Using email drip campaigns to recruit graduate and online students? Here’s what you’re missing.


Using email drip campaigns to recruit graduate and online students? Here’s what you’re missing.

Tips from EAB’s marketing strategy team

By Chelsea Taylor

A few weeks ago, a graduate school dean walked me through the communications plan his in-house marketing team developed to recruit adult learners. Like many higher ed marketing plans, his strategy was centered around drip marketing, an approach in which all audiences in a campaign receive the same communications on a set day.

In a drip campaign, prospects receive a limited number of emails on a set schedule that is typically standardized across all prospects in the campaign. For example, prospects will all receive a nearly identical welcome email on Day 1. On Day 3, they will receive an email highlighting the same aspect of the program, and so on until the campaigns’ conclusion. 

As a marketer focused on helping schools recruit graduate, online, and adult students, I was struck by just how standardized this approach can be. Time-based drip campaigns don’t provide the nuance needed to recruit adult learners, each of whom have their own unique goals and needs. Traditional drip campaigns are informed by time and standardized content, not by students’ unique behavior.

So where does that leave recruitment marketing teams, many of whom are short-staffed and tasked with helping schools meet outsized enrollment goals? Here are three ways your team can go beyond drip campaigns and develop customized marketing to grow enrollment in graduate, online, and adult degree completion programs.

Develop creative specific to student intent and behavior

In a recent poll, enrollment leaders said developing high-quality creative—such as emails, newsletters, and ads—is one of the greatest challenges facing their marketing teams. And for marketing teams accustomed to recruiting traditional undergraduate students, developing creative specific to adult learners can feel like a new skill all together.


unique emails created for Adult Learner Recruitment Partners in FY21

Our team of art directors, copy writers, and web designers who focus on adult-serving programs recommends that marketing teams:

1. Tailor creative to students’ needs at each stage in the enrollment funnel

The actions you want prospective students to take in the awareness stage are different than the actions you want them to take in the decision stage, and your creative should reflect that. For example, ensure the creative you deploy in the awareness stage—or when students are still exploring program options—makes prospects feel like your program was designed with them in mind. Use imagery that enables students to envision themselves enrolled and succeeding at your institution.


increase in campaign response rate with intent marketing

As students move through the enrollment funnel, prioritize developing content that connects and persuades students that your institution is the right choice. You can do this by highlighting the aspects of your program which set it apart form competitors, but also by using information about that prospect to craft a message specific to their intent.

Intent marketing relies on personalization and real-time response. It introduces time and present-day consumer behavior into the equation, in addition to the historical data that marketing traditionally relies upon. When someone sends digital signals that show intent to buy (or, equally important, a deceleration or pause in interest)—marketers need to respond accordingly with communications that reflect a true understanding of the prospects’ needs.

2. Vary copy and imagery by stage of the funnel and content type

While the traditional “rule of 7” states that a consumer needs to hear or see a marketing message at least 7 times before they will act, the adult learner market is a bit different in my experience. If your marketing materials repeat the same message multiple times in the same way, you could very well miss out on prospects who need to hear or see your message in a slightly different way.

Take the example of “program flexibility.” For some students, “program flexibility” may mean your program fits into their busy work schedule. For others, “program flexibility” could mean your program enables them to select from a range of electives. For this reason, I recommend testing different themes in the market, but not always testing the same message. Depending on where a student is in their journey to enrollment, some aspects of the theme will resonate more than others.

And, especially given the resource constraints many university marketing teams face, it can be tempting to repurpose the same message across multiple types of content. But the copy and imagery that works for one content type, such as an email, may not work well in display ads, direct mail, or on landing pages.

For example, our field tests continue to indicate that first and second person language drives the greatest engagement with display ads. Short and sweet is also preferable. Keep above-image copy to two lines and limit graphic display copy to just six or seven words.

3. Above all, be flexible

It’s important that your creative team is nimble and able to update content as priorities—or the market—shift. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, our team has created and updated thousands of pieces of copy to reflect students’ changing needs and goals.

Customize your campaign cadence based on audience source and student behavior

No matter how strong your creative is, it won’t resonate with prospects unless it is delivered at the right moment in their journey to enrollment. In the marketing campaigns we develop with our Adult Learner Recruitment partners, the cadence at which students receive this customized content is determined based on what we know about that particular student.

For example, understanding how a student first entered your campaign—such as through a submission to a request for information (RFI) form or after clicking on a Google ad—can dictate what content that student receives and when. From there, the cadence at which a student receives marketing from your institution can be tailored based on their engagement with your marketing and information about that student’s intent.

Slide showing how to develop customized drip campaigns based on intent

Regularly monitor key campaign performance data

As marketing teams know all too well, access to campaign performance data is critical in identifying opportunities to improve your marketing. From inbox placement rate to cost-per-click, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the number of metrics you could possibly monitor (I recommend monitoring these 11 metrics as a starting point).

Once you have visibility into your campaign performance, you can answer key questions like:

  • Which campaigns have the greatest influence on enrollment?
  • How does our outreach perform across various student segments?
  • Which channels and activities are most cost-effective?


tests and pilots conducted with partner institutions in FY21

Access to this data also enables you to run tests to optimize campaign creative and cadence. A/B tests to compare subject lines, for example, can reveal which words and phrases resonate most with your prospective students. Beyond A/B tests, my colleagues on our data science team have conducted tests to uncover the aspects of a particular institution’s brand to emphasize in marketing, for example, and which messages resonate with students of different ages.

Ultimately, the more data at your fingertips, the better. As the imperative to recruit adult learners grows, using data to inform your recruitment strategy and specific campaigns can make all the difference in your bottom line.

Learn more about the campaign strategies you need to recruit graduate adult learners

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