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How to Engage "Stealth Shoppers"

Episode 144

March 28, 2023 30 minutes


EAB’s Michelle DiMenna and Emily Upton discuss the growing “stealth shopping” phenomenon that is forcing colleges to change how they recruit and engage prospective students.

Michelle and Emily identify the best ways to connect with stealth shoppers early in their college search by optimizing your website for recruitment, refining your social media strategy, and by enlisting faculty in the effort to make meaningful connections with potential applicants.



0:00:10.3 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours With EAB. Today, we dig into the murky world of Higher Ed stealth shoppers. We are talking about a growing but ever-elusive population of prospective college students who research your institution in various ways and decide whether or not to apply to your school before you’ve ever had a chance to engage with them directly. Our experts offer tips on ways to spot stealth shoppers and how to invite them into a conversation before they make any final decisions. Give these folks a listen and enjoy.


0:00:47.6 Emily Upton: Hello and welcome to Office Hours With EAB. My name is Emily Upton, and I am the vice president of program marketing, as well as the general manager for agency services here at EAB. And from my title, you can probably tell that I spend a lot of my time helping colleges and universities find and engage and enroll with students from all sorts of backgrounds, but today we’re going to be talking about a very elusive species of prospective students who, despite all the numbers that are exploding around us, are increasingly difficult to spot in the wild. And I’m talking about stealth shoppers, the individuals who learn about your school and compare you to the others and make decisions about whether your school is right for them or not, before they ever engage with you directly. With me today to talk about stealth shopping is my colleague, Michelle DiMenna. Michelle, do you mind introducing yourself for a moment and just telling us what you do here at EAB?

0:01:41.1 Michelle DiMenna: Absolutely, thanks so much. So I’m Michelle DiMenna. And I’m an Associate Director on the Professional and Adult Education Advisory Services team. So I work on the team, as I mentioned, that looks at issues related to serving adult learners, so we cover all sorts of topics from marketing and recruitment, to managing your program portfolio, to exploring innovations right now, buzzy topics like micro-credentials, etcetera. So we are really excited to chat with you today about this topic.

0:02:11.6 EU: Excellent, well, I know you’ve been doing a lot of deep research on these stealth shoppers in higher education and particularly as it relates to those adult learners, who are just considering going back to school. So I would love it if you just take a moment to explain in layman’s terms what a stealth shopper is and share some of the common characteristics that you have discovered in your research that they express.

0:02:34.0 MD: Absolutely. So 15 years ago, institutions really relied on their recruitment teams to reach out and attract adult students, but about 10 years ago, our partners started telling us about this new phenomenon where students started forgoing interacting with the recruitment team at all. Forgoing filling out those requests for information on the website. Institutions were actually hearing about interested prospects for the first time after they had submitted their application. These prospects had come from savvier, they had become savvier and more independent in their searching, and that’s not where that term stealth shoppers comes from. Those students that weren’t raising their hand, letting their institutions know that they were interested.

0:03:16.2 MD: Again, just more prospective students are equipped to search and do their shopping on their own without the need to connect with university marketers or recruiters at all. And so to put it in perspective, to think about the scale of this. About 10 years ago, our partners were telling us that they were seeing stealth-shopping rates around 20%, but today that number has really just exploded and now rates are 80% fairly universally and some of our partners have even told us that their stealth shopping rates are as high as 90%, which is really almost unbelievable when you think about that change in a 10-year span.

0:03:53.0 EU: Michelle, that makes me think of a call that I was on earlier this week, literally speaking with a partner about this very type of concern. In this case, he was seeing extremely high stealth and application numbers coming forward, and he was really seeking our advice as marketers and strategic thinkers on what can he do because he just felt so blind about what was causing that to happen. And what struck me in that conversation was actually the fear he felt for making any change to what he was doing currently, and the reason for his fear was because he was really unaware of what parts of his marketing or what strategies were really supporting that stealth behavior.

0:04:28.8 EU: So he just worried that any change could negatively impact those numbers that he had become so highly reliant on. And I know you have seen in your research, this is not an uncommon scenario these days, because between sweeping privacy changes or consumers online discovery habits and these highly immersive digital platforms everywhere we return, the expectation from audiences has just changed, and it’s forcing us to change too as strategic marketers and really to engage stealth shoppers these days and to convince them to raise their hand early in the process. We know partners really have to start thinking about and working with different strategies and tools to support a much more integrated marketing solution.

0:05:08.9 MD: Yeah, I absolutely love that story, and one of the things that really strikes me is the fear of change. But when I think about it, our partners and institutions, they haven’t changed their strategy based on the stealth-shopping approach, and so I’m hearing this partner was afraid to change in case the changes don’t appeal to a stealth shopper. Well, actually, for a lot of our partners, their current approach doesn’t appeal to the stealth shopper because they never adapted to that audience in the first place.

0:05:39.0 EU: Well, we certainly have seen that reinforced in a lot of the audience research we do as well, just across the last few years, what are we seeing in terms of that prospective behavior? And really five things come to mind when we start to think about all those data sets, in addition to the research you have really uncovered. And the first point I would make is that prospective students have made it known that they need compliments too. Not obstacles to their busy lifestyles. There is this growing sense of stress related to search, the search process discovery, how do we find those right fit programs. And it’s just becoming clear that the most successful programs are the ones that really can make that information very clear upfront and accessible.

0:06:22.1 EU: So it’s forcing conversations around stronger SEO practices and strong content strategies and all of the above, but I know you and I are both seeing that personalization is still really key in supporting these audiences too, because despite that growing demand for privacy and protections in our personal lives, prospective students are signaling that they still want personalization in their search experience. They don’t wanna spend all that time sifting through all the options themselves, and more importantly, they want the information that they do discover to just be really highly relevant to them. So they’re willing to provide a little bit of data about themselves if it helps to personalize that overall experience and all of that research.

0:07:00.0 MD: Absolutely, absolutely. And you’ve already shared that one story about chatting with a partner about the stealth-shopping behavior that they had noticed. Can you tell me a little bit more about what you’ve heard from partners on stealth shopping?

0:07:12.7 EU: We have seen a whole lot of partnerships really talk about and really need to consider, really with our urging too, just how are we proactively addressing the unspoken questions to really capture that audiences need. And so we’ve gotta talk about strategies that really get at, how long is it going to take to complete a degree, or are there funding opportunities that are going to help people pay for those degrees or which degrees can best further their academic or professional careers? There is questions that they have internally, and if we aren’t proactively providing those answers, they will go to the next source where it makes it easy to consume that kind of important information.

0:07:51.7 EU: How can I fit this into my busy schedule, why should I study here versus somewhere else? But what is also really important and something our partners are speaking with us about on a frequent basis is simply how do we validate and how do we help to support the information that is being shared, because audiences demand unbiased sources and sources that they truly trust. This is a skeptical group that we’re dealing with for very good reasons. And so having those strategies that allow current students to validate or alumni or other trusted sources and networks, it’s gonna be really important even while we seek to address the questions that they are asking or even… Or just thinking about at that time.

0:08:28.9 EU: But I think the other really big marker here for us in our research is just how highly pragmatic these individuals have become. Nearly 70% of students are saying that they are not applying to a school because of the admissions or application requirement that deterred them. So we are really speaking about some trends that are very important, and they seem to span a lot of the adult market, not just adult degree completers or graduate students or business students and the like, it’s really across the fuller group that we are seeing some very common characteristics appear and thinking about strategies and opportunities to really alleviate some of those pain points.

0:09:08.8 MD: Absolutely, it’s all about eliminating every barrier that you can possibly eliminate.

0:09:13.9 EU: Absolutely. So getting back to a little bit of your research, Michelle, I have a couple of things that I would like to tease out with you today. First really competition, of course, for adult learners is stiff, and I think we are never going to be able to out-spend the big online giants who are just investing massive sums of money in advertising, marketing and lead generation strategies. So if we can’t win in a traditional marketing arms race, what do you think people can do? Do you have any advice?

0:09:43.1 MD: Absolutely, absolutely. I’m very glad you brought up the spend that’s coming out of the online giants, we’re seeing some of those online giants spending $150 million on marketing, and as we know that is bigger than some institutions entire operating budgets, which is really quite staggering. So the strategies that my team recommends coming out of our most recent marketing research is really about appealing to the stealth shopper and making those tweaks to your existing strategy so that the changes that you make do appeal to that prospect that’s doing the research on their own. So the first piece that we talk about is actually brand marketing. A lot of the units that serve adult learners typically leave that to the main institutions marketing team, and certainly there is a good reason for that, and that’s absolutely something that the main institutional marketing team should do. But what we find is that the units that are serving adult learners kind of fail to tell the institutional story and how the adult learner fits into that story.

0:10:46.0 MD: And so we really recommend to partners that they double down a little bit here, make some investments and tell the story about the great things that are happening, not just at your institution as a whole, but specifically in the programs that are serving those adult learners. And specifically also thinking through the types of marketing that appeal to today’s learners, that Gen Z audience, which within the next decade is going to be 60% of the adult learner market. What are the strategies that appeal to them? We know that’s things like marketing on values, living out those values through social impact as well as thinking through a unique identity of an institution. So that’s one of the first big pieces that we recommend. Second is social media. This is another area where institutions tend to under invest. They are not always sure if it’s worth their time, but today’s Gen Z and millennial students, they’re actually using social media as a search engine.

0:11:44.2 MD: So a lot of our partners are certainly spending money on SEO and paid search and all of these really important pieces that certainly should not be eliminated, but if a student or if a prospect is actually researching your institution for the first time through TikTok, through Instagram, if you are not there, that certainly isn’t gonna help your strategy. Our advice here is staying nimble on social media, trying to be on the platforms where today’s prospects spend their time. Another one that we bring up is leveraging faculty expertise. This is another area where adult serving units tend to under-invest, and that’s because faculty aren’t… It’s not the top reason that a student chooses a program. You know that things like affordability, accreditation, just having the right program options and flexibility, those are still the most important pieces that go into an adult student’s decision. But faculty actually consistently rank kind of right up there, five, six, seven in surveys that your team has done over the years.

0:12:49.2 MD: They really actually come through quite important. So faculty are busy, you might not be able to get them calling prospects or emailing the prospects, but what you can do is show these faculty on your program websites, let prospects know the type of expertise that they are gonna be exposed to in your programs. And finally and this is a piece that I think we touched on, and that’s just investing in the website, as we shared, a lot of our partners never really tweak their approach to their website in order to appeal the stealth shoppers. It’s still based on just drumming up those requests for information, which again, super important. We definitely should never end those practices, but to your point earlier about really making sure that that information that they do need is front and centre. It’s just about making sure that that information is there, and it’s easy to see, that your website has a design that is not going to turn a prospect away, etcetera. So those are the four pieces that we really recommend our partners lean into right now.

0:13:50.8 EU: That’s great. And I wanna unpack them just a little bit each in turn. First and foremost, I’m really glad you brought up differentiation for all the reasons that we know it’s really important to distinguish ourselves from other schools, and one of the things that I think is really interesting in your research is just you help explain and unpack a little bit about how to do that, how to make it real for all the individuals that are listening here today, and I was just wondering if you had any additional best practice tips or real-world examples for how you’ve seen other institutions really do a good job at this distinguishing of their brand and sort of the way they represent themselves in comparison to some of the more generalized approaches that some of the market is taking.

0:14:32.3 MD: Absolutely, this is so important. And when it comes to the differentiation piece, what we see in the market a lot is that our partners are trying to focus their marketing on one of two ideas. One is program marketing and looking at the specific programs that a prospect might be interested in, or two they’re looking at that flexibility piece. Again, that’s something that is very important to adult learners, but in this day and age, post-COVID, everyone has flexible options, or at the very least, more institutions than ever have those flexible options, so that is no longer a differentiator. And so what institutions really need to do is think about those pieces that are differentiators.

0:15:15.8 MD: And it might not just be one thing, sometimes it’s a sum total of multiple things. So a strong identity for their mascot or their location, or maybe regional workforce development needs that your institution has really leaned into and become kind of the face of in the region. That’s a differentiator for an adult student that’s looking at one of your programs. So again, thinking through not just that one piece, but those multiple factors that you can really lean into through, again, storytelling, talking about the impact that your programs are having, talking about the on-the-ground experiences that students are having in your classroom, whether that’s in person or virtual, and then that’s the kind of experience that adults wanna see today.

0:16:03.7 EU: I love that, and it really connects into the conversation you and I were having in a prior moment around brand marketing, its importance, and honestly, its complementary nature to direct marketing and how we are using brand marketing to really build a rapport and to provide that really important information upfront. And then direct marketing can really unlock that user action and making sure individuals are moving forward in the right ways and raising their hand at the right moments, and all that great stuff that just works in harmony when it’s designed well together. But is there anything else about specifically brand marketing that you would suggest for leaders and adults in an online education that would be valuable to pull out from the research?

0:16:44.5 MD: You know, the one thing that I would say is that when a lot of our partners hear that we are recommending brand marketing, they think that they need to develop their own unique brand, and that’s actually not our advice at all. Some adult-serving units might choose to lean in and have their own separate brand, but that’s actually not the lesson here. It still is to identify with the institutional brand if that’s right move for your unit. And so that’s what I would say to our partners, ’cause sometimes I think they get a little bit scared about thinking of themselves as someone to lean into that brand marketing piece, but it’s all about connecting your identity, connecting your unique experience to the experience that adult students in particular, will have. The same things that appeal to a traditional aged college student are not gonna appeal to an adult. And an adult wants to see themselves reflected in that branding, in that kind of community representation of your institution.

0:17:42.2 EU: And that’s really helpful advice, Michelle. Thank you. Let’s move on to another area of your research that was one of my favorites, and that was really the role of social media, and you sort of specifically tipped this off around TikTok. As we know, schools are banning TikTok left and right it feels. And my question to you is really, how are we supposed to engage students where they are if our State or institution is prohibiting us from utilizing what we know is one of the most engaging platforms we have access to and know well really in social media? So do you have any advice, do’s and don’ts related to this situation?

0:18:18.9 MD: Absolutely, so one of the pieces that comes to mind initially is actually that a lot of our partners that are still legally able to be on TikTok based on lack of restrictions in their own state, they are actually still pretty interested in getting on that platform, but of course for many of our partners, that’s not an option. And so the recommendation there is to recognize the way that prospect behavior and prospect interaction with social has actually… The TikTok presence has kind of proliferated to all sorts of other platforms, YouTube, even Spotify, even Reddit, they are investing in short-form video content. So we recommend that partners definitely get on Instagram, folks aren’t using Instagram the same way they are using TikTok.

0:19:07.3 MD: Be on those other platforms that your prospects are. And again, it’s about staying nimble, so TikTok is having a rough couple of weeks, but as we know, students are still flocking to that platform for now, but it’s about keeping an eye out for the next thing, being prepared to jump on an opportunity should it arise. It’s also about just familiarizing yourself with the types of content that are popular online today, so that when you are posting on Instagram, when you are sharing videos on YouTube, that the content that you include there is something that’s really going to resonate with today’s prospect.

0:19:43.8 EU: That’s really helpful. And I have a small story to share about TikTok. My team and I love consuming social content, like many of us here, but there is a particular school and a particular program and really a particular faculty member who has made themselves very popular within our group. And this faculty member is actually in the science department and frequently reinforces her lessons with videos of experiments that she’s conducting in the lab, and she’s just is incredibly passionate about what she does. And so she comes up across as just a little bit humorous and incredibly charming, and I always feel like I walk away having learned something new that I didn’t know before. And so we did not know this school on our team, we were not searching out this program, but one of us happened to discover this individual. And now that school’s brand is really… And reputation is shaped in our collective minds as this positive entity, we’re all really excited to talk about.

0:20:36.9 EU: And we have a fondness for this program because of this teacher. I think I would be happy to take a class from her at this point. So, I mean, talk about the power of social media and especially the platforms that can make you feel connected to people that you’ve never even met, that’s what I love about what you just said, whether that is on TikTok itself or extending it into other platforms that allow for that videography and that kind of conversational tone and personal touch is a really great idea. And so I love that there’s some opportunity there outside of just that one platform, or if you can still utilize that platform that’s great. But my main point is really pulling on a thread that you mentioned earlier, your research touches on a few points about faculty involvement in this process, so the question to you is, what role would you say based on your research that faculty can play when it comes to recruiting?

0:21:27.8 MD: Absolutely, so every faculty member is gonna have a different idea of how much time they’re willing and able to invest into the recruiting process. If you have faculty that are willing to engage and actually email with prospects, that would be huge. We know that that type of communication really does rank highly for prospects, they love to talk to faculty. But again, that’s another thing on their to-do list, so there are all sorts of other ways. The lightest lift possible. I know I mentioned this earlier, but I can’t drill home how simple and important it is, which is just profile your faculty on your program websites. Again, stealth shoppers are going onto the program websites to learn about the options and what’s available. They wanna see the experts that will be teaching them.

0:22:12.2 MD: So that’s kind of the easiest recommendation that I have to offer, but you have to tie it back to social media, to your point, faculty make fantastic social media content. There are two words that you mentioned when you shared that story that I really wanna hammer home to everyone listening, and that was you said humor and you said informative. Those are two of the most important things at today’s prospects, and really just all audiences want to see on social media today, and faculty are uniquely positioned to communicate their own expertise in the form of humor and just information. It’s not a direct cell marketing piece on social media, it doesn’t feel like a commercial, but it’s getting faculty connected with prospects. We talked to one of our partners who had a really great strategy for engaging with faculty and getting their message out.

0:23:04.3 MD: What they would do is they would do their own research, understand the faculty that were doing particularly cool or interesting research. I would email them and say, “Hey there, can I get an hour with you? Just an hour and I want you to talk about these four topics.” The marketers would then meet with the faculty members, set up a little studio, and they would spend just an hour asking questions, filming some content, making it interesting, make it informative, making it humorous, and then all of a sudden that faculty member has given a single hour of their time, but the marketers have then an hour’s worth of content that they can slice and dice. They can break it up into smaller chunks, they can put that on YouTube, they can put that on Facebook, they can put clips on the website, and that is a huge opportunity, again, where our marketers can really connect with faculty, get their voices, get their faces in front of prospects.

0:23:56.4 EU: Yeah, I really love that. And you brought up the website. I do wanna actually address that, I know that was one of the four points that you mentioned at the very beginning. We know how important these online experiences are to get right. So why does it seem like so many schools fail to optimize their website for recruiting purposes? Did your research uncover anything about that?

0:24:19.4 MD: Absolutely, and what we see across all of our partnership is unfortunately that sometimes the websites can be a little bit of a problem with too many cooks in the kitchen. There are so many stakeholders who are invested in an institution’s website, and all of them are looking for the website to perform a little bit of a different function. The Dean wants to showcase research, we’ve got central marketing teams that really want the website to revolve around the traditional age undergraduate student, you’ve got the IT folks who are limited by the capabilities of the existing website, etcetera. And so you’ve got all of these competing voices in the room when you’re designing your website.

0:25:00.7 MD: And one of the voices that often gets left out, one can be prospects overall, but specifically adult prospects. And so it’s kind of about really hitting home amongst all of the stakeholders involved in the website, just how important it is to be prospect-facing, just how important it is to avoid that jargony academic language, to avoid blocks of text that some people get lost in after they just glance, to avoid burying the most important information deep deep deep in those blocks of text. And it’s so hard for institutions to get right, but so important. And given that stealth shopping is only expanding, it really is more important than ever, and honestly becomes kind of a risk to your recruitment strategy if the website is failing to connect with those prospects.

0:25:50.4 EU: I really couldn’t agree more. We spend a lot of time helping partners really think about how to optimize those websites for recruitment purposes, to your point. And to that point, I would just suggest three things in terms of really important strategy to convey, is that we need to think about being able to drive visibility to the website through a really nuanced SEO strategy these days. And that nuance is about really being able to think about search from the perspective of the different generations that we are recruiting now inside of these graduate experiences and programs, because we have to contend with different search behaviors for millennials, for instance, versus Gen-Zers. And they are distinct enough that the content strategy and technical writing and all the connection points for the search engines actually have to be evolved and sort of diversified to address all these different opportunities. Not to mention the different devices that it has to connect to as well.

0:26:40.7 EU: So there’s a really sophisticated online SEO strategy nowadays that folks need to build to help ’cause 75% is perspective students are going to use search engines for that research, and they only spend about six seconds looking around before they start clicking on links off that results page. But another really important strategy here is definitely to engage readers to have strong content strategies to your point, and especially on those pages that we would consider enrollment critical for the site. So really, it’s important because users apply snap judgments that just immediately influence the perceptions of academic quality and career potential. So, it’s just critical that we are addressing those high interest topics on these main pages and those emotional drivers are woven into the copy and those key motivators are really front and center. But something else we speak about a lot in terms of the opportunity of the website is actually something that I think is a bit of an unsung hero, and that’s addressing linking strategy.

0:27:38.4 EU: So destination links or key calls to action, form placement and prompts. These are incredibly important aspects of a successful website, because the goal isn’t just to drive more people to the website or to engage them more deeply once they get there, it’s really to encourage them, to your point, to raise their hand and make themselves known early in the process. So how we design those calls to action and where we place them becomes the difference in the ability to capture the interest that everyone has worked so hard to generate. So Michelle, I know we could talk about this stuff for hours but I also wanna be respectful of your time. So in conclusion for today’s conversation, would you mind just giving us your top three to four takeaways, pieces of advice for the recruitment teams who are listening in today who are looking to step up their game in terms of connecting with these stealth shoppers?

0:28:28.4 MD: Absolutely, absolutely, and I think that the most important thing here is really just recognizing that the stealth shopping trend isn’t going away. It’s about understanding what it is that prospects are looking for and making sure that you provide that on the platforms and on the channels that they are looking for that information on. So making sure your website is up to snuff, making sure that you’re present on social media, making sure that all of your SEO strategy that drives prospects to the website is a cohesive experience. I think that that’s really the biggest takeaway. Partners can certainly invest in each of the four areas that we’ve talked about today, and really just keep in mind that today’s prospect pool, it has shifted, it is changing, and partners really need to be prepared to meet this moment.

0:29:20.4 EU: Well, thank you so much for your time today, Michelle. I know there is so much more we could explore here, but we’re just about out of time, so if you’re open to it, I’d love to come back on the podcast with you at some point in the future to explore this topic and maybe some related ones further, so what do you say?

0:29:36.9 MD: Absolutely, this has been a lot of fun. Thank you so much for having me and I’m excited to chat next time.

0:29:41.4 EU: Great, I’ll see you then.


0:29:49.0 S1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when our experts share tips on ways to recruit adult learners, specifically those who are going back to school in anticipation of switching careers. Until next week. Thank you for your time.


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