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Study Your Students to Learn How to Reach Your Best Recruits

When looking for the types of students most likely to be attracted to your institution, the best place to begin is with those who've already picked you/your current students.
University Business, Mar 2010

Business-to-consumer marketers have become increasingly adept at identifying various demographic segments with specialized interests: moms who blog, people who like to cruise, upscale married couples with children, environmentally minded homeowners, etc., etc.

Call it data segmentation in the era of social fragmentation. These ever more specific demographic groups are the result of database mining that combines the best of art and science. It's a process that holds powerful applications for college and university marketers searching for the most effective means of targeting prospective students.

When looking for the types of students most likely to be attracted to your institution, the best place to begin is with those who've already picked you—your current students. Start by parsing you student database into groups based on similar attributes. Segmentation can be as simple as grouping students by hometown geography, gender, ethnicity, and area of study; or you can attempt to define more finely targeted segments that include demographic data such as family income, student interests/clubs, off-campus, employment, etc.

Your institution wants to communicate with prospective students in ways most likely to appeal to them.

Once you get a better idea of who your current students are, you can begin to define the students you'd like to reach. While this process can be challenging and time-consuming, it's a vital step in ensuring that your recruitment efforts achieve the best results.

Your institution wants to communicate with prospective students in ways most likely to appeal to them. But today's incoming college freshmen are a diverse group. Some of the segments are obvious—gender or location, for example. With research and/or a professional list broker, other characteristics like race/ethnicity, family income, and extracurricular interests can also be pinpointed. These demographics do make a difference in outlook, interests, and concerns, so it makes sense to address the natural concerns of these prospective students.

Now that you've got a name and a bit of profile, how do you talk to that individual? The new technologies of direct marketing are your answer: variable data printed materials, personalized website landing pages (PURLs), email, and cross-media marketing.

Research released in 2009 by the Higher Education Research Institute describes some of the more salient characteristics of students who entered college in 2008. Interestingly, this election-year freshman class was found to be increasingly liberal, interested in politics, committed to the environment, practical, busy, close to their parents, and in need of money. Can we increase our response rates by tailoring our direct marketing appeals to the needs, desires, and concerns of a female, liberal, multi-racial, environmentalist?

Yes we can.

  • Digital print case studies from the Print on Demand Initiative organization (PODi) confirm that educational institutions are among the groups that have enjoyed unusual success with personalized, digitally printed recruitment communications. Here are highlights from just a few of the examples reported by PODi.
  • Pre-addressed, Pre-filled Personalized Mailer. Mount Mary College, a catholic women's college in Milwaukee, WI, put together a list of prospective college students and sent each a personalized, six-panel self-mailer with a pre-addressed, pre-filled reply card. Response rates ranged from 5.4 percent to 53.3 percent.
  • Variable Text and Images. In responding to incoming queries, Tiffin University in Tiffin, OH, delivers personalized responses that are produced overnight and comprised of 100-percent variable content, both text and images. The personalized kits boosted enrollment by 20 percent in the fall of 2006, and spring enrollment increased 51 percent over the same period in 2005. Enrollment in graduate programs jumped by 50 percent over the 2005 academic year.
  • Postcards Lead Generation; Personalized Electronic Mailers. The Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City begins the recruitment process with a series of lead-generation postcards mailed to purchased lists and people who request information. Next, an electronic brochure based on student responses is sent, followed by an abbreviated electronic brochure. Each brochure features first-name personalization and a cover photo of the student's preferred area of interest. Other relevant brochure content includes more photos featuring that area of study, an interview with a Teachers College student from that department, and information on student life that is variable depending on whether the student lives in or out of state. Thirty percent of new prospects reference this campaign as their first contact with Teachers College.
  • Micro Website and Customized Brochure Generation. The University of La Verne, in LaVerne, CA, on the outskirts of Los Angeles, uses a micro website to promote the theme "100 Ways to Get Involved." The website includes a virtual tour of the ULV campus featuring a "day-in-the-life" streaming video based on student diaries as well as quick facts, links, and an interactive form for requesting more information. Requestors who fill in the form are promised a customized, full-color brochure that will be mailed to them within seven to 10 days. Launched in 2008, the campaign is still too new to show firm results, but initial email blasts sent to 75,000 potential students generated more than 4,000 requests for the personalized brochure.
  • Variable Brochure, Printed On Demand. By creating a personalized message on an emotional level, Manchester College, in North Manchester, IN, increased student applications by 34 percent. A print-on-demand, four-color, six-panel, variable data brochure was sent to 4,700 prospective college-bound high school students culled from a database provided by the college. Each student's name was emblazoned on the front cover with the question: "What are you passionate about?"
  • Personalized, One-to-one Direct Mail. Larry Selland College, a professional technical college on the campus of Boise State University, Boise, ID, was experiencing ongoing declines in enrollment. The college had already tried everything—except personalized, one-to-one direct mail. After the College had collected six months of data, it was able to see some real results. Enrollments increased by an impressive 14.7 percent with the use of highly targeted direct mail pieces.

Whatever your approach, when the returns flow in, be ready to respond with a series of automated messages. It's a good idea to plan these messages before you even launch the campaign. Every response or lack of response should trigger a new communication between your school and the student. Did the student request more information? Make sure those are ready to go out the door. Did a potential student visit your campus? Send a "thank-you," of course, but be prepared with a highly targeted next step in your series. Did your offer use a PURL? Be sure the Web site is primed to persuade with messages and information that speaks to the student on an individual level. Is the response from a particular student segment (geographic, cultural, income, gender, age). You have a targeted response waiting to go. If you've prepared, your responses are impressively customer-centric. And, in a well-planned cross media campaign, it all happens automatically.

To make it all work smoothly, be sure to consult with an experienced direct marketing production company. Variable data printing, PURLs, web-to-print systems, and automatic response triggers can be a bit complicated. You'll need well thought-out workflow charts and razor sharp details to go with every direct marketing message that will be used to drive variable elements. Rely on the advice and counsel a good production partner can offer.

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