November 2

Building Brand Trust: Serving Freshmen and Sophomores in Your Funnel

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by | Nov 2, 2023 | Branding, Featured

While invisible and hard to quantify, brand trust is critical to moving students through your comm flow. 

Trust is the grease that keeps the relationship moving forward as they go from a lead, to a campus visit, deposited, and eventually to graduation.

If at any moment, trust is broken, the student will simply walk away from the relationship and find another education brand with whom they can pursue their academic goals. 

Unfortunately, many college and university admissions offices are so focused on processing applications that they forget that students want to feel a connection with their school.

Brand trust is built through this relational connection. When you have earned their trust, students feel that they can depend on your school because you understand them and you fulfill your promises. 

Liz rainwater shows us how they build brand trust at TCU by cultivating their relationship with the prospective student early. As Liz Rainwater, Director of Admission Marketing and Communication at Texas Christian University, reminds us, trust is the foundation for every relationship. 

That’s why the folks at TCU prioritize giving over taking when they start a dialogue with prospective students and their parents.

Building Brand Trust During the College Decision

Building brand trust is a part of relationship building between your school and the prospective student.

Liz explains why this two-way connection is so important.

The significance of [building trust] is specifically related to the heavy decision that it is [to select a college or university]. 

Choosing a college is not like choosing a pair of shoes. It is choosing (for many students) where you’re going to live for four years or more. It’s a relationship. 

It’s choosing who you give your heart to. People love their alma mater, and it’s sort of choosing who to love. People want to feel really good about their alma mater. They want to feel good about the choice of where they went to college. 

Like all positive relationships, this feeling begins with building trust. It’s foundational in a good relationship. 

Avoiding friction in the comm flow is an important part of building these relationships. 

One point of friction I see in a lot of schools is when they aren’t consistent with their branding and the way messaging is presented. 

For example, if you’re not consistent with your colors, it creates friction, which leads to confusion. Confusion is unsettling, which causes the audience to disengage.

The multi-pronged approach [you use] for building trust needs to be recognizable. Whenever a message comes up on someone’s cell phone or on their computer screen, it [needs to be] easily identifiable as coming from TCU. 

It [should] look the same and feel the same. [The student should] know that the content they’re going to get in that message is good, [and] reliable—all because of that first glance. 

People make first impressions very quickly, and it’s the same with messaging.

Be a Giver, Not Just a Taker

It’s not always easy to think like a prospective student. Liz reminds us how it feels for a prospective student during the admissions process. 

So much of the college admission process is (specifically with seniors), “Give me this. Give me your transcript. Give me your SAT scores. Give me your application. Give me your essay. Give me your resumè. Give me a counselor evaluation.” 

There is so much taking! And [at the end of it all] we give [only] one decision [after] a lot of transactions. 

To build a relationship prior to that senior year, whenever students are first-year, sophomore, or juniors in high school, we [should not be] asking them for anything. Instead [we should be] giving. 

“Here’s some great advice. Here’s a way to build your resume. Here’s some things to have a conversation with your family about regarding finances.” 

With this kind of cultivation early in the funnel—well before they become high school seniors!—Liz and her team have already been building brand trust for up to three years. 

Because they’ve taken the time and care to give a lot to the student early in the relationship, when it comes time to ask the student to do all the tasks necessary to enroll, it doesn’t feel like you’re asking for too much.

So when it comes to that transactional time [of the senior year], they don’t feel like, “Man! We just met and you’re asking me for everything.”

It’s a relationship. 

Building Brand Trust Early

Most enrollment marketers are tightly focused on filling out the incoming class of the current year. So, what steps can we take to include students in their freshman year and begin cultivating brand trust earlier?

Liz talks about the approach they use to go about this practically at TCU.

I think the funnel has really evolved; it used to be top-down, [but] now it’s all around. 

We believe that people have information [that resonates with them] in a lot of different ways, and so we try to approach them in different ways. 

Maybe students resonate with reading emails, maybe [they] resonate by looking on social media, [or] maybe [they] resonate [via] family conversations. So we push things out in different sort of ways for that first year [high school freshmen]. 

We try to engage with students in a lot of different ways, but that conversation is about advice and asking them [strategic questions]. 

We have email campaigns that start as soon as they enter our funnel. Asking them questions, engaging with them, [and requesting that they] complete forms [to give us their] address or tell us the academics or extracurriculars they’re interested in. 

Then we take that information and send back to them things that align with what they’re interested in and how they could find that at TCU. 

Then we ask them for their parent’s information and we send their parents an email that says, “Hey, Troy sent us an email that he really likes TCU. We’d like to tell you about TCU, Dad.”

Hopefully, that starts a conversation [between] parents and children. 

[That’s how we use a] multi-pronged approach in building relationships with students at a very young age. 

It doesn’t need to go further than that because at that age they can’t apply. We’re just building a relationship with them. 

Engaging Parents

The approach that Liz uses is brilliant because it not only builds brand trust with the student, but also gets parents engaged in the conversation early on. 

In the years I’ve been involved in higher ed marketing, we’ve seen a significant shift in parent behavior. It has been fascinating to see how parental involvement has increased in the college decision.

Today’s parents are a lot more engaged. In a way, they are the gatekeepers. 

Besides that, parents are the ones who will be reminding the prospective students to check their emails and to respond to your comm flow messaging. 

There are so many more incredible insights from Liz in the entire conversation!

I really enjoyed this talk because it’s these practical issues that make or break our marketing success. So, listen to our full interview with Liz Rainwater to get even more of these highly practical, very valuable insights into:

  • Laying the foundation for lifelong relationships with students (1:24)
  • Why any CRM can handle batch personalized comm flows (15:27)
  • Leveraging early connections in the transfer funnel (27:39)


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Featured image via tcu.edu

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