Two students sit on the grass studying

Fall Trends in Recruitment Marketing

Marketing and enrollment executives from Siena College, Morehouse College, and PlatformQ Education share their insight into the future of higher education recruitment.

Over eighteen months into a global pandemic and the ground is still heavily shifting in the enrollment field. While many institutions have planned a return to “normal” by reinstating campus tours and high school visits, the uncertainty of the pandemic combined with a shifting college demographic has upended such plans for normalcy.  

How has this uncertainty changed the way higher ed marketers and prospective students think about the college admissions process? How has and how can these changes act as an impetus for innovation?

We sat down with cutting edge panelists Allison Turcio, Assistant VP of Enrollment and Marketing at Siena College, Jose Mallabo, VP of Marketing Communications & Admissions at Morehouse College, and Gil Rogers, Executive VP at PlatformQ Education to discuss what they’re working on for the fall recruitment season as well as their perspective on emerging trends in the field. 

Let Students Set Their Own Path 

Over the past year, colleges and universities have had to rethink their traditional enrollment marketing efforts to develop creative solutions to help recruit prospects to campus. While campus tours and high school visits are starting to return, many enrollment marketers and executives are reluctant to return to traditional tactics that no longer provide strong ROI. 

To begin our conversation, we asked our panelists how their institutions have adjusted and are continuing to optimize their enrollment marketing tactics to account for shifting trends and expectations from prospective students. 

Across the board, the panelists agreed that colleges and universities need to “get out of the student’s way” in the admissions process. Students want to hear from and connect with other students. Allison Turcio from Siena College described how this ideology has helped shift Siena’s recruitment strategy to take a more personal and empathetic approach. For example, Siena’s “Ask a Saint” program allows prospects to chat and ask questions to current students, rather than a traditional admissions counselor. Within this program, current students also organize virtual events that allow for immediate connections between prospects and current students that are assigned as mentors to incoming freshmen to ease their transition process. 

Incorporate Emerging Trends 

The need to adapt a fully virtual recruitment process acted as an impetus for many higher ed institutions to reinvent traditional recruitment efforts. 

This need for change pushed Morehouse College to launch a new website focusing on a mobile-first experience, implement SEO initiatives, and refine PPC campaigns — while simultaneously leaning into the emerging trend of experiential marketing. Leveraging augmented reality technology, Jose Mallabo’s team launched a virtual open house event that allowed prospective students and their families to physically interact with and manipulate parts of campus, producing outstanding yield results. 

In an age where prospects are inundated with virtual event invites from all of their top schools, finding a creative spin to put on traditional recruitment events can go a long way toward differentiating your brand. For example, Jose’s team at Morehouse experimented with streaming music and films as part of a recruitment event with an audience of over 500 prospects, with over 20% of those prospects converting into applicants. By adding entertainment to traditional marketing events, schools provide more value to prospects and express their brand identity, while moving students through the admissions funnel.

Another example that came up during the panel discussion was Maryville University’s amalgamation of a student panel and a hot wing-eating competition. Inspired by the YouTube interview series Hot Ones, prospective students were invited to ask questions to a panel of current students eating hot wings that got progressively hotter as they answered questions. This type of event is not only  informative and entertaining for prospects, but also showcases Maryville’s brand identity and on-campus community. 

Always be Optimizing 

Now is not the time for your marketing and enrollment teams to rest on your laurels and stick to what’s comfortable. Now is the time to confront their traditional recruitment strategy, cut the tactics that are burnt out, and invest in initiatives that push your institution out of its comfort zone. 

What developed over the pandemic is a spectrum of engagement and interactivity in marketing tactics and events. Virtual events dominated throughout the pandemic. Now that in-person events are coming back, it's time to think more holistically about your recruitment process and touchpoint model.  When does it make sense to promote a virtual event? What should that event be for? At what point in the admissions funnel is it most beneficial to offer an in-person event or host campus tours? 

Understanding that uncompleted Common App applications were causing friction in the enrollment funnel, Jose’s team at Morehouse College decided to create their own application platform to relieve this pain point. Knowing that the incoming 2022 class was behind on applications, Allison’s team launched Common App walk-throughs that helped students get their apps in, leaving them more time to make the best decision for their choice of school. Understanding your user and leveraging your resources to optimize their journey from prospect to admitted student, can mean the difference between a prospect that converts and one that abandons.

Blue Sky Ideas

We asked the panelists, if your institution had an infinite budget and resources, what would be the first thing they would invest in? 

“You can't invent more 17 year-olds,” said Jose Mallabo. Jose says that if Morehouse were to have unlimited resources, the first investment would be a full team of data analysts. Using data and analytics, Jose explains that Morehouse would be able to better understand their prospective audience and know where their students are coming from. With Morehouse’s large transfer audience, Jose would run conquest campaigns targeting students at top feeder schools. 

Jose explained how prioritizing analytics and SEO, along with a robust PPC strategy has helped increase yield substantially over the past year. There’s  no denying the importance of SEO, and identifying gaps and low-hanging fruit in your school’s online presence can help set the stage of where your team can begin optimizing. 

For Allison Turcio, “surprising and delighting” Siena’s top prospects would be a primary focus with infinite resources. Allsion shared that Siena College had mailed cookies to admitted students with Siena’s logo and a message about positive thinking in 2021. This received an overwhelming positive response from prospective students as well as their families. While not every school has the budget to send mailings to each prospective student, Allsion urged schools to use their data to identify who their top prospects are and focus on them. 

Focus On the Student Experience

At the end of the day, the panelists agreed that no virtual event or marketing campaign would ever be as impactful as one of the most influential elements of the college search — word of mouth. The student experience is your most valuable and most powerful marketing tool. 

And while you can’t always influence the student experience as a marketer, you  can control how that experience is portrayed in all your marketing efforts to ensure prospective students know all the unique opportunities available at your school.