Enrollment Blog

What enrollment managers can learn from Amazon

by Keith O'Brien

I guess I am a discerning consumer. I have abandoned many online purchases due to confusing instructions or site navigations that test my patience. Colleagues typically empathize with my tales of shopping woe, but, to my surprise, they winced a little when I recently recounted an online shopping misadventure on Amazon.com.

They felt compelled to praise the virtues of the site, contending that it's the gold standard for what is, in business jargon, “the buyer journey” or “customer experience.” Amazon Prime combines a compelling product range with a customized and streamlined purchase process. It’s so good at managing customer experiences—so user friendly—that subscribers spend three times more money than non-subscribers.

College students are consumers, too

College choice is, of course, of greater importance than reviewing Amazon Prime suggestions. It’s a purchase decision with lifelong implications; there are few other decisions that require such deep emotional, psychological, and physical investment.

As parents and students navigate the college choice process, their experiences with institutions will profoundly influence—for better or worse—the outcome.

Enrollment managers often lament that their ability to forecast and manage yield is plagued by soft apps, multiple deposits, and tuition bargaining. It is clear that parents’ and students’ purchase behavior is eroding the market positioning and pricing power of many institutions. It’s a buyers’ market, plain and simple.

Determine your institution's “buyer journey” with these questions

Although enrollment managers may be inclined to resist strategic guidance from an online retailer, as a group, we could benefit from revisions to our traditional recruitment playbook. Following the success of Amazon, we should each start our review of the experience we deliver (consciously or unconsciously) by asking questions like these:

  • What is the college selection experience your institution provides from the perspective of parents and students? Have you investigated the experience from search to matriculation? Individual transactions or interactions are important, but it’s the cumulative enrollment experience that matters most to families and students.
  • Does any campus leader or group of leaders own managing all of these interactions collectively? Parents and students expect a seamless experience and don’t differentiate between interactions across the institution.
  • How have you customized the selection experience for different groups of parents and students? Providing a largely one-size-fits-all experience simply won’t work because parents and students have a variety of motivations and limitations that determine college choice.

Adapt to the expectations of Gen Z

I appreciate that enrollment managers shoulder many responsibilities and addressing these questions may be difficult. But every institution can benefit by cultivating a buyer’s journey that responds to the expectations and needs of Gen Z college consumers—especially when it could ultimately improve yield.

As an enrollment manager told me recently, “It’s scary to think about, but my job depends on the decisions of 17-year olds.” These students are digital natives, accustomed to the data-driven personalization and easy interactions of well-oiled machines like Amazon and Zappos.

Related: Gen Z is coming—learn how they're different

Every student who interacts with your institution in any way (email, direct mail, inquiry, campus visit, bursar letter, orientation, advisor meeting, etc.) across the funnel is shaping his or her perception of your institution—you need to manage those interactions.

As the 74 million Amazon Prime members can attest, in a buyer’s market, how you sell is as important as what you sell.

Next, learn the best way to reach Gen Z

Enrollment teams work hard to perfect their messages for prospective students—but those messages can get lost in today’s maze of communication channels. Read the results from our survey of 5,580 college-bound students to learn the best ways to reach them.

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