By Jeremy Tiers, Director of Admissions Services
What’s the first communication piece that your school is sending or will be sending a new inquiry or prospect?
I’m asking because it’s an extremely important communication (maybe the most important one). Plus it’s something that we’ve been updating for our clients these past few weeks, so I thought it might be helpful to share our latest survey data on the subject, as well as a few additional ideas and strategies that continue to work well.
Let me start by asking you the following question – What’s the goal of your first contact piece? I would argue it should be to get their 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 school’s communication plan is they look and sound just like 99% of other schools do. It’s just a different template and a different set of facts and figures topped off with hyperlinks and multiple calls to action. In short, just about all of them scream, “mass message!”
Let’s talk about what will work, starting with whose name should be on that first communication, and what kind of communication it should be. The strategy we continue to use with our clients is a result of ongoing focus group surveys we conduct with the students themselves. Here are two questions we ask along with the updated cumulative percentages from surveys we conducted between January 2018-June 2019.
Question: “When you started your college search, which person from a college would you have preferred to hear from first?”
Admissions Counselor – 75.3%
Director of Admissions –24.7%
Context for you – Students continue to tell us a couple of things. First, anytime they get an email or letter from “The Office of Admissions” at a school, it completely screams mass message. Next, 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 actually take (and have) the time to reach out and communicate to them.
Question 2: “What’s the first kind of communication you think a college should use with a student at the beginning of the process?”
Letter – 41.3%
Email – 38.9%
Phone Call – 11.7%
Text Message – 8.1%
Context for you – Students continue to tell us in surveys that a letter is a tangible, safe interaction (especially when they don’t know the sender). They also believe that a letter takes more effort than an email, so they view it as a more personalized form of communication. And personalization is something that every student wants more of when it comes to any communication from a college or university.
Now let’s move on to the body of your first contact piece, which just to recap, I’m recommending should be a letter (typed and in a standard size envelope is fine) that comes from a student’s admissions counselor.
Here are some ideas on the content for that letter.
- Shorter, more direct, and less formal. Attention spans are short, and most students don’t want a bunch of stats, history, or bullet points about different aspects of your school right out of the gate. It comes across as pushy and “selling,” and in more cases then you might think, they don’t have a reason to care about a lot of that information yet. Meaning, if you choose to give it to them anyways, they’re less likely to read it all, and more likely to miss your call to action and not read the next communication that you send.
- Instead, introduce the admissions counselor and make it clear that he/she understands the college search process is confusing, scary, etc., and that the goal is to figure out what the student is looking for in a college so the counselor can see if it matches up with what their school can offer. Establishing the counselor as the go-to person from the beginning adds an extra layer of personalization, and it helps to avoid a lot of confusion later on.
- Use words and a conversational tone that creates excitement and makes it clear that the admissions counselor is looking forward to getting to know the student and help make this process a little easier for them and their family.
Next, let’s discuss your call to action. There are a couple of things you need to avoid – Don’t have multiple CTA’s in your first communication (i.e. hyperlinks, check out our social media pages, fill out this form, apply, etc).
I also want you to avoid asking the student to visit your campus in that first communication. This is something that’s really hard for a lot of schools to buy into, but here’s why it’s a smart strategy.
If you tell a student, “Come visit campus,” or you ask them to “Sign up for a campus visit now,” 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. That doesn’t mean you can’t ask them if they’ve started to take visits or if they’re thinking about visiting your school. Wording it that way asks for their feedback or their opinion.
Instead, I encourage you to ask a specific question as your call to action at the end of your first communication. Make it something that’s easy for them to answer (i.e. they don’t have to think long and hard about), and is also something that when answered will provide useful, usable information for you. That could include something related to their timeline or decision-making process. You could also ask about fear or what one thing about your school they are wondering about most.
Make sure you clearly explain how you want them to respond. We’ve found an email to their counselor works best. And if you’re wondering if students will actually read a letter and then go type out a response via email, the answer is absolutely…if you follow the entire plan I’ve laid out.
Two final notes for you today:
- If the cost of sending all inquiries and prospects a letter is too great, or there are other logistical issues, you can make the first communication an email, but choose your subject line wisely. Or you could segment certain groups to receive a letter and have the rest get an email.
- If you’ve already introduced the student to their admissions counselor, and you’ve been communicating fairly regularly over the past year, my recommendation is as follows. Create a transition letter or email right now that makes it clear you understand, as one example, that they’re about to become a high school senior and their college search is about to get a lot more “real.” Follow the same blueprint I’ve laid out in terms of the language and tone you use. Have the call to action be, for example, a question asking why they haven’t visited campus yet, or what they still need to learn more about before they’ll consider applying.
Follow the advice that I’ve given you today, and I’m confident you’ll see increased engagement immediately.
If you have any questions about this article I encourage you to reach out and connect with me when you have a minute.