Enrollment Trends: Creating a Better Digital Experience for Earlier Engagement

Last updated on: May 29, 2023

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The recruitment process is changing. Higher education institutions that seek to control potential students’ research processes are missing out on opportunities to create value and build excitement even before those prospects contact them. Cory Berntson, Senior Director of New Partnerships at Wiley University Services, writes about the need to build a proactive digital recruitment strategy.

Here’s a statistic higher education administrators need to know: over half of potential students research schools for a year or longer before they reach out for more information or apply. They’re using search engines, looking through schools’ websites, and reading their social media posts. These online interactions with brands are known as “digital touchpoints,” and one study found potential students researching schools came into contact with over 3,000 of them in the six weeks before they filled out a request for information (RFI) form.

The key takeaway here is that potential students are gathering a lot of information on their own and drawing their own conclusions for months before they ever contact a school. But there is an opportunity for colleges and universities to get ahead of this process with a proactive digital strategy of high-quality multichannel content that presents a consistent, engaging message; offers repeated chances to request information or assistance via multiple communication formats; and gently funnels potential students toward a decision.

This doesn’t mean schools should entirely abandon their outbound lead generation strategies, such as direct email campaigns, but inbound and outbound tactics should work together as part of a larger whole.

Creating an Omnichannel Experience for Increased Student Recruitment

No longer is the student recruitment and enrollment process a linear one, with prospects nudged along a specific path and enticed with limited information as an incentive to fill out an RFI or call an 800 number to learn more. To align with the wide-ranging search process used by potential students, schools need to create a robust “digital ecosystem” of touchpoints along the entire research journey. Video can be especially powerful in creating conversions, but social media and blog posts are important as well. These touchpoints should anticipate and proactively answer potential students’ questions about topics such as:

  • Program learning outcomes
  • Career outcomes
  • What typical students in the program are like
  • Who the faculty are and how they approach teaching in the program
  • Tuition costs

Students typically have a short list of schools in their consideration set—an average of four, and most of them (75 percent) don’t consider schools beyond their initial list. Consequently, colleges and universities that make it easier for potential students to gather information online have an advantage over those that don’t.

Potential students also have varying preferences for methods of communication. An effective multichannel approach provides them with a range of contact options, including chat, text, and social media message functions. At various points in their research, potential students may not be ready to talk on the phone—although some may never want to—but many are willing to chat online or text to get the information they need.

Focusing on these modalities and providing resources trained in how to use them can be incredibly effective. Wiley University Services has an omnichannel team focused on digital chats, which has resulted in a significant increase in chats per month.

This approach can also support increased contact rates on inquiries from traditional lead sources by offering students more options to engage. Generating more interest and value with digital touchpoints earlier serves all potential students more effectively, including those already willing to provide their details on an RFI form and talk on the phone.

How to Generate More Student Inquiries With a Self-Directed Digital Experience

Rather than a linear one-size-fits-all experience for students, providing potential students with more control over the research process gives schools an opportunity to serve up digital content that allows for flexibility but also has some signposts. For example, content can be personalized via digital interactions that ask the user a little bit about themselves and what they are looking for, allowing institutions to serve them better by providing curated content based on their needs. When the student is ready to apply, they should be offered the choice to complete the application on their own or with assistance. They should also be able to track the application and get reminders or updates on their phone—again, with options for asking questions or for additional support at every step of the way.

Keep in mind that the decision to go back to school is a major one, and potential students may be confused and overwhelmed by the available choices and information. Creating an intuitive digital experience simplifies what can be an intimidating process and allows them to proceed at their comfort level and with the communication channel they prefer. Giving them more control over communication—offering them what they want, when they want it, in the format they prefer—can also help improve factors like deliverability of emails and click through rates.

Increasing Program Visibility in a Crowded Marketplace

The trend is clear: there is more and more competition for students. Colleges and universities need to offer experiences that make their institution and programs stand out from competitors. That means proactively providing information, and presenting it in a compelling format delivered through easily accessible channels that your potential students use. This requires a holistic and planned approach instead of ad hoc, siloed enrollment systems.

Institutions can do this is by providing a seamless digital experience through an omnichannel recruitment strategy. At Wiley University Services, we use our CRM for higher education, the Student Recruitment Platform™ (SRP), with many of our partners. SRP records and track all interactions with potential students, whether they click to chat one day, email the next week, or text someone after that. This ensures that they have a seamless and personalized experience with the institution and also provides valuable data analytics regarding their behavior and preferences, which we can use to create even more engaging digital experiences.

Keep Up with Your Potential Students Online

Offering a richer digital experience at the beginning of potential students’ research journey is becoming one of the best practices in higher education marketing. Providing ample information up-front in a variety of digital media, combined with various communication formats for information requests and questions, provides students with opportunities to learn about their education options without perceived pressure, and allows institutions to lay a foundation for greater connection and engagement.

Get more insights: Learn about other trends and challenges in enrollment, or explore other timely topics in higher education.

Source for student search statistics and data: Google Education Insights Quarterly, Q1 2018 In Review

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