What is the value of list buying, a.k.a. “buying names” through Encoura, the College Board, Christian Connector and other services these days? It depends on what you do with them.
Buying (technically “licensing”) contact information of standardized test-takers for search campaigns is a common practice going back decades.
But while the basic logic of directing outreach to college-bound students hasn’t changed, doing it the same way we always have has diminishing value. Our methods need to evolve.
Utilizing Services like Encoura in Your Search Campaign
Let’s take a moment to consider the source of the data. Students taking the SAT, ACT and PSAT have the option to voluntarily disclose personal information and consent to be contacted by colleges.
Our job as enrollment marketers is thought to be simple. We might limit the list to our desired GPA range, perhaps our desired region. Then, we develop our creative, launch our campaign, sit back and hope our high volume returns enough responses to justify cost.
But is that making the most of the information provided?
Let’s use the College Board Student Search Service as an example. Here’s the information at our disposal when students choose to disclose it. (Note: Much of the data below is applicable to SAT only, provided by College Board; Encoura provides ACT data only):
- Contact Info
Name, Address, Email Address, Parent Name, Parent Email
- High School Academic Performance
GPA, Intended Major
- College Plans and Preferences
Educational Aspirations, Financial Aid Plans, College Preferences, ROTC Plans and History, Religious Activities
- High School Courses and Activities
Academics, Athletics, Activities, ROTC Plans and History
There are two important questions to ask ourselves when we know this much:
- How might we utilize more of this information in strategic outreach?
- How much is too much? Or too much, too soon?
The answer to these questions lies in the concept of progressive personalization. More on that below.
How Not to Use Encoura Student Data
The key to modern student search campaigns is personalization. As I’ve written about before, it’s no longer good enough to fill up mail and email boxes with one-size-fits-all communications.
Your list is not exclusive. There may be dozens of schools competing for the attention of the same student, and a generic message is easily lost in the noise.
This is why the cost per “name” has been steadily going up while the return on the investment has been steadily going down. But the problem isn’t the data itself. It’s how it’s being used.
Don’t underutilize available data.
If you are buying lists just to do the same thing as everyone else, it won’t be worth the investment.
Instead of one-size-fits-all, look for ways to better segment your campaign, by:
- Intended major – variable copy that speaks to relevant life goals.
- Financial aid plans – variable focus on financial aid options.
- High school activities – variable imagery to capture student life opportunities.
Or any data point you can build broad categories around.
This requires putting a little work into segmenting your database to create these categories and route the appropriate creative to groups of direct mail and email recipients. But when you consider the value of cutting through the noise with a relevant message, it’s worth it.
One segment might be contacts you choose not to target at all, or at least not invest too much effort in reaching, because they’re likely a poor fit for your school. You may not want to buy these names in the first place.
This segment is what Tim Fuller of Fuller Higher Ed Solutions refers to as the “wrong more”:
“If the new application traffic comes from regions where you aren’t well known, from students who aren’t best fit, for majors you don’t offer, or from rural students when your campus is urban (or vice versa), more of the same is not necessarily a good thing.”
Don’t overutilize it, either.
It’s important not to get carried away with this.
Yes, automation tools make it possible to create extremely targeted groups by combining variables. You can create a message specifically for African-American students interested in engineering who engaged in religious extracurricular activities in high school, etc.
But let’s not let the availability of data make us forget the fundamentals of marketing and assume we can skip natural relationship-building steps.
Remember that they did not disclose their personal information to your school, only to a third party, to be shared with schools in general. It won’t make a prospective student fall in love with you if your first communication reveals too much of what you already know about them.
“Hey, [NAME], when you took the SAT, you let schools like ours know what you look like and that you’re into ABC and plan to do XYZ … that’s why we’re the perfect school for you!”
That will only creep them out.
Personalization – custom tailoring your message to each prospect to the greatest extent possible – is the key to breaking through. But you also have to do it at a pace that’s comfortable for the student.
That’s progressive personalization.
Create Your Progressive Personalization Search Campaign
Before we jump into segmentation and data-driven marketing automation, I think it’s important to remind ourselves that what we’re essentially doing is seeking a relationship. There’s a person on the other end, not just a collection of data points.
We need a Goldilocks approach. Come in too cold (one-size-fits all) and you won’t get their attention. Come in too hot (overly-personalized) and you’ll scare them off.
The approach should be comfortably warm at every stage.
Top of Funnel
Use information gleaned from the College Board Student Search Service with a light touch. Your goal is to signal relevance to the prospect and seek a relationship, not try to build on a relationship that you don’t yet have.
- Do create broad segments to customize messaging based on student interests/demographics and use recipient names.
- Do not create micro-segments that reveal too much of what you know about them.
It’s good to have some generic content in communications at this stage, because too much personalization is off-putting. In email/direct mail, the copy might look something like this, with variables in brackets:
- Generic introduction
- [Content customized by category, e.g. connecting intended major with degree info]
- Generic conclusion (“Want to learn more? Let us know!”)
If enough students on your list provided parent contact info, you might want to create a parallel campaign with a similar, lightly-personalized style.
(I wouldn’t advise sending direct mail to both parent and student, because the parent is likely to see it either way. You don’t want to bury them in mail. But an email to the parent saying “we sent this to your child” can be very effective in getting the student’s attention.)
Middle of Funnel
If and when you get a response, don’t miss your opportunity to start building a relationship with the student directly. While data supplied by the College Board Student Search Service will remain useful for reference, now you should make contact and start collecting your own data.
Tip #1: Different responses should trigger different workflows that acknowledge the action taken. For example, the email a student receives after requesting contact via a landing page should not be the same as the email/direct mail piece they receive after attending a recruitment event.
Tip #2: Solicit engagement, ideally through interactive content. Create quizzes, surveys, decision trees, anything interactive that provides you with useful information and gives them automatic feedback. If you send direct mail at this stage, provide a link or QR code.
You can use a little more of that College Board data here. Here’s what the email might look like:
- Response to inquiry (“Thanks for [action taken]. We’re glad you’re interested!”)
- [Content customized by more targeted category, e.g. connecting high school activities with student life opportunities]
- Interactive element to solicit data, e.g. quiz, survey, game, etc.
From here on out, you want to reference information the student is providing to you directly. Unlike data gathered from a third party, keeping track of, and consistently acknowledging what the student has told you – even using automation – helps them feel heard.
It’s a good idea to ask at this stage if they would like you to CC a parent, even if you already have this information from the College Board, and even if you’ve sent a generic message to them already. It’s always best to get express consent at this stage.
Bottom of Funnel
Directly soliciting engagement and being responsive to it is how you maintain the student’s interest as you encourage them to take additional action. That action might be a campus visit, a meeting with an admissions counselor, or a simple email asking questions.
Whatever it is, recognize it as a signal of readiness for high-touch engagement.
The key here is to maintain relationship progression. The worst thing you can do in this stage, or really at any point, is to send some cold and impersonal communication that fails to acknowledge the extent to which you know this student. Keep it increasingly personal.
That’s not to say you can’t use a little automation. There’s nothing wrong with an admissions counselor using a template to compose an email about the application process. It just has to have a strong human touch that leaves no doubt you know whom you’re talking to.
All communications at this point should come from an individual, likely an admissions counselor, or possibly an athletic coach:
- Acknowledge contact (“I enjoyed meeting/speaking with you!”)
- Personal message (“I was impressed by … / I think you’d fit in here because …”)
- Describe Next Steps (“Here’s how to apply.”)
Consider using video for this. I’m a fan of BombBomb, which I use to quickly record short videos to send out via email. It’s been a great tool for me to follow up with new acquaintances in a memorable way. I love this option for admissions counselors following up with prospective students.
Advanced Analytics (from Encoura and Others)
If you’re working with Encoura, you should take advantage of all the analytics services they provide.
Otherwise – if you’re working with raw data provided by the College Board, for example – I’d suggest you bring in an outside data consulting firm to help you organize it.
I’ve been working with Inroads Analytics on behalf of clients who are serious about taking a more innovative approach to student search campaigns.
Organizing your contacts by zip code opens up additional opportunities for personalization. You can reference something hyper-local customized to each zip code, like the neighborhood ice cream shop, or incorporate a variable image of the local high school logo on a t-shirt or jersey.
You can also improve your chances of a strong return on investment by accessing analytics that predict the likelihood of your prospect actually enrolling. Smarter than something arbitrary, like a 3.0 GPA or above, these models are based on an aggregate of diverse factors.
We can do better than blanketing a geographic region with piles of generic direct mail and emails that, while trying to speak to everyone, often speak to no one.
There’s nothing wrong with starting with list licensing – buying names – as you’ve likely been doing for years. But today, we can be smarter with that list.
Through smart targeting and progressive personalization, enabled through automation, you can reach more students who are a perfect fit for your institution. They can more easily find a school that’s perfect for them.
That’s a win-win.
Let’s work together to make your search campaign more effective for you and a better experience for the student.
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