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Have Gen Z search behaviors returned to “normal”?

What new data tells us about in-person and virtual engagement

February 3, 2023 , By Michael Koppenheffer, Vice President, Enroll360 Marketing and Analytics

As the pandemic recedes into the background and in-person interactions become the norm once again, many of our partners have been wondering how much they should continue to support virtual programming and resources. For enrollment teams, there is limited effort, time, and money that can be spent on events and outreach, so it’s natural to ask whether virtual options should go the way of masks and hand sanitizer: the right answer for certain people and certain situations, but not nearly as ubiquitous as they were in the recent past.

Similarly, our partners have been wondering whether the appetite students have shown for online experiences, including virtual tours and other asynchronous options, will persist as real-world interactions become more typical again.

Here is what we know so far, based on recent surveys and our work with hundreds of enrollment practitioners.

In Person Is Back

In 2022, enrollment teams returned to in-person events in full force, with students and families following suit. EAB’s 2022 Enrollment Events Quick Poll, which tapped 47 enrollment leaders from a variety of institution types, found significant growth in the number of in-person events that colleges hosted this past year, with a notable decline in the number of virtual events.

2022 Enrollment Events Quick Poll

  • Sent to EAB Marketing and Enrollment Services partners
  • Data collected through an online survey
  • Responses received from December 6 through January 6
  • 49 participants; 25% from public institutions and 75% from private institutions
  • Participants were primarily Vice Presidents of Enrollment Management
Change in Number of Events from 2021 to 2022 Mean
On-campus events with 500+ attendees 118.6%
On-campus events with 100-499 attendees 124.2%
On-campus events with 50-99 attendees 51.4%
On-campus events with 25-49 attendees 57.7%
On-campus events with 24 or fewer attendees 111.8%
Hybrid events (on-campus and virtual) 16.7%
Regional events (off campus) 144.4%
Virtual events -40.0%

“We’ve seen registration greatly increase from 2021 to 2022 for nearly every major in-person event,” one Quick Poll respondent told us.

We heard from some enrollment leaders that, while prospective students are back in person, their expectations have shifted. “Students want to do more customization of their daily tour, like sit in on a class or meet directly with a professor or advisor,” according to one enrollment leader.

Similarly, another leader reported: “It is clear that large-scale events are not as attractive to students and families now. They don’t want to plan around our events, and they seem less concerned with looking around the room to see who else is there. They want events that fit their schedule, show them the parts of college and academic life that are of greatest interest and importance to them, and make decisions for themselves regardless of others in the space.”

The Enrollment Events Quick Poll also found that in-person events were gaining traction, while the opposite was happening with virtual events. While the majority of respondents offered virtual events, most said that virtual show rates were flat (37%) or down (58%), while in-person events seemed to be garnering better show rates; in-person events were flat (51%) or up (38%).

However, the Timing of In-Person Engagement Has Changed

Interestingly, several respondents reported shifts in in-person engagement and visit behavior based on the time of year. Said one enrollment leader: “Visit patterns seem to be changing, with more interest in the spring than the fall.”

Another enrollment leader told us: “We’re seeing a demand to push visit events to the post-admit stage. I think this is a result of students applying to more schools, thus using the admit as an interest filter. In other words, there are too many schools to visit before one knows if they are admitted.”

This isn’t surprising given what we know about application volume. According to data from the Naviance platform, students applied to an average of 8.9 schools this year, compared to 7.4 last year.

As the parent of a high school senior myself, I can attest to this mindset. So far this cycle, my daughter has applied to 9 schools, all of which she’s researched in various ways, but only three of which she’s visited in person. We’re thinking that once she receives admission decisions, we can visit other schools if she needs more information to make her final choice.

Digital Engagement Persists

Despite the resurgence of in-person event participation, we have strong evidence that students and families continue to turn to digital and virtual experiences as they explore college options. In our most recent survey of new college freshmen, 75% of students had engaged in at least one virtual tour, up from 49% in 2020.

As another reference point, when we track utilization of across time, we’ve found that overall visits continue to climb and remain significantly above pre-pandemic levels, though somewhat down from the highs reached in the first few weeks of COVID’s onset.

Virtual Tour Promotion-What Our Data Showed

Given this ongoing digital engagement, many of our partners wondered: how important is it to promote a virtual tour in outbound communications?

This past fall, we ran an instructive, real-world test that gets to this question. In building out our Cultivate marketing campaigns for a group of partners, we had one cohort integrate their Enroll360 Virtual Tour content and CTAs into their campaigns, while the other cohort either did not integrate their Enroll360 Virtual Tour or integrated a different type of tour. The Enroll360 Virtual Tours cohort saw a 21% increase in inquiry rate compared to their prior year’s campaign; the comparison group saw only an 11% increase.

The value of including Enroll360 Virtual Tours in outbound marketing was validated when we looked at the email-by-email send data of several Enroll360 partner institutions: we observed dramatic spikes in tour traffic when we promoted our Virtual Tours as part of Cultivate sophomore-junior marketing campaigns.

The data set below, for one of those partners, plots spikes in tour traffic associated with all outbound emails in their inquiry generation campaign. The large spikes are associated with direct links to the tour in outbound emails.

Data set updated image 3

Predictive Power in Multisource Inquiries

We also continue to see that engagement in multiple parts of the Enroll360 ecosystem is associated with a stronger likelihood of applying and attending. In an analysis of the last enrollment cycle (2022), we saw that students who inquired through an inquiry campaign as well as through the Enroll360 Virtual Tours were more likely to progress through the enrollment funnel than those who only inquired through a single source. For example, EAB multisource (Virtual Tour plus a campaign) inquiries were 27% more likely to progress to deposit than students who inquired through Enroll360 Virtual Tours alone.

Based on what we are seeing, we recommend that institutions not only maintain their focus on digital experiences such as a virtual tour, but that they also promote them within their outbound communications. Students and families are voting, with their click behavior as well as their deposit behavior, in support of virtual options in general and Enroll360 Virtual Tours in particular.

But has Gen Z reached a “new normal,” where this year’s preferences will be a guide to how this group of teenagers will behave in the coming years? Based on how quickly the mindset and real-world actions of this generation have already shifted, my money would be on expecting continued changes in the months and years ahead.

Michael Koppenheffer

Michael Koppenheffer

Michael Koppenheffer leads marketing strategy, creative execution, and analytics for EAB’s Enroll360 division. In this role, Michael brings two decades of experience in creative and data-informed marketing leadership, including a lengthy stint as head of EAB’s own corporate marketing function, to the firm’s work with partners in the undergraduate space.

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