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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Higher Education Marketing

Five realizations of marketing in higher education

(Mike Lefler, Sr. Director of Strategic Communication at Doane College, is a guest blogger this week providing his personal experience with marketing in higher education)

I may be oversimplifying this, but as a marketer, your responsibility is to know your product, know your target audience and create a bridge between the two. But in higher education, that simple notion is compounded by speaking to several different audiences (traditional students, adult learners, parents, teachers, etc.) that are all looking for different things in a school that features many different selling points.

When I came to Doane College to strategically direct marketing and communications, I had backgrounds in athletic media relations and marketing in the non-profit and health care sectors. Fields that I felt had a fairly clear sales pitch and more defined audiences. The complex nature of college recruitment and selling a small college in an extremely competitive environment was an eye-opening experience to say the least. Below are the five things I have realized in the past six months about marketing in higher education:

Recognize that your school is not for everyone – The million-dollar question: What do students want? This is a question we should be asking ourselves each and every day. The trouble is there is no one thing that we can sell that will attract the number of students we’re looking for.  We’ve come to find that some students look for location or campus community, others for college size or academic reputation while many will refer to a parent, guidance counselor or teacher to lend them advice.  This creates a challenge for the college marketer.

Here at Doane, we recognize we are not going to be the exact fit for each person out there. We as marketers can’t change that. We also realize that, if prospects are given the appropriate information in a manner that stands out, we can be a fit for more people than are now enrolled at our school. What we can do is build our identity and tell our story – what we’re the best at, who can succeed here, what people say about their experiences – in as clear a way as possible to make sure that people are hearing it and giving us real consideration for what we have to offer.

Expand your avenues strategically – Gone are the days of purchasing one ad in the local newspaper and everyone in a 20-mile radius seeing it.  You need to consider things like mobile compatibility, search engine optimization, social media, inbound marketing, online advertising and email blasts.  Prospective students gather their information in numerous ways, so you need to be diverse and stand out in your approach.

The trouble is that big oak tree in the middle of campus isn’t a money tree.  You need to be strategic about which avenues you pursue because funds are limited in the world of small-college marketing. You’ve got to find innovative ways to reach your audiences with succinct messages while being as targeted as possible. Build a following through social media, promote your website until you’re blue in the face, utilize email to the fullest extent, capitalize on good PR and publish enough content through blogs and a news feed to get you noticed outside of your campus walls.  Most importantly, tell your strengths right up front and be as colorful as possible so you stand out from that stack of letters from colleges across the country.

It’s OUR brand – When we launched our new brand on Dec. 2, I had people approach me saying, “I love your new brand.”  I immediately correct them and let them know that this is our brand. This is not something that is just going to live through marketing endeavors. If we are to create a recognizable brand, this needs to be something that lives and breathes through each and every student, faculty member, staff person and alum. A brand is only as strong as the people that live it.  When you are a college, that brand needs to become who you are or it’s not perceived as believable by those on the outside looking in. And it’s everyone’s responsibility for marketing, not just the department that has that title outside its door.

Align your goals with other departments –When marketing a college or university, your ultimate goal is not only to have your brand seen by as many targeted people as possible, but also to help other departments accomplish their goals. Let’s take for example our admissions office. Here at Doane, if our admissions office is not hitting its enrollment goals, this will also be a reflection on how effective our marketing is. Yes, this puts our goals partly in the hands of other departments, but it also brings us together with others as one team and gets us all on the same page. We need to step back, take a look at the big picture of what is going to make us successful and align ourselves with others whom we support to gauge our successes or failures.

To academia, marketing is low-hanging fruit for criticism – Anyone who has worked in marketing for any length of time has stories of “Suzy in accounting who thinks that, because she saw a great commercial while watching The Bachelor last night, she is now an expert in advertising.” In academia, where faculty and students are taught to question everything, the notion is magnified. To them, marketing may seem like a gimmick or trivial in nature with no real science behind it. They want to see immediate proof that the billboard up in the middle of town is translating directly into students in our classrooms.

The answer to this is to justify everything. Make them feel like they are part of the process (which they are to some extent). Let them know what you’re doing every step of the way and why. You’ll get your share of resistance, but by trusting in your marketing experience, training and sticking to your strategy, you’ll get where you need to be.

(Thank you Mike for your guest post!  Joel)

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