By Jeremy Tiers, Director of Admissions Services
We’re almost to the middle of June, and many colleges and universities are still focused on the Class of 2020 which is understandable. Coronavirus has led to more decisions being made later, plus the chances for melt this year are significantly higher.
Having said that, I cannot stress enough how important early personalized communication will be with this next class of students (rising high school seniors). Why? Because increased virtual/online recruiting this fall and winter will provide additional challenges. Trying to get a student interested and willing to engage with you via Zoom, FaceTime, or during a virtual college fair or virtual visit won’t be as easy as when you’re standing right next to them. It will take more time and effort.
Let me ask, have you sent the Class of 2021 any messaging over the past three to six months that wasn’t purely transactional or full of general information while pushing them to sign up for a virtual visit or take your virtual tour? If you have, trust me when I tell you you’re part of a pretty small group.
The messaging I’m talking about is personalized, empathetic, engaging, and informational. That’s what this generation is looking for from colleges and universities.
Today I’m going to walk you through that first initial contact – what that first message should look like, what kind of communication it should be, who it should come from, etc. when a new prospect, inquiry, or even a stealth app enters your system.
Have you ever thought about the goal of your first contact piece? I would argue it should be to get a student’s attention, create engagement, and start the process of building a recruiting relationship…not to push them to visit or apply.
The biggest problem I see with most first contact pieces when we’re asked to audit a college’s enrollment communication plan is they look and sound just like 99% of other schools. In short, they scream, “This is a mass message!”
Let’s talk about what is effective and what this generation wants at the beginning of this process based on our ongoing focus group surveys with them. The data below is from surveys conducted between January 2019-March 2020.
Who the communication should come from – If you’re trying to improve your personalization, every single email, letter, and text that you send should always come from a person and not a <College Name Admissions> or <College Name> account. When it comes to who that person should be, here’s the survey question we continue to ask students:
“When you started your college search, which person from a college would you have preferred to hear from first?”
Admissions Counselor – 72.9%
Director of Admissions – 27.1%
Here’s some additional context for you. In previous years’ surveys we offered the additional choices of a current student or a faculty member. Both received incredibly low marks. And if the student is being recruited by one of your school’s athletic programs, the first contact should come from a coach in that sport.
A message from anyone in a position of leadership (especially if they’ve never met that person) is intimidating and, in their minds, not likely to have been written by that person. It’s more plausible in their minds that an admissions counselor would be the main contact person for them.
What kind of communication – Here’s the survey question we continue to ask students:
“What’s the first kind of communication you think a college should use with a student at the beginning of the process?”
Email – 39.8%
Letter – 38.9%
Text Message – 11.6%
Phone Call – 9.7%
Here’s some additional context for you. For almost six years now, email and letter have remained neck and neck with letter holding a slight edge. This is the first time that email has surpassed letter, although as you can see it’s by the slightest of margins.
Students continue to tell us in those same surveys that a letter is a tangible, low pressure interaction. They also believe that a letter takes more effort than an email, so they view it as a more personalized form of communication.
My recommendation if you have the budget available is to send a first contact letter instead of email. The tipping point is that feeling of personalization for students. Plus, email has become extremely overused by colleges and universities throughout the college search. Meaning it’s going to be harder to make your email stand out in their Inbox, versus a letter in their mailbox. If you choose to make this message an email for some or all rising seniors, your subject line will be critical, so make sure it stands out.
What your message should say – You should use a conversational tone throughout and not list of a bunch of facts and figures. Instead, consider these five key talking points:
- Acknowledge that the college search process can be scary and confusing, and that your goal moving forward as their counselor will be to try and make it easier.
- Acknowledge that you don’t know much about the student and their interests, you’re not sure what they know about your school, and you’re not sure where they’re at in their college search process.
- Explain that you want to start getting to know them and having discussions about different things that make the student experience at your college or university enjoyable. Doing that will allow the student to figure out if what you’re sharing matches up with what is important in their mind.
- Your call to action should be one singular thing and not be an immediate push to visit/do a virtual visit, or apply. Here’s why. If you tell a student, “Come visit campus,” or you ask them to “Sign up for a virtual visit” in that first communication, it jumps several spaces ahead on their recruiting game board so to speak. You’re trying to skip a bunch of steps in their mind, and it just doesn’t seem right. It almost always comes across as pushy and disingenuous. What I want you to do instead is to ask one specific question as your CTA. Pick something that you want to know about, and make sure it’s something that isn’t hard for them to answer…meaning, they don’t have to think too long about it. Two extremely effective questions are, “What scares you the most about your college search?” and “What does the perfect college look like in your mind?”
- Be sure and clearly explain how you want them to respond. If you’re sending a letter, we’ve found that asking the student to send you a quick email back with their answer is effective. If you’re sending this message as an email, simply tell them to reply back and tell you what they think or how they feel.
Here’s some additional context for you. Consider having multiple versions of your first contact message with slight tweaks to the first sentence based on how students enter your system. Meaning name buys, inquiries, students you met at a fair or high school visit, athletic or alumni referrals, and stealth apps should all get a similar message with a tweak to recognize their situation.
One last thing – If you’ve already introduced rising seniors to their admissions counselor, and/or you’ve been communicating fairly regularly with this group over the past few months or beyond, my recommendation is to create a transition letter or email in place of the first contact message. In your transition message, recognize the transition that’s about to take place, and explain that a lot happens between junior and senior year when it comes to the college search. Then follow many of the same bullet points listed above.
If you do everything that I’ve laid out for you today, I’m confident you’ll see increased engagement immediately. Plus, you’ll start to develop that all-important recruiting relationship long before many of your competitors do.
If you have any questions about this article, throw them in an email and send it my way.
And if this article was helpful, go ahead and forward it on to someone else on your campus that could benefit from reading it.