Enrollment Blog

Sing it simply at the start: Message segmentation doesn’t always work in initial student contact

by Emily Bauer

Sometimes I wish I could get Selena Gomez or Justin Bieber to introduce partner schools to prospective college students. Teens would respond to pop stars, right?

Without this option, we are left with the very real challenge of figuring out the best way to initially connect with our targeted teens and return to a founding principle of the Communication 101 class offered on our campuses: Tailor your message to your audience.

This practice is simple enough in theory, but in order to pull it off successfully in your outreach campaign, there are two important nuances you need to know.

Don't overdo it

To the surprise of many, the tailor-your-message mantra can get messy when enrollment campaigns employ it too early and stretch it too far, as when first-inquiry messages are crafted to target students from specialized demographic groups. We have found that enrollment officers’ earnest attempts to introduce their schools to students from diverse backgrounds and often-marginalized communities can sometimes lead to messages that are tailored too much!

In two studies of messages fashioned to appeal to the cultural identities of targeted student groups, our marketing analytics team at EAB Enrollment Services (formerly Royall & Company) determined that too much specificity, or over-segmentation, can hurt the efficacy of initial outreach campaigns. It seems that despite broad cultural appreciation of gender and ethnic diversity, some early student recruitment communications are currently best left neutral.

In our first test, we revisited our ongoing analyses of the impact of gender in first-inquiry outreach communication. Stemming from frequent partner requests for strategies to target either male or female students as a means to balance the gender composition of incoming classes, we tested gender-neutral against gender-specific messages. EAB found no benefit to segmenting communication for men and women early in the recruitment process. Response to the gendered communications was flat at best, and female response rate to gender-specific messaging was -7.5% at one test school.

Find out how much you know about teenagers' online habits

Message segmentation yields lower engagement initially

In another test of segmentation, EAB Enrollment Services set out to assist partner schools aiming to improve communication with prospective Hispanic students by studying the impact of writing copy in Spanish. We translated our control English subject lines into Spanish subject lines and sent them to equal test and control groups; the test group received Spanish-language content in one-sixth of communications. The results were decidedly unfavorable. Participating schools saw a 34% decline in prospective-student response rates for Spanish-language subject lines, and there were no performance improvements in any test audience segment, including Spanish-speaking students, at any of the test schools.

Counterintuitive though they may be, EAB's results indicate that gender-segmentation and Spanish-language subtitles are not a surefire way to improve initial-engagement response rates for today’s recruitment campaigns. I believe this data suggests that the identity students are most invested in is one without the qualifying adjectives that typically delineate student populations (Hispanic, female, etc.), even in initial-contact college recruitment efforts.

We are mindful that these adjectives gain value as recruitment campaigns progress. Once prospective students engage with a university, personalized messages become a vital method for schools to cultivate meaningful relationships with students; foregrounding students’ cultural identities later in recruitment efforts fosters strong enrollment metrics.

The nuances of segmented recruiting messages are intriguing. Enrollment Services will continue testing a range of minority groups and communication channels to better understand why, despite our culture’s embrace of pluralism, our studies show that when first reaching out to some diverse student populations, a single, strong, neutral message is often best.

After initial engagement, how do prospective students view your application process?

In this post, we shared insights on the best way to initially reach your future freshman class. What happens next? Learn about one school that found its next leader through a custom application.

Read Jamal’s story

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