Enrollment Management, Higher Education Marketing

You’ve got mail!

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Everyone likes getting mail during the holidays. I write my family’s annual holiday letter updating family and friends on what’s going on in the life of my wife, kids, and me. The result of this annual tradition – in addition to the increasing amount of online Christmas present purchases – is a crazy busy time of the year for the USPS as well as other delivery services. In fact, I learned while watching the TODAY SHOW that December 18th is anticipated to be the most significant mail date of the year!

To be fair, I believe everyone likes to get mail, particularly personalized mail, regardless of the holidays. I still look forward to checking my mailbox every day when I get home from work – but, maybe I’m old fashion.  I did turn 40 this year. There are fewer bills, statements and cards/letters in the mailbox compared to 10 years ago. Personally, I don’t get the hand-written card from my mom like I did in college. She emails or texts which I appreciate, but they still don’t have the same effect. Think about the last time you received something hand-written in the mail. Felt good, right?

After checking with a colleague and Doane College alumnus at the United States Postal Service (USPS), I’m told that mail volumes have declined considerably over the last decade. First-class mail – i.e. bills, statements, letters and payments – has been significantly impacted by online options. As a result the USPS delivered 35% less First-Class Mail in 2013 than they did in 2004. While the rate of decline has slowed in the last two years (only a 5% and 4% drop in the last two years respectively) the first 2 quarters of 2014 shows that trend continuing. But, what about Standard A mail (aka Junk Mail)? Truth be told that Standard A mail has increased slightly in the last year and is down only marginally from where it was in 2004.  Bottom line…less mail in the mailbox means what is in the box may very well get more attention by comparison to ten years ago.

Two quick thoughts on this: First, with less mail, it’s understandable that businesses are working more strategically with Standard A mail to gain more presence in front of the consumer – to get noticed in the mailbox. Second, I believe the value of a personal note in the mailbox has more impact today than it did 15 years ago.

I contend that the plight of first-class mail has actually made the mailbox more relevant today! In higher education enrollment management, communication with the prospective student is of paramount importance and ever more challenging to coordinate. For example, response rates to mail pieces are abysmal for the most part and the elimination of landlines makes it even more challenging to connect with a student via phone. Rather than wait for students to tell us they are interested, colleges use predictive models to determine who we need to target with our communication plans and ultimately we create communication flows that hit prospective student mailboxes on a regular basis even when a student hasn’t taken the specific step to tell us they are interested. We can’t afford to wait for the student to respond.

Beyond general propaganda mail, however, I am also determined to create a mailbox presence for prospective students that connect to them personally. It’s true that printing companies can more easily print variable data on brochures and postcards to give the impression of personalization. While I think this works and has an effect, it still does not replace the value of the hand-written addressed envelope that contains something more personalized inside. Make no mistake, this isn’t easy to coordinate and takes time and energy. However, Admission Counselors at Doane College must make connections with prospective students that require them to think beyond the quick phone call or even the Facebook message or email.

So, how about email? Studies have shown that prospective students prefer to receive college information via email. As a result, we push emails out to prospects regularly. So much so that people question if it’s too much. Do people really care that much about junk emails, so much that it frustrates them? Can you actually send too much email? Mass email can be easy and very inexpensive. Unfortunately, some enrollment professionals struggle to invest the time and energy to really think through an email campaign strategy. This is not an indictment on those individuals. It’s reality of our resources. I know we are guilty of that at times for sure. A discussion I hear in my office often is related to the volume of emails that we send to prospective students. I hear people contend, “We are turning them off with so many emails!” Really? A student is not considering Doane College because of how many emails we send? I think it’s an easy excuse for a person, but not the reason they are not coming to Doane College. I simply think it’s unfortunate for a college or business to fear sending too many emails. That said, it is important to have a balance – purpose and volume. People can easily opt-out of email campaigns or they can simply ignore them. I get an email a day from Kohls – maybe even two or three this time of year – and it doesn’t bother me because I know it’s there if I’m interested. It takes more energy for me to opt-out or send a nasty-gram for them to stop sending me emails.

Lets be clear, however. Quantity and quality are two different issues. I’m in favor of significant volume of emails, but there has to be a strategy and a vetted message to these emails. They do represent your brand.

College enrollment professionals lament over different strategies to engage with high school students during the college search process. We utilize all modes of communication in what sometimes seems like a lost cause. Does our mail get opened? How do we know if they don’t respond to the tear-off card or go online with the customized URL. Do they even receive our email campaigns? We create landing pages, review open-rates and click-through stats in hopes of validating our efforts. We look at Google reports to see the pages visitors land on. Today, we can’t obtain as many valid phone numbers because there is no landline! We pay exceptional amounts of money to firms to help us manage the communication flow to prospective students, which includes a select number of mail pieces, email campaigns, and phone calls. We consider the message, the look, the timing, and the volume of touches all in hopes that the student engages.

There is no silver bullet. But, moving all online and eliminating a mailbox strategy is a sure death in my opinion. Take advantage of the mailbox today. It’s not nearly as cramped as it once was. Get your college into the conversation by making sure your brand lands on the dining room table or counter at the end of the day, preferably at the top of the pile.

So, I leave you with a few pieces of advice:

  1. The mailbox still matters.  Use it strategically.
  2. Hand-written addressed envelopes are effective.
  3. Be aggressive with emails, but give thought to your message and subject lines for best response rates. Top of the mind awareness is the name of the game. Be there when they are ready for you. Can you dedicate a person to manage this activity and report on successes and failures?

Happy Holidays! JOEL

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