EAB’s Madeleine Rhyneer and Michael Koppenheffer discuss findings from an EAB research effort and new paper titled, “Recruiting in an Era of Channel Overload: How to Optimize Your Audience Strategy to Achieve Enrollment Success.” They highlight valuable but lesser-known sources of data on prospective students, as well as ways that virtual tours and other online recruiting tools are creating new opportunities to engage and build affinity with those students.
Michael and Madeleine also explain why helping students and their families become more sophisticated and more thoughtful about their college search will ultimately help you enroll more right-fit students that persist and thrive at your institution.
0:00:12.3 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours With EAB. The number of college applicants is declining, while the number of sources and channels your institution might leverage to identify, learn about, and engage with prospective students is exploding. Our guests today, separate the wheat from the chaff, they'll touch on the communication preferences of Gen Z students and walk you through a strategy for optimizing your channel mix. Thank you for listening and enjoy.
0:00:47.6 Madeleine Rhyneer: Welcome to Office Hours With EAB. I'm Madeleine Rhyneer, and I serve as the Dean of Enrollment Management at the company, and I'm joined by my colleague, Michael Koppenheffer. Michael, please introduce yourself.
0:00:58.7 Michael Koppenheffer: Hey everybody, my name is Michael Koppenheffer. I am the Vice President of Marketing Programs at EAB, and what that means is I am in charge of marketing strategy, but also the creative teams for all the work that we do for our undergraduate colleges and universities around enrollment.
0:01:14.7 MR: Awesome. I'm thrilled that Michael's here with me because the purpose of this podcast is we're gonna talk about EABs White Paper entitled "Recruiting in an Era of Channel Overload". This white paper describes a variety of means to solve for new student enrollment pressure as that demographic decline inches closer, fewer high school students, changes in their demographic composition and also drops in the college-going rate are expected to reduce demand for higher education between five and 15% depending upon market segment, and we have immediate concerns, of course, about low-income and under-represented students opting out of college. So who wins and who loses? The likely answer I think depends for your institution on the choices that you make going forward to broaden your reach and optimize your engagement, and that's what we're here to talk about today. So Michael...
0:02:09.9 MK: I'm glad you picked a small topic for us.
0:02:11.7 MR: Yeah, exactly, exactly. And just stay tuned 'cause in 30 minutes, we're gonna have a lot of... We're gonna have the answers with a capital T and a capital A. So Michael, let's start off with, there's so many channels, so much to understand and to optimize. Where do you go to be smart? And what do you do once you sort of choose your options?
0:02:32.5 MK: Again, not a small question, but I feel like it's a great way to get into this topic. So the whole reason that we did a research project around the concept of channel choice and really channel overload is because there are so many choices of investment for enrollment leaders in terms of where to go to identify students, where to go to learn more about them and where to go to move them through the funnel, and we actually spend a lot of time even debating what the words are we're talking about, 'cause a lot of people talk about audiences or buying names or things like that. It's really a broader set of questions about the external touch points, which you have the choice of investing in, and how you prioritize those and how you select from among them. Where you go to get smart? Well, you could listen to this podcast. There is... You could download the white paper. But in general, as with so many things, I think actually where you need to start is to get a good understanding of your context and your objectives, because which is the right channel for you really depends on what your priorities are, and what you need to do.
0:03:57.5 MR: So when you think about that going forward. So a couple of other things that I've been considering, things that I've been talking about with enrollment leaders is, first of all, you have to make sure that you're double down in your primary markets, and we know that primary markets and those students who have a high propensity to enroll, that's not gonna be enough. So I don't mean to suggest that, that answer, but I think it is a piece of the answer. And so we wanna make sure that people have a 100% penetration within the 50 to 100-mile radius of their campus, because we know statistically that that's the most fertile ground, and of course, you can get students to come from further, but it's harder and it can become more expensive to identify them. So double down on that local market, but then also, let's talk a little bit about moving beyond those high intention students, the ones who are like, “Oh my gosh,” you know, “I just love you. You're on my short list. I've been thinking about you for three years. Let's go.” What are some of the means that colleges and universities can use to identify students who may potentially be a great fit for your school, but they're not in your high intent group early on.
0:05:09.5 MK: Yeah, it's a great question 'cause you're right. If you have the opportunity to make investment, the first place to look is your primary market, that's been true for years, that will continue to be true in terms of return on investment, but when you start looking beyond that there are a couple of different dimensions that you should start thinking about. One is geography and other criteria, so where else do you look? How do you know once you get beyond your primary market where the most fertile grounds can be 'cause some of what we've found in our analysis and our explorations is that sometimes there are geographically distant markets that have characteristics very much like the markets that are good for you closer to home, and if you are able to correctly identify those markets, you can actually get a pretty good return relatively quickly in those kind of look-alike markets, if you will.
0:06:02.7 MK: And so that's one direction to go is really try to understand your opportunity. Another way to look though is like Well, how do you find these students? And that's actually about the mix of channels and audience sources that you explore. So if it is about identifying the students, you really want to prioritize those sources that have broad coverage but also allow you to get names early, and so that's things like the PSAT, things like testing sources like college bound search service, things like Cappex, that are search aggregator because those allow you to get in while students are still early in their consideration phase, and it gives you maximal time to influence them.
0:06:47.3 MR: So I wanna talk about some of these pipelines that you've identified, the CBSS, Cappex, Intersect and others. Let's talk for a minute about testing, I want you to talk to me about what does your crystal ball say about testing volumes, and then I wanna test that against what my crystal ball is telling me, because that's been a really great source for colleges and universities, because you not only know their high intent to go to college, but you have the ability to screen for academic parameters that you think are the right fit for your institution, what do you think about test volumes going forward, Michael?
0:07:24.6 MK: Well, if I had a crystal ball that was better than everybody else's, I probably would be not on this podcast, I'd be placing bets somewhere. However, what else they based on the analysis that a bunch of our colleagues, DAP have done as well as other knowledgeable observers, our prognosis is that standardized testing for high school students is certainly not going away. That if you project one, two, three, four, five years into the future, there will be plenty of students who are taking some equivalent to the PSAT, the SAT, the ACT, and that will continue for the foreseeable future. However, part of what we've been trying to model is beneath that truth, which is probably hard to argue with, how much our volume is going to rebound to pre-pandemic levels, 'cause we all know that the disruption of the last two years has made a big dent in the opportunity of kids to take tests or their propensity to do so, including my own kids, so I've seen it firsthand. And our best guess is that testing volumes will stabilize, but they're gonna stabilize at a lower level than what we saw pre-pandemic, there were just too many countervailing forces, whether those are test optional, whether those are states reconsidering their commitment to statewide testing, and if you're just too wine the fort.
0:08:52.9 MK: You have to imagine that the new steady state testing volume is probably gonna be a little bit down from what we saw in the past. And what that means for enrollment leaders in terms of actionable imperatives is you have to cast a broader net and think more widely beyond just test-based student audience providers in order to be able to meet your need to speak to a large audience of prospective students and prospective parents.
0:09:24.0 MR: Yeah, my crystal ball is kind of telling me the same thing, I think that your crystal ball is. The thing that I fear for on behalf of my friends in the profession is there's always this propensity to revert to the mean, there's been this huge disturbance in the force that was the global pandemic, and it has altered student, parent and college and university behaviors in fundamental ways, and not all of us were really comfortable, I don't think. And so you when as people are getting better, but now with the delta variant, things are still uncertain, all of us are yearning for, let's get back to the familiar. And I do think, especially with the University of California system to eliminate the SAT, there really is a disturbance in the testing force, and I completely agree with you, college admission testing is not going away, but with so many students making that pivot to having to apply to colleges test optional. And from our own EAB research, learning that 25% of students apply to colleges specifically because they were test optional because those students must have determined for whatever reason, I don't think my test scores are gonna be a big help to me in this environment.
0:10:36.7 MR: It makes it kind of hard to look back. So I think your point is exactly spot on about the... How is it that you broadened your channel mix, and where is it that you go to look for other potentially good matches and other high intense students. So let's talk about... Can you talk to me about some of those other sources that CBSS, Cappex, Intersect, where do you see those fitting in?
0:11:02.4 MK: Well, I think for most enrollment leaders, they're gonna have to think if they haven't already about a more diversified portfolio of audience sources and channels going forward, because for all the reasons you just said. Now, this is not news to many enrollment leaders who've been doing this for years and years and years as they try to come up with the optimal mix, but I would say in general, you have to take survey-based audience sources more seriously if you haven't already. So things like CBSS where there's opportunity to connect with students earlier in their high school career because it's not a test-based source and survey-based source and those are going to be an alternative way to get in front of students. I think we also need to make sure that we are thinking seriously about third-party sources of other clients such as So Cappex, which is now part of EAB, many of our listeners likely already know this, is a site that is a college search site, a third-party that high school students or anyone can use to explore, and there are a number of ways that Cappex engages with high school students across the internet. That is an alternative source of the identity of students, but also of their interest in proclivities interactions.
0:12:28.8 MK: And so that... Sites like that, are a promising complement to the test base audience sources, there's also things that are a little close for the mainstream, so again, many of our listeners are probably very well aware, there are platforms that high schools and school districts use to support college and career readiness things like Naviance, and we actually or have been lucky enough to now provide Intersect, which is the college and university side of Naviance, where we can actually leverage the expressions of intent and interest that students have on the Naviance platform and use that as a way to help understand it's a good prospect too. So a lot of different places to turn. That's the good news is that I wouldn't say that enrollment leaders are in a bind by any stretch of the imagination, but the converse side of it, just like the title of that white paper suggests, is there's a risk of channel overload. There are a lot of places to look. Some of them might seem hard to differentiate from each other. How do you know which ones to go to first and which ones to go to second, how do you to each source? And so that is some of the work that our EAB colleagues did as they did a deep dive of research and analysis of the entire world of audiences and channels.
0:13:57.4 MR: That's one of the things I loved most in the white paper. It was a deep inspection of these various channel sources, and I think a very helpful explication of these things do this and these things do that, because I really appreciate... Again, you're going back to the title of the white paper, Overload. It's a lot to manage, and that's said with affection. Enrollment leaders are super smart, and they're surrounded by wonderful teams of people. So it isn't that they lack ability, but some of this is about timing and it's about optimization because nobody has unlimited financial and human capital. So you're not only trying to figure out what are the best sources, but then what are the best sources for our institution and the students that we are serving, and we've spent a lot of time, you and I, talking about the idiosyncratic journeys that students are on as they choose colleges.
0:14:54.9 MR: And you've even reflected on that with your own two children, about they're relatively close in age and very dissimilar in the ways in which they have approached their college search and the things that they're thinking about. So you magnify that by the millions of high school students out there and people thinking about their own institutions. So I've often felt like one of the most important things that enrollment leaders can think about first is, who are the students that we're serving primarily? Who are our best fit students, because although that doesn't narrow a ton, it does narrow a little bit about what are gonna be the best sources for us to use as we're reaching out to the students where we wanna open these doors of college opportunity that will be the most impactful. Because to try and deeply penetrate all these channels that you're talking about requires probably more resources, more capacity than any individual enrollment team has. So help enrollment leaders think through how would I highly prioritize some of these channels, what would you advise in that regard, Michael?
0:16:01.0 MK: Well, I was just looking back through this white paper research, and part of what I really like just like you talked about, is that it stratified the different opportunities by objective. And the three that they laid out, which are a pretty good one, are finding students to recruit, providing actionable insight on students in your prospect pool, and then moving students through the funnel. And I think one of they found which is interesting is that many of the opportunities out there for enrollment leaders do multiple of these things, so they do more than one, accomplish more than an objective, but there's usually one primary use case that they offer. And so to answer your question of, how do you prioritize, I think you need to figure out where is your biggest need and how do you fill that first, and then move on to the rest. And so it's a little like Maslow's hierarchy of needs. For a Christian you need food and water, if you're an enrollment leader, you might argue that first place, you need a sufficient audience, you need to make sure that you just have the students in your... In conversation with you who are available to recruiting and who you can begin to engage with and try to get them to inquire and to be viable prospects.
0:17:25.9 MK: And so if you do not have a sufficient pool of students at that stage, you need to look at your mix of channels and you need to figure out how do I get enough volume? How do I get enough volume of the right types of students? Be that underrepresented minority students if that is part of your objective be it students with a certain academic ability, if it be a student from a certain geography, 'cause you know those are the ones who are most likely to have an affinity and to yield. You have to make sure that the raw numbers add up, and we do this a lot with our partners. We use modeling, which is not... Honestly, algebra it's not rocket science, it's not even calculus to figure out how many students do you need at the top end of the funnel in order to meet your enrollment goals at the bottom, and if you don't have enough, I would argue that that's where you need to start. I don't know if you agree with that Madeleine, but I would trust your judgement on this one.
0:18:33.0 MR: No, I actually really appreciate the way you broke that down as the white paper does. Finding enough people, moving them through the funnel, and then how is it that you're successfully engaging with them? I think you're right, and honestly, enrollment leaders, there's something to worry about that keeps you up at night, every darn night of the year. And often, your worries are multimodal because you're recruiting in overlapping concentric circles.
0:18:58.2 MR: So last year everyone was very concerned about what, how are we gonna recruit effectively in this virtual world, and many that were not really focused on, Oh, and wait, my pool for the fall of '22 looks like it's slow to develop because they're impacted by the same things that are impacting our recruiting efforts for the fall of '21, and in some cases more so, 'cause more seniors had had the opportunity to take the SAT or ACT and visit college campuses when they were making their short list. So I think figuring out you always wanna have, what's the plan A that I need to be focused on today, but you also need that plan B and plan C. So thinking about, where do you find them, how do I engage with them, and how do I move through the funnel? So could we talk about that a little bit? EAB Research suggests that about a quarter of the applicants of our partners first raise their hand and indicate their interest when they press submit on their application for admission. And we know that that's not the first interest that they've had in you, they didn't just add your name to the Common App, because they could.
0:20:02.2 MR: They have been looking at you and they've been learning about you. So what are some of the high intent ways that we can figure out to get students to actually self-identify so we can engage in a more personal conversation prior to the application stage?
0:20:18.1 MK: That's a great question, it's a key question. One we've spent a lot of time thinking about internally, as you know, and one of the words that we've been using, and I'm surprised in that none of us has said it yet on today's podcast, the ecosystem. Because we used to think that that you can put a path to application out into the world, like a linear path where some... You send somebody some things in the mail and they become an inquiry and then they magically apply and deposit and show up on campus, but that's not the true way that most kids and most families go through the college exploration experience, to your point. A good quarter of them, you never see their intent 'til they apply, but that doesn't mean that they stumbled upon your website and decided to apply that day, it means that for whatever reason you did not see and perhaps you do not nurture their interest, and it makes you wonder how many students might have passed through and didn't actually connect well enough to actually hit Apply. Are you missing out on opportunities? And so therefore, part of what we've been doing with some of our partners is exploring, how can we create more conversion opportunities across the...
0:21:43.0 MK: Across the virtual world. A great example, virtual tours, which many, many college and universities now have thanks... Accelerated thanks to the pandemic. So we have a virtual tour division called the YouVisit, a virtual reality company that we acquired a couple of years ago. And one of the interesting things about YouVisit is that sure, it is a online virtual tour, you can walk through and you can link to it from different places, students love these things now, because you can do it from the comfort of your bedroom. It's also a conversion opportunity, and so odds are in past some of those 25% of students who just show up at the end or some who don't, took your virtual tour, but you didn't know about them. And so some of the things we've done, and I know many of our colleagues out in the enrollment world have done, is to try to create opportunities for students to raise their hands in different ways. So on the YouVisit tour, we have something they called a conversational inquiry form, which tries to make it really easy for students to speak in, to express interest, and it doesn't ask them for too much, but it makes the first-hand raise an easy opportunity. Likewise on Naviance, well the college and career readiness platform for high school students.
0:23:09.2 MK: My daughter, just last weekend was doing some offline reading in which she went into Naviance and she favorited some schools, it was very easy, and that was a hand-raising moment, an expression of interest. Not something you would necessarily see by someone who sent back a business reply card to a mailing, but a true genuine expression of interest. And the reason you need to pay attention to these, the reason these need to be part of your ecosystem is that if you're not careful, students might have these encounters and then change their mind, forget about you. Move on, turn in a different direction, and you will have missed out as an enrollment leader, on the opportunity to deepen the conversation. This is where some of your points of leverage are, and so really thinking about broadening your conversion touch points in the ecosystem, not to use too many abstract jargony words, but thinking about how you can use all the different places on the Internet and elsewhere to let students and families raise their hand and to begin the conversation, I think that's a big opportunity for so many colleges and universities right now.
0:24:16.6 MR: Yeah, I completely agree with you. Can we talk a minute about the institutional.edu site? Because our recent communication preferences surveys at EAB, both where we surveyed high school students and their parents, both indicated that the number one place that they go to find information is the institutional website, and they may do a Google search for best accounting program in the state of California, or it could be colleges and universities near me, so they may be coming to you through a Google search or 'Hey, Alexa', but often landing at some point on the main page of your .edu site. So can you talk to us a little bit about scripts and pixel tracking and other techniques that we're hoping people can use, because again, these are within your own control and offer you some opportunity for leverage. What are your thoughts about those?
0:25:11.1 MK: Yeah, absolutely. As you said, our research, both qualitative and quantitative, and other people's confirms that the college.edu website and in particular the part for prospective students can have a really big influence on students impression of the school can be a critically important source of information about exploration, both early in the process and later. And so there is a lot that is within the control of the college and university to make that a productive and presentable front door in the digital world or something that under-delivers. And I think there's three different dimensions at least that I'll mention that I think are an opportunity. One is about search engine optimization of certain search engine performance, because we know that the way that so many students get to a college website, it's actually by searching, and there is a big difference across our part, there's even... And certainly across dot edu websites more broadly, in terms of how well they are responding to what students and families actually search for, so there's a, in find out to search engine optimization that we don't have time to get into here, you really need to understand what are the words that real people use when they are looking for something, 'cause you can't control that. What you need to do is make sure that your site uses the same vocabulary, the same words that offer something of value to students or families who use those words, so that's the first dimension.
0:26:51.9 MK: The next dimension is actually about the site experience itself. So students are judgy and they are extremely impatient, so not only does your site have to look nice, but arguably more importantly, it needs to get them where they need to go quickly. And that's not easy. I as someone who's built and managed websites in the past, it's not easy because the college website is not just for prospective students, it serves many different masters and has many different purposes but you need to make sure that prospective students and families have a great place to go, that gives them every information they need, and it gives them an opportunity to raise their hand right there. So many of our partners actually invent virtual tours, like YouVisit tours right on their website that have built-in conversion events. But beyond that, we need to make sure that you're missing no opportunity for a student to raise her hand, raise his hand and get into your ecosystem that way. And the final thing that you raised is the ability of the digital world to track behavior and to assimilate, have a more comprehensive picture of student intent, of family intent, and so that requires...
0:28:11.2 MK: As the rest of the world does for you to make sure that you have tracking scripts on your website, so that if you send a student an email and they respond but do nothing, and then six months later they go to your website, you know that it was that student and that you're able to re-engage her at the time that is relevant at her moment of intent, as they say in the marketing world, because you're much, much more likely to get real engagement when you do it at a time that's relevant to the student, as opposed to in your own timeline. And those... The technologies in the digital world that enable tracking and that enable a more comprehensive picture of student and family behavior that unlocks the opportunity for you to be engaging in a time that is relevant and even on topics that are relevant to students. So that is the third big category is this digital marketing technology part.
0:29:10.5 MR: Yeah, I really appreciate what you're saying. It's funny, in the old paradigm of enrollment funnel that we've now shifted to this ecosystem to be more reflective of that idiosyncratic student journey, often enrollment leaders felt like we're controlling this narrative by when we're sending a view book, heaven forbid, so last century. And how we're communicating with people, so we made assumptions about when they were interested. But in a digital world where people are engaging with information and content all the time, you don't control that journey anymore, and I love your point about engaging with her at her moment of interest. And even more importantly, I would say, about the things that she's interested in.
0:30:00.2 MR: Because the other opportunity that this kind of tracking and digital engagement, affords enrollment leaders is you can stop talking about the broad-based character of the institution and you actually can hone in on the particular things that students are interested in, 'cause we have learned over and over from our survey data at EAB, students are saying, "Talk to me, talk about things that matter to me," which is really a very polite way of saying, "Stop talking about the stuff that matters to you that I might not care about so much," and of course, we all representing our institutions, there are important aspects of the educational experience and our culture and the manner in which we engage with students that you want students to know and they're like, "aha, aha, that's great," but now get to the point because I'm interested in X and so cool.
0:30:45.8 MR: But I now really wanna know about X. And I think that one of the big takeaways I took from our white paper is you actually have way more opportunities now to figure out what that X is, and to actually leverage that information in ways that students will find valuable and meaningful. And again, colleges and universities don't need to enroll everyone, but they do need to enroll a certain number, and the more you can help students figure out good fit for me, not good fit for me, allows you to be much more efficient with your resources.
0:31:19.1 MK: That's a great point because it's, I think best case, if you're looking at this is actually the right answer for students and families, not just the right answer for universities to become more sophisticated, more thoughtful about the enrollment marketing experience. It's not just about we need to send a bunch of students more emails to hit our goals, it's actually, ideally about helping students understand what is the right fit for them, helping them... These kids who are 15, 16, 17 years old, they're still developing as human beings, but helping them understand what the possibilities are and helping them evaluate whether some school might be a right fit for them. The answer might be no, and that's okay too. That's actually good news for everyone that a student or a student and a family have figured out what their college journey is gonna be. But I think there's great promise in everything we talk about today, 'cause it can actually make finding right fit schools and finding the match between the perfect student and the perfect college and university, and actually make that a better process. And so that's pretty exciting for all of us.
0:32:33.8 MR: Yeah. I love your framing, 'cause that's the way I like to think of it too. And when you're an enrollment leader, you're under this enormous pressure because it's revenue and most schools, the vast majority of the revenue that funds the enterprise comes from new student tuition and returning student tuition. And so you feel this pressure to be successful, and yet at the same time, I think enrollment leaders are not just sales people, they're also altruist. You're not just trying to recruit people to come in the front door 'cause you haven't really fulfilled your promise of opportunity if it's a revolving door and the student doesn't finish. So you can't keep everyone, but you're definitely trying to keep as many students by making sure they really do have a good understanding about culture and fit, and is this a right school for somebody like me. So this has been enormously helpful. There are a couple of takeaways that I have, and I wanna give you a chance to think of your key takeaways for our listeners as well, Michael.
0:33:33.4 MR: Again, one of the things that I just keep reminding enrollment leaders is you wanna seize on the specific learnings that you had during the pandemic, because many people, of course, had to do much more in the digital world. And it's like, "Well, hello." because that's where our prospect, the traditional high school age students have been living for a super long time. And you want to then institutionalize some of the processes that you've developed because you were in this learning loop and iteration, and we know that many students really appreciated digital opportunities. It appealed to them because they could access a lot more information than that gold standard, which is actually making the face-to-face visits. And then I think finally, to think creatively about channel mix, to try not to let it overwhelm you, talk to your friends, talk to your colleagues like us at EAB, to help you think through what are gonna be your best options. So what about you, what do you hope people took away from the white paper, Michael?
0:34:25.0 MK: So I love those takeaways. I hope one of the things people take away is that this is a great white paper and you should... If you haven't seen it, you should seek it out and download it. I highly, highly recommend this because I think it does outline a lot of the considerations that every enrollment leader needs to think through when constructing their ideal audience, things and channel mix. So that would be my first take away, but my second one is to remind our listeners of the importance of beginning with their strategic objectives. So what do you need to do? What is most important? What is gonna get you and your institution to your objectives, given today's environment? And then therefore, what investments do you need to make in audience and channel in order to meet those objectives most efficiently and most effectively? Again, the white paper does offer some useful frameworks for that thinking, but I know just because we work with so many different colleges and universities, every institution is in a different place in terms of their... In terms of how great they feel about their ability to reach audiences, in terms of what they need to do in terms of raising just awareness versus changing perception. And by really thinking through your objective, it's gonna help you make the right decision for you in terms of audience and channel base.
0:35:55.2 MR: That's awesome, that is a great place to end this podcast. So Michael, thank you very much. Pleasure conversing with you.
0:36:02.8 MK: Thank you, Madeleine. I can do this any time. And for anyone who's listening, we are always eager to talk about these topics as you can probably hear, so feel free to drop us a line and we'll get back to you.
0:36:21.4 Speaker 1: Thanks for listening. Please join us next week when we talk to the president of St. Leo University and take a peek inside a merger between two higher ed institutions. Until then, thank you for your time.
Don't miss a beat
Visit our podcast homepage for additional episodes, information on our expert contributors, and more.