Online technology, for the millennial generation, is like air. They say they can't live without it. Yet, they're so used to breathing it, that it doesn't impress them. "If you think you can wow them by offering online college applications, chat rooms, virtual tours, you're wrong," says Bob Filipczak, co-author of Millenials in the Workforce and admissions web coordinator for College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University (both Minn.). This isn't to say your site shouldn't offer as many interactive elements as possible, Filipczak says, "but if you don't have these elements, they'll think you're outdated."
While pleasing this generation is no small challenge, embracing their obsession with online technology is key to understanding how to best market to them. One of the best marketing and recruiting tools, but perhaps the least utilized by IHEs, is the college website. The web is considered the single most important tool in the college search process, according to Carnegie Communications, which conducted an online survey on e-communication trends among 5,400 college-bound students in 2001. About 69 percent of respondents said they searched for college information via the college's web site; the College Board's website came in second followed by search engines such as Google.com. The college website was also ranked the number four driver of college choice, according to StudentPoll, a survey of 500 college-bound students that is published by the Art & Science Group. The website is superceded only by the campus visit, the influence of family, and the advice of current students or graduates of the school.
So rather than pumping more money into viewbooks, brochures, CD-ROMs, college fairs, and high school visits, IHE's should focus on improving their websites. Often, it is a student's first entry point to a particular college or university. For those who can't afford to make a campus visit, it could be their only encounter with a school.
While almost all schools offer a college website, many do not use it to its fullest potential. "Most websites are an abject failure. They present their web content in a dry print-catalog fashion and fail to show their viewers what's distinct or special about their school," says Rick Hesel, principal of the Art & Science Group.
Ironically, the web, given its inherent interactive quality and audio and visual elements, is the perfect medium to spice up content. Still, many schools are hesitant about pouring more money into their sites. Some say a restructuring of their site would be too complicated, too expensive, or would require staff they don't have. Some schools prefer to outsource their website development; others rely on their webmasters or other administrators in-house. "Get it out of your IT shop," suggests Brian Niles, CEO of TargetX, a company specializing in interactive marketing communications. "While this is a technology, it also has an important marketing component and should really be driven by marketing folks."
No one denies that restructuring a website is an added expense. But for institutions that are looking to grow enrollment, a good website could be the antidote. Case Western Reserve University (Ohio) is a perfect example of how a well-designed, content-rich site can boost enrollment. Redesigned in September with the help of Datatel, the university has already seen 50 percent more students apply for admissions than in the previous year. "We decided to focus really hard on our undergraduate enterprise," says Chris Munoz, vice provost for undergraduate enrollment at CWRU. "I've found that it's better to take one aspect of your site and do it really well instead of trying to do it all well in a haphazard way."
Case Western is cutting edge in the way that it can customize its site for prospective students. For the fall class of 2005, 7,005 students have already opted to have the site personalized for them; that is up from 4,886 students the year before. Because there is a strong correlation between students who personalize their site and who apply, says Munoz, these figures are a good indicator of which students are likely to enroll.
Tracking students' use of the website is an efficient tool to gauge their personal interests as well as their interest in your school. Some systems can track students from the first time they enter the site. If they see that a student hasn't visited in awhile, they can create incentives to bring them back. But before developing these sophisticated design techniques, one must have the basics down first. "The web is all about content, and there are many ways to make it exciting and interesting," says Hesel of the Arts & Science Group. "Design is not the driver. It is just there to help people manage and understand the content."
Associate editor Alana Klein often writes on web-related technology. You can contact her at email@example.com.
by Brian Niles, CEO of TargetX
Often the college website is a confusing, crowded, hard-to-navigate, overwritten, underfunded amalgam of seemingly competing interests. For admissions and marketing officers, the challenge of presenting an effective website can seem overwhelming. Here are four ways your website can help recruit students.
1) Is it easy to find you?
Make sure visitors can get to the admissions site with just one click. Ease of navigation is critical. Visitors get impatient and are apt to move on if they can't get where they want immediately. Don't make them search through layers of website to get answers to their questions on admissions and financial aid.
2) Do you efficiently answer those questions?
Prospective students and parents go to college websites to gather information.
Specifically, they want to know where you're located, what you offer, and what makes you unique. Make this knowledge highly accessible. The history and traditions of your institution are interesting and important--but not to the first-time visitor who wants to know what benefits you offer.
3) Do you intentionally and repeatedly bring students back to your website?
Every time a visitor returns to your site, he or she is more likely to take the next step toward applying. Every e-mail and direct mail piece you send should be an invitation to click or type in a URL that will take them to a special landing. Invite students to an open house or off-campus reception, and have them go to an online form that provides more information and a registration form. Give them a chance to visit student blogs and faculty web pages. Also, give them several opportunities to click on your online application.
4) Do you reach out to parents?
These end-of-the-boom baby boomers are an overwhelming force in the college decisions of their children, so make sure there's a parent section in the admissions site. Talk to them directly and embrace their role in this important process.