My classmates and I graduated from college in 2008. With our undergraduate diplomas in hand and the financial markets in shambles, we entered one of the toughest and most competitive job markets in history. After the dust settled and the job market rebounded, a new, more discerning graduate student began to emerge.
Prospective students these days spend hours combing over graduate school rankings, swimming through the alphabet soup of GMAT/LSAC/GRE tests, and lying awake at night questioning whether the huge salaries touted in promotional materials are real. These professional students present all sorts of challenges to graduate enrollment professionals: They are elusive. They consider opportunity cost and flirt with not returning to school at all. They demand flexible delivery options to accommodate their lifestyles. And they ask a never-ending series of well-informed questions about post-graduate employment patterns, time to degree, and ROI.
The ability to respond successfully to these questions will determine the size and quality of applicant pools.
Based on dozens of partnerships and data from more than 86,000 graduate student interactions, my colleagues at EAB and I encourage graduate enrollment officers to consider these five strategies to optimize the impact and influence of their marketing campaigns.
Practice # 1: Engage prospects on their own terms
Be persistent and consistent in marketing communications, because graduate candidates cycle through their consideration of programs at varying times and for varying reasons. Remember: these are big decisions that require reflection—and a little prodding. More than 25% of prospects who eventually engage do so after at least four months of targeted marketing.
Practice #2: Establish clear urgency
Remind students of deadlines. Like most of us, prospective students’ “deadline dread” creates a sense of urgency, and our research shows that urgency can impel wafflers to make decisions and ultimately boost application rates. On average, nearly 39% of graduate school applications are submitted in response to a deadline-oriented communication.
Practice # 3: Prioritize mobile access
Optimize your websites and applications. Could-be graduate students are also busy adults who are likely already managing work duties, travel plans, and financial matters on touchscreen devices carried in their pockets or purses. Graduate marketing materials must also be mobile-friendly: 38% of graduate candidates research programs and/or apply on their smartphones or tablets.
Practice #4: Widen your focus
Know that prospective graduate students change their minds—and change them even more than you might expect. Our analysis shows that 20% of graduate candidates ultimately apply to programs other than those they first considered. As a result, solely marketing a specific program can lead to a missed opportunity. Incorporate marketing messages that focus on student success at your institution—agnostic to specific programs— and show awareness of common student concerns such as post-graduate employment outcomes. Presenting all options and giving prospective graduate students the choice to tell you their interests is vital in order to optimize your graduate funnel.
Practice #5: Leave no one behind
Reach out to a greater range of potential students, and do so earlier in the process to allow time to cultivate meaningful relationships with your future applicants. For example, enrollment officers might want to consider marketing not only to GMAT-takers (who apply to programs within two months of testing) but also to GMAT pre-testers, because these students tend to be less certain about school selection and have a longer time frame in which to contemplate their options. EAB has found that this population applies and enrolls at higher rates than test-takers.
I’ve been a student, and now I work with enrollment professionals day in and day out. This helps me appreciate the distinct messaging needs of the prospective graduate student population. While these could-be students don’t need or want hand-holding, they expect easily accessible information, timely deadline nudges, and most important, constructive guidance to create a clear vision of the future selves they might become if they chose this or that or the other path.
EAB understands that this multitude of choices for students translates to a multitude of challenges for enrollment officers, whose charge, ultimately, is to turn the elusive candidate into the engaged student.