Enrollment Blog

Is poor channel selection undermining your parent outreach?

by Pam Kiecker Royall, Ph.D.

I don’t need to tell you that enrollment leaders are always interested in insights about Generation Z—especially the communication habits of this first generation of true digital natives.

But, given all the buzz about our prospective student population, it’s easy to forget that their parents are part of the same digital media revolution that’s transforming how we talk to students. In fact, by at least one estimate1, parents are online even more than students are.

However, our work with colleges and universities around the country suggests that most enrollment teams have not given enough thought to how and where to approach parents, especially when it comes to digital channels.

That’s an unfortunate oversight. While engaging parents can be one of the most powerful levers for influencing a student’s choice of school, those efforts can come to naught if you don’t approach them in the right channels or with the right tactics.

So, how do you know which channels to use with parents? One way is to simply ask them. That’s exactly what we did in our recent survey of more than 1,500 households nationwide.

Presented below are five lessons on channel selection that emerged from their responses.

Lesson 1: Make the most of channels you control

Among the many sources parents use to learn about colleges, two are valued above all others: school websites and campus visits. This is good news, for a couple of reasons. First, unlike many other sources parents report using, these two are under your direct control. Second, the same two sources also rank among students’ top picks.

Popular channels among parents

Lesson 2: Tailor your channel selection to audience segments

Segmentation in recruitment marketing is sometimes thought of as the same thing as customized messaging. Despite the intuitive appeal of this kind of customization, the outcome can be unpredictable. EAB research has shown this type of approach can produce mixed results, even when painstakingly executed.

Thankfully, messaging is not the only lever you can pull to help ensure your communications work with key audience segments. Channel selection provides a compelling alternative.

Our parent survey showed significant differences across demographic segments in terms of how parents prefer to receive information from colleges and universities. The chart below shows a case in point. As indicated, low- and high-income parents have opposite preferences when it comes to research-based “self-serve” content versus push communications, with low-income families showing greater affinity for the latter.

Channel use among parents

Lesson 3: Leverage parents’ responsiveness to digital ads

Although digital media is often talked about as a young person’s phenomenon, parents’ media habits and preferences have been profoundly influenced by the same forces shaping teens’ behaviors.

This fact is reflected in results from our survey, which revealed a relatively high level of exposure to digital advertisements on the part of parents. Almost a quarter reported clicking on digital ads sometimes, often, or always, and 68% said they don’t use ad blockers on social media.

Evidence from EAB recruitment-marketing campaigns extends this finding, showing that parents engage with digital even more than students do. Click rates are as much as 1.5 times higher for parents, across a broad range of ad themes and calls to action. Parents are also more likely than students to return to ads repeatedly.

Lesson 4: Understand how parent behaviors vary across social networks

EAB survey research has found that most students expect colleges and universities to maintain a presence on social media. Most schools, having reached the same conclusion, invest significant resources in related efforts, including the development and hosting of “unpaid” content on a variety of platforms.

To make the most of this sizable resource commitment, it’s helpful to understand how parents’ behavior varies across different social networks.

As you might expect, each network has a distinctive engagement profile. Comparing YouTube and Twitter, for example, shows how a network with lower overall user numbers (Twitter) can actually generate more activity, in absolute terms, as measured by follows, shares, and likes. Enrollment teams will want to factor these different interaction profiles into their recruitment-marketing media strategy and campaign design.

Lesson 5: Keep watching out for changing preference patterns

EAB’s 2018 parent survey is the latest in a series of similar surveys we’ve done about communications preferences, and in our analysis we were able to look at parent preferences going back to 2012.

Some parent communication preferences remained relatively stable. For example, parents consider certain channels more appropriate for some types of information than for others. They regard a school’s website as the best channel for sharing information about majors and minors but not scholarships (for which physical mail and email are preferred). We also noted the persistent appeal of paper mail. While physical mail has fallen out of favor for select topics, parents still report wanting to receive paper communications for five of the ten topics assessed in the survey (these topics being overwhelmingly cost-related).

However, certain trends emerged when we looked at responses over time. For example, parents are becoming more open to receiving information through a greater number of channels, with websites and, especially, email being more frequently listed alongside physical mail as preferred means of receiving information from schools on particular topics.


1. Lauricella, A. R., D. P. Cingel, L. Beaudoin-Ryan, M. B. Robb, M. Saphir, and E. A. Wartella. 2016. "The Common Sense Census: Plugged-In Parents of Tweens and Teens." San Francisco. Common Sense Media; Felt, L. J. and M. B. Robb. 2016. "Technology Addiction: Concern, Controversy, and Finding Balance." San Francisco. Common Sense Media.

Learn More About Parent Communication Preferences

Download our white paper for complete findings from EAB's latest survey of the parents of prospective students.

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