Tracking the Stealth Applicant: Sourcing and Recruiting Students in the Internet Age

In a changing independent school enrollment landscape, there is one constant—to stay viable, schools must continue to recruit and retain mission-appropriate students. Typically, this has meant an approach dominated by student flows through the traditional sales funnel, with the funnel narrowing as prospects are winnowed, ending with the prospects who ultimately enroll in the school. 

In the digital age, however, the funnel has evolved. With the advent of websites that provide visitors with a virtual tour experience, as well as a wealth of additional information that traditionally would require a visit (or at least an inquiry), families are researching (and sometimes applying to) schools without having to set foot on campus.

A lack of early information on these “stealth” families provides little opportunity for admission offices to gauge interest, provide personalized information, or affect a family’s decision to apply. Even when a family does take advantage of the opportunity to visit campus, they may already have heard things both true and false about a school from other parents and students in online forums, on social media, and from other outlets that can influence the decision-making process. For schools to regain control of the process at an earlier stage, they must combine traditional outreach with existing student data and statistics on those who are visiting virtually in order to engage prospective families in compelling ways.

The first step is to determine exactly whom you are trying to reach. In today’s oversaturated marketplace, communications that are not timely, focused, personalized, and relevant are easily ignored and often intrusive. The purchase of targeted lists (such as the Student Prospect List from The Enrollment Management Association) can be an excellent way to begin to target families with a demonstrated interest in independent schools. Yet, despite being able to target recruitment efforts within a zip code radius, a family’s interest level in a particular school or stage in the process cannot be gauged.

As Thom Golden, vice president of data science for Capture Higher Ed, an enrollment software company, illustrates, “I think there’s a wide recognition that the current recruitment methodology has been measured on a per-name basis. One of the very common practices stems from direct mailing techniques—buying a very large list from list providers and sending out a lot of mailings. What if you flipped that by sending out one direct mail piece—your most expensive piece—to only 20% of the most interested prospects in your database? Even using marketing automation software to filter those purchased lists and know who’s really interested in you, you’d still come out positively on your budget, because those mailings are so expensive.”

Start with the Data

While none of those with whom we spoke advocated doing away with traditional recruiting methods, all stressed that those methods need to be driven by data. “Schools have a lot of data at their fingertips,” remarked Ben Douglass, director of admission at Saint James School (MD). “They can find out a lot about themselves and their own marketplace that way. They need to understand first where they are and where they’ve been, before they can determine where they’re going. Doing a deep dive into your own data is a vitally important place to begin. Schools can then further segment mailings, emails, and other methods, so that they are really targeting their communications.”

Colleges and universities are no strangers to institutional data, but having a wealth of information on a particular student or family is not necessarily a guarantee that it will be used effectively. Similar to independent K-12 schools, many higher education institutions struggle with siloed data, a reliance on traditional methodology, and a lack of resources with which to pull together and analyze the data. As Bucknell University’s Param Bedi, vice president for library and information technology, explained in an interview, “Most institutions have very siloed approach to data management. Each division just analyzes and leverages their own data…Ultimately, if you’re looking at data individually, you can’t truly understand why something is happening—you can just see that it is happening.“1

As Jesse Roberts, CEO of Admission Pro and a longtime veteran of independent school admission, notes, “For the most part, the data is there—but schools need to dive in, figure out exactly what they need, and create a prospect profile, so that they have a much clearer picture of whom they should be conversing with. For example, I’m working with school in the Northeast right now. We started by looking at their existing students and breaking them into profile types. Then I cross-referenced that list and broke those students and families into groups. We then can purchase hyper-focused lists that match the exact characteristics of their existing student body. They have a very clear picture of the exact people they need to market to, so the conversations they’re having, even just the sending of the postcard and the email, are to people that are in their sweet spot.”

Looking at existing data helps schools understand where they need to expand their footprint, increase marketing efforts, and change messaging. As Roberts asserts, “Every school knows who their slam dunk kids are. They know who their feeders are. But if they really want to grow, they have to start looking within and finding out where their weaknesses are. Everyone has a student information system, so those data are already in your school. It’s just a matter of putting the right set of filters on them to come up with valuable information.”

Stealth Tracking and Personas

The most effective way to glean interest from prospective students is to capture them where they are visiting. In many cases, at least initially, that visit is virtual. Students and families are learning so much about a school online through websites, they sometimes see no reason to visit in person. With increasingly sophisticated behavioral tracking technology, it is possible to follow a student’s exact journey through your website, provide them with a personalized visit every time they return online, and utilize quick information gathering to segue them into additional forms of marketing, such as spot-targeted and pre-scheduled “drip” email campaigns and personalized direct mail.

“A student who visits a college website once, just once, is showing significant interest,” explains Golden. “By our estimation, it makes them about 12 times more likely to apply to that college. The terminology we use is that your website should be recruiting for you while you sleep, because that’s what computers are very good at. What if you were really, really good as an organization at recognizing even the most subtle forms of inbound interest? It’s like throwing the ball at somebody. If they’re not facing you, you’re just going to pelt them in the back of the head. If they’re turning towards you and you toss the ball, they catch it. The great myth is, I don’t have enough people looking at me. My question is, how do you know that?”

A website journey can easily be translated into a targeted marketing path. Crucial to this type of planning, however, is self-identification and a gathering of at least some preliminary data. “For example, let’s say that I know that you’ve been on my website by your IP address and you fill out a web form that says, ‘Hey, I want to hear from the soccer coach,’” illustrates Roberts. “You have now officially self-identified. We can examine the browsing history, take that information and score the engagement to see how in love you are with my school. I can see how strongly you are paying attention to my website, and if you’re answering my emails (or at least opening them and clicking through them), or sharing things to social media. Now I can start to score that engagement, and those engagement scores are directly correlated to enrollment.”

As a prospect is moved further along on this path, the investment becomes commensurate with that interest. “As they show more engagement within those emails, we automatically move them into another drip campaign when they’re more engaged with our university,” states Kevin Baxter, California Lutheran University’s associate director of enrollment marketing. “Now we’re willing to spend a little money on sending a magazine or a mailing.”

Roberts concurs: “You can glean a lot about what’s important to a family based on the path they take through your website. I want schools to be thinking, ‘I want three more boys from zip code 21220. Well, how many of my current families are in zip code 21220? What are their characteristics? What do they care about?’ We can shape a website journey for families who meet those characteristics or that demographic, so that when someone comes in from 21220, the website meets their needs and gives them a more tailored experience.”

This type of modeling, or creating of personas, has long been a strategic marketing mainstay. With the advent of technology, personas that were once created through the use of focus groups or conjecture can be created by mining existing customer (family) data. “You have certain people that fit personas that you’ve developed,“ states Douglass. “Stealth applicants—on your website, clicking around— who meet that profile are given the opportunity to download X if they give their email address. Once you have that, you start sending them a series of three or four emails based on that persona. It’s almost like we’re adding an extra layer of prospects to that traditional funnel. While it may be someone who’s not even an inquiry yet, we’re still paying a lot of attention and trying to drive them to actually inquire.”

Today’s most engaging websites use dynamic content—a method of customizing a website visit with each subsequent hit from a visitor’s IP address. This function is automated, and uses data that are known about a visitor, even when they are not identified. Dynamic content suggests materials through pop-ups, image swaps, customized content, and personalized copy. Golden elaborates, “If it tracks that they are visiting your admission page repeatedly, the next time they come to your main website they might see an image about applying, rather than that generic campus shot. We’ve seen that when we display a dynamic content piece to a prospective student, they’re twice as likely to enroll as compared to traditional inquiries. If an individual interacts with that dynamic content piece, they click on it, they watch the video we suggested that they watch, according to our data, that visitor is now five times more likely to enroll.”

Kevin Baxter is taking a different approach— instead of waiting for prospects to come to him, Baxter is bringing Cal Lutheran to them. Using a method coined “geofencing,” Baxter utilizes technology to build a virtual fence around an area he has determined is ripe for targeting. “Last year, for example, we drew a geofence around a nearby community college; anyone who walked within that geofence was served a Cal Lutheran ad on their mobile device. We got a lot of traction in terms of click-throughs to our website from that. Then we’re able to stay on that device and continue to serve them ads even once they leave the area. It’s so important to get our brand in front of these students, because they’re not coming to us and letting us know that they’re interested.”

Empowering the Personal Connection through Technology

While list purchase, website visitor tracking, and dynamic web content are useful additions to a recruitment strategy, traditional, high-touch methods remain an essential part of the process. According to the Ruffalo Noel Levitz report, 2016 Marketing Recruitment Practices Four Year Institutions2, the following practices were deemed the most effective student recruitment practices for 4-year private institutions: Open houses remain the most effective strategy for higher education institutions, followed closely by a deliberate flow of communication throughout the admission cycle. At the bottom of the list? Traditional advertising, such as print (37.3% rated this very or somewhat effective, though it is still utilized by 91.9% of respondents!); radio (42.3%); billboard, bus, and other outdoor advertising (46.8%); and online fairs (13%).

Noel Levitz Chart

These data support the fact that getting students physically on campus is the ultimate sales tool. As revealed in The EMA’s The Ride to Independent Schools report, 2,300 parents, who had just completed the independent school admission process, found school tours (90%), school interviews (84%), and speaking with students at the school (81%) to be the most effective marketing tools. Where strategy meets new online channels is in how schools use them to push or pull students toward the impactful milestones in the admission funnel: campus visits, open houses, weekend visits, and group meetings for prospective students.

As Jamila Everett, Ed.D., director of admission and financial aid at The Webb Schools (CA), illustrates, the personal touch is still a cornerstone of recruiting in the age of trackable IP addresses: “Students are inundated with marketing messages via technology; to capture their attention we need to go back to basics, to that personal connection. I read an article recently about the art of the campus visit—colleges now are putting more resources into individualized tours where students can select who they want to meet and when, to get a sense of the authentic experience. Schools are realizing that coming to campus and having a personal connection to the tour guide is still relevant. Technology is obviously important and you need to utilize that as part of the entire strategy, but I do believe that there is a renaissance now of going back to basics in terms of creating that personal connection. I’m looking at a hybrid strategy of using technology and social media, but also getting back to that very personal experience that students and families have on campus.”

Although Cal Lutheran is utilizing aggressive strategies to capture prospects’ attention (geofencing, tracked digital advertising, etc.), Baxter’s approach is based first on building trust rather than building enrollment: “Our initial contact isn’t necessarily, ‘Are you interested in a Cal Lutheran education?’ We’re really trying to become a trusted source. Rather than, ‘Hey, we’re Cal Lutheran. We’re awesome. Come here,’ it’s more, ‘Hey, we can help you out with the college search process.’ We’re offering them an opportunity to ask us to send that information to them. If they request it, then we begin to send out a little more general information about Cal Lutheran. The idea is that first you build trust with that prospect rather than shoving your school down their throat. The hope is to continue that relationship and build that brand affinity with them until they’re ready to apply.”

Certainly the tried-and-true methods of one-to-one recruiting still form the backbone of every independent school’s efforts. Amin Abdul-Malik Gonzalez, director of admission at Choate Rosemary Hall (CT), says that his current students and alumni are his first line resources, helping to identify prospects in their hometowns: “The outreach happens informally, but it can be systematized and leveraged if you have older students and dedicated alums who have good experiences and perspectives to share. As enthusiastic ambassadors, they both encourage the interest of prospective students and help personalize the application process.”

Getting to the Enrollment Finish Line

Ultimately, a school’s place in the market, its mission, and its unique value proposition will sell those students who are the right fit for the institution. While generating leads is important, and it behooves admission offices to let automation take on the tasks of watching, tracking, and targeting communications to students who would not otherwise identify, it’s the narrative that truly sells a school; it’s the stories that compel action.

“It’s about finding the right applicant for us,” says Everett. “It’s about really drilling down to our mission and finding those students whom we think will connect with it. There’s no better way to do that than having our current parents and alumni as ambassadors. How do get them mobilized across the country, highlighting stories that are really impactful? You can’t just sit back and wait for students to apply. You need to get out in the community and talk about the benefits of your program and tell a compelling story on your website and in your marketing. I think we have just scratched the surface of what we can do.”

This type of recruitment effort comes full circle to enrollment management, because it is not simply about sourcing students, it is about engaging them through every stage of the funnel, through every part of their journey, to ultimately retaining (and graduating) them. It requires creativity, engagement, and awareness, as well as a certain comfort level with data and numbers. “You need to make sure that the families that you’re working with are the right ones and will stay with you,” asserts Roberts. “You spent all this money on the recruiting process. If you did this right, it’s built-in retention management, because you will have hooked and engaged and connected with this family in such a way that they won’t ever want to leave your school. You know who they are. You know how to talk to them.”

How does this approach translate to the board and the greater school community? It comes down to an awareness of both the situation of the market and the mission of the school. “There are probably one or two things at your school that you do better than everybody else. Those are the things you should talk about,” stresses Roberts. “That gives you a much clearer perspective on, first, your mission statement and making sure you are in fact positioned to achieve your mission. Second, it gives you the ability to argue for resources. It gives you the position to say ‘If we want to be X in our market, we have to be focused on Y.’ You can’t make that argument unless you know where you sit in the marketplace.”

Ben Douglass sees a harbinger of change in the admission office: “I would guess that 50 percent of us are doing some kind of digital marketing, if not more than that. If you roll forward two or three years, it’s going to be 100 percent of us, so people are going to have to get with the program pretty quickly, finding those skills within their offices or outsourcing them. I do think it’s going to change hiring practices within admission offices. We’ll be looking for those people who can not only put on a blazer and a smile and go to a school fair, but who can also jump into data and analyze it, and use it in interesting ways to move the school forward.”

1: more-strategically/ more-strategically/

2: Ruffalo Noel Levitz (2016). 2016 Marketing and Student Recruitment Practices Benchmark Report for Four-Year Colleges and Universities. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Ruffalo Noel Levitz. Retrieved from

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