Keeping It Personal

University admissions offices are making valuable connections with prospective students through personalized Web recruitment technology.

PROSPECTIVE STUDENTS WHO venture onto La Salle University’s (PA) portal are invited to “Ask Dr. Jones.” But this Dr. Jones is not a fictional dispenser of canned advice, nor a pseudonym for a back room staffed by admissions counselors. Dr. Nancy Jones is a real faculty member at La Salle; in fact, she chairs the Integrated Science, Business, and Technology program. Jones spends her evenings responding to student e-mails—one by one. Sometimes she refers technical questions to other individuals who are experts in areas like housing, financial aid, or specific academic disciplines. But, often as not, she follows through and e-mails answers directly to the students.

This is part of La Salle’s effort to make its online recruiting initiative personal, not just personalized. Is it worth the effort? “Communicating with an actual faculty member means more to students than talking to an admissions counselor or getting a mail-merged letter,” says Jones.

The Web

prospective students to interact
with students, faculty, and Dr. Jones.

The La Salle approach to online recruiting is based on an important insight: Though many of us tend to think that members of the iPod generation are technology fanatics, that d'esn’t mean that they accept mechanized responses. In actuality, they use technology as an enhancement to building and maintaining personal relations, even intimate ones. Their love of gadgets aside, they put an especially high value on personal contact—even if it is mediated through text messaging, e-mail, or an online forum.

Steve Kappler has been studying teenagers for 11 years at Stamats, a higher ed marketing firm, and says he has seen the pendulum swing back toward a more personal touch, away from the emphasis on technology that began with the rise of the Web in the mid ’90s. “The key is personalization in a way that teens feel is personal, not the way we feel is personal,” says Kappler. His advice: “Don’t fall in love with the technology when personalization is what they want.” Schools can get hooked on technology and forget this crucial fact. The technology must be in service to personal relations, not a substitute for them. Used right, technology can be a valuable tool to help create a personal connection.

The Power of Technology

While the genuinely personal e-mails of “Ask Dr. Jones” at La Salle reach students in a way that little else can, even an institution with that level of commitment to person-to-person contact needs a strong technology framework to fill out the relationship. La Salle uses the SunGard Higher Education Luminis portal to provide customized information and online services to prospective students, such as forums and a message board, e-mail contact with a student “CyberAmbassador,” and an online application form, as well as portal features for the rest of the campus.

For La Salle, there has been an unexpected payoff from integrating the recruiting portal with portal features for other groups like students, faculty, and alumni. As activity on the campus portal has grown, it has nourished the recruiting portal. The school’s on-campus announcement forums, for example, have provided content about lectures, academic events, sports, and volunteer activities that all can be fed to prospective students who share those particular interests. “At first we had to sit down and generate the content for the prospective student portal,” says James Sell, director of Portal Communications at La Salle. “Now it’s being generated for us.”

The recruiting portal is a natural extension of La Salle’s core values. “We are into building community—apart from any online tools that we might use, that is who we are,” says Sell. “Students can actually see our personality from the nature of the portal.”

Directing the Portal Experience

Case Western Reserve University (OH) has chosen heavyduty recruiting-portal software to mold the way a prospective student gets to know the university over time. For instance, a student can browse the Case admissions site without making the commitment of filling out an inquiry form. As a gentle reminder, though, “My To-Do List” follows the visitor from page to page, guiding prospective students along a gradual path, from easy steps like “Customize Your Experience” and “Receive More Information,” to more serious moves like estimating financial aid and applying online for admission. On subsequent visits to the Case site, the personalized To-Do List maintains checkboxes that display how far the student’s individual relationship with Case has progressed, and the checklist always invites him or her to take the next step.

Case’s personalized recruiting experience is based on Datatel’s ActiveAdmissions software, the result of Datatel’s acquisition of LiquidMatrix. Kevin Guyton, one of the founders of LiquidMatrix and now sales manager at Datatel, says that the system was deliberately designed to be non-invasive. “ActiveAdmissions d'esn’t require a login, so personalization is gradual,” says Guyton. “But there is always a call to action; the floating To-Do list. That’s where a lot of sites fail—sites that have a lot of glitz can distract the prospective student from what you want them to do.”

Making Virtual Connections

Franklin & Marshall College (PA) decided that installing a formal software portal for recruiting wasn’t worth the expense. But Franklin & Marshall has gotten very savvy about using Web-based technology to serve up a personalized experience of the college. Using Macromedia Flash animations and streaming video, along with a good measure of humor and a non-stuffy attitude, Franklin & Marshall tries to hook the interest of prospective students and help them to feel personally involved with the school.

With four personalized flavors, Franklin & Marshall’s virtual campus tours create an emotional attachment with prospective students, every step of the way.

Franklin & Marshall’s most recent innovation is student video blogs, or vlogs. The concept is a bit risky: Give video cameras to four lively university students and let them chronicle what is happening in their lives—behind the scenes and hanging out in the dorms. “No scripts, no rehearsals,” the vlog homepage promises, and the results seem to bear that out: Vloggers record their friends trying to study and juggle the TV remote at the same time; a student rides a bike through the dorm hallways. Meanwhile, the vloggers slip in some serious talk about their volunteer activities and close relationships with the faculty.

Even Franklin & Marshall’s virtual campus tour, a staple of admissions sites, comes in personalized flavors. You can pick your student tour guide by viewing four video selfintroductions (Austin, Roshni, Beth, and Leslie). Then, as you cruise through the campus looking at the buildings and facilities, you can click on your tour guide’s picture to get his or her impromptu comments about each site, in a brief video clip. You’re not just seeing bricks and mortar; you are learning about the kinds of attachments to the place you might develop if you lived and studied on the campus.

Dennis Trotter, VP for Enrollment at Franklin & Marshall, calls the approach “experience marketing,” adding, “How do you provide students with an emotional attachment to the institution every step of the way? We try to use technology to let the personality of the college shine through.”

Following Through

There is one caveat to creating an online recruiting experience, however. Remember that when students finally do get to your campus, they had better find that this personal interaction, mediated by technology, is actually part of the institution’s culture. Otherwise, your careful branding will seem like false advertising.

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