Admissions Technology >> Getting Personal

eRecruiting technologies now enable schools to match their strengths to prospective students' individual expectations.

It was only a few years ago that Ferris State University (MI), about 50 miles north of Grand Rapids, was experiencing an enrollment decline. Enrollment had dropped by almost 3,000 students from 1991 to 1997, and the campus was in the process of implementing more rigorous admission standards. Ferris State has since overcome these challenges, now enrolling 11,822 undergraduate students in 170 academic majors, up from a low of 9,495. What was behind the turnaround?

A key factor has been the conversion to customized online recruiting. In 2004, the campus added Hobsons EMT Engage (www.hobsons.com) to its tool kit, with great results. According to Craig Westman, associate dean of Enrollment Services, 'Our electronic apps are up 20 percent right now, and I know it's a result of what we’re doing with Engage to contact and communicate with these students.'

eRecruiting Tools Sweep In

In the world of higher education, one truth, at least, remains constant: Campuses are always looking for more effective ways to recruit and enroll new students. In fact, conferences are perennially teeming with tracks on recruiting and marketing, and the sessions in those tracks never fail to attract hefty attendance numbers.

In recent years, one of the hottest session topics has been the use of e-mail and the Web as recruiting tools. While it is the rare college or university that d'es not have a Web site, students frequently complain that the information they want is difficult to find. At the same time, students are increasingly expressing a preference for obtaining their information about a college via online communications. This expectation, however, g'es well beyond the one-size-fits-all notion of a typical campus Web site. As is often the case, student expectations are for more services and information than many campuses now provide. They want accessible information tailored to their needs; they don't want to sort through dozens of pages of information filled with links, in order to uncover the key information to help them make their college decisions. Rather, they want campuses to anticipate their needs and interests, which may be very different from the needs and interests of other students, and in many cases, very different from the perception the campus has of itself. Is this a tall order? Possibly, but savvy admissions pros are discovering that it's an order well worth the effort.

Simply put, over the last few years, campuses that have embraced online technologies to interact with potential students have reported great success in meeting their enrollment goals. Some universities report that they have dramatically increased contacts with their existing prospect pool. Some find that they can expand their pool of potential students within existing budgets, while others have reported substantial savings over prior recruiting approaches. In all cases, the colleges and universities we contacted reported that online recruiting is a key component in their successful recruiting efforts.

A Case of Dissonance

Still, it is curious to see how many campuses continue to rely on traditional recruiting techniques: school visits and college fairs, printed brochures and direct mail. To be sure, all of these approaches are tried and true, and they have a place in most college recruiting and outreach plans. Yet, contrast these traditional approaches with student communication methods, e-mail, chat, the Web, and cell phones,and you'll see that the dissonance between traditional college communications and student communication preferences is striking. But campuses that recognize and capitalize on this significant shift in communication preferences are shifting the emphasis of their recruiting activities to match their potential students' preferences.

One-Way Recruiting

A good way to look at the more traditional recruiting approaches is with an eye to the direction of the communication involved. A direct-mail campaign is created and pushed out to a group of potential students; brochures are carefully crafted to provide information to a broad range of students (again, the push model). Even school and college fair visits are largely one-way activities where common key information is pushed out to populations of potential students.

The Web is no exception in most cases. Take a look at the admission information on most campus Web sites, and you'll find largely static, general information, often revealed across a large number of pages. Students looking for information on particular topics, such as majors, activities, or requirements, are left to navigate through the whole Web site or brochure, hoping to find the information that sparks their continued interest in a potential college. And e-mail sent to prospective students by campuses is usually sent in chunks to large groups of potential students. More often than not, this too is a general message that may or may not resonate with individual students. Rarely do campuses even know if their message was read. Obviously, the push method of reaching students leaves something to be desired.

It's not just for admission recruiting...

ONLINE, INTERACTIVE TOOLS like Recruitment PLUS (www.collegeboard.com), Liquid Matrix (www.liquidmatrix.com), SCT Luminis (www.sct.com), Recruitment Center (www.corp.xap.com), and Engage (www.hobsons.com) are not limited to recruiting and admission activities. Virtually any population can be the target of an online, interactive campaign.

Calling all alumni. Campuses, for instance, are always looking to establish strong relationships with their alumni, and with new online tools (Engage Alumni is one), some are now developing campaigns targeting both new graduates and existing alumni. The communication streams for these two groups are likely to be different, so administrators are finding it appropriate to create a campaign for each group. As is the case with admission-related activities, the interactive nature of the campaign can help the campus gather important information from their alumni that will help maximize their involvement.

More reasons to reach parents. While campuses are already interacting with parents during the admission cycle, there are other reasons to communicate with families as their student is enrolled. Campaigns can be developed to increase the communications to this important constituency.

Additional uses to come…

‘Push’ and ‘Pull’ Recruiting

Effective online recruiting techniques are now capitalizing on the way students prefer to communicate and are adding a new dimension to the communication equation: pull. Most admissions professionals are aware that students checking out campus Web sites want their information instantaneously and easily. Of course, students don’t always know what information they want, and even if they do, they may give up searching if they don’t easily find what they’re looking for.

But by simply adding a layer of interaction to the online recruiting activity, a campus can collect key pieces of information about a prospective student, and then, capitalizing on electronic two-way communications, the campus can feed information back to the student that addresses the student’s particular interests. Properly constructed and presented, the electronic communication “pulls” the student through the process. This “push-pull” model is a real departure from most traditional recruiting activities.

In fact, this kind of eRecruiting is now a fast-growing trend in higher education. Institutions are using CRM tools like College Board’s Recruitment PLUS (www.collegeboard.com), Datatel’s Liquid Matrix (www.liquidmatrix.com), SunGard’s SCT Luminis (www.sct.com), Xap’s Recruitment Center (corp.xap.com), and the tool that Ferris State chose—Hobsons EMT Engage—to provide customized information and communications to prospective students.

At Ferris State, for instance, Engage monitors responses, storing the information in a database. Other campuses use this information to adjust their messages and move students to different information flows that are customized communications to targeted audiences. (For example, a non-traditional-age student prospect will initially be placed in the non-traditional track. However, if that student responds to survey questions with answers that match freshman-level admission, she will be added to the freshman track.) Campuses are using Engage and similar tools to communicate with prospects, applicants, admitted students, and individuals within a cohort receiving information of specific interest to them, as they respond and interact with the campus. What’s more, because administrators know precisely who is reading an e-mail, viewing a Web page, or responding to a survey, they can focus their attention on those students who are most engaged by or responsive to the communications.

At Ferris State, as prospective students respond to brief queries or short surveys, the campus can adjust campaigns to target any given student’s interests. The provided information matches the student’s need, rather than providing a common response to a group of students. At the same time, the personalization offers the student a sense of community and belonging—an element critical to an institution’s enrollment yield success.

Process, at Ferris State

Let’s take a closer look at just how customized online recruiting can work: Ferris State, for one, uses the technology to communicate with prospective students and applicants, by invitation. The process begins with an e-mail, then, only if the student responds by opting in to the special communications, Bulldog Beginnings, d'es the campus begin a communication flow to the student that consists of one of several campaigns, based upon information the campus already has in its databases. The campaigns can be as long as 25 weeks, and are designed to push the individual from decision point to decision point. Each week’s campaign begins with an e-mail introducing a carefully selected topic. The e-mail then links to a Web page, to more fully cover the topic. At Ferris State, Engage tracks key factors such as: Was the e-mail read? Was the link followed? Did the student respond to the call to action? Different campaigns have been created for prospective students, applicants, and parents.

Ferris State admissions administrators realized early on that not all invitees will respond to a single e-mail invitation, so targeted individuals who do not respond to an initial invitation receive two or three more polite reminders about the advantages of receiving the communications.

Call to action. Westman’s philosophy is to create campaigns that call the student to action. For example, admitted students are asked to sign up for orientation, participate in an event, or file their confirmation deposit. In other cases, students are surveyed to collect marketing research that is shared with the rest of the campus (e.g.,“How did you hear about Ferris?”).

Collecting data. At Ferris, enrollment services and marketing are separate areas, yet the information collected by Engage helps both areas coordinate their marketing messages to prospective students. In fact, because of the surveys, the campus now has a better understanding of the critical demographics to target. What’s more, at any time, the campus has access to detailed reports monitoring the status of a campaign. The reports include an engagement scale based on the number and types of interactions with the messages. For example, the system tracks how many times each week’s message has been viewed, and how many surveys have been filled out. The information is available in summary form, as well as with detailed responses by individuals.

Customized recruiting action. As a student moves through the process, campus recruiters use the response information coming in from each individual in their recruiting area. The level of engagement then leads the recruiter to take a specific action. For instance, if a student has been engaged all throughout the process and suddenly stops responding, the recruiter can easily determine the exact point of disengagement. A follow-up contact via e-mail or by phone can then begin with a precise—and personal—understanding of the obstacle at hand. For example: “I see you stopped at enrollment deposit; any questions?”

By monitoring the students in their particular territories, recruiters also can see what works—or d'esn’t work—in a particular area, and modify approaches. This applies to messages in the Engage campaign, as well as their traditional recruiting activities. Similarly, when a college at Ferris contacts the Admissions office with concerns about enrollment numbers, Westman and his staff can extract specific data tied to individual students, to help the college understand how they might better meet the needs of prospective students and nudge those numbers upward.

From Westman’s perspective, even opting out is a valuable response. Individuals who opt out are contacted to learn more about why they have opted out. Usually, the case is that they have decided to go elsewhere, and the brief follow-up contact helps the campus better understand the factors moving a student toward that decision.

Parent campaign. Westman reports that the campus is particularly pleased with the Parent campaign. As students are admitted, parents are invited to participate in a parallel parents’ track. This way, “Parents have something to talk about to their children. They can ask, ‘Did you sign up for orientation?’” explains Westman. The impact of the Parent campaign is striking: Currently, 29 percent of the students with parents responding to the campaign enroll, versus 15 percent with parents who do not participate.

Predictive modeling and ROI. Ferris State administrators have been using predictive modeling to help them create their recruiting plan, which includes Engage campaigns. By adding the technology, they have been able to refine their model and, early in the process, improve focus on the students who are most likely to enroll. In addition, Westman believes the technology has helped the university save around $250,000 in printing and postage, while attracting and retaining better students.

Arcadia: Establishing Identity

Establishing and maintaining a campus’ marketing niche can be a real challenge. It can be an even more daunting challenge when a campus takes on a new identity.

FERRIS STATE'S Bulldog Beginnings consists of several campaigns, automatically launched as needed.

Arcadia University (PA), located just outside Philadelphia, is a university with a 150-year history—and a new name. Founded in 1853, Beaver College became Arcadia University in 2001. This private liberal arts college enrolls approximately 3,200 students (1,800 undergrads), and offers a strong study-abroad program and a number of specialized majors.

Multiple personalized eRecruiting campaigns. Arcadia has been using online recruiting tools to do more than just boost recruiting; at Arcadia, the technology is helping the campus attract its entering class while also promoting the new campus identity. Thus far, Arcadia administrators have created four campaigns (again, via Engage): freshman prospects, applicants, international prospects, and parents. Several other campaigns are under consideration, given the success of their initial efforts.

Crafting identity. The campus started developing its first campaign for prospective students in July 2004. According to Collene Hare, assistant director of Enrollment Management, the first step was to identify the target audience and the information Arcadia wanted to communicate. It was clear that the entering full-time, first-time freshmen would be the target. For this audience, administrators identified 20 important topics that would both inform the audience and promote the new identity of the university. The basic content was gleaned from existing brochures and material; the identity component, says Hare, was constructed around the gargoyles found on an historic campus building. Thus, the communications were dubbed Gargoyle Greetings.

CRAFTING IDENTITY is a lot easier for a university when a personalized recruiting site supports the effort.

Getting off the ground. At this point, the material was turned over to Hobsons for development of the look and feel of the campaign, as well as the development of the preliminary filters necessary to identify the targeted audience. Refinements were then made during conversations between the campus and Hobsons. In early Fall 2004, the 20-week prospect campaign was launched, and targeted students began receiving short e-mails with links to more details on the campus Web site; distribution was handled by Hobsons.

eRecruiting results. According to Hare, from the beginning the response has been positive. The campus could see which students were opening and reading the e-mails, and who was visiting the Web page. Since all e-mails had an opt-out option, the campus could also track those students who were not interested in Gargoyle Greetings. Dennis Nostrand, VP of Enrollment Management, reports that fewer than 2 percent of all prospects have opted out. Included in each week’s campaign message is a short survey; asking, for example, about campus size and location preferences, and plans to visit the campus. The survey also usually relates to the topic of the communication. For instance, a communication on internationalization includes a survey on study-abroad interests.

Leveraging data. Arcadia has discovered a number of ways to leverage the information collected from the weekly surveys. For example, housing is a big issue for the campus. As one might expect from entering-freshman prospects, the majority indicated a preference for traditional double housing. However, campus officials were surprised when close to 14 percent of the respondents indicated a preference for triple housing, a response higher than the preference for single or apartment-style housing. Admissions quickly shared this information with housing staff, who now had the opportunity to follow up with specific respondents, since each response is captured and tied to a particular student.

Administrators also found another way to leverage data. When they launched their personalized eRecruiting campaign, they knew the survey information would help them make adjustments to better tailor campaigns. Shortly thereafter, they decided to share the results of the surveys with the respondents; now, prospective students and applicants can learn what their peers are saying, and make connections with them.

From prospect to applicant. As prospects file an application, they leave the prospecting campaign for the admission campaign. This campaign provides more in-depth information for students who have indicated their further interest in Arcadia. While the same process used for the prospect campaign was used to develop the applicant campaign, Hare reports that the time from inception to implementation was greatly reduced. The length of the campaign is also somewhat shorter: 18 weeks. A nine-week parent campaign is also triggered for the parents of admitted students.

Reach and branding. Thus far, the campus is delighted with the results. Applications are meeting or exceeding expectations, and Arcadia has expanded the reach of the campus and saved money by replacing many traditional recruiting activities. For example, in past years, the prospect pool was carefully pared to reduce brochure and mailing costs. With the new online recruiting tools, all prospective students who matched target criteria could be included in the campaign. Says Nostrand, “We are conducting campaigns we could not afford to, if they were direct mail.”

Just as importantly, the campus identity is being established. Students frequently cite Gargoyle Greetings in their contacts with the campus. This is especially important outside the local region where prospective students are not familiar with the change in campus identity. With the feedback Arcadia is receiving from its tools, the campus is adjusting its remaining recruiting activities to take advantage of the information they now have at their disposal.

What’s Next?

In their first cycle of usage, both Ferris State and Arcadia report results that have exceeded their expectations. At the same time, both have begun altering their processes to leverage information captured in their new eRecruiting systems. For example, both admissions offices are feeding data to other key campus areas to inform them of student preferences. It will be interesting to track how these and other campuses use these tools and similar ones to provide better service to future entering classes. Stay tuned.


Integrating Personalized eRecruiting and Admissions with ERP

CAMPUSES HAPPY WITH THEIR Datatel Colleague (www.datatel.com) installations may now have reason to be even happier: The company recently acquired LiquidMatrix (www.liquidmatrix.com), which provides software and services that enable colleges and universities to better communicate with Web site visitors. The LiquidMatrix flagship product, ActiveCampus, brings a myriad of critical Web services to college and university external Web sites, while integrating with campus administrative systems. In fact, according to Datatel spokespeople, the two companies have worked hard to take eRecruiting one step further, and improve the process by which institutions integrate data on the Web site with the data found in their ERP databases.

For example, institutions currently store valuable prospective student and applicant information in their ERP systems. With this ERP information available on the Web, students can not only complete online applications, but students and parents can check application status and missing documents, and high school guidance counselors can check the application status for all students from their high school. Importantly, an institution can use ERP data with its Web site to dynamically deliver personalized Web site content, as well as send targeted e-mails to students based on their phase in the recruitment funnel.

Datatel spokespeople claim that the newest release of ActiveCampus integration software makes it even easier to integrate campus Web sites with virtually any institution’s ERP system. You don’t have to be a Datatel client to get in on these benefits, but it sure could be easy if you are.

Longtime Datatel Colleague user Lesley College (MA) was looking to redesign the navigation on their external Web site, rebrand the Lesley College admissions Web site, as well as provide an integrated online application for their prospective students. In January, the new site was launched, complete with an online application integrated directly into Datatel Colleague. Online recruiting and enrollment results should be collected soon, but in the meantime, administrators are breathing a sigh of relief: There’s no more need for printing or re-keying online applications.

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