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4 tactics to reach, recruit, and enroll “stealth shoppers”

Insight from our newest research on marketing to graduate and adult students

April 25, 2023, By Michelle DiMenna , Associate Director

Based on our Office Hours with EAB podcast, Episode 144, How to Engage ‘Stealth Shoppers’.

Follow the podcast on SpotifyGoogle PodcastsApple PodcastsSoundCloud and Stitcher, or visit our podcast homepage for additional episodes.

As any leader of a graduate or adult-serving program will tell you, reaching and recruiting this population has only become more challenging in recent years. One factor making it more difficult to recruit graduate and adult learners is the rise of “stealth shopping.”

Stealth shoppers

Stealth shoppers are the prospective students who are unknown to your institution until they actually submit an application. They are learning about your programs, comparing your institution to others, and making decisions about whether your institution is the right fit for them before they ever engage with you directly.

Ten years ago, we interviewed dozens of partner institutions, who said 20% of their prospective graduate and adult students were stealth shoppers on average. This year, our partners estimated that more like 80% of their prospects are stealth, on average.

The 4 Biggest Challenges Facing Graduate and Adult Education

How can you effectively manage your recruitment funnel, predict yield, or plan for the administration of your programs if 80% of applicants are stealth? Our Professional and Adult Education Advisory Services team spent nine months in 2022 exploring this trend and identifying strategies our partners can use to best reach and recruit stealth shoppers. Here are four tactics my team and I recommend.

1. Use storytelling to differentiate your brand


“At its very core, marketing is storytelling. The best advertising campaigns take us on an emotional journey—appealing to our wants, needs, and desires—while at the same time telling us about a product or service.”


Melinda Partin, Senior Director of Marketing & Digital Strategy

UW Medicine

As most marketing folks will tell you, effective marketing begins with a compelling, authentic, and unique brand story. Often, adult-serving units (understandably) leave brand marketing to the university’s central marketing office. But making the effort to have your grad and adult marketing lean into the institutional brand—and include a focus on your specific programs, faculty, and students—is critical in reaching today’s students.

Branding is fundamentally about differentiating from competitors. This is difficult in higher ed where we are all essentially offering similar products, but there are four criteria that can help differentiate your brand:

Four criteria for giving audiences a reason to choose you

  1. It's relevant

    • Addresses needs, pains, and gains that matter most to the audience
    • Expressed in the audience’s language
  2. It's difficult to replicate

    • Unique approach or asset
    • Outperforms competition substantially on at least one dimension
  3. It reaches the majority

    • Most, if not all, audience members participate and receive its benefits
    • Integrated into core experience (non-optional)
  4. It's provable to the market

    • Outcomes data, social proof, external recognition
    • Aligned with how audience measures success

2. Meet Gen Z on TikTok (where possible)

It’s important that your marketing strategy—both the messages you deliver and the channels on which you deliver them—is designed with Gen Z in mind. Gen Z currently accounts for about 31% of the total adult learner market, but by 2031, 60% of adult learners will be part of Gen Z. And perhaps nothing is more synonymous with Gen Z than TikTok.

Of course, not all institutions will want to be or are able to be on TikTok given state (and potentially, national) regulations. But TikTok-like content—short, user-generated videos that are often humorous, educational, or both—has proliferated on platforms like Instagram, YouTube, and even Spotify and Reddit. Whether your institution uses TikTok or not, experiment with user-generated videos that showcase your students’ experience at your institution authentically. Consider reposting existing student social media content to share the unfiltered student experience with prospects and allow prospects to hear from a range of perspectives about your program. Or consider hiring students familiar with TikTok to create a steady stream of content for your social media platforms at a low cost.

TikTok at a glance

  • 63 million users who identify as millennials or Gen Z
  • 40% of Gen Z uses TikTok as a search engine

3 Social Media Tactics to Market Your Grad and Adult-Serving Programs

3. Make the most of faculty expertise

Perhaps one of the most under-utilized resources during the recruitment process is faculty. Emphasizing faculty and instructor expertise in you marketing materials can help position your institution as a “center of gravity” in a particular field. And faculty can also lend a face to your program or university brand, which helps prospective students feel more connected to your institution.

Of course, faculty may not have much, if any, time to devote to recruitment, so consider low-effort tactics that can have a big impact. For example, your marketing team could repost existing faculty social media content to expand its reach. Or film a 30-minute video interview with an instructor or faculty member to create a handful of video clips and social media posts. At the very least, showcase faculty on your program webpages; including faculty and instructor photos, bios, focus areas, and internal or external links to articles and studies across your site helps prove to prospects that they will have a high-quality learning experience at your institution.

4. Have the fight about your website

Speaking of websites, university websites continue to be the top resource prospects use to explore program options. But as our partners often tell us, updating university websites is a perennial challenge given the numerous stakeholders involved in the update process, limited resources available, and outdated tech. For these reasons, nearly all university websites have room for improvement. The most common pitfalls our team found when exploring university websites include:

  • Neglecting need-to-know information: Many program websites bury (or fail to include) essential information like cost, modality, and application dates.
  • Creating a clunky student experience: Students may struggle to find the program that’s right for them if program offerings aren’t grouped together in one cohesive place on your website.
  • Failing to address your audience: Using overly academic language, or failing to depict adult students on your website, can leave prospects feeling like your programs aren’t designed with them in mind.

As you evaluate your website, here are a few questions to consider:

  • Is the program start date(s) listed?
  • Is the program tuition readily available? And are discounts or scholarships advertised?
  • Does your webpage indicate how long the program will take to complete?
  • Are student outcomes shared (e.g., via brag stats or student testimonials)?
  • Does your webpage include contact information for a real person?
  • Is the RFI form clearly visible?

Request a Web Presence Audit

Some of these tactics are easier, quicker, and more cost-effective to implement than others. But one thing is certain: we don’t expect the stealth shopping trend to dissipate any time soon. Changes in consumer privacy preferences, adoption of encrypted messaging apps, and the slow phaseout of third-party cookies suggest stealthy students will continue to be the norm. Is your current marketing strategy built with stealth shoppers in mind?

Michelle DiMenna 

Associate Director

Read Bio

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