June 1

How to Set Up an Effective Enrollment Marketing Funnel


The marketing funnel is a classic model for acquiring prospects and converting them to customers. Adapting it to higher ed is key to a successful enrollment marketing strategy.

Basically, the generic AIDA model works like this:

  1. Get the attention of a broad set of prospects.
  2. Capture the interest of a qualified set and build their desire to invest in you.
  3. Solicit the desired action (buy/commit).

funnel It’s referred to as a “funnel” because the size of your audience at each stage is progressively smaller as you drive prospects “down” toward becoming buyers.

Are you thinking like this in your enrollment marketing efforts?

The same basic ideas apply. Your efforts involve creating awareness among many, convincing several to engage with you, and finally getting a handful to commit.


As I’ve seen working with higher ed institutions, breakdowns in the enrollment marketing funnel are all too common.

Let’s take a look at what the components of a strong funnel are and what you may be overlooking at the top, middle and bottom.

Top of Funnel (Prospect/Awareness Stage)

What It Is

Large-scale efforts to get attention and build awareness, e.g. short-term marketing campaigns and long-term content production.

What It Looks Like

    • Traditional advertising (radio/TV/outdoor).
    • Public relations (“earned” media coverage rather than paid media).
    • Recruiter travel to high schools, events.
    • Search (name buys) for direct mail and email campaigns.
    • Digital marketing such as pay-per-click (PPC) ads and Google AdWords.
    • Website optimization for search (SEO), readability and emotive content (testimonials).
    • Website-based, interactive virtual tours and virtual tour videos.
    • Social media marketing, including fun, light-hearted videos designed to go viral (a la TikTok).
    • Content marketing such as ebooks, white papers and blogs.

Where It Can Go Wrong

This is often the strongest part of the enrollment funnel for many colleges and universities. Top-of-funnel activity is fairly straightforward. While this is admittedly oversimplifying, you essentially allocate a budget, spend it, and track returns.

Your institution is probably very good at this (or better than you think). You know how to get attention.

One of the most common errors made at this stage is getting too much attention, or rather, attention from the wrong audiences, because the campaign isn’t properly targeted. As we’ll see, this causes problems further down the funnel.

How to Improve

The solution to this problem is to take the time to establish one or more target personas prior to launching your campaign.

Personas are profiles based on your ideal students, their parents and other influencers. They help you focus your message on prospects you’ll be most likely to convert.

Middle of Funnel (Consideration/Inquiry Stage)

What It Is

Targeted efforts to captivate prospects who have expressed interest and build their desire to further evaluate your institution.

What It Looks Like

    • In-person or online events such as pre-college camps and parent forums.
    • Emailing content such as blog posts, white papers, ebooks and newsletters to your list.
    • Drip campaign emails soliciting progressive action (visit, apply for FAFSA, apply, etc.).
    • Social media engagement, e.g. responding to inquiries in real time.
    • Landing page(s) to receive email-driven traffic.
    • Publishing and distributing student success stories.
    • “How-to” videos (filling out the FAFSA, navigating campus, etc.).
    • Viewbooks sent via direct mail.
    • Personal, faculty- or staff-guided virtual tours.

Where It Can Go Wrong

1. If top-of-funnel campaign was poorly targeted: poor response rate.

Imagine putting in all that effort to obtain names, physical addresses and email addresses, only to find that the majority of your recipients weren’t serious about looking at your school.

The response rate to your event invitations, email open rates, video views, and other metrics would all be dismal. Identifying and targeting personas is invaluable prep work!

2. Even if top-of-funnel campaign was well-targeted: lack of responsiveness.

This is the stage where marketing departments traditionally hand the enrollment funnel responsibilities off to the admissions department.

The problem with that approach is that traditional prospects today are spending a lot more time in the middle of the funnel than they used to.

Gen Z is putting a lot of thought into not only college location and culture, but cost and student loan debt burden vs. career earning potential.

If the job of recruiters and marketing is to get their attention and admissions’ job is to process applications, who is responding to casual queries in between?

Schools often don’t have a clear answer to that question. Consequently, no one is directly responsible for maintaining relationships during the long consideration period.

How To Improve

Traditionally, marketing produces applicants and admissions officers nurture those applicants. But a successful, modern enrollment funnel requires putting more effort into nurturing prospects with personalization at the consideration phase.

Who should be responsible for this? You guessed it: marketing.

This is an essential part of a marketing funnel, and it’s by utilizing marketing tools that you will be successful.

    • “VIP portals,” customized website experiences based on prospect input, encourage further inquiry.
    • Chatbots are helpful as long as they are advanced enough not to be off-putting, and you’re using them only to facilitate genuine human interaction.
    • IP retargeting keeps your personalized digital ads in front of prospects.
    • CRM (customer relationship management) software will help you create targeted communications.
    • Marketing automation facilitates personalized emails based on prospect behavior.

The line between marketing and sales – between marketing and admissions – is blurrier than ever before. Cross-training both teams so you have plenty of human resources to nurture pre-applicants well is a good idea. I would almost call it essential.

Maintaining marketing support is even more important as we approach the bottom of the funnel.

Bottom of Funnel (Applicant Stage)

What It Is

Strategies to drive commitments, e.g. to apply or pay a deposit by the deadline.

What It Looks Like

    • Personal recruiter visits.
    • Campus visits.
    • Email outreach.
    • Financial aid counseling.

Where It Can Go Wrong

1. If mid-funnel lacked personalization: at-risk applicants.

If the mid-funnel approach lacked responsiveness and a strong effort to get to know the prospect, consider him or her at-risk even at the applicant stage.

Why? Because prospects are likely applying to several schools, and the one that wins out is likely to be the one who has nurtured the applicant best. If you didn’t nail it, they are more likely to consider you a “safety school.”

2. Even if mid-funnel was well executed: dropping the ball.

If marketing fully hands the prospect over to admissions at the point of application, and admissions is overloaded due to a successful campaign, what happens?

A bottleneck. Communication stops, or so it seems to the applicant.

This leaves the motivated applicant feeling suddenly like a number, no longer being treated as a person. Just waiting in line.

That’s a recipe for doubt and potentially moving an applicant from motivated to at-risk.

How To Improve

Make sure you don’t decrease contact after the prospect applies – do the opposite! You should be increasing personal contact at this stage.

Marketing should stay involved to support a strong communication flow with applicants, and not just until they are admitted. Admitted applicants should be nurtured heavily until they are deposited.

There are several ways do this:

    • Offer private, online social networking (Facebook groups).
    • Host interactive webinars that are exclusive to admitted applicants.
    • Promote online “office hours” via Zoom for admitted families. (This is especially useful as the immediate future of education is increasingly online amid the pandemic.)

The bottom line is, marketing can and should continue to assist with any applicant-specific communications in which the purpose is to push recipients toward the bottom of the funnel.

Marketing will still be involved after students are deposited, but in a different capacity. Deposited students can now be added to the audience for internal communications.

Take a step back and look at your enrollment marketing funnel from top to bottom: How’s it working?

Just because you are conducting campaigns at the top and there are new students every year at the bottom does not mean you have a fully-functioning enrollment marketing funnel.

You may have a funnel top that’s too wide, catching the wrong prospects.

You may be losing qualified prospects through leaks in the middle.

Worse, the bottom of your funnel might be too narrow, lacking personal touch and encouraging applicants to bail out.

If there is a problem, it sometimes takes a fresh set of eyes to see it. Contact me if you need help with your assessment.

Whether it needs reshaping, patching or opening up, my team and I would be delighted to help you with your next “funnel maintenance” project.

Looking for Enrollment Marketing Content that Works?

You’re in luck! We’ve curated 25 awesome ideas inspired by top higher ed institutions across the country and put them in one handy guide: 25 Ideas for Great Admissions Content.

25 Ideas for Great Admissions Content In this brand new resource from Caylor Solutions, you’ll get…

    • 25 enrollment marketing content ideas you might never have considered before
    • Guidance on how to use each one for best results
    • Brief discussion on why they work to help you sell these ideas to your team

Get inspired.
Get enrollment results.
Get 25 Ideas for Great Admissions Content.
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Featured image by Tierney via Adobe Stock

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