Enrollment managers and admissions staff are now familiar with the concept of “students as consumers.” In recent years, the work of enrollment has meant contending with prospective students’ growing focus on value and outcomes as well as their demand for more information with quicker responses. Applicants are increasingly weighing their options, or “shopping,” during their college search.
In light of this reality, the campus visit is a unique opportunity to connect with and impress these difficult customers. Prospective students, and often their families, come to your campus and devote hours or an entire day to learning about your institution. This gives you an opportunity to communicate your distinct value and respond to their most pressing questions in a highly personal way.
Though many institutions recognize the sales nature of these exchanges, they are hesitant to apply strategic market intelligence to their own campus events out of fear of being too commercial. There is, however, a way to incorporate this knowledge into your campus visit program strategy and review to maximize their impact without turning prospective students off. Below, we outline four lessons from market research that can inform the way you approach prospective student interactions, especially during on-campus programs, to improve their experiences and impressions of your institution—without becoming a salesperson.
What enrollment managers can learn from Amazon about the buyer journey
Prospective students want to hear directly from real voices
There is a thirst in the consumer marketplace for personal, authentic messaging and products. In retail, we see customers’ own product review photos to share with others how clothes actually fit. In the restaurant industry, user review sites like Yelp or OpenTable regularly help potential diners make informed Friday night dinner choices. In the majority of industries, we see a preference for primary information from actual people, not from brands and institutions. Your students want to hear from real voices, especially those they can relate to—their peers and people who reflect who they want to be.
In your campus visit programs, consider employing authentic touches like:
- Sharing genuine-yet-curated student social media (think Instagram photos, funny campus tweets, or lifestyle blogs) that come from people at your institution
- Allowing tour guides and student ambassadors to talk following an outline rather than a script, meaning they can talk relatively freely about their own experiences in a way that sounds more authentic
- Creating opportunities for college or university leadership to speak passionately and honestly with prospective students and families about the institution’s mission and what brings him or her to work every day
Student shoppers crave personal touches
Every school boasts that their students will get personal attention and create meaningful relationships once on campus. Despite this, the campus visit rarely reflects these promises. Even small group visits can feel like they follow a template, and there is not a lot of opportunity to feel like an individual in the crowd. Prospective students do not want to feel like they are “just a number,” and will likely choose an institution that they feel a personal connection with.
To give campus visits a personal touch, incorporate elements such as:
- A phone call prior to the visit that serves multiple purposes: reminding the registered visitors of the appointment (to ensure attendance), answering pre-arrival questions they may have (to help them feel welcome), and gathering preliminary information that can be passed along to the visit staff on the day to “wow” those guests
- A clear indication that they personally were expected by putting the right name on their reserved parking space, pre-populating forms they need to fill out on the day of the visit with information you already collected, or having department-specific swag based on what they want to study
What Gen Z wants from college search, in their own words
Students are focused on concrete value
Many consumer products now entice buyers by offering wraparound services, like lifetime repairs or 24/7 customer support promises. In higher education, while we think of the core product as the undergraduate experience, students expect more. They want to know how the university will help them achieve their career goals and support them in the post-graduation years. Your prospects expect more for their tuition than simply a degree.
In order to show the long-term value of choosing your institution, your campus visits should showcase some of the additional ways you partner with your students and support them beyond graduation, including:
- Strategically using your careers/guidance center to start or end the tour, thereby allowing you to emphasize graduate outcomes and ongoing alumni support
- Engaging particularly active alumni networks, perhaps by bringing flagship networking events on campus during your open houses, to demonstrate that the relationship continues beyond receiving a diploma
This generation is socially conscious and justice-minded
Today’s prospective students are well-informed, concerned about societal issues, and highly engaged in social justice and activism. Whether deciding what clothes to buy or where to get an education, these individuals want to find trustworthy brands that are scandal-free and working for social good. In higher education we see these pushes, from campaigns to divest in unpopular industries (think fossil fuels) to national attention on campus crises. Highlight these efforts in campus visits to give prospective students a sense of your values, and show them ways they can get involved on campus that they will attach to:
- If you have an on-campus initiative (e.g. a compost center or water reclamation facility), incorporate that into part of the visit narrative and show how the mission/values of the institution inform these initiatives
- Don’t be afraid to directly confront any current controversy. Prepare your frontline students and staff to field tough questions about your campus and be prepared to talk about current improvement efforts around diversity and other hot-button issues
- Discuss student groups and other channels for student involvement in issues of interest
It is no secret within enrollment that students—not to mention companies and the world at large—are changing quickly. Institutions need to thoughtfully apply lessons from the commercial world in order to keep up with their prospective students’ expectations in order to stay competitive and to convince prospects to become enrolled students.
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