone contact within 24 hours. And gives a phone number to call if you “Need help sooner?”)

3.  Do you respond to an online inquiry in 24 hours? Or less?

  • Compare how long it takes for your first email to arrive. If you can’t beat your competition you at least have to match them. Respond in not more than 24 hours. Faster is better.
  • Did you ask for a phone number on your inquiry form? If you did, can you call the people who give you one within 24 hours? Or less? If you can’t do that, why are you asking for a phone number? Do you plan to use it at all? If not, remove it.
  • How long does it take for a second email to arrive? More than a week? That’s too long. Especially if those competitors send email more often. Sending one email a week is fine as long as people are interested. As the recruitment cycle unfolds, send email at least every two weeks.
  • If people gave permission to text, do admissions counselors send an “introduction” text to introduce themselves and thank them for the inquiry?
  • If people ask you to stop email or text, stop.

4.  Send email that’s easy to scan in 5 seconds

  • Is the name or your school in the subject line of the email? (Most schools do this. A few do not.)
  • Can you scan your email quickly to get the major points? If, for instance, you don’t have spaces between your paragraphs or use too small a font you are decreasing the chance for an impact. I’m amazed at how many emails don’t have spaces between paragraphs. And/or use font sizes that force people to squint to read them.
  • Did you open your email with the name of the person making the inquiry? (Most schools do this.)
  • Did you close your email with the name of a real person? Or did you use something lame like “The Admissions Team.” (Too many schools still do this.)

Calvin College5.  Two key content areas… academics and affordability

  • If you asked for info about a person’s academic interest on your inquiry form, does your first (or at least early) email include any info (including a link) about that academic area? In the last 4 years of many online inquiries, only two schools have done that. Don’t miss this opportunity for competitive advantage.
  • Does your website have easy-to-find and easy-to-use cost content? Learning about costs early in the recruitment cycle has soared in importance according to surveys of potential students of every age. That’s not obvious from the email and website content of most colleges and universities. Calvin College does this better than most.

6.  Check your website data… is it up-to-date?

  • Is your key recruitment data up-to-date?
    • If you have a “career outcomes” website page that you think is important by now it should have data for 2017 graduates. Using “2016” data (as I saw in responding to one recent online MBA ad) is close to saying “we’re so good you don’t need recent info” or “we don’t care.” People will wonder what else on your site is out-of-date.
    • Don’t have this prominent, easy-to-scan heading on a 1st page for potential transfer students: Profile of Transfer Students at Iowa, Fall 2015

After 30 days, gather the marketing team to share 5-minute first reports

  • After 30 days convene a meeting to review results.
  • Each person should prepare a brief written report that includes a “3 by 3” approach:
    • The 3 strongest pieces of your response program.
    • The 3 weakest pieces of your response program.
    • 3 pieces from competitors that you might include in your response program.
  • Ask everyone to prepare a 5-minute initial verbal presentation. No longer. It is important in this first step to get a quick overview to identify areas of agreement and disagreement about strengths and weaknesses.
  • Compare the results. Where do people agree? Disagree?
  • If you are doing well everywhere, congratulations. You are not needlessly losing potential students early in the recruitment cycle.
    • If you have tactical gaps, what resources are available to close them? Can any be fixed next week?
    • You have to close them for best enrollment results. Even if it means shifting time and money away from “branding” until the gaps are fixed.
  • Agree on improvement priorities.
    • Identify what resources are needed to fix the gaps that can’t be done next week.
    • Depending on the gaps, set 30 and 60 and 90-day improvement goals.
  • Celebrate!

Tactical marketing and brand marketing have equal value

That’s it. Fine-tune these steps to best fit your own college or university. The details are less important than making the effort to ensure that every potential student has as strong an inquiry response experience as possible. Tactical details deserve the same priority as your branding efforts. A team effort like this makes it more likely that will happen.

That’s All for Now

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